The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind

By Neil Philip

One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness

Wednesday, 7 February 2018


In 1734, in his Principles of a New Science, Giambattista Vico launched the search for a universal “language of the mind”. This quest was pursued in the 20th century by scholars of linguistics, such as Noam Chomsky. When I conceived this book, my idea of myth as “the hidden matrix” of the human mind was consciously modelled on Chomsky’s notion of universal grammar, an inbuilt linguistic instinct shared by all humanity.

Daniel Everett’s 2008 account of a remote Amazonian tribe, the Pirahãs, (Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes) has thrown Chomsky’s theories into doubt, by demonstrating that the Pirahã language lacks recursion (the ability to fold one sentence, grammatically, into another), which Chomsky had identified as the key component of human language and linguistic creativity.

Whether or not this fatally compromises the whole idea of universal grammar, Everett’s revelation that the Pirahãs are a people without myths certainly shook my notion of the primacy of story and the hidden matrix. Here is a culture seemingly immune to myths, or fiction of any kind. Asked what came first, the Pirahãs had no sacred stories about cosmic eggs or primal oceans. Pressed, the best they could come up with was “bananas”.The Pirahãs have no concept of a creator. As they have no myths, so they have no religion, and have been steadfastly resistant to generations of Christian missionaries, including Daniel Everett, who was alarmed to find that, instead of converting the Pirahãs, he was steadily losing his own faith.

This resistance to the idea of a god or gods, and lack of interest in ideas of creation and the cosmos must in some way be connected to, or derive from, or be the reason for, the peculiarities and limitations of the Pirahã language, which is an isolate, seemingly unrelated to any other human tongue. This language has not developed recursion, which essentially enables us to express two ideas at once, and its speakers have not developed myths, which can be seen as ways of mediating between two opposite notions.

I had thought, and still think, that telling and listening to stories was one of the essential attributes that define our humanity. It may be that a clue to their aversion to fiction lies in the Pirahãs’ reluctance to experience deep sleep; instead they nap from fifteen minutes to two hours at a time, all through the day and night. The likely result of this is that they spend much more time than most other human beings in the REM dreaming stage of sleep, which may heighten their susceptibility to hallucinatory states, while possibly depriving them of some other element provided by deep sleep that is necessary to the creative imagination.

The Pirahãs’ lack of any creation or foundation myths is very striking and unusual, but their perception of a spirit world that interrelates with the human one, but is not inhabited by gods, is not. They do believe in spirits, dividing the entities that inhabit their world into two categories: xíbiisi (entities that have blood, such as the Pirahãs themselves, or the animals of the forest), and xíbiisihiaba (entities without blood, the spirits). They see these spirits in their mind, and converse with them. Any Pirahã male may be possessed by a spirit called a kaoáíbógí (“fast mouth”) which speaks through him. These spirit voices offer advice and guidance to the villagers. 

While the Pirahãs are an extreme, and probably unique case, in their insistence that narratives must be completely factual, it is worth noting that both encounters with spirits and what happens in their own dreams count as fact, not fiction. The Pirahãs are an eloquent demonstration that human beings can live happily without myths and folktales, but I believe that their privileging of dream life as equal to waking life, and their strong mental links to the spirit world, are both indicators of a kind of mythological thinking.

Last year Daniel Everett published a new book, How Language Began, which I have ordered but not yet read. No doubt he will shed more light on the mystery of the tribe who don't tell stories.

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