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?

4 Responses to “The Birth of Consciousness? (A Jaynesian Interpretation of a Troublesome Memory)”
  1. Kelly Carter says:

    I just discovered your blog and am looking forward (when I can make time) to explore more of your posts. I think we have many similar interests, such as Julian Jaynes. I wanted to share something that has been on my mind recently and your post triggered my decision to actually put it in writing. It is also about a childhood memory, though quite a bit different from yours. Still, it’s a childhood memory that I find fascinating.

    When I was in the third grade, I got hit by a car. I was riding along a road next to a field where high school ROTC students were marching. I, myself, was wearing an actual World War II helmet (fiberglass liner, not the steel “pot”). I was looking for my older brother who I was sure was in the cadet formation. At one point, having not yet spotted my brother, I needed to turn back and make a second pass. The road being quiet and lightly traveled, I simply “listened” for traffic without actually turning my head to look. I turned right into the path of an oncoming car, and “wham-o.” I got scooped up by the front of the car, smashed against the windshield, then thrown off skidding down the pavement. I was knocked unconscious, but probably the helmet I was wearing saved my life.

    Anyhow, the next thing I remember is I awoke in a clinic (that coincidentally was only a hundred yards from where I got hit), looking up at my mother and our doctor, listening to them calmly talking. Now for the unusual part of this memory: I remember what was happening in my head while I was lying there. There was a voice–my internal voice, or at least one of them–narrating a story, something like this, in a dramatic tone: “I wonder what happened to me? I just awoke in a strange place and don’t know how I got here. What could have happened?” Then another internal voice, also “me” again, but a “different” part of me, said something like, “You know full well what happened to you and where you are. You got hit by a car. You’re in the hospital.”

    What’s odd is that to this day I have no conscious memory of the actual event of being hit by the car. I do remember clearly everything leading up to the moment I turned into the path of the car, and a moment of “whizzing through the air,” or more like a sensation of spinning rapidly. But I have no conscious memory of the car, or getting hit, or anything before coming to in the clinic. But, obviously, SOME part of me remembered.

    And also odd, I believe I remember a moment of sudden awareness that there were two voices in my head, having a conversation, and how curious that was. Not just my “internal voice” that always seemed to be there, but another voice that had different, “hidden” knowledge. Yet both voices were “me.” I remember wondering why I was having this conversation inside myself, and how part of me could be so “childish” and ignorant (of my circumstances), and the other much more mature and knowledgeable.

    Only after learning about Jaynes’s work, the hypothesis of the bicameral mind and such, have I returned to this memory to wonder if I was experiencing a kind of bicameral moment. Now I must add that the “voices” I “heard” were not what I imagine auditory hallucinations to be like. I knew full well the words were internal, and I had no doubt that “I” was the source of the words. So, that makes my experience somewhat unlike what Jaynes refers to as the “god” voice and the “human” voice, etc.

    Thanks for giving me the incentive to write up this story for the first time. Hope you find it as interesting as I found yours.

    • That’s a great story!

      Reading Jaynes and others like him gives so much additional depth to memories like the one you described. We’ve been hoping to write more posts about consciousness, but for some reason posts like that take a while to materialize.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. anon says:

    I know exactly what you’re talking about, because I remember the exact moment when the word “I” and the concept of myself as an independent entity in the universe became merged in my mind. I was between 4 and 6 years old, and I was looking at myself in the mirror. I realized as I looked at my reflection that I was looking at myself. I thought to myself “that’s me.” Suddenly those words had meaning, and they weren’t just a thing my parents said to me when they were showing me a photograph of myself as a baby. I felt a fleeting rush of excitement at the thought of mere existence. I remember this, because I was never able to replicate that excitement again, even though I tried.

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