The collective unconsciousness
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
Back in 1976, Julian Jaynes issued a tome based on the idea that the brain once operated as two separate units, what he called the bicameral mind (two houses), and that as man evolved, these two separate units began to work together, creating what we now think of as consciousness, or the ability to self-reflect and to see ourselves as part of a larger whole (Jaynes, 2003). More recently, Eckhart Tolle posited in A New Earth that our illusory sense of self (ego) is a major dysfunction in the human race but that there is still hope that we can evolve beyond the self-centered thinking that causes us all so much pain (Tolle, 2005).
These two seemingly unrelated theses have one thing in common – the evolution of consciousness. Jaynes sees it as a process mostly complete, whereas Tolle sees it as ongoing. In my own search to bring some sense to this current mess we seem to be in, I can’t help but notice a certain pattern in the people who idolize Trump and who, by and large, seem to be racist, homophobic, often misogynistic, and paternalistic, and who are quick to dismiss their deity’s faults as well as quick to criticize what they see as opposition. In addition, this self-selecting group seems to be able to ignore facts and science and even plain logic, in favor of aggrandized statements (we have a plan, a beautiful plan).
I have a theory.
If Jaynes is right, and our minds were once two separate entities, one that dealt with “speaking” and the other with “listening”, then it is possible that the wide array of people who follow Trump blindly are not fully conscious in the way that we might define modern consciousness. In other words, they are unable to self-reflect. Not only that, but their bicameral minds seek verbal input from an authority figure, and are not able to question, reflect, and think critically. This may sound like a harsh conclusion, because what I am saying, in essence, is that the Trump “followers” are not following reason and logic, but rather are following authority, and are perhaps genetically unable to change.
This is potentially why arguing with a Trump sycophant is useless.
In my own family, I see an array of this very dynamic. I have a sister with a degree in biology who is a staunch Trump supporter. A republican brother who is not much of a Trump fan, and a democratic sister who seems to take no particular position, perhaps out of fear. My mother was a democrat and my father was a republican. I am a staunch democrat, and yet I feel the effects of my upbringing in rural America tugging at me constantly. Despite the influence of my mostly republican roots, there is no way I can watch the events of the Trump presidency unfolding without staring in disbelief at the sheer lunacy of it all.
And so, I conclude that we have run aground in a strange confluence of bicameralism and narcissism. The bicameralists feel adrift in a society where things are not black and white, a society that depends on self-reflection and interdependence. They seek a strong leader who “tells it like it is” which is not based in fact, but is unequivocal. They cannot deal with the gray areas, and thus cannot compromise, cannot forgive (picketing outside of Hillary Clinton’s house in 2020 shouting, “Lock her up!”), and cannot tolerate, much less accept. For them, there can only be one truth, not many.
Enter the extreme bicameral narcissist. A perfect storm of self-aggrandizement created by a silver-spoon upbringing and whatever other external and internal forces create people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
People with NPD are described by others as arrogant, conceited, self-centered and overly-confident. They see themselves as superior to others and often insist on possessing items that reflect a successful lifestyle, for example, needing to have “the best” of everything. Regardless of their over-inflated self-image, they are dependent on constant praise, admiration and attention in order to reinforce their self-esteem. Because they are so dependent on others for their self-esteem, individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are very sensitive to criticism. They usually respond to perceived criticism, no matter how slight, as a personal attack.
The DSM-IV identifies the following symptoms of NPD:
· An exaggerated sense of one’s own abilities and achievements.
· A constant need for attention, affirmation and praise.
· A belief that he or she is unique or “special” and should only associate with other people of the same status.
· Persistent fantasies about attaining success and power.
· Exploiting other people for personal gain.
· A sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment.
· A preoccupation with power or success.
· Feeling envious of others, or believing that others are envious of him or her.
· A lack of empathy for others.
So, we find ourselves in a conflict in this nation between women and men who must follow a strong paternal figure, and women and men who long for honor, tolerance, acceptance, peace, and thoughtfulness.
This is the only paradigm that I have been able to apply so far to explain this radical split in our nation. I suppose it is no more fair to judge the bicameralists on their inability to reflect than it is to judge a blind person on the inability to see, and it may be that in the future, I am on the wrong side of history here, and that the Trump supporters were right to be fearful of immigrants, people of color, Muslims, the LBGTQIA+ community, liberals, global trade, Democrats, women in power, and that the right thing to do was and is to suppress those who think differently. Possible. I hope that is not the case, but in any event, we are living right now in the turmoil, and it keeps me awake at night.
I do feel a spark of hope. After teaching four years in the Washington State Correctional system and watching the effects of education, from GED to college classes, on incarcerated students, and have taught creative problem solving and critical thinking for more than a decade as a college professor, I do think the human mind can evolve from narrow, bicameral thinking to a broader, more thoughtful and accepting mode, even to the point of accepting the paradox that is life in this universe, where the infinitely small co-exists with the infinitely large.
Jaynes might say that the human race has come a long way from the days when people could not reflect upon themselves and their own actions. Tolle would probably say we have a long, long way to go.
Jaynes, J. (2003). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Tolle, E. (2005). A new earth: Awakening to your life's purpose. London: Michael Joseph.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV. (2000). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Illustration: Alberto Ruggieri | Credit: Getty Images/Illustration Works
Cooke, J. (2014). Inside job. Walla Walla, WA: Cannon Publishing Group. Link to Amazon page