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).

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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.

Embodied knowledge vs. flesh and blood

As DiMaggio (1997) originally noted, most sociological theories of action make assumptions about the nature of cognition even as they dismiss any explicit discussion of cognition in favor of “social” explanation. Thinking about how culture comes to be taken up by the mechanisms of cognition and how it influences action through those mechanisms would, theoretically, address deficits in sociological theories of action and, at the same time, correct the bias towards extreme individualism that pervaded the cognitive sciences from the 1950s to the 1990s (which, as Dryfus (1992) has been screaming for his entire career, made them useful for writing chess-playing programs and little else). Persons, according to this view, are not mere symbol-processing machines, but culturally-informed symbol-processing machines, whose chaotic interaction with the myriad cultural forms of everyday life naturally produces both behavioral and cultural variation (DiMaggio, 1997: 272).

As new theory tends to do, these symbolic-schematic accounts of how action comes to be solved some problems and created a few more. In cognitive science, the symbol-processing model simply failed to manifest its promises in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. From the 1980s through the early 2000s, most programmers and engineers tried to mimic intelligent behavior by writing programs composed of internally consistent symbol systems. While this produced some laudable feats (one thinks of Deep Blue’s famous triumph over the then world chess champion Gary Kasparov), they were limited to extremely bounded tasks that lent themselves to abstraction. In contrast, physical tasks that nine-month-old babies did with ease were arduously recreated by robotics engineers only to fail as soon as the environment in which they were performed was slightly altered. This begged the question: if human intelligence is basically a complex symbol-processing mechanism, then why are artificial symbol-processing systems so unbelievably inept at tasks so simply any human could perform with without any amount of thought or attention?

In sociological theory, the symbol-processing model of culture and cognition painted a picture of an agent who, rather than simply responding to culture, could explore and engage with it. But the nature of the mechanism(s) that allowed for this remained opaque. In other words, if culture is internalized as cognitive architecture, what is the process of internalization? How are the cultural “logics,” “schemas,” and “heuristics” that, in interaction with the social world (or “stimuli” for the cognitive scientists) acquired and applied?

Embodiment in Social Theory

Enter the embodiment perspective. The turn towards embodiment, both within culture and cognition (Ignatow, 2007; Strand & Lizardo, 2015; Winchester, 2016) and, increasingly, within cognitive science itself (Edelman, 2004; Rowlands, 2011), has been an attempt to address these issues. In social theory, the embodiment perspective accounts for culture’s internalization by theorizing that the systems of thought that ground our ability to engage with the world – perception, the formation of habits, and the execution of habitual behavior – are essentially informed by the iterative interactions of the body with the world. For some thinkers, a capacity for “deliberation” is a feature of embodiment (Joas, 1996; Winchester, 2016), this capacity itself depends on the repertoire of habits that result from the body’s immersion in the world. Our capacity for action and the cognitive schemas and logics on which it depends finds its root in the body’s grounding in a stable world from which, through infinite experimental explorations from the first day of life until the day we die, it amasses “embodied knowledge.”

This theory of cognition has been extremely fruitful for cognitive scientists and robotics engineers. Robots fitted with exploratory learning algorithms have fared far better at problem-solving in various arenas compared to their symbol-processing predecessors (Edelman, 2004). In sociology, too, the conceptualization of knowledge as fundamentally embodied is enjoying somewhat of a heyday in sociological theory (e.g. Martin, 2011). And no wonder, since theories of embodied knowledge have several advantages over symbol-processing theories of cognition. For example, they provide an explanation of how cultural knowledge is acquired, maintained, and changed over time. In addition, they lend themselves to habit-oriented theories of action. And finally, they continually situate subjects within the world they inhabit, making a retreat into the theatre of the mind in order to “deliberate,” “calculate,” or “problem-solve” in a wholly abstract fashion analytically unnecessary. This feature of the embodiment perspective has been particularly attractive for action theorists interested in dismantling the legacy of the Cartesian model of the human subject (Crossley, 2013; Scheper-Hughes & Lock, 1987; Turner, 1984; Whitford, 2002), and for sociological theory more generally because it provides a detailed explanatory account of the inseparability of individual and society (Joas, 1996; Martin, 2011).

Beyond Representationalism

Nevertheless, despite the radical situatedness advanced by contemporary theories of embodiment in culture and cognition, a specter of their theoretical predecessors remains. Specifically, the theorization of embodied knowledge tends to conceptualize that knowledge not as a feature of the flesh and blood of the physical body in the world, but as a series of representations of bodily capacities developed and stored in the brain. Ignatow (2007: 122), for example, refers to a “repertoire of embodiments…stored in memory with cognition and language rather than in a separate location.” This makes sense intuitively. The brain, after all, is the ultimate site of the choreography of habitual behavior. We might speak of “muscle memory,” but the effortless sequencing of movements to which that phrase refers relies on patterned neuronal connections in the motor cortex. By themselves, the muscles that articulate activity know nothing of these connections. It is therefore often easy to ignore the physical body in favor of the cognitive representations that map the repertoire of habits it has access to.

But to do so is to mistake the choreography for the dancer. When we neglect the role that the flesh and blood of the physical body plays in the development and maintenance of habitual behavior, we describe embodiment only in its foundational capacity, its ability to give rise to the world immersion that characterizes experience in moments of habitual flow. Even in these moments, however, embodiment is continually vulnerable to breakdown. When we are ill or injured, for example, the cognitive infrastructure that encodes embodied knowledge can no longer make itself manifest. This aspect of embodiment – its vulnerability to disorientation and ungroundedness – is as much a feature of its nature as its ability to act as the bedrock of being-in-the-world.

This is an observation that Maurice Merleau-Ponty made more than half a century ago. Like contemporary theorists of culture and cognition, Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 102) conceived of habit formation as “a rearrangement and renewal of the corporeal schema”; but he was also always careful to emphasize that the corporeal schema, or “habit-body”, was only intelligible when married to a corresponding “body at this moment.” The specific habit-creating character of human subjectivity, “always already” immersed in its world, relies fundamentally on the fact that the flesh and blood of the physical body (unlike its cognitive representation in the nervous system) extends into that world.

As such, the body is simultaneously an objective part of the world, on the one hand, and the foundation for subjective experience, on the other. This insight allows Merleau-Ponty to account both for the effortless enactment of habitual behavior that structures daily life and the ever-present possibility of a breakdown in the flow of experience it gives rise to: “The fusion of soul and body in the act, the sublimation of biological into personal existence, and of the natural into the cultural world is made both possible and precarious by the temporal structure of our existence” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 97, italics added).

Recognizing the possibility of breakdown as an essential element of embodiment is important for its conceptualization for two reasons. First, it is simply an accurate description of the reality of embodied experience: our habits are accessible and deployable only to the extent that we possess a body capable of enacting them. “Embodied knowledge” is not enough. Second, a recognition of the tenuousness of embodied knowledge opens up a novel space for theorizing how ruptures in the flow of existence produce behavioral variation. Like disjunctures between ideology and the material conditions of life (Swidler, 1986), or ruptures in the relationship between habitus and history (Bourdieu, 2004), breakdowns in the relationship between the physical body and the cognitive structures that map its history of activity give rise to opportunities for creative behaviour, as subjects are forced to contend with the experience of being “thrown” into an action that they are newly incapable of performing.


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