Life before consciousness?

I continue my reading of “The User Illusion,” and arrive at an interesting chapter where the book reports on the work of Julian Jaynes, of Princeton, who argues that consciousness is a relatively new evolution in human beings. Man had no consciousness as recently as 3000 years ago. Jaynes expresses the crux of this idea as follows:

“If our reasonings have been correct, it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of man who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but who were not conscious at all.”

The modern mind reels at the suggestion. How can a person make their way through life without consciousness? But think of it this way: you’re walking on your way to the store. You navigate down meandering roads, pause for traffic and eventually arrive at your destination. But, as you travel, you’re not thinking about how you get to the store — you’re thinking about the TV show you saw last night, the book you’re reading, whether or not your girlfriend is sleeping with your best friend. Extract all that abstract thought, and you have the non-conscious experience — the raw experience of navigating to the store without really thinking about it. Humans of 3000 years ago could have accomplished quite a bit in the realms of agriculture, commerce and politics, without having consciousness.

When you think about it, we see all sorts of perfectly functional, presumably non-conscious behavior in the animal kingdom. We certainly don’t think ants are conscious, but they seem to get around just fine. The same could be said about snakes, fish, birds etc. (There’s a bit of a debate right now as to whether certain apes have consciousness.)

There’s one other example of existence without consciousness that can be considered. Yourself, as an infant. “The User Illusion” summarizes the views of psychoanalyst Donald Winick at, stating…

… the infant has no sense of itself… the infant exists only together with the mother or other people. The notion of an “I,” an identity, does not appear until the third year of life. The original state of the infant is an experience of non-separation, non-identity.

I’ve read some theories that autistics suffer from an inability to define their “I.” They have trouble understanding where they end, and the rest of the world begins, and have trouble understanding that there are other “I’s” out there with their own interests and motivations.

3 Responses to “Life before consciousness?”


  1. Focus on days gone past at My So-Called Penis

    [...] before. There’s a particular historian who’s argued that as recently as 3000 years ago, the average man did not have consciousness. This seems hard to fathom. After all, these people had created some technology and culture and how [...]

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