Review: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

As you can see from his picture, Julian Jaynes was one intense-looking dude. And believe you me, as intense as that stare of his is, so are his ideas.

“Bicameralism” is the term Jaynes coined for the concept which he expounds in this book — namely, that human beings have only had our current form of consciousness for about 3,000 years, and that before then, we actually walked around hearing and obeying god-like voices.

This was, needless to say, something of a controversial idea at the time that Jaynes proposed it (1976)… however, it has in recent years gained some traction as more and more supportive evidence is unearthed.

But maybe I should back up a bit. Just what the fudge is Jaynes talking about? God-like voices? Huh?

Well. Jaynes defines “consciousness” as our ability, as modern humans, to spatialize reality: to make metaphorical spaces in our heads, using connecting analogies to represent things as if they were other things.

Still sound weird? Think of it like this: when you say something like “it was buried in my memory” or “shed some light on the subject” or “get my head around it,” you’re imbuing a more abstract concept with a semblance ofphysical/spatial reality. It’s almost as if we need to spatialize concepts in order to understand them; and Jaynes argued that it is exactly that ability which constitutes humans’ modern consciousness. He believes that every thought we have is metaphorically related to other concepts; in effect, we use metaphor and analogy — model-making — to cogitateand that as metaphors become embedded more firmly in our minds (neurologically and conceptually), we can build off from them in a sort of treelike formation of analogies, branching less-understood concepts out from more-understood one, connected by their similarities. Thus, when explaining a concept to someone, you might find yourself using the phrases “it’s similar to…” or “think of it as if it were…” a lot, because in order to understand the new concept, the person you’re teaching it to will have to relate it to something that they already understand. Seem obvious? Well, according to Jaynes, this method of thinking is actually quite new, and lies in stark contrast to the way that humans thought in the past.

[Jaynes’ conception of our thought processes is in and of itself fascinating, and probably worth a book or two on its own. I do know that he’s written other texts, so maybe one of them covers this? Not sure… but I’ll let you know.]

So how did we think in the past? Quite unlike we do now, it would seem.

Jaynes theorizes that human beings initially cogitated in an entirely different manner: “voices” originating in the right hemisphere of our brains (in Broca’s Area, specifically, one of the two main language-oriented regions of the brain) shot across the corpus callosum (the connecting material between the two hemispheres) and were received on the left side, whereupon we would unquestioningly obey whatever command was given. These voices were godlike, all-powerful, omniscient, and their orders were immediately and unconditionally followed at all times.

Why would we behave like this? Well, the idea is that “volition” was more easily and immediately acted upon if originating as a direct neural mandate… bypassing any chance of doubt or second-guessing, with no hint of the vast array of existential dilemmas that face us as we make choices in the complex modern age. And yet, early humans were capable of much more complexity than the other animals, and hence dealt with a more complex state of affairs, such that pure instinct alone would not suffice for every situation. And so, with the evolution of language, the cognitive unconscious, the root of that language, emerged as being fully in charge.

(One can conceive of the bicameral mind as being a sort of in-between stage from an early/primate mind state to our current, modern mind… from less-complex to “sort of” complex to “pretty damn” complex… though this assumes some sort of finality about our current state of consciousness, and I don’t believe that to be the case… but that’s an essay for another time.)

So Jaynes’s brilliant*, shocking theory is that all of society was set up as a reflection of this bicameral mindstate… and indeed, there is evidence to back up his claim. For example, Jaynes describes how early villages were built circularly around central temples, wherein were housed the effigies or other physical constructs representing the gods, and that these operated as sort of “broadcasting towers” (my words, not his) from which the god-voice would emanate. People did not imagine the voices as having originated in their own minds; they believed that they emanated from the gods in the temples… and they believed that the effigies were living, not simply representations but actual presences, alive and in command. And the circular formation of early towns and villages actually does seem designed, in a sense, to facilitate a sort of “central command” of some sort.

Additionally, Jaynes points to numerous examples of the written word, before and after the breakdown of bicameralism — around 1200, BC — that do indeed seem to have vastly different stances in terms of capability for introspection, forethought, hindsight, or any type of cognitive model-making at all… in fact, none of these abilities seem to be demonstrated in the bicameral-era texts.

Also, Jaynes points to various psychic occurrences (“psychic” in this case referring to mental occurrences, not occult phenomena) as being vestiges of bicameralism — among them oraclism, possession (demonic and otherwise), and schizophrenia. This last is especially interesting due to its prevalence in modern times… Jaynes sees it as a kind of conflict of a bicameral remnant within a conscious, self-aware individual, resulting in confusion and paranoia when it seems that: a) they are hearing, very clearly, voices commanding them to do things, and b) that nobody else hears them, leading to thoughts of conspiracy, paranoia, etc etc…

So why did things change? Why do we now think the way that we do? Why do we spatialize, analogize, introspect, produce sophisticated mental models, weigh out future possibilities with care and (we hope) precision? Jaynes points to a couple of main reasons: that as societies grew larger and more complex, different groups of humans came into contact with each other that listened to and obeyed different gods, whose goals and conceits might not be oriented towards the same goals, a concept that was inconceivable in unilateral, bicameral societies. This seeming paradox led (as paradoxes often do) to humankind’s first existential dilemmas, so to speak… to our first doubts, to situations for which the bicameral “set of instructions” were simply inadequate.

Jaynes points to other examples of increasing complexity in humankind’s world as further reasons for this breakdown; new and unexpected situations arose quite naturally from society’s expansion and from war and cataclysms (such as the series of Mediterranean earthquakes 3000 years ago), and our increasingly sophisticated language began to develop a sense of “I”-ness due to the escalating frequency of encounters with “other”-ness. In other words, our current state evolved as a necessary expansion in terms of sophistication, whereupon we could deal with novelty more ably.

I could write an entire book simply as a review of Origin of Consciousness, so heavy are its implications and I am in no way alone in finding this work so fascinating. It has been reviewed fairly widely and seems to be, as I mentioned, re-gaining credibility in the psychological and scientific communities. However, I am surprised that it took me 35 years of life on this planet before I heard of it, considering the potential import of this idea and how utterly different it is from all previous historical and psychological conjecture. I think that maybe the concept of bicamerality is simply too weird for many; after all, it’s very hard to imagine mind states other than one’s own (have you ever tried?)

Judge if you will, and read if you want.

* Jaynes’s style as a writer is a bit… let’s say… grandiose. This is a man enamored of his own vocabulary and not afraid to show it… but I quickly found myself forgiving him as he does seem to be a brilliant man with ideas far ahead of his peers. So we can allow him a modicum of conceit, can’t we?

† The other is Wernicke’s area.


One comment

  1. Pingback: reflections of the inner side « the eminent

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