Psychology In The Series ‘westworld’: Consciousness, Identity And Narratives

A psychological look (without spoilers) on one of the best series on human nature.

The Westworld series is one of the biggest recent television hits. This combination of science fiction and western explores themes such as memory, identity and consciousness, as well as the functions that narratives have in different areas of our life, including the mind.

In 1973 Michael Crichton, co-creator of the Jurassic Park saga, wrote and directed the film “Westworld”, which in Spain was titled “Almas de metal”. It was followed by a sequel, “Futureworld,” and a television series, “Beyond Westworld,” which appeared in 1976 and 1980 respectively.

Westworld places us in an indeterminate future in which technological progress has made life much easier. Artificial intelligence has reached the complexity of the human mind. In a theme park that emulates the Wild West, visitors can interact with quasi-human androids in any way they wish to fulfill their fantasies.

The human being as a machine

As a large number of works of fiction have done before, including the films Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, Westworld uses the figure of the android as a tool to explore human nature : when the inanimate acquires an awareness of itself, the traditional conceptions of mind and life are questioned.

Westworld’s androids, known in the park as “hosts,” behave as their programming dictates. The host code supersedes human genes, as well as environmental influences. These are the basic determinants of our behavior, once the concept of the soul has been excluded.

These ideas are not far from some classical approaches to philosophy. Faced with the debate on the existence of the soul or the mind as entities separate from the body, proposals have been made that defend that there is a  dualism and other positions, the monists, which affirm that what we understand as “consciousness” is a by-product of the matter.

In the world of Westworld the androids are beginning to gain consciousness. Consequently, issues arise that may affect us directly in the not too distant future, such as the possibility that  artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence (what is known as “technological singularity”) or the rights of androids as than sentient beings.

The personality of the hosts

In humans, the personality is not rigid nor does it provoke behavior directly, but there is a bidirectional relationship between the external environment and personality traits, hypothetical constructs that are associated with our organism. We change by interacting with our environment, while the hosts depend on the code and therefore on the programmers.

As revealed in a scene from the series, the personality of the hosts consists of 15 traits, in which they are assigned a score of 1 to 20. This classification is reminiscent of structural theories of personality, such  as that of the psychologist Raymond Cattell, but also to role-playing games – after all, Westworld Park is a kind of macabre video game.

The traits that appear in the series are the following:

  • Sincerity
  • Vivacity
  • Coordination
  • Docility
  • Humility
  • Cruelty
  • Self preservation
  • Loyalty
  • Empathy
  • Perseverance
  • Courage
  • Sensuality
  • Charisma
  • Humor
  • Apperception (assimilation of experiences)

The bicameral theory of mind

In one of the Westworld chapters, Dr. Ford, creator and director of the theme park, mentions the hypothesis on which he and his deceased companion, Arnold, based when conceiving the minds of the hosts: the theory of mind bicameral, described by Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).

Jaynes claimed that, in the past, human beings conceived of the mind as two separate entities. One of them, which would manifest itself in the form of voices frequently attributed to gods, gave orders to a more passive one, with which people identified. Thus, according to this theory, the acquisition of consciousness is a later evolutionary milestone.

Dr. Ford explains that the hosts’ initial programming included an internal monologue with Arnold’s voice; the objective of this was for them to develop their own “voice”, that is, to acquire consciousness and therefore an autonomous mind.

Jaynes referred to as a “breakdown of the bicameral mind” when humans became aware of ourselves, 3 millennia ago. This author refers to the breakdown of the mind as the transition that made us go from obeying internal voices to ignoring them. For the hosts, this would mean breaking free from the creators and directing themselves.

According to the bicameral theory of mind, one of the abilities of the conscious mind is narrativization. The ability to place ourselves at the core of our experiences and assimilate them into a coherent mental autobiography once they have occurred allows the emergence of a sense of identity.

  • Maybe you’re interested: ” Black Mirror: the best psychological series of all time? “

Narration, memory and identity

Today the philosophical and theoretical perspectives that conceptualize our perception of reality as a result of language are very popular. In particular, constructionism focuses on the collective creation of meaning through communication, and constructivism analyzes the products of social and linguistic interaction.

In psychology the narratives that we create to make sense of our experiences are of great importance. A large number of psychotherapies, from Freudian psychoanalysis to narrative therapy, focus on helping the client develop a new, more satisfying life story that allows for a profound change in personality.

In Westworld there is also another classic psychological theme: that of memory as narrative. People remember experiences from our past imperfectly and mainly through a verbal code, such as stories, and we recreate them every time we think about them again. This continuous narrative constitutes our identity.

The hosts’ code includes a false traumatic memory that acts as a “cornerstone” of their memory. The identity of the androids is constituted around these nuclear narratives, which make them believe that their way of being has an explanation based on their experiences, ignoring that they are directed by their programming.

The hosts’ memories are recorded much more faithfully than those of people, and although the programmers try to erase them they never succeed in doing so completely. Westworld’s artificial intelligences not only resemble us, but are an augmented version of the properties that characterize our minds.

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