This is a paper I recently presented at the AAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. It is a kind of thought experiment on the connections between our history as a species, the evolution of our brain vis-a-vis society and culture, the rise in post-secularist discourse, and the concept of wonder. Enjoy!
Virginia Woolf once quipped that ''On or about December 1910 human character changed''. Not to be outdone, Michel Foucault argued that ‘man’ as a concept did not even exist before the nineteenth century. But the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes bested both Woolf and Foucault. In his 1976 The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes claimed that up until the late second millennium B.C., humans actually had no subjectivity whatsoever. Prior to that point, said Jaynes, “[…] human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man.”1 This was the bicameral mind. And that mind was itself encased in a bicameral brain. From their throne room in the right hemisphere, the omniscient gods issued directives that were received as ‘hallucinations’ by the humbly obedient left hemisphere man.
In relatively small groups, this bicameral division of labor served the human quite well. But it ultimately could not withstand the drastic geological and civilizational changes of the late second millennium B.C. Jaynes explains it this way:
The loosening of the god-man partnership perhaps by [inter-group] trade and certainly by writing was the background of what happened. But the immediate and precipitate cause of the breakdown of the bicameral mind, […] between hallucinated voice and automaton action, was that in social chaos the gods could not tell you what to do.2
While this is a fascinating as well as controversial thesis, I do not want to argue for or against its merits here.
Instead, I want to use Jaynes as both background and launching pad for a wild speculation of my own. In particular, I want to suggest that there is a strong correlation between the contemporary interest in neuroscience and the rise of post-secularist discussion. I flesh this out by first considering post-secularism as an historical phenomenon. I then argue that its existence may be a sign that the bicameral mind is slowly recovering rather than irretrievably receding. In order to bolster this claim, I turn to modern neuroscience, and pay special attention to its findings on hemispheric specialization. I go on to suggest that it might also be helpful to see both neuroscience and post-secularism in metaphorical terms. Combined, I believe they evidence an awakening of the Western world to its own anosognosia, a curious neurological condition that is characterized by a kind of ‘dual paralysis’. Along the way, I also propose that the neuroscientist David Eagleman and the philosopher Catherine Malabou are unwitting ‘prophets’ whose work directly and indirectly speaks to this psycho-cultural shift.
Jurgen Habermas has made the obvious observation that in order for any society to be considered ‘post-secular’ it needs at some point to have actually been ‘secular’. He suggests, then, that the term can only rightfully be applied “to the affluent societies of Europe or countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where people’s religious ties have steadily lapsed […].”3 He adds that in post-secular societies, “religion maintains a public influence and relevance, while the secularistic certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernization is losing ground.”4 The Australian political scientist Kristina Stoeckl captures another defining feature of post-secularism when she argues that it should be understood as “a condition of conscious […] co-existence of religious and secular worldviews.”5
The bottom line is that such societies, without reverting to or relying on one or another played out metanarrative, are challenged to find some way to maintain civility in the face of competing and coexisting worldviews.
And it is in this picture of the internally conflicted post-secular society that I think one can detect the shadow of the besieged bicameral mind. Jaynes chalked the breakdown of that mind up to “the intermingling of peoples from different nations, [and] different gods.”6 Perhaps Habermas suspects this ancestral presence when he urges that “[…] the democratic state must not pre-emptively reduce the polyphonic complexity of the diverse public voices” of the post-secular society. The successful management of that “polyphonic complexity” is the very problem with which bicameral man ultimately could not deal.
But rather than coming to the end of the bicameral line, as Jaynes prophesied we would be doing at the close of the twentieth century,7 post-secularism may indicate that we are instead closing the bicameral circle. Perhaps we are not, in other words, finally cementing our status as self-contained atoms in the void. Rather, post-secularism might be a sign that we are recognizing, among other things, that the repressed religious or ‘god’ question requires some serious attention or revisiting. Signs of this bicameral circularity can be found, I believe, in modern neuroscience. Stoeckl once described post-secularism as a “condition of permanent tension,” and as we will see, she may just as well have said this of the human brain.
According to the neuroscientist David Eagleman, for example, the brain is in a sort of constant ‘post-secular’ state. In fact, he offers a relevant political analogy that we might consider. “Brains are like representative democracies,” he says, “They are built up of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices.”8 He goes on to suggest that “the brain is best understood as a team of rivals [that] typically have the same goal – success […] but they often have different ways of going about it.”9 Eagleman then likens the competing factions of the brain to liberals and conservatives who respectively “believe they know the right way to solve problems.”10 The parallel between the human brain and democracies seems rather clear cut. But the notion that I am proposing - that the brain is inherently ‘post-secular’ - is maybe not so obvious.
Here we need to turn to another aspect of Eagleman’s analysis. His observation that the two ‘dominant parties’ in the brain’s team of rivals are its rational and emotional systems is especially important. As he puts it, “[…] rational cognition involves external events, while emotion involves your internal state.”11 For Eagleman, the conflict between these two systems is best illustrated by that tired old philosophical problem known as the trolley dilemma.
In a nutshell, brain studies reveal that when actual contact is made with the person or persons who will be directly affected by one's decisions, the inner-focused, emotional system of the decider’s brain becomes an active part of the process. And when such activation occurs, the decider is far less likely to throw another, now quite specific human being or group of beings ‘under the trolley’. But the reverse is true when the decision is based only upon mathematical or utilitarian terms. In such cases, the outer-focused, rational system of the brain dominates and its strict cost-benefit analysis generally results in a higher degree of remorseless, human ‘roadkill’.
If you are like me, you will find these neuroscientific conclusions intuitive and unsurprising. But I find another of Eagleman’s insights a bit more compelling. He says that
The emotional systems are evolutionarily old, […] while the development of the rational system is more recent. But […] the novelty of the rational system does not necessarily indicate that it is, by itself, superior. Societies would not be better off if everyone were like Mr. Spock, all rationality and no emotion. Instead, a balance – a teaming up of rivals – is optimal for brains.12
While I recognize that the brain functions as a complex whole and that separating the emotional from the rational systems is somewhat arbitrary, I still think that this rough and ready division is a useful heuristic. Equally useful is the common linkage of emotionality with the right side of the brain and rationality with the left, again with the understanding that this division is not in actuality so rigid.
What follows from all of this is an idea that seems as painfully obvious as the hole in Phineas Gage’s unfortunate skull. I propose that the bicameral breakdown, the relatively recent evolution of the human brain’s rational system, and the dawning awareness of the post-secular condition, when seen together, expose an underlying impairment of what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has called the ‘extended consciousness.’
The Extended Consciousness and Anosognosia
The extended consciousness is the consciousness you have of yourself as a full human being, bodily, psychologically, and historically. Your extended consciousness is also what enables the creation and maintenance of what Damasio calls a robust ‘autobiographical self’. The autobiographical self is simply the extended consciousness outfitted with a narrative structure.
But the extended consciousness is not just a foundation for selfhood. Just as importantly, it provides the framework upon which intelligent behavior can manifest. Damasio explains that
Extended consciousness has to do with making the organism aware of the largest possible compass of knowledge, while intelligence pertains to the ability to manipulate knowledge so successfully that novel responses can be planned and delivered. […] Extended consciousness is a prerequisite of intelligence […].”13
He says furthermore that organisms having extended consciousness strongly exhibit such intelligence when they ‘make sense’, and adds that “what a person does must make sense not just in immediate terms but in terms of large scale contexts.”14 No doubt we are each perpetually challenged in our personal lives to rise to this level of intelligibility. But the situation becomes ever graver when it is considered collectively, that is, in “large scale contexts.”
And here we come to the question of impairment. I suggested earlier that the West, broadly speaking, is suffering from collective anosognosia. Anosognosia is a neurological debility that directly affects very intimate aspects of the extended consciousness. In individual cases of anosognosia, the person is typically paralyzed in one or more areas on the left side of his body. But the problem goes deeper than this. The anosognosic is also incapable of recognizing that he is suffering from such paralysis. Even after being shown evidence, the anosognosic will nonetheless forget, deny, or otherwise exhibit an alarming unconcern about his condition, so alienated is he from the facts of his psychophysical status. Anosognosics are thus in a unique state of ‘dual paralysis’.
Even more fascinating is the fact that anosognosia is caused not by general trauma to the brain, but rather by damage to the right-hemisphere alone. Reaching back into our Jaynesian bicameral past, we should remember that it is this hemisphere that was, and I suggest in many ways still is, the abode of the ‘gods’. Of course, I am not implying anything as simplistic as the idea that the right hemisphere is the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ hemisphere. I recognize, as I said earlier, that human brains are complex organisms that contain multiple, interactive subsystems.
Still, the neuroscientific evidence does show that the right hemisphere specializes in emotional regulation, intuition, and creative thinking. It likewise excels in gestalt apprehension and in accurately perceiving (though not necessarily explaining) higher level complex patterns, especially those that incorporate the passage of time. The ‘religious’ impulse, broadly speaking, might be understood as the impulse to discern the ‘ultimate’ complex pattern, namely, the one within which the mystery of existence itself lies. Not only are the artist, philosopher, and theologian often driven mad by this ‘religious’ impulse, but so, too, is the scientist.
Having said this, it seems logical that the discernment of such an ‘ultimate pattern’ would necessarily be made easier in the presence of both a healthy and fully functioning right hemisphere, or emotional and intuitive subsystem, as well as a stable and sympathetic left hemisphere, or rational subsystem. Yet in the estimation of some, including myself, not only does our collective right-brain seem to be suffering from decay, neglect, and/or flat-out rejection, so too does our rational left-brain appear to be compromised by a combination of overwork and underdevelopment.
We often appear, for example, to be continually ‘locked-up’ when it comes to finding creative, intuitively resonant, and emotionally wise solutions to important societal problems. According to Jaynes, this is perhaps because the ‘light’ in our right-brain has been dimmed by ‘head trauma’ dating back to the late second millennium B.C. Whatever the cause, we also seem deeply unaware of or in profound denial that such an ‘injury’ might even exist. Instead, our confabulating left-brain invents stories of Enlightenment triumphalism and technological progress as a way of ‘rationalizing’ an obviously maladaptive condition. We are thus like the anosognosic who continues to try his paralyzed hand at Ping-Pong and, failing repeatedly in this effort, nonetheless congratulates his opponent on a tough match, believing all the while that he has emerged victorious.
All of this is to say that a slow process of right-brain rigor mortis and left-brain overheating, or what when combined Jaynes has referred to as the “profaning of our species,”15 has resulted in the paralysis of our wisdom. Though not limited to it, such wisdom is rooted in the right-brain’s specialized ability to directly apprehend complex patterns over time. While that innate faculty has perhaps been stunted, in its place has arisen the ever-growing skill set of what the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has called the left-brain ‘interpreter’.
This rationally driven, analytical, ‘isolationist’ is the ‘new kid on the block’ of conscious understanding. His powers of description are definitely impressive, but I believe that they have yet to fully mature. In fact, though the syntactically sharp left-brain interpreter excels, among other things, at inventive story-telling, Gazzaniga cautions that those ‘gist-driven’ tales are not necessarily always accurate or meaningful. He says, for example, that
It is the left hemisphere that engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, that tries to fit everything into a story and put it into a context. It seems that it is driven to hypothesize about the structure of the world even in the face of evidence that no pattern exists. It persists in this endeavor even when it is sometimes detrimental to performance.16
He goes on to say that, contrary to common belief, the right-brain is not the fanciful flake that it has often been made out to be. He argues instead that when it comes to perceiving things, “the right brain does not infer the gist of the story; it is very literal and doesn’t include anything that wasn’t there originally.”17 Most importantly, the elaborate explanatory schemas of the interpreter strongly depend upon the patterns that are recognized by the right hemisphere. Seen through the lens of post-secularism, perhaps we could say that our analytical left brain is slowly becoming aware that it cannot accurately describe reality without the aid of the holistic and literal pattern-recognition that is the specialty of the ‘religiously open’ right brain.
Going further, we could also say that post-secularism can be seen as an ‘awakening’ of the culture to its own anosognosia and that modern neuroscientific conversation regarding hemispheric brain specialization is symptomatic of this awakening. On a hopeful note, I think we might also be being called to recognize our innate post-secular constitution and, most importantly, to realize our concomitant potential for religious and rational, as well as social and political, ‘ambidexterity’. But in order for that potential to be actualized, I think we’ll need to rediscover or reconnect to the most critical element of our ancient bicamerality, namely the capacity for wonder.
After all, bicameral man was constitutionally incapable of foreclosing on the possibility that he might be taken by surprise. His entire psychic life was characterized by continuous episodes of the unexpected and unbidden, after all. As luck would have it, the philosopher Catherine Malabou, who I will discuss next, has explored in some depth the philosophical import of wonder and its connection to the right side of the brain.
Malabou and Wonder
Among other things, Malabou suggests that when one spends time surveying our cerebral landscapes, one comes away with a renewed respect for the importance of wonder in constructing and supporting human selfhood. She says that,
Because it is deeply linked with the ability to be surprised or raptured, wonder appears to be the emotional consequence of alterity into the soul. In that sense, wonder may be seen as the affect of difference, the soul’s realization that the self is not alone.18
The connection between Malabou’s notion of wonder and the basic character of the bicameral mind should be obvious. The bicameral mind was nothing if not a structural analog of wonder itself.
And this leads me back to my assertion of collective anosognosia. According to Jaynes, we have been struggling over the last three millennia with the evacuation of the gods from our consciousness and the concomitant “profaning of our species.” Now when something becomes profane, it becomes common or uninteresting. The profane does not surprise or inspire. The profane likewise disavows alterity and repudiates wonder. A profane brain is thus a doubly paralytic brain. On one hand, it has lost its ability to be surprised. On the other, it seems neither to notice nor care that this faculty has disappeared. The profane brain is therefore the un-wondering, anosognosic brain.
In fact, Damasio has himself recognized and diagnosed this problem. He has suggested, for example, “[…] that the loss of wonder is the emotional and libidinal disease of our time.”19 He recognizes further that wonder is especially, almost rheostatically, sensitive to emotional health. As Malabou plainly puts it, when there is serious damage to the emotional, ride side of the brain, “Surprise, interest in novelty, amazement, [and] astonishment just disappear.”20 But I think Malabou’s most important statement is that wonder “[…] is the ideal way to regard others because it is prior to judgment and thus free of prejudice.”21 As I speculated earlier, the post-secular opening to ‘the other’ could be a tentative sign that such wonder is making its re-entrance into our collective consciousness.
Whether or not this is the case, the novelty of post-secularism should not be dismissed. We should especially recognize that, as with all novelties, it comes freighted with new problems as well as unique possibilities. What I have tried to suggest in this paper is that we all might benefit from meditating on the fact that we are members of a collective, of a culture and of a species, and that we thus share, among other things, a very long history. An important part of that history is the evolution and development of the human brain, which we likewise have in common. In thinking about the current post-secular situation, then, we might do well to consider whether the metaphor of psychocultural anosognosia can help us reimagine or redescribe our current condition. We might also explore the possibility that it is time for us all to regain or rebuild a sense of wonder about ourselves, our world, and most importantly, about one another.
1 Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976), 84.
2 Jaynes, 209.
4 Jürgen Habermas, “A ‘post-secular’ society – what does that mean?”,
5 Kristina Stoeckl, “Defining the Postsecular,” http://synergia-isa.ru/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/stoeckl_en.pdf, accessed July 27, 2015.
6 Jaynes, 217.
7 Jaynes, 437.
8 David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of Brains (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 107.
9 Eagleman, 109.
10 Eagleman, 109.
11 Eagleman, 111.
12 Eagleman, 114.
13 Damasio, 199.
14 Damasio, 201.
15 Jaynes, 437.
16 Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 85.
17 Gazzaniga, 87.
18 Johnston and Malabou, 10.
19 Johnston and Malabou, 11.
20 Johnston and Malabou, 11.
21 Johnston and Malabou, 18.