Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Is Sasquatch a Relic of Bicamerality?

Yesterday I was recalling the fact that, purportedly, Native Americans had often spoken of Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot) in a very matter-of-fact way, much like any species of animal or tribe of people. This is cited as evidence that Sasquatch is real, notwithstanding the elusiveness of physical evidence. The way the argument goes is that an imaginary creature of legend would be spoken of differently, in tones of awe and mystery.

I was recalling this in the wake of being reminded about a book I heard of way back in college days but haven't gotten around to reading yet (though I intend to correct that soon now): Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The essential idea is that in ancient times -- before about 1200-1000 B.C.E. in the Near East, and up to more recently in the New World -- people's subjective volitional selves were not integrated with their rational, analytic side, being in different hemispheres of the brain (hence the term "bicameral"). Consequently they lacked self-awareness, and most of the time acted out of pure relexive habit. When faced with a situation of crisis or high stress falling outside what their habits prepared them for, the rational mind would perform an analysis and then verbally instruct the volitional self on what to do. But, since these parts of the mind weren't integrated, this would be experienced not as personal decision-making, but as an auditory hallucination (perhaps sometimes embellished with other sensory modalities) from an invisible entity that would be interpreted as a god or ancestor in accordance with the individual's culture.

A chief piece of evidence cited by Jaynes is the Iliad: in its entire voluminous length, there's not a single description of any character's engaging in inward reflection. Instead, whenever they face a tough choice, a god appears and tells them what to do. Jaynes holds that Homer tells the story this way because that's exactly how people in those days experienced things.

Another story cited in support of this view concerns a man traveling to a Greek city-state who encounters the god Pan on the road and has a conversation with him. Upon arriving he promptly informs the city's senate of Pan's advice, which is heard with complete seriousness and not a hint of skepticism nor suggestion that the man is crazy. And, indeed, in a bicameral world such as Jaynes depicts, one would have had to be some kind of crazy not to believe in gods, when they were a regular part of everyone's personal experience.

I'm no expert on Sasquatch lore, but it seems to me that the casual tone of some accounts is very much like that story about Pan. This matter-of-fact quality could be totally consistent with the lack of evidence for Sasquatch as a physically distinct entity, if what it actually is (or was until some relatively recent past) is a cultural interpretation of a separate module in people's own heads.

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