I am John's brain.
June 23, 2003 11:14 PM   Subscribe

I am John's brain. Amusingly written, yet astutely raising an important point. What exactly are we to do about consciousness? Although clearly different theories abound, one must still ponder whether or not the problem is even solvable in the first place. Where then can we turn to for our solution? Why, bicamerality, of course.
posted by cohappy (24 comments total)
Although fairly worthless as a theory on consciousness in its own right, bicamerality is amusing/interesting because it bothers to explain both the creation and evolution of consciousness, something I find lacking in other theories. Also, bicamerality appeared briefly in neal stephenson's first novel.
posted by cohappy at 11:45 PM on June 23, 2003

I'm a huge fan of this book.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:36 AM on June 24, 2003

Great stuff, cohappy.
I think we are still far away from solving (as in recreating artificially) consciousness. After all, we don't even have a good working definition of what it is.
posted by spazzm at 4:21 AM on June 24, 2003

We don't even have a decent test for consciousness - e.g. there is nothing I can say in this forum that conclusively proves to you that I am conscious, and not a scripted talk-bot.

I also think that I am conscious, but that might be a delusion - there isn't even an objective test I can perform on myself to determine wether I am conscious.

Oh dear.
posted by spazzm at 4:31 AM on June 24, 2003

Julian Jaynes' book is one of the most influential ones on my thinking, of any of the books I've read, and has always (to me) felt like the Rosetta stone for unlocking how Jung, Campbell and others fit together. Great post!
posted by bclark at 5:54 AM on June 24, 2003

As far as if we'll ever figure out where we came from, I'm afraid it will never be solved due to the fact that so much has happened to our minds in the time that we've been here. How can we be certain that our hominid ancestors didn't take some plant one day and triggered a sequence of biological mutation that suddenly made us begin to question things, as Terence McKenna had preached? It may be a case of etymological study more than anything -- tracing back only humanity's quest to know itself will not absolutely reveal what made us this way. It is fun to think about though, but in the end, all answers are equally valid.

spazzm: As far as testing whether we've created 'consciousness' - or at the least a believable intelligence [as it probably takes much intelligence to be conscious depending on your definition... lets not get into a semantics argument though] - the barometer for it was set some 50 years ago by Alan Turing, and is yet to be beat by any human programmed AI.
posted by phylum sinter at 6:35 AM on June 24, 2003

phylum sinter: if McKenna is right, wouldn't we be seeing biological mutations in those sections of our population which surely take more and harder forms of mind-altering substances than early hominids would have been exposed to? I mean it's a trippy idea, but in the end surely just an intellectual justification for getting stoned ...
posted by walrus at 6:56 AM on June 24, 2003

cohappy, are you sure Stephenson's reference to bicamerality was in The Big U? I never finished reading that book, but I'm positive a Neal Stephenson novel was the impetus for me to buy Jaynes' tome. Could it have been in Snow Crash, in approximately the same section he wrote about people speaking in tongues? It's been years since I read either...
posted by jbrjake at 6:57 AM on June 24, 2003

Also pertinent is the Julian Jaynes Society webpage, with its Articles & Essays by Julian Jaynes and Related Websites--or so the God hath spoken to me
posted by y2karl at 7:09 AM on June 24, 2003

phylum sinter: You're right that no computer program have succeeded in fooling the majority of judges yet, but a good deal of people are already fooled, often with amusing results.

But on the other hand, if we apply the Turing Test definition of consciousness to humans who are unable to read and write, we get the wrong result. Therefore this cannot be a stufficent test condition for consciousness. (Note that I do not differentiate between intelligence and consciousness precisely to avoid the semantic discussion you hinted at.)

jbrjake: I seem to remember that The Big U contains references to bicamerality. I might be wrong, of course, and in any case this doesn't mean that Snow Crash does not contain such references. I haven't read either for a long time.
posted by spazzm at 7:16 AM on June 24, 2003

People experiment even if they don't intend to. A marvelous example is the antidepressant drug desipramine hydrocloride. It was one of the first truly effective major antidepressants, prescribed at its height to over 2 million Americans. A shotgun solution, neurochemically, to a bb-gun problem, it had every side effect in the book, but people didn't care, because for many it worked.

After FDA approval, basic research ended on the drug in the US, but continued in other countries. Which led to a very interesting finding in Japan.

As background, when young animals develop, their minds learn to establish parameters to reality: size, shape, color, perspective, the senses, etc. These parameters then are set for life, usually. However, desipramine hydrocloride "softens" these parameters, gradually, to who know what effect in humans.

To illustrate how powerful this can be, the Japanese took ordinary adult house cats and sewed an eye lid shut. Then they injected the drug into the optic center of the cat's brain. After two to three weeks, they opened the stitched eye to find that the cats had re-learned to see with only their one open eye. Their other eye was still fully functional, and was sending signals to the brain, but these signals were ignored.

One can but wonder how some, out of the living lab of 2 million Americans, may have changed their perspectives of reality due to this. And how very many other drugs are out there doing things equally radical to the unwary.
posted by kablam at 7:31 AM on June 24, 2003

Walrus: I think that it's possible that those who do still experiment are forcing upon themselves internal changes that will not become apparent in the short term. There are side effects of drug use that are hard to point at (from a scientific or purely anthropological standpoint) and not be able to wonder where the ceiling for 'damage' or 'mutation' by these substances is. In some cases, people have reported becoming more intuitive, open minded, creative, etc. as a result of an LSD or hallucinogenic experience. Some cultures have rituals that use a psychedelic substance to directly push someone into a higher level of awareness -- not just for a single 8 hour span, but in hopes that there is some permanent effect. In this light, you could extend the argument by saying that the substances used in these rituals caused a sort of personal evolution, and were necessary for the continuation of a tribe. As far as your assertion that the drugs we have now are harder and used more often - I don't think that could really be said with much authority.

I am not a McKenna purist, however... I just think his theory of plant based consciousness emergence is one of the more interesting to think about. To me, no science involving ancient history will be bulletproof until we're able to invent a time machine that doesn't disrupt the events of the traveled-to era.
posted by phylum sinter at 8:12 AM on June 24, 2003

phylum sinter and kablam: changed perspectives of reality, certainly. However I am unaware that taking mind-altering substances can cause biological mutations of the class which would presumably be required to give rise to abstract conceptual thinking, as McKenna appears to be claiming in the book which phylum sinter linked. Fucking your own brain up doesn't count unless you can pass on the fuckups to your progeny.

Quite apart from that, I can argue that dolphins exhibit a limited form of abstract conceptualisation and have a quite highly developed sense of self. But perhaps one of their ancestors just ate some really funky kelp one day ...

The experiment kablam describes sounds very much like what I would expect the brain to do with sewn-up eyelids, drugs or not. There are many other experiments where neuronal pathways are shown to "rewire" themselves under certain conditions, although I'm too lazy/busy with other stuff to go and dig them up now.
posted by walrus at 8:17 AM on June 24, 2003

ps I think McKenna's theory is interesting too, but have largely discounted it personally. I don't mean to imply that you are a purist by arguing against it: it just doesn't sit right for me and the overdevelopment of our consciousness doesn't lead me to conclude that the basic mechanisms for it don't occur in "lower" mammals.
posted by walrus at 8:19 AM on June 24, 2003

Fucking your own brain up doesn't count unless you can pass on the fuckups to your progeny.

...maybe you can? It is thought that you can blow out your dopamine receptors with enough high doses of MDMA or IOB. If you do this, it could possibly become a part of your genetics? I mean, if it's all chemistry, and we know how to blow it up, why couldn't we pass it on?

[btw i'm not arguing this out of hope - i'd rather not believe that my mistakes will go on to my kids in most cases, but signs are beginning to point in the opposite direction.]
posted by phylum sinter at 8:31 AM on June 24, 2003

phylum sinter: The article you linked to indicates that genetics influence human behaviour, not the other way around.
posted by spazzm at 8:57 AM on June 24, 2003

The experiment kablam describes sounds very much like what I would expect the brain to do with sewn-up eyelids, drugs or not. There are many other experiments where neuronal pathways are shown to "rewire" themselves under certain conditions, although I'm too lazy/busy with other stuff to go and dig them up now.

These lectures have some discussion of rewiring.
posted by srboisvert at 9:19 AM on June 24, 2003

the barometer for it was set some 50 years ago by Alan Turing,

The Turing Test is largely a copout, IMHO... it doesn't say "here's how you test if something is conscious" scientifically, it just says "here's the limit of our ability to test if something is conscious". It's fairly easy to argue there are a large number of conscious entities on the planet that don't excel in the human linguistic ability department. Not to mention the number of fairly clever programs that could be devised to pass the test that are merely a Chinese Room.

Hey kablam and srboisvrt, does that mean if I want to learn Spanish or Chinese faster I could just grab some of that drug and head for the country of my choice and expect pre-critical period language acquisition abilities?
posted by namespan at 9:28 AM on June 24, 2003

Oh... and from the bicamerality page:

Volition, planning, initiative, is organized with no consciousness whatever and then 'told' to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or 'god', or sometimes as a voice alone.

This pre-conscious state doesn't sound pre-consciousness to me. Perception implies consciousness. Maybe he's looking for a term like "sapient".

Reading it I wonder if his thinking was influenced by a Garden of Eden like archetype. Something about the theory suggested that to me. Maybe that just means I'm influenced by said archetype (which I already know is true...).
posted by namespan at 10:17 AM on June 24, 2003


I bought Origin of Consciousness after reading The Big U - theres a bit in there where the female lead reads it and learns how to control the masses with the Go Big Red Fan, I believe. Its been longer since I've read Snow Crash, but I definitely remember ideas that I later realized were influenced by Jaynes.

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is another interesting phenomenon that Origin of Consciousness handles amazingly well. Jaynes provides several psychological studies that conclude that everyone who speaks in tongues speaks in the same way - even if they are from different countries or continents even. Also, Jaynes provides some evidence that the rhythmic patterns/intonations of those speaking in tongues matches the same structure of the Homeric epics. Which is a wild thought. Not everyone agrees with Jaynes, however, and Christianity seems to unsure what to make of it as well.
posted by cohappy at 11:51 AM on June 24, 2003

phylum sinter: Losing or altering a body part does not in any way affect the genetic code that will be passed on to an organisms progeny. Altering chemicals and structures in the brain will surely do something to your somatic body, but your sex cells are something different entirely.

The idea that hallucinogenic substances did produce changes in the overall human consciousness is not really that crazy though..if an entire tribe were to take mind altering substances, it would be inevitable for some of the new channels of thought to be passed on to the next generation, but through interaction and experience, not genetics.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 3:10 PM on June 24, 2003

Hypnosis is another topic on which Jaynes makes fascinating comments. In The Origins, he avers that the hypnotic state is stronger in a group settings--think stage hypnotists--than in one on one situations. This is a most intriguing concept.

Here there is a discussion of Milton Erickson, psychiatrist and pioneer hypnotist--a name much muddied by countless NLP quacks--and the Oral Tradition, a nice overview of the theories contingent on the topic written by one not obviously of the Bander-Grinder ilk, which bears upon your comments regarding glossalia and epic poetry, cohappy.

I think, too, that there is much common area to be explored between his concerns and interests and those explored by Girard in Scapegoat Theory.

Jaynes may have framed his thesis on neural science a bit on the wack side but he was most definitely on to something. Here is another overview of The Origins found in Great Googly Mooglifying hypnosis.

In relation to this, I am fascinated by his thoughts on idolatry and the historical evidence I think may be related--like the battles between the iconolaters and iconoclasts in Byzantine history, for example.

And given the high voo doo and mumbo jumbo content of our current geopolitical adventures, all this attention to the nature of consciousness is well deserved. What frightens about the current wave of nationalism and the related war fever is just how highly unconscious and fundamentally irrational it all is. The ancient gods are not yet quite dead.
posted by y2karl at 3:57 PM on June 24, 2003

i like this explanation by robert charles wilson, but SDB shot it down :D

also came across chris crawford's history of thinking recently!
The very concept of proof is part and parcel of logic, and I am arguing that human cognition is capable of another form of reasoning: pattern-recognizing reasoning. Now, pattern recognition can be tricky business, because what I see as a good pattern fit, you might see as a bad fit. There's an inherant subjectivity in pattern recognition that is blessedly absent from logic.


It is inconceivable that we will ever prove anything interesting and substantial about the operation of the human brain, or history, or society, or politics, or a thousand other important fields. Rigorous methods have produced a great many fascinating tidbits of solid knowledge, but our attempts to integrate those tidbits into some larger, useful theory have been swamped by a tidal wave of complexity. The slow, steady accumulation of facts and proofs will not lead us to the day when we can make reliable, detailed predictions about the behavior of brains or societies.
altho it hasn't stopped some people from trying to simulate them.

also jesper hoffmeyer has an interesting idea i think! oh and in addition to jung et al there's bloom's global brain but yeah, it all seems to point back to plant based consciousness emergence :D
posted by kliuless at 7:54 PM on June 24, 2003

If we conferred with our leafy friends,
Man to vegetable,
Think of all the things we could discuss
If we could walk with the vegetables,
Talk with the vegetables,
Root and bloom and fruit with the vegetables,
And they could talk to us!

posted by y2karl at 1:10 AM on June 26, 2003

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