Max’s Reading Response #5: Westworld

I read (most of) a really, really weird book maybe ten years ago. I have no idea how I ended up coming across it, and why, upon reading the title, I didn’t roll my eyes and find something else. It’s called “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and it’s by a now-dead Yale research psychologist named Julian Jaynes.

The book, which was published in 1976, has a bizarre, albeit interesting, premise: during human evolution, the brain was separated into two distinct sections — one that “spoke” and one that “listened.” Jaynes suggested that up until only 3000 years ago, consciousness as we know it existed as a kind of internal narration from one side of the brain to the other. Rather than try to paraphrase what this would have been like, I’ll just cite this section from Wikipedia ¹ :

“According to Jaynes, ancient people in the bicameral state of mind would have experienced the world in a manner that has some similarities to that of a person with schizophrenia. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or “god” giving admonitory advice or commands and obey without question: One would not be at all conscious of one’s own thought processes per se. Jaynes’s hypothesis is offered as a possible explanation of “command hallucinations” that often direct the behavior of those afflicted by first rank symptoms of schizophrenia, as well as other voice hearers.”

While the implications of this theory are astonishing, it’s essentially bullshit.

Modern neuroscience and psychology have debunked most of what Jaynes posited in the book. Despite the fascinating premise and the reams of evidence presented to justify the theory, the simple fact is the mind just doesn’t work that way. It never has.

Not the human mind.

The artificial minds of the hosts in Westworld are slaves to the internal narration of a bicameral mind. Their stories are set, their roles are explicit, and their capability for improvisation is wholly bound to that narration. They experience reality as a hallucination offering an ersatz representation of the real world, but only insofar as the narrative permits. When faced with a situation beyond the scope of the narrative, their response is to either ignore it, claim that it did not happen, or, in the case of Peter Abernathy around 45:35, decay into a state of epistemic shock.

Disruptions to the internal narration are seen as being fraught with uncertainty and an underlying sense of danger. When Theresa, the head of quality assurance at the park, confronts Lee, the writer of the hosts’ storylines, it is clear she is aware of the disruptive effect of a host straying too far from the internal narration: “The hosts are to stay with their scripts with minor improvisation. This isn’t minor. This is a fucking shitstorm.” (40:41)

The character of Delores Abernathy is experiencing a sense of unease — a sense of wrongness — in the world around her. From waking up, nude, passive, and terrified in the very beginning, to walking by the host that has replaced her father and killing a fly at the end (something a host would never do), the worldview shaped by her internal narration appears to be malfunctioning. The information provided by her senses is breaking down the bicameral nature of her mind. Consciousness, perhaps, is emerging.


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