When is Consciousness Learned?


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).

Screenshot from 2018-12-19 17-47-55.png
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.

Cultural Cognition in Time, from Memory to Imagination

Over the past few years, I have been thinking about the concept of imagination. It emerged out of my efforts to understand the generational change in public opinion about same-sex marriage in the U.S. when it became clear to me that young and old simply imagined homosexuality and same-sex marriage in different ways [see also three essential readings on the imagination: (Appadurai 1996; Orgad 2012; Strauss 2006)]. It wasn’t that the two cohorts disagreed about the issue; it’s that they couldn’t even understand each other. I realized that the imagination represents an implicit domain of political cognition that by-and-large goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by people when they talk to each other, while nonetheless structuring the debate in a way that is similar to framing.[1] I published my initial argument here (No paywall!), and have elaborated on this theory of imagination in my recent book (Definitely paywall!).

One thing that sets my view of the imagination apart from the ways that some other social scientists invoke the concept is that I see an important connection with the concept of collective memory. In many usages (e.g. Castoriadis 1987; Taylor 2002), the idea of the social imagination or the social imaginary is so broad that it most closely approximates the concept of culture—that incomprehensible whole that signifies everything and nothing all at the same time (Strauss makes this critique effectively). By contrast, I think the argument that Olick (1999) makes for collective memory fits well with Strauss’ critique of the social imaginary: we need a dual, individualist-collectivist theory of the imagination, one that anchors the cultural and cognitive versions of the concept in each other. Simply put, minds imagine things just like minds remember things, but the resources and the effects of imagination and memory are cultural and social.

Certainly, the cognitive process of remembering is distinguished in part by its retrospective temporal horizon, and in the empirical work of many sociologists (Baiocchi et al. 2014; Perrin 2006), the imagination’s temporal horizon is future-oriented: actions that we could take to solve a problem, or visions of a better society. Thus, it makes some sense (from a phenomenological perspective, at least) that we can think of collective memory and the social imagination as cultural-cognitive processes that occupy different spots on a temporal continuum.

However, I’d like to make the case that the social imagination is not just future-oriented, but present-oriented. I will also make the case that collective memory may be fruitfully theorized as the past-oriented variant of the social imagination. The ultimate goal of this essay is to persuade sociologists that the imagination is something of a master cultural-cognitive process, with variants that correspond to different phenomenological time horizons, and that is influenced by positive and negative socio-emotional forces.

In purely psychological terms, the imagination is the mind’s capacity to construct a mental image of a non-present phenomenon. Whether past-, present-, or future-oriented, and whether the imagined entity is real (horse) or unreal (unicorn), the cognitive process is essentially the same. Sociologically speaking, however, different imaginations have different effects: individuals’ imaginations of stereotypical and counter-stereotypical people will either reinforce or attenuate prejudicial attitudes and implicit biases (Blair, Ma and Lenton 2001; Slusher and Anderson 1987). Thus, there are political consequences to people’s imaginations: cultivating one’s capacity to produce (and act on) counter-stereotypic mental images may be an effective strategy for combatting implicit racism, sexism, and other forms of enduring prejudice.

As a sociological process, the social imagination is the process that shapes the patterns of associations that define cultural schemas, or the cultural content of a schema. In other words, the social imagination is the cultural-cognitive process that govern the creation, maintenance, and deconstruction of stereotypes, prototypes, categories, and concepts of all kinds. Certainly, other (material, structural, political, whatever) factors are involved in this process, too—like oppression, socialization, etc.—but the social imagination is the culture-cognition nexus. As Orgad (2012) shows, the mass media are one of the most critical institutions involved in contests of the social imagination. In this view, media consumption improves, not reduces, our capacity to imagine because it provides us with many of the fundamental resources for producing mental images. If you combine this understanding of the social imagination with the psychological research describe above, we can explain why stereotypical and counter-stereotypical media representations are so important: media representations can create, maintain, change, or destroy the cultural associations that define different groups of people in the public mind.

As far as I’ve read, Glaeser’s (2011) Political Epistemicsis one of the master treatises on the social imagination, though he doesn’t put it in those terms. Glaeser uses “understanding” to refer to this realm of cultural-cognition, and he uses the term to refer to both the process and its outcome. On page 10, Glaeser begins his definition of understanding by characterizing it as a process: “Understanding is a process of orientation…”; however, one page earlier, Glaeser writes of it as an achievement, or outcome: “understanding is achieved in a process of orientation…” My own view is that the imagination is this process of orientation that produces understandings. This follows Kant (1929), who, in Critique of Pure Reason, argues that the “transcendental power of imagination” is the fundamental  synthetic capacity of mind that combines perception and the cultural categories of understanding, thus structuring all human knowledge and experience.

If we keep this Kantian philosophy of the imagination at the center of our thinking, we might also conceive of memory as another species of imagination: one in which the original sensory perception took place in some bygone time and which is continually brought to life in mental images in the present by synthesizing those past perceptions with current mental structures (hence, the well-known power of our memories to change over time and for our present biography, self-identity, and social context to shape our memories into something other than what actually happened).

In sum, the imagination can be future-oriented (our ability to imagine possible future actions or solutions to social problems), present-oriented (our schemas, stereotypes, and understandings), or past-oriented (our memories).

Beyond distinguishing these three different forms of imagination, as classifed by their temporal horizon, we should differentiate between real and fantastical variants of each. Since a simple distinction between real/correct and unreal/incorrect versions of a mental image is philosophically untenable (even impossible, in the case of future-oriented mental images—things that have not yet occurred), I would argue that any given mental image should be conceived as existing on a continuum, whose polar ends represent ideal-typical, emotion-driven fantasies that “pull” our imagination in either direction. In this rendering, the ideal-typical end points are the only points on the continuum that could be labeled as the purely unreal; actually existing mental images would fall somewhere on the continuum and whose degree of “realness” is variable and relationally determined.

The point of establishing this continuum is not to determine whether one imagined mental image is more correct than another in some absolute sense, but rather to begin to discern the socio-emotional forces that are inevitably involved in the process of imagination and the sociological consequences of producing various kinds of mental images. For example, the prevalence of handgun ownership and attitudes about gun rights in the U.S. must certainly take into account the fear-driven imagination that a criminal who is waiting to rob and murder you is hiding behind every corn stalk in the state of Iowa. Whether past-, present-, or future-oriented, our mental images of reality are constructed within a socio-emotional landscape; as social scientists, it behooves us to think seriously about those landscapes, how they affect our imaginations, and how social action ultimately makes sense to the actors who imagine the world as they do.

Thus, we have three different continuums for the social imagination—one for each temporal horizon—in which mental images are constructed. The mental image’s location on the continuum is influenced by the extent to which positive and negative emotional circumstances influence the process of imagination.

Future-Oriented Imagination: The Domain of Possibility

Cultural Cognition Future

Let’s take the domain of future-oriented imagination first: the domain of possibility. The social imagination of the possible is inevitably informed by the emotions of fear and hope and situated in relation to social conditions of dystopia and utopia. Karen Cerulo (2008) has already written on the cognitive and cultural dynamics of this domain. Another notable example of the sociology of possibility is Erik Olin Wright’s “Real Utopias” research program (e.g., Wright 2013), which promises a sociology of liberation if we take it seriously.

Present-Oriented Imagination: The Domain of Understanding

Cultural Cognition Present

The social imagination of the present happens in the domain of understanding. As mentioned above, Glaeser’s Political Epistemics is the essential read on how processes of validation reinforce and challenge existing understandings. Glaeser labels these types of validation as recognition, resonance, and corroboration. In addition to them being cognitive, cultural, and social in nature, they are also emotional. The present-oriented process of imagination is anchored by two fantastical emotional tendencies: the extreme cynical denial of reality that we might call delusion, and the extreme polyannaish denial of reality that we might call naiveté. All understandings and misunderstandings can be conceived in terms of their socio-emotional tenor, as well as in their cognitive, cultural, and social terms.

Past-Oriented Imagination: The Domain of Memory

Cultural Cognition Past

Finally, turning to the domain of memory, our imaginary reconstructions of past events are influenced by the socio-emotional poles of denial of the negative and romanticization of the positive. The unreal social recollections driven by these emotions are those of erasure and nostalgia: in its extreme forms, collective memory has the potential to totally eliminate the past or construct a fantasy past that never existed. One classic sociological illustration of the importance of nostalgia is, of course, Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were (1992); this example shows clearly how the romanticization of the past is not purely cognitive or cultural, but structured by institutional power relations like those that reinforce patriarchy. In a parallel (maybe mutually constitutive) way, structures of oppression contribute to the ongoing erasure of women, people of color, and the working class from history in part because of how the socio-emotional consequences of these structures lead to us to produce distorted imaginations of the past.

Obviously, these are just simple thumb-nail sketches, but I believe that understanding the social imagination in its various temporal horizons is important, not just for explaining social action (in the interpretive, symbolic interactionist vein) but also for creating social change. Positive and negative emotions are powerful forces, and the terms on which people produce their imaginations of the world will also affect how they act in that world. Like the old idea of cognitive liberation (McAdam 1982) implies, how we imagine the world can determine whether we mobilize for justice or surrender to despair. The social imagination is very much like other social institutions; it is a cultural entity in which past, present, and future intersect. Sociology should devote some attention to this institution as we do to the others.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Baiocchi, Gianpaolo, Elizabeth A. Bennett, Alissa Cordner, Peter Taylor Klein, and Stephanie Savell. 2014. The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Blair, Irene V., Jennifer E. Ma, and Alison P. Lenton. 2001. “Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes through Mental Imagery.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (5): 828-841.

Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1987. The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cerulo, Karen A. 2008. Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books.

Glaeser, Andreas. 2011. Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1929. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nelson, Thomas E., Rosalee A. Clawson, and Zoe M. Oxley. 1997. “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and its Effects on Tolerance.” American Political Science Review, 91 (3): 567-583.

Olick, Jeffrey K. 1999. “Collective Memory: The Two Cultures.” Sociological Theory, 17 (3): 333-348.

Orgad, Shani. 2012. Media Representation and the Global Imagination. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Perrin, Andrew J. 2006. Citizen Speak: The Democratic Imagination in American Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Slusher, Morgan P., and Craig A. Anderson. 1987. “When Reality Monitoring Fails: The Role of Imagination in Stereotype Maintenance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 (4): 653-662.

Strauss, Claudia. 2006. “The Imaginary.” Anthropological Theory, 6 (3): 322-344.

Taylor, Charles. 2002. “Modern Social Imaginaries.” Public Culture, 14 (1): 91-124.

Wright, Erik Olin. 2013. “Transforming Capitalism Through Real Utopias.” American Sociological Review, 78 (1): 1-25.


[1] Framing and imagination are different concepts, and it is important to distinguish between them. Framing is a communicative process with cognitive effects, while the imagination is fundamentally a cognitive process, albeit with cultural influences. Setting that difference aside, though, and focusing purely on the sociological level of each concept, the social imagination is the process that shapes the pattern of associations that define cultural schemas, while framing is the process that shapes explicit cognition (for more on how framing works through deliberate, rather than automatic processing, see Nelson, Thomas E., Rosalee A. Clawson, and Zoe M. Oxley. 1997. “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and its Effects on Tolerance.” American Political Science Review91 (3): 567-583.)

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