In this book, Jaynes theorizes that ancient consciousness was
radically different from modern consciousness. He suggests that
ancient human beings had no sense of an interior, directing self.
Rather, they accepted commands from what appeared to them to be
an externalized agency, which they obeyed blindly, without question.
This externalized self was a consequence of the split between
the two halves of the brain. Jaynes suggests that the left and
right brains were not integrated"unicameral"they
way they are today. Rather, the ancient brain was "bicameral,"
with the two brains working essentially independently of each
other. The left half of the brain, the logical, language-using
half, generated ideas and commands, which the right brain then
obeyed. These commands were subjectively perceived by the right
brain as coming from "outside"as if a god was speaking.
Jaynes adduces evidence for this astonishing hypothesis from several
sources. One is the "voices" heard by schizophrenic
patients, which Jaynes interprets as a throwback to the bicameral
mind of ancient times. Another is evidence from neurosurgery,
where patients hear "voices" upon having their brains
electrically stimulated. Another is the polytheistic gods of ancient
civilizations, which spoke directly and intimately to individuals:
"Who then were these gods who pushed men about like robots
and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech
and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes
as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients...The
gods were organizations of the central nervous system"(73-4).
Jaynes suggests that each person had his own individual "god",
which always told them what to do. The theory further accounts
for why the gods were so naturalistic and anthropomorphic, rather
than supernatural and otherworldly.
Where did the gods go, then? Jaynes proposes that a series of
unprecedented environmental stresses in the second millennium
B.C. forced the two halves of the brain to merge into unicamerality.
(This was a cultural, rather than a biological, transformation,
Jaynes notes.) The stresses might have included natural disasters
(the story of the Flood comes to mind), population growth, forced
migrations, warfare, trade, and the development of writing. A
common denominator among all these is the introduction of complexity
and difference, things the bicameral mind deals with only with
difficulty. Jaynes suggests, among other things, that traders
in contact with other cultures might have been forced to develop
a "protosubjective consciousness" to cope with the gods
of unfamiliar people.
Jaynes suggests that the unprecedented stresses of the 2nd millennium
B.C. forced the individual into isolation, within which a sense
of I-ness appeared to fill the void left by the inadequacy of
the god. This hypothesis posits a relatively homogeneous and stress-free
existence prior to the development of consciousness. In short,
Jaynes must posit that there really was an Eden, from which humanity
To establish the gods' disappearance, Jaynes cites a number of
illustrations and cuneiform tablets dating from Sumerian times.
He shows a stone-carven image of the King of Assyria kneeling
in supplication before an empty throne, from which his god is
conspicuously absent. The accompanying cuneiform script reads,
"One who has no god, as he walks along the street,/ Headache
envelopes him like a garment." Another tablet reads,
My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.
Jaynes interprets this as evidence of a new subjectivity in Mesopotamia.
The bicameral mind has begun to collapse into the modern unicameral
mind of the self-willed, self-aware "I", and as a consequence
the gods no longer speak to people, as they did in the days of
These lamentations sound remarkably like the nam-shubs
mentioned in Snow Crash.
The nam-shubs also mourn something precious, and speak of confusion
and loss. It is not at all hard to guess that the loss of bicameral
tranquility may have been accompanied by unprecedented linguistic
disruption (irrespective of any causal relationship between the
two.) The Tower of Babel storywhich
the nam-shubs strongly resemblemay have happened at a
time when bicamerality was breaking down.
Be this historical truth or not (and the thesis has not been widely
accepted), Jaynes has fashioned a brilliant myth of human origins.
Like the authors of Snow Crash
Jaynes reaches far back into the past for an authentic story of
a Fall from wholeness. And like them, he reaches specifically
for Mesopotamian myth.