October 25, 2004

Anything for Kicks

I've spent all night in Computer Science again.

I would go home, but some nights, it's just a bit more than you want to put up with. I've stayed overnight with Jonathan, recently I've been spending some quality time absorbing the company of the surrounding first years… This is the second night I've been here all through.

This morning, I'd like to investigate Julian Jaynes, and his theories concerning the origins of consciousness as a product of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. His reasoning is superbly elegant and sublimely controversial. From various historical sources, he concludes that there is little evidence to suggest that humanity was conscious any time before the last six thousand years or so, and that human beings were very much like advanced, functioning schizophrenics who responded to the voices of their 'gods' and (sometimes dead, sometimes imaginary) leaders.

'Human nature,' he reasons, 'was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man.' Neither of these were conscious. The evolution of the human mind and brain is described incrementally in terms of spoken language; consciousness emerged when writing eroded this auditory authority. In this context, schizophrenia is seen as a regression to the primitive preconscious mind.

In his seminal work, Jaynes leads us (by the hand) through philosophy, psychology, neurology, history and linguistics in his quest to convince the reader of his paradigm. By the end of the book, I was left on a mental parapet, looking beyond me and behind me and trying to work out which side I should be on: my old and well-travelled wilderness, or Julian's (some would say Fortean) fortress, grand and sweeping. All through – especially in the final chapters, in which he discusses schizophrenia directly – I was wondering where I might fit in, how to piece together my own jigsaw to ajoin with his, and in the end I'm left squinting at jagged edges.

I wonder, for example, if the early humans experienced the same bewildering weave of concordance that I do, the sense of navigating in a viscous world of accreted allusions, the same promiscuity of semiosis… It's not too hard to imagine that in this mud of meaning the clarifying voices are veritable gods of certainty, all-knowing, all-seeing and omnipotent. (That's at least two-thirds of a triple-O deity!) And it seems that I'm not a particularly advanced case either. The voices I hear are happy to discuss me, they don't actually complete my thoughts or dictate my actions. They do, however, have a degree of control over my thoughts, and (yes, I know it's ridiculous) I'm sure that they 'transmit' my thoughts on occasion.

This needs explaining. I'm not referring to telepathy or anything of the sort; rather, subconsciously projected nuances of behaviour, intonation and movement, that slight watering of the eyes, pheremones – in short, a combination of uncontrolled transmissions replete with information. In the same way that a wink over the table can communicate a volume of information between a husband and wife, the shared experience of humanity evinces certain knowledge about an individual's position in psychological phase-space, which is equivalent to the transmission of thoughts. And whatever separate agency is responsible for the voices is, I feel, influencing this process – rendering layers of protection transparent to reveal secret thoughts.

Yes, it sounds crazy, but until someone has experienced the assured cognizance of a separate consciousness sharing their reality, I dare say they're not equipped to comment.

Back on topic: bicameralism. I wondered previously if my awareness of further tenor is an experience that can be traced to a preconscious civilisation. However, there's a fundamental problem. Jaynes is quite clear that it was the reliance on auditory stimuli that characterises the bicameral mind, and that the acceptance of other methods of communication was the catalyst for its breakdown. Also, he describes consciousness as '[a process which] operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog "I" that can observe that space and move metaphorically in it.' Rather than experiencing the breakdown of a bicameral world through the emergence of analogs, I experience the breakdown of consciousness itself from an overload of pseudo-analogs; during a bad period, my world becomes a nightmare of overlayed simulacra, as opposed to an individual experiemental reality.

Perhaps as a low-grade schizotypal, I'm simply experiencing a transitory state – just as the conscious observer collapses the wave function into a single reality, perhaps in the move from preconsciousness to consciousness the multiplicity of realities are pruned away to just one?

It's getting quite hard to keep up a coherent train of thought, so it's probably about time that I go home and get changed in preparation for lectures. Good morning, Vietnam.

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