February 28, 2013

Breast modesty and the breakdown of the bicameral mind

From a brief post in Slate on when bare breasts became taboo in Western culture:

Women are displayed with exposed breasts in Minoan artwork from 1500 B.C. Some historians believe that these ancient women went topless only during religious rituals—bare-breasted, buxom goddesses have been worshiped since the dawn of civilization—but some of the artworks depict everyday activities, suggesting that bare breasts may have been commonplace. Just across the Mediterranean, ancient Egyptian women sported elaborate dresses that could either cover the breasts or leave them exposed, depending on the whim of the designer. Over the next few centuries, however, breasts become strictly private parts. Ancient Athenian women were wearing flowing, multilayered robes that concealed the shape of the bosom by the middle of the first millennium B.C. Spartan attire was more risqué, exposing the female thigh, but breasts were always covered.

Covering the breasts suggests a greater sense of self-awareness and perhaps self-consciousness. In many primitive cultures, the breasts are seen as just another utilitarian body part, and women are not self-conscious about them, and men do not make remarks about them, even in a male-only setting. The only universal taboos about body exposure have to do with the genitals and the anus, which unlike the breasts are involved in excretion and intercourse, two of the most obviously shameful and/or private activities.

The fact that Mediterranean peoples before 1000 B.C. resembled primitive cultures, and that they had radically changed toward greater self-awareness by circa 500 B.C., makes me immediately think of Julian Jaynes' ideas about the bicameral mind. He was trying to account for an apparent lack, or at least a very low degree, of self-awareness in civilized people before around 1000 B.C., and their shift toward introspective abilities and self-awareness by around 500 B.C.

His main sources for documenting this are comparing the older Iliad to the younger Odyssey, and the older books of the Old Testament like Amos to the younger ones like Ecclesiastes. In short, characters in the older literature seem to be trapped in concrete awareness of the world around them, with little or no abstraction or introspection, whereas their counterparts in the younger literature can introspect and ponder questions about human nature, divine nature, love, hate, and so on.

Older religious traditions do not assume that a group member could look inside themselves -- they received a message from the gods about what to do, and they obeyed. However, looking inside yourself is the central feature of all of the major world religions and philosophies that were born and began spreading independently all over the Old World during the Axial Age, such as Second Temple-ism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Platonism, and Confucianism.

He also discusses how the Greek language of the Iliad had no abstract mentalistic terms like thought, soul, anger, etc. They only later acquired such abstract meanings, and originally had very concrete sensory meanings like sight, heavy breathing, excitation of the nerves, life-matter, etc. Ethnographers of hunter-gatherers also say that the people they study rarely or never at all hold abstract discussions, even about the everyday world. For example, they don't say "it's a beautiful day," referring to something abstract like "beautiful." They phrase it more concretely, like "it's hot out" or "the sun is shining."

Jaynes' approach is more interesting than comparing different cultures today because he's tracking a change over time within a population. That way we can better see which things are associated with which other things -- if they're tightly related, they'll show similar trends over time. If we just compare different cultures today, it's more difficult to disentangle which differences are related to which others. There are "spurious" correlations that don't reflect a true relationship deep down.

For example, the Bushmen hunter-gatherers speak a language with clicks, whereas no modern language has clicks -- but that could be unrelated to other psychological differences between them and us. Now, if we found out that the Minoans spoke a language with clicks, and that they were lost over time by circa 500 B.C., that would squarely place linguistic clicks within the suite of traits leading from primitive to modern minds.

So, at least to judge from the available record of ancient visual culture, it looks like modesty about the breasts was another piece of the larger shift toward self-awareness that took place during the first millennium B.C. across large swaths of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations. Before, only the most concretely shameful body parts were the targets of taboo-related behavior -- covering the genitals and anus.

As the ancient Greeks came to develop greater introspective and abstract thinking, they probably debated with one another in everyday settings whether or not other body parts ought to be covered. The breasts are not involved in shameful activities per se, just nursing infants, and then only occasionally. But they are a physical difference between the sexes, they begin to develop during puberty, and they're an orifice through which liquid leaves the body.

To all primitive peoples, this strained line of reasoning doesn't occur to them, and even if they're told about the civilized pattern of covering them up, they reject it as a ridiculous and perhaps painful practice. But to people who are becoming more self-aware and abstract in their thinking, the breasts emerge as the next obvious target for body exposure taboos.


  1. Nice work.

    What do you think it is related to? Invention of money?


  2. Jaynes' idea was that the breakdown took place as different ethnic groups ran into each other -- more frequent migrations, and the Others who you ran into were way more different than Us, not like neighboring tribes.

    The invasions / migrations of the "Sea Peoples" that caused the Bronze Age collapse are just one example of the broader pattern in those times and in that region.

    Noticing such incredibly different people, you attributed some essential quality to them that made them so different. But then, if they had essence X, you must have had essence Y. In a homogeneous culture, you never noticed such a strong contrast between yourself and others.

    So now you've begun to develop an ability to look inward and appreciate your self-ness as opposed to being one nearly identical bit of a homogeneous mass.

  3. Thanks. Can you correlate a facial feature(s) with it?


  4. A permanent feature or an emotional expression?

  5. I'd say the lack of kabuki mask features, if they weren't very self-aware. You'd see it most in the eyes -- vacant or glazed, or a thousand-yard stare.

  6. you definitely need to connect with the braintypes.com people. I just asked them what facial feature is assocaited with "Conceptual"(C)function, and they said:

    "Typically, "wide eyes" means more "spacey," and less "hawk eyed." Picture a hawk's eyes, and think of the opposite, where someone's eyes and gaze seem to be someplace else (like when one day-dreams). Remember, too, that this is not a rule across the board, but that the percentage of Conceptuals (particularly dominant Cs) with this characteristic seems to higher than among Empiricals."


  7. I don't want to be annoying, but do you think a permanent feature is associated with self-awareness vs. non-awareness?


  8. That's a good way of putting it -- like their attention is somewhere else, i.e. not egocentrically focused.

    I can't think of any permanent features that go along with self-awareness...

  9. Whoa. Somebody else read that book?

  10. Totally, it should be on everyone's reading list. It was huge in the '80s, but lost out during the shift away from romantic toward rationalistic ideas circa 1990.

  11. I read it recently and have been obsessed with it ever since.

    One of the most interesting points is that the idea that sex is a drive such as hunger than accumulates and needs release, is an effect of self-consciousness. He says that bicamerals didn't think about sex much, and certainly the art of the period isn't sexual at all.

    He says it was the advent of self-awareness that unleashed an era of obsession with sex and all different kind of perversions, i.e. Pompey being covered up with graffiti of dicks.

    I'd love to read more on hunter-gatherer psychology, but most anthropologists are trying to stress how similar all humans are. My experience in different countries tells me that people's way of thinking can change massively between cultures, so hunters's way of thinking must be extremely foreign.

    If you can recommend a good book on the subject I'd appreciate it.

  12. Yeah, it's striking how little Hammurabi's Code mentions sex.


    He's ruling out one thing after another, commanding one type of person or another to be drowned, burned, or exiled.

    Yet nothing about homosexuals, anal sex, group sex, let alone bondage, furries, etc. The sex laws are mostly about the property rights of husbands and fathers (adultery, divorce, marriage) and reputation (slander).

    Incest is the only weird form of sex that's explicitly named and forbidden. That's a universal. Grosser forms of perversion didn't even occur to him. By the time of the Second Temple-ism and after, you hear all these proscriptions against what they do in Sodom and Gomorrah.

    Hammurabi doesn't refer to internal mental states like lust or covetousness -- he only cares if you sleep with a married man's wife. It's about harmful behavior rather than sinful urges.

  13. As for h-g psychology, most of it I've picked up first or second-hand from the ethnographers themselves. I don't think they've ever mentioned it in a book -- not out of PC, but just because it wasn't the main focus. They'll readily agree that h-g's don't use abstract words and stick to the concrete.

    Actually, that comes up sometimes when they mention how hard it is to either translate questions into the local language, and how hard it is to get them to cooperate sometimes. They don't like to answer hypothetical questions because who cares? -- it's irrelevant to here and now.

    "If you were getting married..."

    "But I'm not getting married."

    "I know, but if you were..."

    "Lady, I just told you -- I'm not getting married. Next question."

    "All right, when a man gets married in your group, does he pay the wife's family or does she pay his?"

    "Why didn't you just ask that the first time? The man's family pays the wife's."

  14. I've also heard of hunter-gatherers being less interested in hypotheticals. It could be primarily Piraha I'm thinking off, but James Flynn says rural (or pre-modern) folks generally think less abstractly.

    Do the Old Testament Books of Law really date to the Second Temple? There are prohibitions against things like bestiality, sodomy and (while I don't think it carries penalties) lying with menstruating women. But it is still considered less oriented toward internal states than Christianity. Razib has noted that Christianity (particularly the western, protestant, variety) is philosophical and oriented around orthodoxy, while Islam & Judaism are legalistic and oriented around orthopraxy.

  15. I don't recall off the top of my head when bestiality, sodomy, etc. all get mentioned. The main stories about Sodom and Gomorrah are in Genesis, written during the 6th-5th centuries BC, right as the Second Temple period got going.

    I'd have to read Amos to see if there's anything like that there, but I highly doubt it. That's more about a general decline in worship of Yahweh.

    Judaism hardly exists as a religion anymore, but back in the day, it was more focused on prophecy and ritual. Islam is the only big one that is still that way.

    Christianity's a bit too diverse to put on one side or the other. Mainline Protestants are the ritual-free, right-thinking types. But every rising-crime period sees a religious revival or Great Awakening. Suddenly you're not quizzed about what you believe, but inspected for how you live, and how well you carry out the rituals.

    The extreme of that is the upsurge in cult activity -- they could care less what you think, as long as you donate your labor and outside earnings, dress the prescribed way, follow sexual codes strictly, etc.

  16. I thought cults were into Maoist-style self-criticism sessions to police out any thought-crimes or independent thinking.

  17. That's more of the sectarian activist groups (including the original Maoists). But those people who drank the Kool-Aid weren't into ideology, except vaguely populist. Jim Jones only cared if you were working to keep the compound running, donating most of your outside earnings, sleeping with him if he wanted you to, started whopping it up in the church ceremonies, etc.

    Professing ideas is cheap and unreliable to gauge commitment -- you need costly practices regarding dress, grooming, diet, sex life, labor, and so on.

  18. I'm going into Asperger's mode for a second. I looked up "Big Five Traits by Geography", which you posted here awhile ago.

    The way I figure, Self-Awareness correlates with either Introversion or Openness to Experience("Intuition" in the MBTI system, which I tend to use interchangeably with the Big Five).

    Now, as you know, East Asians generally score high in Introversion but low in Openness to Experience (so high in the MBTI's "Sensing", meaning most Asians are highly in touch with the physical world, but lack imagination). Persians, on the other hand, score high on Extroversion AND high on Openness to Experience/"Intuition". They are less in touch with the physical world than Asians, but more creative, idealistic, and basically smarter.

    (Bear in mind, this survey could just be showing the elites of each cuontry, since they surveyed college students. but I don't think it applies in these two cases).

    Point is: either 1) East Asians lack the bicameral mind; or 2) Persian-pastoralists lack it. I'm actually leaning more towards pastoral people people being less self-aware. Pastoralists generally seem to have been powerful enough to stay independent for most of their respective histories; and even when they were conquered, they were too important and productive to be treated harshly by their conquerors(for instance, the Persians). Or, in the case of the Celts, they gave the occupiers hell and held on to their original personality.

    They refused to become introverted, cautiously watchful, and "watch their step" everywhere they went. Which opens a different can of worms: is self-awareness a sub-dominant trait?

    So basically, I think you can lack self-awareness, but also have superior ability for abstract thought - and the idealism that goes with it.

    What comes to mind is the sort of uncomplicated, "charge forth" that guys like Tom Cruise, Tom Selleck, etc. used to play in the 80s.

    Which, of course, is probably what pastoralist people were/are like...



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