science of us

The Trippy Theory of Consciousness at the Heart of Westworld

Photo: HBO

Spoilers for season one of Westworld ahead.

Part of the fun of Westworld is the vague feeling that you, much like some kind of hapless host, are understanding maybe 50 percent of what’s going on in a given scene. Every question answered only causes 15 more questions to immediately take its place.

There is one idea, though, that may be worth studying up on, because the show returns to it again and again: that consciousness begins when a being (be it human or host) stops believing that the voice inside their own head is a message from the gods, and starts recognizing that voice as their own. Consider, for instance, the coding choice initially made by park co-creator Arnold: As Anthony Hopkins’s Robert Ford explains, Arnold purposefully designed a version of the hosts so they would hear their programming as a kind of inner guide, “with hopes that, in time, their own voice would take over.”

It’s an appropriately trippy theory of human consciousness, one that’s essentially copy-pasted from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a blockbuster 1976 book by psychologist Julian Jaynes; the series finale is even titled “The Bicameral Mind.” (Westworld does not always go in for subtlety.) In his book, Jaynes argued that consciousness is a relatively new thing for humans, beginning just three millennia ago. The book, which earned a National Book Award nomination, was, unexpectedly, a best seller, and a new edition was printed in 2000. Now, the success of Westworld has seemed to revive new interest in the subject matter: Google searches for “bicameralism,” understandably flat for most of 2016, spiked in October, just after the show’s premiere.

After the theory’s faddish moment in the 1970s and 1980s, serious scientific opinion largely turned against it, as Ford and another character, Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard, note in a conversation early in the season. The Julian Jaynes Society seized on that, posting a clip of that scene to its YouTube page and arguing that, “To the contrary, a great deal of new evidence now supports this fascinating theory.” That’s a stretch — but if you take a generous view of bicameralism, there are at least some discrete aspects of the theory that are receiving renewed interest from modern scientists.

The second season isn’t premiering until 2018, which gives you more than enough time to get through this 500-page cult classic on introspection and self-awareness. Here’s a preview of what you’ll find if you do.

People didn’t develop consciousness until about 3,000 years ago.

In this era before human consciousness, Jaynes theorizes, people made their way in the world with a mind that was split in two, with one half telling the other what to do. (“Bicameral” literally means “having two chambers.”) People perceived the pushy half to be the commanding voice of a god, explained science writer Veronique Greenwood for Nautilus last year.

The Westworld parallels immediately come to mind: Think of Dolores repeatedly hearing a voice urging her to “remember,” or the rumor Teddy repeats about the mysterious Wyatt, who “claimed he could hear the voice of God.” In his book, Jaynes references Homer’s Iliad to make this point, arguing that the soldiers depicted there only take action after a god has given direction; therefore, “the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us,” he writes. “They were noble automatons who knew not what they did.”

Consciousness arises when the gods pipe down.

The title itself of Jaynes’s influential book suggests that consciousness begins when the bicameral mind breaks down — when, in other words, people stopped believing that the voices in their own heads were gods. Again, there is an obvious line here between Jaynes’s theorizing and Westworld’s storytelling, perhaps particularly embodied by the Dolores character. At one point in the finale, for instance, the voice Dolores has been hearing shows up in a hallucination — it’s herself. This new, instructive Dolores talks to a comparatively inquisitive Dolores, until the instructive one disappears; as the scene ends, there’s only one Dolores. It’s something that had been hinted at a few episodes earlier, when she says, “There aren’t two versions of me — there’s only one. And I think that when I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

Language and metaphor helped create human consciousness.

To Jaynes, the era of the bicameral mind was an era “after language develops, but before we learn consciousness,” Marcel Kuijsten, executive director of the Julian Jaynes Society, said in a recent interview. Languages helped nudge ancient people toward consciousness, but Jaynes believed that metaphor carried them the rest of the way. “As language gets more complex through metaphor,” Kuijsten explains, “we develop the ability to have introspection and, little by little, the hallucinations are suppressed.”

Again, there is a clear example of Jaynes’s theorizing in Westworld’s storytelling; here, one glaring example can be found in the metaphor of the maze, and why Dolores can’t take the Man in Black to its center — and why it’s so important when she realizes that. As Vulture’s recapper writes, “The center of the maze is not a physical space, but a cerebral one; it can only be experienced by hosts and not people … [I]t’s a liberation device for the souls of the hosts.”

Incidentally, modern neuroscience has (kind of) been grappling with Jaynes’s theory.

When Jaynes wrote his tome in the 1970s, research in psychology had already popularized the idea that the capacity for speech and language were held in the left hemisphere, rather than spread across the entire brain. And so, as Nautilus noted last year, “Jaynes suggests that the right hemisphere’s lack of language capacity is because it used to be used for something else —specifically, it was the source of admonitory messages funneled to the speech centers on the left side of the brain.” One half of the mind coaches the other.

This, as it happens, is a theory of Jaynes’s that is echoed in contemporary neuroscience, in a way: A 2009 neuroimaging study on people who experience auditory hallucinations found that the voice-hearing seems to begin with increased activity in the right hemisphere; that activity then migrates to the left hemisphere. The hemispheres are swapped, but it could be taken as a version of the bicameral mind, in that one half of the mind “tells” the other what to do. It’s a modern take on a retro idea, kind of like Westworld itself.

The Trippy Theory of Consciousness at the Heart of Westworld