The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
In psychology, 'bicameralism' is a controversial theory which argues that the human brain once assumed a state known as a bicameral mind in which cognitive functions are divided between one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking," and a second part which listens and obeys.
The term was coined by psychologist Julian Jaynes, who presented the idea in the 1976 book 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind', wherein he made the case that the bicameral mentality was the normal state of the human mind everywhere as recently as 3000 years ago. He used governmental bicameralism metaphorically to describe this state, exemplifying his theoretical postulate that language (and thus thought) expands by the use of metaphors.
According to Jaynes, ancient people in the bicameral state would function in a manner similar to that of a modern-day schizophrenic. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or "god" giving admonitory advice or commands, and obey these voices without question. Others have argued that this state of mind is recreated in members of cults.
In his 1976 work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes proposed that human brains existed in a bicameral state until as recently as 3000 years ago. Jaynes builds a case for this theory by citing evidence from many diverse sources including historical literature. He took an interdisciplinary approach, drawing data from many different fields.
Jaynes asserts that until roughly the times written about in Homer's Iliad, humans did not generally have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness as most people experience it today. Rather, Jaynes argued that the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands believed to be issued by external "gods"—the commands which were so often recorded in ancient myths, legends and historical accounts; these commands were however emanating from individuals' own minds. This is exemplified not only in the commands given to characters in ancient epics but also the very muses of Greek mythology which "sang" the poems: Jaynes argues that while later interpretations see the muses as a simple personification of creative inspiration, the ancients literally heard muses as the direct source of their music and poetry.
Jaynes inferred that these "voices" came from the right brain counterparts of the left brain language centres—specifically, the counterparts to Wernicke's area and Broca's area. These regions are somewhat dormant in the right brains of most modern humans, but Jaynes noted that some studies show that auditory hallucinations cause increased activity in these areas of the brain.
For example, he asserts that, in The Iliad and sections of the Old Testament in The Bible, no mention is made of any kind of cognitive processes such as introspection, and he argues that there is no apparent indication that the writers were self-aware. According to Jaynes, the older portions of the Old Testament (such as the Book of Amos) have little or none of the features of some later books of the Old Testament (such as Ecclesiastes) as well as later works such as The Odyssey, which show indications of a profoundly different kind of mentality—an early form of consciousness.
Jaynes noted that in ancient societies, the corpses of the dead were often treated as though they were still alive (being seated on chairs, dressed in clothing, and even fed food) and he argued that the dead bodies were presumed to be still living and the source of auditory hallucinations (see ancestor worship). This adaptation to the village communities of 100 individuals or more formed the core of religion. Unlike today's hallucinations, the voices of ancient times were structured by cultural norms to produce a seamlessly functioning society.
In ancient times, Jaynes noted, gods were generally much more numerous and much more anthropomorphic than in modern times, and speculates that this was because each bicameral person had their own "god" who reflected their own desires and experiences.
Even in modern times, Jaynes notes that there is no consensus as to the cause or origins of schizophrenia (the subject is still hotly debated). According to Jaynes, schizophrenia is simply a vestige of humanity's earlier state. Jaynes noted that many schizophrenics have "command hallucinations" wherein the "voices" command the schizophrenic to commit certain acts. In Jaynes' argument, these command hallucinations are little different from the commands from gods which feature so prominently in ancient stories.
Breakdown of bicameralism Jaynes theorized that a shift from bicameralism marked the beginning of introspection and consciousness as we know it today. According to Jaynes, this bicameral mentality began malfunctioning or "breaking down" during the second millennium BC. He speculates that primitive ancient societies tended to collapse periodically (as in Egypt's Old Kingdom and the periodically vanishing cities of the Mayas) due to increased societal complexity that could not be sustained by this bicameral mindset. The mass migrations of the second millennium BC created a rash of unexpected situations and stresses that required ancient minds to become more flexible and creative. Self-awareness, or consciousness, was the culturally evolved solution to this problem. Thus cultural necessity (that of interacting with migrating tribes, or surviving as a member of such) forced humanity to become self-aware or perish. Thus consciousness, like bicamerality, emerged as a neurological adaptation to social complexity.
Jaynes further argues that divination, prayer and oracles arose during this breakdown period, in an attempt to summon instructions from the "gods" whose voices could no longer be heard. The consultation of special bicamerally-operative individuals, or of casting lots and so forth, was a response to this loss, a transitional era depicted for example in the book of 1 Samuel.
Leftovers of the bicameral mind today, according to Jaynes, include religion, possession, schizophrenia and the general sense of need for external authority in decision-making.
Responses Jaynes's hypothesis found little acceptance among mainstream academics. This was partly due to the perception that Jaynes was pandering to the general public, and because he did not offer The Origin of Consciousness for peer review.
His proposals generated great controversy when first published, and provided impetus for many other scientists and philosophers to investigate the matters it discussed in detail in order to attempt to refute its arguments.
Other researchers, such as Daniel Dennett, consider bicameralism to be quite intriguing but probably incorrect. In a 1987 letter to the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. H. Steven Moffic wrote, "…Jaynes' hypothesis makes for interesting reading and stimulates much thought in the receptive reader. It does not, however, adequately explain one of the central mysteries of madness: hallucination."
Some authorities, however, consider Jaynes's hypothesis worthy and offered conditional support, arguing the notion deserves further study.Keen, Sam, "Julian Jaynes: Portrait of the Psychologist as a Maverick Theorizer," Psychology Today, November 1977, vol 11, pp. 66-7Keen, Sam, "The Lost Voices of the Gods (Interview with Julian Jaynes)", Psychology Today, November 1977, vol 11, pp 58-60 Some scholars suggest that the theory describes a real event, but that Jaynes provides the wrong date. One theory about pre-historic cave paintings, for example, is that they offer us a window into a time when consciousness was emerging, perhaps through the breakdown of bicameralism.
Further evidence taken to contradict Jaynes's proposed date of the transition from bicameralism is the Gilgamesh Epic: although the story of Gilgamesh was recorded centuries before the Old Testament, and though its setting is contemporaneous or earlier than the Old Testament stories, the Gilgamesh story describes such features as introspection. Jaynes himself, noting that the most complete version of the Gilgamesh epic dates to post-bicameral times (7th century BC), dismisses these "modern" features as the result of rewriting and expansion by later conscious scribes, and points to differences between the more recent version of Gilgamesh and surviving fragments of earlier versions. ("The most interesting comparison is in Tablet X." - detailed in The Origin of Consciousness, 1982 edition, p. 252f.) Others, such as science fiction author Neal Stephenson, have since conjectured that heroic epics and myths may be rooted in isolated individuals who became self-aware early and could accordingly outmatch and manipulate their fellows.
Dr. David R. Hawkins, a psychiatrist and mystic, has developed a sophisticated model for how consciousness has developed—and continues to develop—over time. Hawkins used the controversial and not widely accepted method of applied kinesiology to measure and describe the evolution of consciousness both in the individual and collectively amongst a group of people. Out of this, as first reported in his book Power vs. Force (1995), a map of consciousness was developed.
The ideas set forth in Jaynes' book have been great fodder for cyberpunk authors; Neal Stephenson's first several books (The Big U, Zodiac, Snow Crash) involve the bicameral mind theory, as does Bruce Sterling's Distraction. The book has been highly influential in a neo-objectivist philosophy called Neo-Tech. Jaynes' theory is referenced, at least in passing, in the cyberpunk comic Transmetropolitan. Bicameralism is central to the plot of Sebastian Faulks' novel Human Traces, and is referred to the novel's appendices. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind plays a role in Paul Levinson's 2002 novel The Consciousness Plague, appears in the Recommended Reading section of Robert J. Sawyer's 2005 novel Mindscan, and was mentioned as reading material by Leopold Cain, shortly before his kidnap in NBC-TV's Kidnapped, in the September 2006 premier broadcast of the series.
Editions of ''The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind'' The Origin of Consciousness was financially successful, and has been reprinted several times. The book was originally published in 1976 (ISBN 0-395-20729- 0) and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1978. It has since been reissued (ISBN 0-618-05707-2). A new edition, with an afterword that addressed some criticisms and restated the main themes, was published in the US in 1990. This version was published in the UK by Penguin Books in 1993 (ISBN 0-14-017491- 5).