Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton, had little patience for his colleagues, who spent hours in the lab doing “petty, petty humdrum things.” He dismissed their “objective aridity,” “cunning lingo,” and “valiant nonsense.” The field of psychology, he wrote, was little more than “bad poetry disguised as science.”
Jaynes published only one book, in 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which tells the story of how mankind learned to think. Critics described it as a bizarre and reckless masterpiece—the American Journal of Psychiatry called Jaynes “as startling as Freud in the Interpretation of Dreams.” Drawing on evidence from neurology, archaeology, art history, theology, and Greek poetry, Jaynes captured the experience of modern consciousness—“a whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can”—as sensitively and tragically as any great novelist.
Jaynes knew that he would be punished for “hustling into territories jealously guarded by myriad aggressive specialists.” Although his book anticipated theories in linguistics, neuroscience, and philosophy, he has been more or less eliminated from the history of ideas. The first book on Jaynes’s life and work is long overdue; it was published by the Julian Jaynes Society, a cultish group of scholars and enthusiasts. The society’s founder, Marcel Kuijsten, who has a degree in business, has filled two volumes with nearly all Jaynes’s interviews and papers—on dreams, hallucinations, poetry, animal cognition, and cave paintings. The first volume, called Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, opens with a biography of Jaynes, written by William Woodward, a historian of science, and June Tower, Jaynes’s old neighbor. Narrated in a spare, humorless tone, the biography describes Jaynes as a psychological prophet who oriented his life around a single question. He felt almost afflicted by his need for a scientific theory for consciousness, a narrative that would allow all the mysteries of the world to “shiveringly fall into accurate and wonderful place.”
Born the son of a Unitarian minister in Newton, Massachusetts, Jaynes was mystified by his own capacity for inwardness, a nagging stream of desires, worries, invented futures, and humiliations. He attributed the inspiration for Origins to an episode of “darkest distress” when he was lying on his couch, despairing over the question of “how we can know anything at all”: “Suddenly, out of an absolute quiet, there came a firm, distinct loud voice from my upper right which said, ‘Include the knower in the known!’ It lugged me to my feet absurdly exclaiming, ‘Hello?’”
As a doctoral student at Yale, Jaynes produced highly regarded papers on animal learning, but he became increasingly frustrated by the principles of behaviorism, the reigning school of psychology at the time, which took a mechanistic view of the human mind and the scientist’s role in observing it. Jaynes mocked himself for running paramecia and protozoa through mazes, “all on the naive assumption that I was chronicling the grand evolution of consciousness. Ridiculous!” He moved up in the animal kingdom, studying learning in worms, fish, rats, chicks, and cats, before finally realizing that he had fallen prey to a “huge historical neurosis.” He concluded that consciousness had no location in the brain. Instead, it was a function of language.
Jaynes began inspecting the world’s earliest literature for the first signs of human consciousness. “I started off like in a detective story,” he told a reporter for the Princeton radio station. As he moved backward through the centuries, he saw that consciousness, as he had defined it, disappeared somewhere between the Odysseyand the Iliad. Odysseus is a modern hero, introspective and deceptive. In the Iliad, the writing of which scholars date some three hundred years earlier, the characters are passive and mentally inert. They have no concept of a private mental space. The word “psyche” referred only to actual substances in the body, breath, and blood, which leave the warrior’s body as soon as he dies. The gods, emerging from mists or clouds or the sea, handle the warrior’s decisions. When Achilles accuses Agamemnon of stealing his mistress, Agamemnon insists he had no agency. “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus,” he explains. “So what could I do? Gods always have their way.”
Critics have interpreted the meddling presence of the god as poetic devices, but Jaynes accused translators of imputing a modern mentality to people with subjectivities foreign to us. “The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination,’” he wrote. “They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere.” Jaynes drew on research with patients with severed corpora callossa, the band of fibers that separates the two hemispheres of the brain, which showed that the two chambers can function independently, without conscious awareness of information processed in the other half. Jaynes proposed that the Trojan War was fought by men with a kind of split brain, a “bicameral mind.” In moments of stress, the left hemisphere, “slave-like,” perceived hallucinated voices in the right hemisphere—the god hemisphere—as direct commands.
By roughly 1,000 B.C., earthquakes and overpopulation in the Mediterranean led to mass migrations, which caused an unprecedented degree of social upheaval, according to Jaynes’s speculation. The gods, who had provided guidance by transforming habit and intuition into speech, fell silent in the face of novel dilemmas. They retreated to the sky, where they gave ambiguous signs of their watchful presence. Humans were left alone, groping for answers. They still heard a voice, but they knew it was their own: they silently narrated their days, weighing options, imagining what others would think, making sudden pronouncements that they immediately doubted. Jaynes describes the muting of the gods as an excruciating loss from which we still have not recovered. “The mighty themes of the religions of the world are here sounded for the first time,” he writes. “Why have the gods left us? Like friends who depart from us, they must be offended. Our misfortunes are our punishments for our offenses. We go down on our knees, begging to be forgiven.”
Consciousness is impossible to describe, except through metaphor and analogy, but behavior became more predictable once people could refer to each other’s conscious minds as a collection of knowable parts. Each metaphor succeeded the previous one as a theory of human behavior. In the 1600s, consciousness was like a clock, in perpetual and regular motion. Two hundred years later, when chemistry was the fashionable science, consciousness was a compound structure that could be broken down into its elements—individual sensations and thoughts. By the industrial era, when Freud was beginning to develop his theories of mind, consciousness functioned like a steam engine: when emotional pressure and strain became too great, secret underground forces were recklessly released.
Jaynes didn’t live to see the computer become the dominant metaphor for consciousness, but he was one of the first to recognize that the brain was capable of a radical kind of plasticity. “There is no such thing as a complete consciousness,” he writes. “All about us lie the remnants of our recent bicameral past.” He attributes one of the most mysterious mental phenomena—the sense that ideas come to us unbidden, from some external location—to the fact that our brains were once inhabited by gods. Artists in particular tend to describe their work in bicameral terms. They seem to be bragging when they describe writing as a form of listening: they hear a voice, almost audible, and then take dictation. It happens in moments of inspiration, late at night, when the writer is all alone.
Origin likely would have fared better had it been presented as literary provocation rather than scientific fact. But Jaynes saw his book as a work of science, and so it was critiqued, deconstructed, and made nearly irrelevant because the theories were impossible to test. Marcel Kuijsten, who describes his first encounter with Origin as a near religious experience, has devoted the past fifteen years to collecting the scraps of Jayne’s oeuvre, reaching out to Jaynes’s friends, colleagues, and students—anyone who might have one of Jaynes’s notebooks. But the new material, with its inevitable redundancies, dilutes the persuasive power and manic spirit of the original theory. One can see why Jaynes was unable to muster a second book. His theory was too total. He couldn’t let it go: he followed its logic past ancient Greece to modern poetry, hypnotism, schizophrenia, dreams, and ultimately science, where he let it implode. In the last chapter of Origin, he presents science as yet another attempt by humans, still grieving the loss of the gods, to establish contact with a “lost ocean of authority.”
Science offers a rational splendor that explains everything, a charismatic leader or succession of leaders who are highly visible and beyond criticism, a series of canonical texts which are somehow outside the usual arena of scientific criticism, certain gestures of ideas and rituals of interpretation, and a requirement of total commitment. In return the adherent receives what the religions had once given him more universally: a world view, a hierarchy of importances, and an auguring place where he may find out what to do and think, in short, a total explanation of man. And this totality is obtained not by actually explaining everything, but by an encasement of its activity, a severe and absolute restriction of attention, such that everything that is not explained is not in view.
The final chapter of Origin reads like a sermon, ecstatic and mournful. Jaynes describes human history as a story of substitutes, a search for “an eternal firmness of principle out there.” At the end, Jaynes abruptly concludes that his book, too, is a product of historical circumstances, another stage in the quest for authorization. “All of this,” he writes, referring to his theory, “is a part of this transitional period after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. And this essay is no exception.”
Critics have praised Origin for accounting for the role of religion in shaping consciousness—Richard Dawkins wrote that it is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between!”—but thirty years after its publication, the book feels most relevant as a critique of science. In a 1970 essay, “The Study of the History of Psychology,” Jaynes criticizes psychologists for repeatedly asking the same questions, formulating them in increasingly obscure ways, while ignoring the long history in which these questions have already been studied. They fail to grasp that there is “a kind of truth in the history of a science which transcends the science itself,” Jaynes writes.
Jaynes recognized that the narrative he had created was itself a product of the features of mind it described: “consciousness is constantly fitting things into a story, putting a before and after around any event.” Throughout the book, he exposes his own intellectual process, detailing each “shimmering flash” of an epiphany as well as his mental limitations. (To understand the experience of having a bicameral mind, he crushes laurel leaves and smokes them only to find himself feeling “more and more Jaynesean, alas, then Apollonian.”) He wanted to revive the “disappearing idea that a psychologist enters his profession almost like a religious order, making himself a part of his own subject matter, and baring his soul.’”
Jaynes acknowledged in Origin that the book was just a “rough-hewn beginning, which I hope to develop in a future work.” He planned to call it The Consequences of Consciousness. He alluded to this forthcoming sequel so frequently that even after his death, in 1997, fans were still convinced that there was a secret manuscript. But Jaynes became increasingly concerned that he didn’t have enough material for the second book. Perhaps the voice he had been hearing had grown quiet. It didn’t help that he had become an alcoholic. He held the same job, never gaining tenure, for the rest of his career. He lived alone in a single room on Princeton’s campus, a bachelor all his life. He gave lectures around the country but complained that there was “something wearing about them, as if I should have to try to interest anyone.”Jaynes felt that people had not read his book carefully enough, particularly the reviewers. Over the years, he simplified rather than expanded his theory. In some lectures and interviews in Kuijsten’s collection, Jaynes seems almost apologetic about his early boldness. In 1988, when Life asked Jaynes and several other thinkers to comment on the meaning of life, he responded that he had no answer. “Words have meaning, not life or persons or the universe itself,” he said. “Our search for certainty rests in our attempts at understanding the history of all individual selves and all civilizations. Beyond that, there is only awe.”
By Evelyn Uyemura
First of all the book was copyrighted in 1976 and apparently first published in 1982. That is eons ago in the science of cognition and brain imaging. So I would like to know how the past 2 and a half decades have affected the theories in this book.
I also note that the author taught at Princeton University (he died in 1997), so his theories ought to have received a hearing. But apparently the follow-up book he intended was never published, and he was considered somewhat of a maverick, if not quite a crackpot. This website offers some perspective: [...]
His theory, in simplest terms, is that until about 3000 years ago, all of humankind basically heard voices. The voices were actually coming from the other side of the brain, but because the two hemispheres were not in communication the way they are now for most of us, the voices seemed to be coming from outside. The seemed, in fact, to be coming from God or the gods.
So far, so good. That is certainly imaginable to most of us, because we know that schizophrenics and some others still hear voices in apparently this manner today.
But he also posits that many sophisticated civilizations were created by men and women who were all directed by these godlike voices. What is not very clearly explained (a serious gap in his theory) is how all the voices in these "bicameral civilizations," as he calls them, worked in harmony. But his theory is that ancient Greece, Babylon, Assyria, Egpyt, and less ancient but similar Mayan and Incan kingdoms were all built by people who were not "conscious" in our modern sense.
When one hears voices, whether then or now, the voices tend to be commanding and directive, and the need to obey them compelling. Free will is not possible. And so the people who built the pyramids were not self-aware as we are, did not feel self-pity, did not make plans, but simply obeyed the voices, which somehow were in agreement that the thing must be done.
Again, when he mentions that hypnosis may be triggering a reversion to a similar kind of consciousness, in which a voice, somehow channeled through the sub-conscious rather than the reasoning part of the brain, has an unusual compelling quality to it, and enables a person to do things that in their conscious analytic mind they are unable to do, we feel that we do have a glimmer that such a state of being is possible.
Of course, he connects these ideas to schizophrenia, seeing that as a throw-back to an earlier kind of mind-state, though now socially unacceptable and also unacceptable to its victim, who retains a remembrance of what it was to have control of his or her own mind.
He also sees prophets as remnants of the older mind, still able to hear the voices after most people had lost the ability. And he sees idol worship and modern religious behavior as both signs of a longing for the lost certainty and simplicity of a world in which decisions didn't have to be made, and all were of one accord as to what the gods wanted done.
I don't see much evidence for the pastoral simplicity which he thinks the bicameral mind lived in. But I do think that it is possible that not only ancient people but even many modern people have mind-experiences that are very different from our individualistic, introspective, self-determined ideas. In fact, I think relatively few human beings question and ponder and change belief systems as we might. The feeling of being adrift in a world that we can't understand, struggling with questions about everything, is far from universal, I think.
It is pertinent that he calls the shift from bicameral (two houses) to modern consciousness a "breakdown." He sees the shift as happening in response to crises and threats in the environment, but he doesn't present it as necessarily positive, and certainly not as pleasant to those living in its shadow. He sees the cries of the Jews and many other people for God to "rend the heavens and come down," to "not forsake them," as cried from people who no longer hear the "voices" that seemed to be the gods, and who desperately miss them.
In view of individuals such as Mother Teresa, who at one point had a clear inner sense of being directed by God (not necessarily actual auditory voices) and then lost that sense of presence and had to walk blindly thereafter (or silently would be a better metaphor), perhaps we would agree that the experience of the gods or God going silent not only happened at large in human history but is often recapitulated in individuals' personal history as well.
If Jaynes is on to something (and I think he is, though I think he may have pushed his "theory of everything" too far and lost scientific credibility), his theory does help us understand why there is a widespread belief that in Biblical times, God interacted with people in a very different way than He does now. The Bible, and other holy books as well, are remnants of a time when human beings own inner sense of right and wrong, clean and unclean, enemy and neighbor, were experienced as coming from outside of them, from disembodied voices that commanded great power. As the mind (or brain) developed, this split healed (or this mind broke down?) and this knowing become a still small voice in many people, and in others a resounding silence.
The question remains: should we take the reductionist view, and look at all religious ideas as merely misunderstandings based on schizophrenic-like delusions and hallucinations? Or should we take the view that God, who in times past spoke to us in fire and plague and audible voices (and later in dreams and visions) has now become one with humanity and speaks to us in the silence of our own hearts?
A fascinating book, raising as many questions as it answers, but well worth the reading.
By James Frohnhofer
Why is it that the characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the oldest books of the Bible behave in a manner that seems utterly alien to modern readers, but by the time of the New Testament and the classic Greek dramatists charcters seem to have the same feelings and motivations of modern man? Jaynes addresses this question, among others, in one of the most thought provoking books I've read.
Basically, he posits that lacking full consciousness (yet having language), prehistoric man's actions were often governed by voices, which are in many ways similar to certain forms of schizophrenia. His full argument is much deeper and far more subtle than I can deliver in a one-line synopsis.
The book is not a drum-beating New Age manual for making peace with our proto-selves, although many readers seem to have taken just that away from his discussion on the origins of religion.
The thesis is, of course, utterly unproveable, and both orthodox classicists and anthropologists are at odds with it. But it is remarkable in its originality. One needn't be convinced by the book to enjoy it; read it purely for Jayne's breadth of knowledge and his originality of thought and it will be well worth your time.
A paradigm-buster par excellence
By Timothy Dougal
It's hard to describe exactly what this book did to me. Suffice it to say that my views on history, religion, language and consciousness seem to be permanently altered, and my reading and thinking have broadened as a result. Jaynes defines conscousness too narrowly for some philosophers and psychologists, who seem to want it to include all of perception, but for me, his focus on interior dialogue, conceptual space, the notion of self, the ability to narratize and project this self into theoretical situations, is right on target. These are the kinds of things that create our notions of ourselves as human. Considerable space is devoted to anatomy, and split-brain studies, but the bulk of the book relies on archaeology, ancient art, ancient texts, and their use of language. This is the thrust of Jaynes' argument: consciousness arose only relatively late in human development, appearing first in the Middle East at the end of the second millenium BCE., and this consciousness was dependent on language. He theorizes that the right hemisphere of the brain was specialized to recall longterm information, as the left was (and still is, in most people) specialized for language. Pre-conscious people, he contends, hallucinated instructions of a super-ego-like nature generated in the right brain. In the simplest, small scale, early societies, these hallucinations were attributed to ancestors, chiefs, or kings. Eventually they were attributed to gods. As societies became increasingly complex, personal hallucination as a guiding force in life declined in value, and modern consciousness was born. To make his case, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hesiod, and the Bible are examined, ancient carvings and burial practices are considered, and the evolution of religious practices involving idols, sacrifices, prophecy, omens and divination are all looked at. They give support to Jaynes' contentions and open the mind of the reader. This is a book that keeps on giving.
A COMPELLING ANALYSIS OF CONSCIOUSNESS, FOLLOWED BY A VERY SPECULATIVE THEORY
By Steven H. Propp (Sacramento, CA USA)
This review is from: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Hardcover)
Julian Jaynes (1920-1997) was an American psychologist, who lectured in psychology at Princeton University from 1966 to 1990, and was a frequent guest lecturer elsewhere. He wrote in the Introduction to this 1976 book, "We first have to start from the top, from some conception of what consciousness is, from what our own introspection is. We have to be sure of that, before we can enter the nervous system and talk about its neurology. We must therefore try to make a new beginning by stating what consciousness is... In any such situation, where something is so resistant to even the beginnings of clarity, it is wisdom to begin by determining what that something is not. And that is the task of the next chapter." (Pg. 18)
He states, "Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of... It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not." (Pg. 23) He observes, "the seeming continuity of consciousness is really an illusion... We are conscious less of the time than we think... And the feeling of a great uninterrupted stream of rich inner experiences ... [is] a metaphor for how subjective consciousness seems to subjective consciousness... consciousness knits itself over its time gaps and gives the illusion of continuity." (Pg. 24-25)
He points out, "For in speaking or writing we are not really conscious of what we are actually doing at the time. Consciousness functions in the decision as to what to say, how we are to say it, and when we say it, but then the orderly and accomplished succession of phonemes or of written letters is somehow done for us." (Pg. 27) He adds, "conscious memory is not a storing up of sensory images... Conscious retrospection is not the retrieval of images, but the retrieval of what you have been conscious of before, and the reworking of these elements into rational or plausible patterns." (Pg. 28)
He argues, "For consciousness... not only is NOT the repository of concepts; it does not usually work with them at all!... In fact, one of the great functions of language is to let the word stand for a concept, which is exactly what we do in writing or speaking about conceptual material. And we must do this because concepts are usually not in consciousness at all." (Pg. 31) He summarizes, "Thinking, then, is not conscious. Rather, it is an automatic process following a struction and the materials on which the struction is to operate." (Pg. 39) He asserts, "Logic is the science of the justification of conclusions we have reached by natural reasoning... for such natural reasoning to occur, consciousness is not necessary. The very reason we need logic at all is because most reasoning is not conscious at all." (Pg. 41)
He says, "We not only locate this space of consciousness inside our own heads. We also assume it is there in others'. In talking with a friend, we are always assuming a space behind our companion's eyes into which we are talking, similar to the space we imagine inside our own heads where we are talking from. And this is the very heartbeat of the matter. For we know perfectly well that there is no such space in anyone's head at all! There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissues of one sort or another. And the fact that it is presominantly neurological tissue is irrelevant." (Pg. 45)
He then advances his main argument: "We are trying to understand human nature. The preposterous hypothesis we have come to ... is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was conscious. This is almost incomprehensible to us." (Pg. 84) He argues that "the bicameral mind collapsed. It could indeed be asked at this point why man did not simply revert to his previous condition. Sometimes he did. But the inertia of the more complex structures prevented the return to tribal life... After the breakdown of authority and of the gods, we can scarcely imagine the panic and the hesitancy that would feature human behavior during the disorder we have described." (Pg. 216-217)
I found the early part of this book---Jaynes' exposition of consciousness---to be utterly fascinating; but his speculative musings about a postulated "bicameral [two-houses] mind" being the origin of the "gods" in ancient times absolutlely fails to move me; but others feel just the opposite. But for either group, Janyes' book will be fascinating reading (at least in SOME parts!).