Watch the new episode on YouTube here!
“In any such situation, where something is so resistant to even the beginnings of clarity, it is wisdom to begin by determining what that something is not. And that is the task of the next chapter.”
That is also the task of the next episode! Welcome to the God of Honeybees Podcast, I’m Justin Herb and I am so glad you’re here. On this episode we are into part 2 of the origin of Consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind by Julian Jaynes.
Really quick, I just wanted to remind you about Patreon. You can find the podcast on patreon.com by searching the podcast name. We have one tier at $5.00 a month to help keep the website up and if I’m able to reach my goal on there I will do a separate podcast where I will take your questions directly and discuss them.
With that, let’s get into it!
In this episode we will be examining what Consciousness is not, according to Julian’s interpretation. Julian starts the chapter by explaining what he thinks is a common misconception regarding Consciousness. He states that when we consider what Consciousness is, we become conscious of Consciousness. We then assume that awareness of being aware as what Consciousness is. According to Julian, this is an error. We assume that Consciousness is the basis of all concepts, learning, reasoning, etc. Since this aspect of awareness seems to store and recall our memories, opinions, and judgements, we think of this as us. But is it really?
Julian points out there are some common uses of the word, “Consciousness”, that are at best a misnomer, if not outright incorrect. For example, a person getting knocked out is said to “lose consciousness”. However, like I said in the last episode, there are so many cases of what Julian calls a somnambulistic experience where a person is not conscious but is still reactive to outside stimuli. This indicates a distinction between Consciousness as being awake and reactivity. Julian points out that we are not always conscious of what our body is reacting to. For example, your body makes numerous changes to the placement of your body weight while you walk or stand. These are not in our awareness, we simply have the experience of standing still or walking. What’s more, when these usually sub-conscious adjustments are in our awareness, it can make us feel quite uneasy or ill. There are many aspects of our life that make up our conscious experience without being in the light of our awareness.
One key concept of this chapter is realizing to what extent consciousness is required or even participates in our daily life. Julian uses an analogy of a flashlight to illustrate our bias toward consciousness. He explains that this aspect of our existence is actually a much smaller part of our lift than we believe it to be. Yet, since we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of, we are like a flashlight that is looking around for something that does not have light shining upon it. Since anywhere the flashlight points will have light, the flashlight would assume everything has light. In the same way we assume consciousness permeates all aspects of our existence but, as we will see, this is incorrect. He goes on to use different examples of cases where consciousness is not only not required but can be a hindrance. A runner in a race may be aware of where he is in relation to the other racers, but he is not conscious of the manner in which he places each and every step, or the positions of all his toes prior to hitting the ground. These examples can be found all around us as soon as we recognize the line between conscious and unconscious behavior. A pianist playing complex music would have needed consciousness to learn the key strokes, but that same level of attention to the position of the fingers, having learned the song, would likely cause mistakes. He has to let the unconscious muscle memory take over. These simple analogies are meant as an introduction to reshaping our concept of conscious awareness.
Julian then goes on to provide specific examples of what consciousness is frequently believed to be or be the cause of, and he provides detailed critiques of each.
First, consciousness is not a copy of experience. This relates to the concept of tabula rasa, or that the mind is a blank slate and consciousness is responsible for storing, categorizing, and recalling experiences in our lives. To explore this idea let's stop and consider a couple things first. See if you can recall these things without looking. At a stop light, is the red light on the top or bottom? Is your index finger longer, shorter, or equal with your ring finger? How about your third toe from your big toe? How many teeth do you see when brushing your teeth? We may not be entirely sure to the answers to these questions without specifically finding them out. However, Julian's point here is that if one of these things changed, you would know its different immediately. If you aren't sure of the color of the floor in the elevator you take every morning, but tomorrow it was different, you would know. What Julian is trying to show here is the distinction between recognition and recall. He states, "What you can consciously recall is a thimbleful to the huge oceans of your actual knowledge". This suggests that the idea of tabula rasa and consciousness being responsible for storing and recalling experiences is not as critical to our daily life as we think, since we "know" some things that are not consciously recalled. Furthermore, the mind will do a great job at telling us what "must" be the case, inferring conclusions from the most probable situation. This creation of the mind doesn't stop there. If you imagine the last time you went swimming or walked through your front door, put down your things, and sat on the couch, you will likely "recall" these events in the third person. You will see yourself as if watching a recording of you performing the actions, you will not however inhabit the same perspective that you had while actually performing. This is because, again, your consciousness is only aware of a few aspects of the experience. You don't necessarily notice the feeling of less weight on top of your feet when you sit down, or the tactile sensation of your hand leaving your coat as it rests on the hook. Our minds capability for recreating experience and filling in the gaps is an extraordinary feat, but is not required for performing the tasks.
The next key argument is that consciousness is not necessary for learning. This relates to what we discussed in part 1 of this series when Julian was trying to get his houseplant to "learn" to wilt at the signal of a light. Here, Julian addresses three kinds of learning and tries to examine if consciousness is required for the task. First let's look at signal learning, or more commonly known as Pavlovian conditioning. Consider this experiment. A volunteer has small puffs of air blown into his eye to bring about a blink of the eyelids. Each time the air is blown into his eye, a light bulb turns on. As the number of cycles of this conditioning increase, the volunteer will quickly start blinking at the lighting of the bulb even without the puffs of air. This is quite unconscious because if consciousness was introduced to the mix, the blinking would stop. Consider another example. If you are enjoying your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant as the speakers in the room play a specific song, your mind will create an association with many aspects of this experience with pleasure and food. The next time you hear the song, even if you are not consciously aware of it, your body will likely be releasing endorphins and you will have slightly more saliva in your mouth than usual. The association kick starts your body into preparing for eating and digesting, all without your involvement. What's more, if you are aware of this association creation beforehand and are thinking about it during the meal, the same learning does not occur.
Let's move to the learning of skills. Julian uses this example to illustrate his point. Take a coin in each hand, toss them in the air in such a way that they cross paths and are caught by the opposite hand. This can be accomplished rather quickly with some practice. The key here is this question; are you conscious of every thing you are doing while trying to learn this skill? The position of your elbow? How are you positioning your pinky on each hand to adapt to catching the coin? Where are your eyes moving to? Julian's point here is that consciousness will simply make the goal to be reached clear, and perhaps a game plan, but from there it takes a back seat to what he calls "organic" learning. The body, in many unconscious ways, takes over to create muscle memory and perform the task with success. If you started thinking about where your eyes were, the position of your pinky, ect., you would undoubtedly drop the coins. Again, consciousness takes a back seat.
Let's consider complex skills. Complex skills have the same lack, and necessary lack, of consciousness as the simple skills we discussed. Let's look at two examples. Taken from The Psychology of Skill (New York Gregg, 1925), is a study that looked at individuals learning typewriting. Under examination of adaptations of behavior, it was seen that any shortcuts or changes in methods used to properly type were made in an unconscious manner. An adaptation brought on unintentionally with no awareness from the individual except that he or she was all of a sudden performing better. Next example. A study from the American Journal of Psychology in 1955 explained how one volunteer would be instructed to say as many words as he could think of. The researcher would, after every plural noun for example, nod or smile or give some kind of slight affirmation. The volunteer would, without realizing it, learn to provide similar types of words that would bring about the affirmations of the researcher and would thus start providing similar words.
Next, let's consider whether or not consciousness is necessary for thinking. Julian is careful to point out that the specific kind of thinking he is referring to could be referred to as making judgments or free association as it relates to thinking about or thinking of something. In one study, called the Marbe experiment after the researcher Karl Marbe, asked volunteers to lift two weights and place the heavier one in front of the researcher. Julian doesn't explain how, but he suggests that this experiment proved that the judgement of which was heavier was never conscious. I tried finding more on this study but I couldn't dig up much. However, a counter argument is that perhaps the thoughts happened so quickly that the volunteer was not remembering them. Another experiment where a volunteer was asked to provide an associated term with one presented on flashcards as quickly as they could, except within a certain set of constraints, seemed to support the findings of the Marbe experiment. The thinking seemed to be automatic once the observer had an understanding of these constraints. Julian says "one does ones's thinking before one knows what one is to think about". Consciousness is required for grasping the instructions or goal, but once again, it takes a back seat once the brain starts the process. This same phenomenon can be seen in simple pattern recognition. In a series of two alternating images with one missing at the end, your brain already knows what it should be looking for before you are conscious of my question, "what is the next image in this sequence?" My very act of stating that question verbally is an example of a small amount of conscious intention bringing about the result of earlier automated processes.
Julian goes on to argue that consciousness is not necessary for reasoning. He uses some of he previous examples as proof for this argument. While I feel like I agree with him based on the ideas we just looked at, I have to say this may be a weak point in the book. For example, Julain argues that a boy tossing a particular piece of wood into a pond and noticing it floats, will know in future encounters with that same kind of wood that it will float. He is arguing that all of this happens rather subconsciously and does not require conscious gathering of past experiences. That much I feel like I can agree with to an extent. Then he mentions that this is simply expectation based on generalization and it is common to all higher vertebrates. Here I have two issues. One, simply the fact that some mental process we employ can be found in most animals does not serve as proof that the specific mental process has nothing to do with consciousness. It sounds like he is implying that animals are not conscious when he uses the commonality of the mental process among vertebrates. Second, I wonder how right he is about this expectation based on generalization. When the boy in his example picks up the piece of wood, it is likely he will automatically recall the experience of seeing the wood float, and will therefor conclude the new piece should float as well. The experience would look much different if the boy didn't actually know why he thought the wood would float but he just had a "feeling". Both the automatic recall of the memory informing his paradigm of the buoyancy of wood, or the simple knowledge that this particular kind of wood floats, requires another part of our mind "serving up" the information into the spotlight of our consciousness. I'm not sure it can be said that this example displays the lack of necessity of consciousness. It may display that information can become so internalized that consciousness is not required to recall it, but I think the spotlight of awareness would still be required.
That being said, Julian does provide some examples of famous discoveries in which they came to the researcher without the effort of conscious attention. Here is a quote from the book regarding the mathematician Poincare:
Poincaré was particularly interested in the manner in which he came upon his own discoveries. In a celebrated lecture at the Société de Psy- chologie in Paris, he described how he set out on a geologic excursion: “The incidents of the journey made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, the transformation I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry!" (Jaynes, 2000).
Here is another quote about Einstein:
"A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly while he was shaving that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise." (Jaynes, 2000).
So what Julian is trying to show here is that conscious attention is only required for setting up the framework of whatever problem is being considered. From there, the actual process of reasoning and deduction, has no place in consciousness at all. The workings are all below the surface until the answer is served up into the light of consciousness sometimes so abruptly that you may cut yourself shaving.
This chapter closes with what I think is the idea that sets up the rest of this book. Julian recounts all the aspects of living and learning that do not require consciousness such as experience, signal learning, judgments, creative reasoning, etc. He then suggests that if these reasonings are correct, there may have existed a period in human history where man went about doing all the things we do without being conscious at all. The majority of the rest of the book deals with this concept. which we will get into in a late episode. I'd like to take a break from this book to talk about some other things that have been on my mind lately. This is a good stopping point for this book because the arguments Julian provides helps us start reshaping the way we think about consciousness and it's role in our lives.
Don't forget, Patreon is up and running if you'd like to help support the show! Get all the extra content by singing up for the email at godofhoneybees.com, keep an eye out for the book that we probably be launching in December, and of course thank you for listening.
This has been God of Honeybees Podcast, I'm Justin Herb, thank you for being here.