Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Two Minds

The brain from the back, with its two hemispheres joined by the corpus callosum at the bottom. ©2016 MW.
In 1976, Julian Jaynes published his theory on the emergence of consciousness in his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Although there are obvious weaknesses in Jaynes's theory, he makes some solid observations that suggest that, if he doesn't have a perfect hypothesis, he is at least looking in the right direction.

Jaynes's ideas are simple, if radical. He suggests that only three millennia ago, the two lobes of the human brain—the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum—were not as strongly connected as they are now, and that the two hemispheres functioned independently. One of the interesting things about Jaynes's theory is that it relies not merely upon anatomical evidence for support, but that it uses an interdisciplinary approach that includes anthropological, psychological, literary, philological, and philosophical disciplines as well, and that might explain why such an arcane tome as The Origin of Consciousness achieved NY Times best seller status—it wasn't read merely by neurologists but by a huge educated lay audience.

In Jaynes's model of the bicamerally minded human (or proto-human), experience was based in only the left lobe. That experience comprised appropriate actions within the contemporary cultural context, but it was not embellished by the internal monologue that humans now have in their heads. The human was not self-conscious, and there was no ego. The right lobe would occasionally thrust pronouncements across to the first, which were experienced as auditory hallucinations that were understood as the pronouncement of gods. For that reason, it was not uncommon for people to think they heard gods speaking to them and telling them what to do.

Jaynes cites the narrative distinction between The Iliad and The Odyssey to illustrate the the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the rise of consciousness. In The Iliad, the heroes function as automata—heroic automata, to be sure, but they are characters without self-awareness. Meanwhile Odysseus and his men suffer a great deal of inner frustrations and turmoil over the trials they encounter as they try to get home, and this vexation is the sort of emotion that arises from ego and self-awareness. The Buddha teaches us a great deal about the origin of suffering in the desires and attachments of the ego.

In a paper titled "The 'bicameral mind' 30 years on: a critical reappraisal of Julian Jaynes’ hypothesis" by Andrea Eugenio Cavanna, Michael Trimblea, Federico Cintic, and Francesco Monacob, the authors list the objections that I have mentioned here, foremost of which is the unlikely evolutionary development of the corpus callosum in a period as short as a few millennia. They also point out that though Jaynes is largely right about the contrasts between The Iliad and The Odyssey, and The Iliad is largely populated by heroes lacking self-consciousness, there are instances in which the heroes do indeed seem to think or speak for themselves.

Jaynes's work received the most criticism over his theory's assertion that the two independently functioning lobes evolved a stronger connection in a relatively short period of time. Yet they concede that Jaynes's ideas inform the debate over the origin of consciousness and the role of language in conscious thought. And, in fairness to the few cases in which the heroes of the Iliad seem to act self-consciously, it could simply be that the awareness was added much later by self-aware bards in the epic's long existence as an oral tradition.

Cavanna & al. point out that Jaynes's greatest legacy might lie in the idea that the mind contains many disparate parts, and the illusion of a continual stream of consciousness is an illusion produced by the working together of those parts. This seems to be Jaynes's greatest contribution: no matter how wrong or right he was, he set the sciences of cognition on the right track. That track leads to the conception of a brain containing many loosely related but largely independent processes that, at some point in time, learned to produce a fleeting illusion of a continuous stream of consciousness.

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At the top of this article I placed a crude sketch of the brain—I apologize for the rude simplicity of the art, but I'm doing my best not to violate anyone's copyright. As you can see, the brain has two hemispheres that are joined by tissue, called the corpus callosum, at the bottom. Functionally, the corpus callosum is like a huge cable that connects the two hemispheres of the cerebrum, and fibers from the corpus branch out to all parts of the hemispheres on both sides.

I am no scientist, nor am I particularly well read in neurology or any kind of brain science, I am nevertheless a perhaps keener than average observer of the functioning of my brain. I also watch behavior of others that contains clues as to the function of their brains as well. My own conclusions are rooted in common sense and the existence of several other-consciousness resources within the human psyche, including:

  • The epiphany, or the Eureka! or Aha! state. The epiphany does not really arrive in the consciousness ex nihilo. Instead, it is a delivery from the right brain, a gift-wrapped solution to whatever problem my conscious mind may have been working on earlier and that my unconscious took upon itself to solve.
  • Intuition is a less dramatic form of an epiphany. It's not presented as a solution to a big problem but as a gut feeling or hunch about some ongoing drama.
  • Déjà vu, the feeling of having experienced something before—like a glitch in The Matrix's software—also arises from the unconscious mind or the other mind, which explains why it's really a half idea: the other mind delivers the sense of familarity to me, but it leaves out the reason for this familiarity, which creates the underlying sense of mystery.
  • In his long career, Freud proposed two different models of the mind. The earlier model comprises the unconscious, pre-conscious, & conscious and is called the topographical model. Later he developed the structural model that comprises  the Id, Ego, and Superego. Yet both models contain a subconscious or a stream of mental activity of which the ego is unaware. In other words, there is a mind apart from the consciousness, and with the exceptions of epiphanies and intuition, the subconscious keeps its proceedings to itself. The essence of Freudian clinical psychiatry lies in the common habit of transferring to the unconscious any thought too unpleasant to deal with in consciousness.

All of these psychic events that happen in anyone's mind everyday point to the existence of another mind inside my brain but outside the stream of my consciousness. It's not surprising that we live in an obsessively logical or left-brained society because the right-brain consciousness is largely hidden from us, so I am taught to ignore my own intuition. In other words, I am taught to try to discredit or shut off the better half of my thinking process. This creates a kind of neurotic condition that both Zen training and Jungian psychology set out to cure. Left to its own devices, the right brain can solve complex problems as well as or often better than the left brain can, and I do well to learn to trust it. That trust issue is the bottom line of the importance of realizing that

  • my stream of consciousness resides in one of two minds of equal intelligence and value, and 
  • the other mind often offers me valuable conclusions if only I will overcome the acculturation to ignore the more intuitive mind.

I have no exercise, discipline, or twelve-step program that leads me to embrace both of my minds equally, but regular za-zen, or sitting meditation, seems to help. I'm not sure of the method used by Jungian practitioners to lead me toward individuation, or the unification of the component parts of the Jungian psyche into a healthy wholeness, but I will study that.