When is Consciousness Learned?9 min read


Continuing with the theme of innateness and durability from my last post, consider the question: are humans born with consciousness? In a ground-breaking (and highly contested) work, the psychologist Julian Jaynes argued that if only humans have consciousness, it must have emerged at some point in our human history. In other words, consciousness is a socially and culturally acquired skill (Williams 2011).

To summarize his argument: until as recently as the Bronze age (the third millennium BCE) he purports that humans were not, strictly speaking conscious. Rather, humans experienced life in a proto-conscious state he refers to as “bicameralism.” Roughly around the “Axial Age” (cf Mullins et al. 2018), bicameral humans declined and conscious, “unicameral” humans emerged.

One piece of evidence he deploys in support of his thesis is that the content of the Homeric poem the Iliad is substantially different than the later Odyssey. The former, he argues, is devoid of references to introspection, while the latter does have introspection. Jaynes argues a similar pattern emerges between earlier and later books of the Christian Bible. In a recent attempt  (see also Raskovsky et al. 2010) to test this specific hypothesis quantitatively,  Diuk et al. (2012), use Latent Semantic Analysis to calculate the semantic distances between the reference word “introspection” and all other words in a text. Remarkably, their findings are consistent with Jaynes’ argument  (see also: http://www.julianjaynes.org/evidence_summary.php).

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From Diuk et al. (2012): “Introspection in the cultural record of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The New Testament as a single document shows a significant increase over the Old Testament, while the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo are even more introspective. Inset: regardless of the actual dating, both the Old and New Testaments show a marked structure along the canonical organization of the books, and a significant positive increase in introspection.”

Is Consciousness Learned in Childhood?

If consciousness, as Jaynes argued, is a product of social and cultural development, does this also mean that we each must “learn” to be conscious? Some contemporary research suggests something like this might be the case.

To begin we need a simple definition: consciousness is our “awareness of our awareness” (sometimes called metacognition). A problem with considering the extent of our conscious awareness is the normative baggage associated with “not being conscious.” For the folk, it is somewhat insulting to say people are “mindlessly” doing something, and we tend to value “self-reflection.” Certainly this is a generalization, but let’s bracket the notion that non-conscious experience is somehow less good than being conscious. The bulk of what the brain does is below the level of our awareness. For starters, when we are asleep, under general anesthesia, or even in a coma, the brain continues to be quite active. Moving to our waking lives, the kinds of skills and habits that Giddens (1979) confusingly calls the “practical consciousness” is deployed at a speed that outstrips our ability to be aware it is happening until after the fact. The kind of skillful execution associated with athletes and artists, for instance, is often associated with Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” precisely because there is a “letting go” and letting the situation take over. All this is to say we are conscious far less than we probably think. Indeed asking us when we are not conscious  (Jaynes 1976:23):

…is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.

A second major confusion is the assumption that consciousness is how humans learn ideas or form concepts. As we discuss elsewhere (Lizardo et al. 2016), memory systems are multiple, and while we learn via conscious processes, the bulk of what we learn is via non-conscious processes in “nondeclarative” memory systems (Lizardo 2017). This is especially the case for the most basic concepts we learn from infancy onward. In fact, Durkheim’s argument that it is through ritual—embodied experience—that so-called “primitive” groups learned the “basic categories of the understanding” more or less pre-figures this point (Rawls 2001).

Rather than the experience-near associated with everyday life, consciousness involves introspection and “time traveling” associated both with reconstructing our own biographies from memory and imagining possible (and impossible) futures. A recent school of thought in cognitive science—referred to as “enactivism”—takes a rather radical approach in arguing that the vast majority of human cognition is not, strictly speaking, contentful (Hutto and Myin 2012, 2017). Indeed, a lot of “remembering” does “not require representing any specific past happening or happenings… remembering is a matter of reenactment that does not involve representation” (Hutto and Myin 2017:205). But, what about autobiographical remembering involved in introspection and self-reflection which we might consider the hallmark of consciousness?

To answer this — within the broader enactivist project — they draw on group of scholars who argue that autobiographical memory is “a product of innumerable social experiences in cultural space that provide for the developmental differentiation of the sense of a unique self from that of undifferentiated personal experience” (Nelson and Fivush 2004:507). These scholars find that “a specific kind of memory emerges at the end of pre-school period”  (Nelson 2009:185). Such a theory offers a plausible explanation for “infantile amnesia” — the inability to recall events prior to about three or four — an explanation much less ridiculous than Freud’s contention that these memories were repressed so as to “screen from each one the beginnings of one’s own sex life.”

These theorists go on to argue that “a new form of social skill” associated with this “new type of memory” (Hoerl 2007:630). This skill is “narrating” one’s experience. Parent’s reminiscing with children play a central role in the acquisition of this skill (Nelson and Fivush 2004:500):

…parental narratives make an important contribution to the young child’s concept of the personal past. Talking about experienced events with parents who incorporate the child’s fragments into narratives of the past not only provides a way of organizing memory for future recall but also provides the scaffold for understanding the order and specific locations of personal time, the essential basis for autobiographical memory.

Returning to Jaynes, we find a remarkably analogous description of the emergence of consciousness as  the “development on the basis of linguistic metaphors of an operation of space in which an ‘I’ could narratize out alternative actions to their consequences” (Jaynes 1976:236). That is, we could assert, consciousness is this social skill emerging from the (embodied and social) practice of reminiscing with parents and classmates (or the like) when we are around three years old.


Diuk, Carlos G., D. Fernandez Slezak, I. Raskovsky, M. Sigman, and G. A. Cecchi. 2012. “A Quantitative Philology of Introspection.” Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 6:80.

Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory. Berkeley: University of California press.

Hoerl, C. 2007. “Episodic Memory, Autobiographical Memory, Narrative: On Three Key Notions in Current Approaches to Memory Development.” Philosophical Psychology.

Hutto, Daniel D. and Erik Myin. 2012. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content. MIT Press.

Hutto, Daniel D. and Erik Myin. 2017. Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content. MIT Press.

Jaynes, Julian. 1976. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Lizardo, Omar. 2017. “Improving Cultural Analysis Considering Personal Culture in Its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review 0003122416675175.

Lizardo, Omar, Robert Mowry, Brandon Sepulvado, Dustin S. Stoltz, Marshall A. Taylor, Justin Van Ness, and Michael Wood. 2016. “What Are Dual Process Models? Implications for Cultural Analysis in Sociology.” Sociological Theory 34(4):287–310.

Mullins, Daniel Austin, Daniel Hoyer, Christina Collins, Thomas Currie, Kevin Feeney, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Harvey Whitehouse, and Peter Turchin. 2018. “A Systematic Assessment of ‘Axial Age’ Proposals Using Global Comparative Historical Evidence.” American Sociological Review 83(3):596–626.

Nelson, Katherine. 2009. Young Minds in Social Worlds: Experience, Meaning, and Memory. Harvard University Press.

Nelson, Katherine and Robyn Fivush. 2004. “The Emergence of Autobiographical Memory: A Social Cultural Developmental Theory.” Psychological Review 111(2):486–511.

Raskovsky, I., D. Fernández Slezak, C. G. Diuk, and G. A. Cecchi. 2010. “The Emergence of the Modern Concept of Introspection: A Quantitative Linguistic Analysis.” Pp. 68–75 in Proceedings of the NAACL HLT 2010 Young Investigators Workshop on Computational Approaches to Languages of the Americas, YIWCALA ’10. Stroudsburg, PA, USA: Association for Computational Linguistics.

Rawls, A. W. (2001). Durkheim’s treatment of practice: concrete practice vs representations as the foundation of reason. Journal of Classical Sociology, 1(1), 33-68.

Williams, Gary. 2011. “What Is It like to Be Nonconscious? A Defense of Julian Jaynes.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 10(2):217–39.

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