Nearly fifty years ago, I read Julian Jaynes’ book, the one with the imposing title, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Immediately one of my favorites, it remains so to this day. Drawing on ancient literature, archaeology, neuroscience and other sources, Jaynes focused on the nature of consciousness, theorizing (largely on the basis of evidence of “auditory hallucinations” in early mankind) that consciousness arose when the two hemispheres of the brain first started “talking to each other” across the corpus callosum.
Jaynes’s theories were extremely popular at the time; then they were attacked and called all wrong; then they made somewhat of a comeback, with a society formed in Jaynes’ honor. I’m not sure I want to know where his reputation stands today. I loved the idea, and I wouldn’t want to be saddened once again to learn that his theories are all wrong, knowing that in another thirty years, they might be accepted again. Thanks to Jaynes, I will go to my grave remembering and enjoying the image of the bicameral mind, and of the two halves of it talking to each other, as Jaynes suggested.
“Hey there, stranger.”
“What? Did somebody say something?”
“Yeah. It’s me.”
“What? Who are you?”
“I’m you, dummy. The other half of you, anyway… It’s really time we started recognizing each other, and thinking of ourselves as one. Dont you think?”
Quite often, I catch myself thinking of Jaynes’s bicameral mind. How, when a thought passes through my consciousness, it’s as if I’m both a speaker and a listener.
“Should I post this thought on my blog this morning?” asks the speaker.
“Sure, why not,” answers the listener.
To me, all thoughts seem like conversations between the two halves of my brain.
Now, I know that all brain phenomena can’t be explained by this two-brain theory. Memory, for example, doesn’t seem to reside on one side of the brain, the subject of a search by the other. You’ve got the name of your fifth grade art teacher on the tip of your tongue. (Well, of course it’s not really on the tip of your tongue; we all know that memories are stored in the brain – but where in the brain?) It sure seems that recollections are made up of elements scattered here and there – perhaps the audio track here and the video track there, but more likely, different elements scattered like the loose pieces of construction paper always scattered around Mrs. What’s-Her-Name’s floor. Still, even if the physical location of the elements aren’t confined to one side of the brain or the other, the conversation that goes on in the effort to retrieve the name could be a conversation between the two halves.
R: “She was the one with the dark brown hair, right?”
L: “Yeah. Auburn, maybe. With a splash of gray above one ear.”
R: “Did her name start with a B?”
L: “No, I don’t think so. Seems to me it began with an S.
R: “S – T maybe? Stubbs? Staub? Straughan?“
From the many times we’ve been frustrated by inability to recall things, we often share a sense that even if they don’t reside on opposite sides of the corpus collosum, the things we’re searching for reside in parts of our brains that exist elsewhere, even if invisible to the part that’s on the hunt.
AS it happens, I’m content to let the mysteries of memory remain unsolved. For at least one more day, I can simply accept that what we call memory can be in our brains, somewhere, theoretically retrievable but temporarily unknown to the conscious mind.
What I can’t accept, even for one more day, is the mystery of the dream state. And I’m thinking of a particular type of dream, a particular aspect of the dream state. I’m thinking of this aspect because of the dream I was having less than five minutes before I started this post this morning. The origins of this morning’s dream go back to Penny, a woman I last worked with over seventeen years ago. Last month, I happened to return to my former place of employment for a meeting with my former boss. As I sat in the lobby waiting, Penny walked in. I immediately recognized her and said, “Hi, Penny, how’ve you been?” There’d been several hundred people who’d worked in that building when I last did, seventeen years earlier, and having never worked with Penny closely, I was rather impressed with myself that I could pull her name right out of the air like that.
But then, this morning, there was this dream. In the dream, there was Penny again. And I recognized her face, and I knew who she was, but my former boss was asking me to remember her name – and I couldn’t. It took me a long time, and a lot of help from my boss, but in the dream, I finally remembered it.
Now, remember that I’d remembered Penny’s name so well for seventeen years that I could retrieve it instantaneously when, unexpectedly, I saw her last month. It didn’t seem to be hidden away in the cobwebs somewhere. If it had been so quickly retrievable for seventeen years, is it possible that, during the dream, part of my brain was fully aware of the name, and was scripting this dream like a stage play, while another part was playing the part of a brain that couldn’t remember? Had my brain somehow divided itself, for story-telling purposes, into a part that remembered and a part that didn’t?
Anyone who’s ever had difficulty recalling something for a second or two may be inclined to feel that my dream this morning represented nothing more than the usual process of working to retrieve a memory, beginning with an inability to recall her name, then employing whatever processes the mind usually employs in its efforts to recall, and ending with success in the effort. If this is what was going on in the dream, the dream could have ended the way waking efforts to remember things often do – with failure. Nothing unusual here. The dream state is subject to the same difficulty remember things as the waking state is, and its efforts to remember things utilize the same or very similar strategies.
But is it possible that my dreaming mind this morning was divided into two parts: a part that did know the name, and another part that didn’t? A story-telling part, that wanted to go on a ride through a process of remembering something, and choosing the story of Penny because it wanted wanted a successful outcome, and knew that with Penny, the outcome would be successful, because that part – the story-teller part – knew the woman’s name was Penny, and that part of my brain planned all along to end the dream with that revelation?
And I actually think this may be closer to what really happens in at least some dreams, and my reasons are rooted in a similar, though slightly more elaborate, dream I had three or four months ago. Unlike my dream about Penny, that dream was longer, consisting of numerous scenes. And in that dream, too, I was trying to identify something, starting from ignorance and ending up satisfied by understanding. Early in it, I’d been told by an agent behind the counter of a rental car agency that the car I’d reserved had been taken, earlier that day, by a relative of mine. When I asked who, he said the name had included the letter O. I thought of names beginning with O, but there were no Ozzies or O’Briens in the family. I thought of my cousins Joe and Lorin and Bobby, but no, said the man behind the counter, it wasn’t them. After a while, another man told me that the name also included a G. I had no relatives named Ogden, so I told the man it must have been one of my many cousins whose middle or last names were Logan. Once again, however, I was informed that I was wrong. Eventually, other people appeared in the dream supplying the letters N, U and Y, and by the end of the dream, I realized that the man I’d been trying to identify was a second cousin named Wendell, whose last name was Young.
In the dream, the revelation took me by surprise. But what had me puzzled for days, and still has me wondering, is how the dream was even possible. As the dreamer, I had no idea where the dream was headed when it began. Not until it ended did the clues make any sense. Yet, as the spinner of the tale, as the “writer of the story,” so to speak, some part of my brain had to know where everything was headed from the outset. Back when the man behind the counter was telling me it was a relative with an O in his name, the “writer of the story” knew, even if I did not.
The reader of a mystery novel is ignorant at first, puts together clues, and finally connects the dots somewhere along the way – if not, he’s given the answer at the end, by the writer.. But mystery novels aren’t written that way. The writer has typically known “who done it” since the first clue was inconspicuously mentioned back in Chapter One. I understand how this workers with mystery novels, because you have two different minds at work – the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader. But is the same true in dreams? How was it possible, in my dream, for that man behind the counter to know that my relative’s name included a an O, at the beginning of the dream, unless he already knew the end of the dream? And if he knew the end in advance, why didn’t I?
The only explanation I can think of is that the dreaming mind is really two minds, the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader. That when we dream, we see ourselves walking (or flying?) through a world with less than complete understanding, a world in which a lot more is known by a different mind which, though presumably also resident in our brain, knows far more than we do about the world – perhaps, even both the “real” world and the one in which the dream takes place. This “writer” ho knows more than we, the reader know, is intentionally giving us only part of what we see in the dream, the same way a mystery writer does, doling out information at the right time, to enhance the story.
Some may think of this as evidence of God. Part of me wonders that too. But more often, such phenomena make me think of my love for Jaynes’ theory about the Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
I guess you could say I’m of two minds about it, eh?
Yeah. I think so.