The Birth of Consciousness? (A Jaynesian Interpretation of a Troublesome Memory)

Featured image “Birth of Consciousness” courtesy of Bob Siddoway (see more of his great work here)


I have an extremely vivid memory from when I was a child.

I had been put to bed, and was waiting to fall asleep. My bedroom door was open (I was afraid of the dark) and through it I could hear the quiet murmur of my parents watching television. Aside from these few tactile features of the memory, there is very little about it that lends itself to a simple description.

That is to say that the memory is very specifically about a feeling, and that feeling is very hard to convey.

To put it as bluntly as possible, I felt as if I had just arrived from some place I could not recall. I remember very specifically thinking to myself: “Where have I been? What happened to me while I was gone?” I remember trying to think of different places I might have been. Had I been in the hospital with an illness? Was I just waking up from a coma? Had I been abducted by aliens?

My mental store of concepts and language was intact. I knew I was in my bed. I knew my parents, who were in the room across the hallway. I knew my brother, who was in the room next to mine. I knew the layout of my house and neighbourhood and other such things. I did not, however, know were I had been. Basically, I had a great stockpile of data with which to construct ideas of where I might have been or what I might have been doing, but I had no narrative connecting me to what I actually did.

According to my parents, I hadn’t been anywhere. I had just been living my life as per usual.

I will now present you with an interpretation of what could have been going on in my mind. I can’t state clearly enough that this interpretation is not my official belief. It is merely an interesting idea to think about. So please don’t bother with comments along the lines of: “you just woke up from some dream, you idiot. Stop making more of it than it deserves.”

…actually, since this site suffers from a lack of commenters, forget the previous paragraph.

Here is what was happening in my mind:

I was having my first conscious thoughts.

For those of you who are familiar with our site (are there such people?) you may recall the concept of consciousness put forth by Julian Jaynes. If you have not, you may want to check out our definition of Jaynesian consciousness before you read on.

Consciousness as defined by Julian Jaynes is not mere wakefulness, but a certain level of mental complexity that allows us to perform tricks that have thus far only been observed in humanity. Language, or — more specifically — the ability of the mind to let symbols stand for things, is the basis of this consciousness.

Essentially, Jaynesian consciousness is the ability to carry an interactive representation of yourself and the world around with you inside your head. It is the ability to think of the world in terms other than those of direct sense interaction. It is what is necessary for such thoughts as; “I am hungry. Perhaps later on I will go to the store for some noodles.”

Such a seemingly simple thought is unbelievably complex when we compare it to the animalistic (unconscious) equivalent wherein the rumbling of a woodland creature’s tummy causes it to be on the lookout for a potential meal. This creature has no concept of “hungry.” Hunger is simply a feeling that pushes it in a direction. It has no concept of “perhaps,” or “later,” or — especially — “I.”

According to Jaynes we must reach a certain level of mental and linguistic complexity before we are able to store and manipulate concepts in such a way. Even children who are able to speak may not have reached this level of mental elegance. They can convey simplistic things such as distress or a craving, but they are only beginning to scratch the surface of the massive introspective experience that their consciousness will soon afford them.

Basically, Jaynesian consciousness is not something you are born with, but something you come to attain at some point in your life. Before it is attained, there is no such thing as personal narrative.

When the young mind first stumbles upon this thing called “I,” it is something akin to a second birth. This is what I am saying (for the sake of argument) may have been happening to me all those years ago. Is it possible that these confused thoughts about where “I” had been were simply due to the fact that “I” hadn’t been anywhere?

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