Julian Jaynes's Theory of Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind
The Search for Lost Gods and an Innocence of Certainty
In his book , Julian Jaynes (1920-1997) presents a radically original and remarkably compelling theory about the nature and evolution of subjective human experience. Although first published in 1976, the book has not received the attention it deserves, perhaps because many find its thesis to be too disturbing. But like others whose ideas initially provoked strong resistance (e.g. those of Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein), Jaynes explains a large body of otherwise inexplicable facts. In making his case he marshalls an encyclopedic knowledge of neuroanatomy, psychology, linguistics, archaeology, history, and literature to develop a story that is nothing less than astounding. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
At some level we are all aware of a fundamental dichotomy between subjective experience and objective reality—the so-called ‘mind-body’ dualism that has plagued philosophers for millennia. And on reflection most will agree that this duality only concerns humans—as far as we know other animals live entirely in the here and now, do not introspect, and have little if any self-awareness (much less awareness of awareness).
So what does it mean to be conscious? Philosophers and psychologists continue to grapple with that question. Part of the problem, according to Jaynes, is that consciousness is not any of the things we usually think of it as being. In particular, it is not equivalent to the ‘consciousness of consciousness’ that begat dualism, a notion that only serves to confound attempts at definition. Nor is it synonymous with experience, conceptualization, learning, thinking, reason, or being awake. Each of these latter mental activities functions quite well without conscious attention. For example, most of us have experienced those moments when the solution to a vexing problem simply presents itself, without conscious effort or reflection. Similarly, many songwriters have described how songs seem to write themselves. Skilled musicians and athletes will tell you that conscious attention actually detracts from a performance, and that it is much better to disengage the brain and let the body do what it knows how to do without consciously thinking about it.
Consciousness then is something distinct from most of the activities that we normally attribute to mind. Jaynes defines it as an interior mental representation of the self, a metaphorical “space” of introspection wherein the analog “I” can work through problems to “see” the outcomes of potential solutions. Consciousness is created through metaphorical use of language, which allows the spatialization of time necessary for visualizing “linear” sequences of past events and future outcomes—indeed, without consciousness there is no perception of time. The central role of metaphor in the construction of consciousness is manifest in the way we describe our subjective experience in everyday language: for example, we “see” things in our mind’s “eye”; we have a “gut feeling” that something is true; we love someone with all our “heart”; or we “feel” psychological “pain” (which of course sometimes manifests literally as physical pain, but that’s another story). None of these descriptions of experience is meant literally; they are all metaphorical. But we know exactly what they mean, because that is how consciousness works.
This implies that the metaphorical rendering of language—the purview of poetry—was a pre-requisite for the development of consciousness. The question then is: when did consciousness first emerge? Most will assume that humans have always been conscious. But not so according to Jaynes: although written texts existed much earlier, metaphorical usage did not appear until about the first millennium BC, beginning about the time of the Odyssey. Before that language usage was entirely literal—metaphor is largely absent in the Illiad. If consciousness is based on the use of metaphor, this would suggest that prior to ~3000 years ago humans were not conscious. And yet by that time civilization had already existed for several millennia. How was this possible? The answer is that the first civilizations were built not through conscious effort, but rather by humans obediently—and quite unconsciously—following the vocal commands of their gods.
Bicameral vs. Conscious Mentality in a Nutshell
Unlike consciousness, which involves an internal dialogue with one's self, the bicameral mind has little or no self-awareness, with thoughts and other internal percepts instead appearing to come from the outside. By affording inner "space" for back-and-forth deliberation, conscious mentality grants the freedom to choose (i.e., free will), whereas the bicameral mind is a one-way street, constrained to following its own orders. Lying for the purpose of personal gain is thus a hallmark of consciousness, as is morality. The bicameral mind is incapable of intentional deceipt and lacks the capacity for moral reasoning. It is, in essence, innocent.
The Bicameral Mind of Preconscious Humans
Jaynes’s study of ancient texts (including the Illiad) and other artifacts suggests that prior to the emergence of consciousness humans were motivated by—literally slaves to—hallucinated voices that told them what to do, a phenomenon akin to that experienced by modern day schizophrenics. To the person hearing them, hallucinated voices seem just as real—and just as external—as actual voices, because their perception involves the same auditory apparatus of the brain. Like most brain functions this apparatus is contained in both hemispheres. In contrast, the brain circuitry required for speech is confined entirely to the left hemisphere, as shown by the fact that people with brain injuries to that area cannot speak, but can still hear and comprehend the speech of others. The normal function of the equivalent region in the right hemisphere has long been a mystery; indeed, it is often assumed not to be necessary, as unlike the left side, it can be removed without major adverse effects. Jaynes posits that this region within the right hemisphere is a vestige of an ancestral structure whose function was to generate hallucinated commands. Evidence for this comes from experiments wherein subjects claimed to hear voices when the region in question was electrically stimulated.
As far as bicameral humans were concerned, the hallucinated voices came from gods. Early on gods and kings were one and the same, so the hallucinations probably sounded much like the actual voice of the king. In this way the god-king was perceived to command his subjects even without being in their presence, promoting social coherence. Ancient societies would preserve the bodies of deceased kings, seated within shrines, where they would be presented with food and other offerings. This ritualistic behavior provided cues that stimulated auditory hallucinations (perhaps accompanied by visual hallucinations as often occurs with schizophrenia) perceived as commands issuing from the body of the god-king. As civilizations grew and became more complex and hierarchically stratified, the shrines developed into pyramids (on both sides of the Atlantic), and statues and idols were used instead of corpses to cue the commandments of the gods. After the advent of writing, reading evoked the auditory hallucinations. Thus, through various means of induction, internal voices attributed to external gods literally spoke to, and thereby commanded the unconscious actions of, their human subjects.
Jaynes theorizes that the bicameral mind developed concomitantly with language, the emergence of which was a prerequisite for civilization. Humans are social animals, and in animal societies the size of the group is limited by the mode of communication. Nonhuman primate societies are kept relatively small owing to simple patterns of vocal communication, and this is likely to have been true for prehistoric humans as well, who probably lacked complex language (which would explain why human culture remained so rudimentary for hundreds of thousands of years). As language developed along with agriculture, the resulting enhancement of both communication and division of labor allowed societies to become larger and more complex. Jaynes suggests that this was facilitated by the independent but correlated development of mechanisms for vocalization (confined to the left hemisphere of the brain) and induction of auditory hallucinations (confined to the right hemisphere). Whenever habitual activities were stymied by novel problems requiring a decision, hallucinated commands induced by the stress of uncertainty (as occurs in contemporary schizophrenics) would have directed creative solutions that were also socially constructive, being perceived as emanating from an acknowledged authority. Cultural entrainment would have ensured that the hallucinated commands were more or less consistent with the interests of the group. Because of the adaptive benefits of large coordinated societies, natural selection would have favored the evolution of the bicameral mind.
From this it should be clear why Jaynes’s theory is disturbing to many: it provides a provocative albeit quite compelling explanation for the natural origins of religious belief. The ancients who wrote of being commanded by the spoken words of their gods were not being metaphorical—they were being literal. But those voices originated inside heir heads. It wasn’t until the voices began to recede that words began to adopt metaphorical meanings, paving the way for the emergence of consciousness as we know it, and with it the pernicious illusion of mind-body dualism. But why did the voices depart?
The Old Testament: Chronicling the Breakdown
The breakdown of bicameral mentality is beautifully chronicled in the Old Testament, as is apparent in a comparison of the two 'purest' books: Amos (dating from the still largely bicameral eighth century BC) and Ecclesiastes (dating from the fully conscious second century BC). And the anguished story of Saul in Book I of Samuel is particularly telling.
Quoting Jaynes (p. 313):
[T]he Old Testament, even as it is hedged with great historical problems of accuracy, still remains the richest sourcce for our knowledge of what the transition period was like. It is essentially the story of the loss of the bicameral mind, the slow retreat into silence of the remaining elohim [i.e. god voices], the confusion and tragic violence which ensue, and the search for them again in vain among its prophets until a substitute is found in right action [i.e. morality].
"But the mind is still haunted with its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities; and the yearning, the deep and hollowing yearning for divine volition and service is with us still.
'As the stag pants after the waterbrooks,
So pants my mind after you, O gods!
My mind thirsts for gods! for living gods!
When shall I come face to face with gods?'
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in the First Millennium BC
In the Middle East, the second millennium BC was a period of extreme turmoil caused by environmental catastrophes and collapsing civilizations (perhaps not unlike what we are beginning to experience today). Widespread famine led to mass migrations, resulting in the intermixing of populations that had previously been segregated, and hence had developed different cultures and languages. The resulting social discord and chaos probably would have reduced the appropriateness, and hence efficacy, of bicameral commands previously entrained by homogeneous enculturation, exacerbating the conflict. For whatever reason, historical artifacts and texts from this time indicate that the gods became more and more remote and harder to access, requiring special divination by trained oracles and prophets, and the use of occult practices, omens, meditation, chanting and psychotropic drugs. A dark age ensued in which social control, no longer achievable through the culturally coordinated hallucination of divine commands, was instead maintained by the ruthless violence of secular rulers.
At the center of this cultural maelstrom was Greece. The conflict was recorded in oral traditions that ultimately became the epic poems Illiad and Odyssey. Although often attributed to a single author named Homer, Jaynes contends that these poems are more likely amalgamated texts that initially drew on the oral traditions, and were later added to by various authors (an opinion that at least some other scholars share). Jaynes’s analysis reveals a striking change in the use of language, moving from the Illiad’s highly literal recitation of events in the final weeks of the Trojan War, a tale in which the gods were present, vocal, and played a leading role, through the Odyssey’s more metaphorical recounting of the adventures of the wily war hero Odysseus, who being removed from the gods had to rely on his own cunning in dealing with semi-gods and nefarious agents such as sirens and the Cyclops. A similar trajectory of change had occurred a few centuries earlier in Assyria, wherein a void left by the withdrawal of gods in human form was filled by the more fantastical genies. According to Jaynes this documents the initial stages of the breakdown of the bicameral mind.
Poetry became increasingly metaphorical in the first millennium BC, such that by the 6th century words were wielded much like they are in contemporary poetry. Jaynes traces the change via seven Greek words: thumos, phrenes, noos, and psyche, which in contemporary usage translate as mind, spirit, or soul; and kradie, ker, and etor, with modern translations as heart, mind, or spirit. In the Illiad, these words are instead used objectively (i.e. literally)—for example, thumos refers to a person’s activity; phrenes probably refers to the lungs; noos to sight, and psyche to life or breath. Only later, by way of preconscious transitional usages that Jaynes refers to as hypostases, wherein the words came to refer to internal sensations, did they acquire their later metaphorical connotations—by which, for example, noos came to mean insight (the mind’s “eye”), and psyche came to mean spirit, or consciousness itself. This set the stage for the blossoming of the Greek intellect that soon followed, laying the foundations of Western philosophy and science, and forever changing the world.
But just as significantly, it led to the birth of dualism. Psyche, which originally referred to life, is the opposite of soma, originally corpse or deadness. But after the metaphorical transformation psyche came to mean spirit (or soul), and as a consequence its opposite soma acquired the meaning of body. And thus was born the dualistic notion that the soul is opposed to, and hence distinctly separate from, the body—the confounding ‘consciousness of consciousness’ that haunts us to this day. Quoting Jaynes (p. 291, first edition):
“In Pindar, Heraclitus, and others around 500 B.C., psyche and nous begin to coalesce. It is now the conscious subjective mind-space and its self that is opposed to the material body. Cults spring up about this new wonder-provoking division between psyche and soma. It both excites and seems to explain the new conscious experience, thus reinforcing its very existence. The conscious psyche is imprisoned in the body as in a tomb. It becomes an object of wide-eyed controversy. Where is it? And the locations in the body or outside it vary. What is it made of? Water (Thales), blood, air (Anaximenes), breath (Xenophanes), fire (Heraclitus), and so on, as the science of it all begins in a morass of pseudoquestions.
“So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins its huge haunted career through history, to be firmly set in the firmament of thought by Plato, moving through Gnosticism into the great religions, up through the arrogant assurances of Descartes to become one of the great spurious quandaries of modern psychology.”
The Divine Language of Poetry
The reason that early texts such as the Iliad are poems is that this is how the hallucinated gods communicated. And modern poetry retains vestiges of such divine inspiration, the muse of the poet. Jaynes asks (p. 361):
What unseen light leads us to such dark practice? And why does poetry flash with recongintion of thoughts we did no know we had, finding its unsure way to something in us that knows and has known all the time, something, I think, older than the present organization of our nature?
And answering his own question:
I shall state my thesis plain. The first poets were gods. Poetry began with the bicameral mind. The god-side of our ancient mentality, at least in a certain period of history, usually or perhaps always spoke in verse. This means that most men at one time, throughout the day, were hearing poetry (of a sort) composed and spoken within their own minds.
Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind
It is thus ironic that poetry, wherein metaphor finds its strongest expression, is a vestige of the bicameral mind. However, poetry’s primitive character is rhythm, stemming from its origination as song. Rhythmic meter (e.g. that of chanting, and music in general) engages the region in the right hemisphere of the brain that Jaynes suggests was involved in producing divine hallucinations. And indeed, people with an impaired ability to speak (e.g. due to stroke or speech impediments) are often quite adept at singing. And if you think about it (particularly if you are musically inclined) you will probably agree that being moved by music and poetry is not a conscious choice.
Hypnotism is another mysterious phenomenon that may explained by vestigial bicamerality. Subjects under hypnotic trance are quite amenable to the ‘power of suggestion’, and to the extent that they are, are no longer operating under their own (conscious) free will, but rather under the commands of the hypnotist. This has been a mystery since its discovery in 1842 by Scottish surgeon James Braid (1795-1860), a student of the animal magnetism theory of Franz Messmer (1734-1815; from whom we get the word ‘mesmerize’). Hypnotism makes sense if one considers that it taps into the vestiges of the bicameral mind, which was organized to receive and automatically respond to vocal commands from a perceived authority. This again suggests that a vestige of bicameral mind still exists, but remains undeveloped (and unused) in most people owing to the very different enculturation engendered by consciousness.
Finally, as might be surmised from the foregoing discussion, Jaynes’s theory helps explain schizophrenia, which can be viewed as a bicameral atavism. Unfortunately for the schizophrenic, the culture that co-evolved with bicamerality no longer exists, so the condition is now considered a mental illness. Quoting Jaynes (p. 432):
“The modern schizophrenic is an individual in search of a culture. But he retains usually some part of the subjective consciousness that struggles against this more primitive mental organization, that tries to establish some kind of control in the middle of a mental organization in which the hallucination ought to do the controlling. In effect, he is a mind bared to his environment, waiting on gods in a godless world.”
If one considers that schizophrenia is likely to represent the extremity of a spectrum of mental conditions, it is fair to ask: how much presence does the bicameral mind actually retain in modern humanity? Most if not all of us are conscious; but are some of us more conscious than others? And does some fraction of the contemporary population consist of individuals who would not be considered (or diagnosed as) schizophrenic, but who are nonetheless susceptible to occasional (perhaps even frequent) auditory hallucinations? And of these, how many are thus compelled to find religion? Similarly, how many crimes are committed unconsciously at the behest of hallucinated commands (making the perpetrators ‘innocent by reason of insanity’)?
Implications of Jaynes’s Theory for Religion and Science
It is not surprising that few are willing to entertain the central premise of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Its inescapable implications will undoubtedly provoke strong reactions from True Believers of any stripe. For example, if Jaynes is right, then the God of Abraham was a hallucinated voice. But that makes at least as much (and in my opinion much more) sense than any of the alternative interpretations. In light of Jaynes’s theory, the myth of the fall—paradise lost precipitated by humans eating from the tree of knowledge—represents the breakdown of the bicameral mind, which left humanity to its own devices, free for the first time to ponder and choose between alternate paths, and thus to create its own destiny.
But Jaynes’s theory has equally unsettling implications for science, which is the ultimate extension of, as well as a reaction to, subjective consciousness. On the one hand science pushes the metaphorical inner-space model of consciousness to its limit, as epitomized by the life-is-a-machine metaphor that dominates modern biomedicine. On the other hand science is constantly fighting the slippery vagueness of metaphorical language, which is why the precise formalism of mathematics is preferred. But as Kurt Goedel proved, the latter has its own limitations: there are truths that cannot be proven mathematically. And the mathematics of Heisenberg proved that the universe is fundamentally uncertain. Despite these limitations, science, like religion, seeks certainty in an uncertain world, in a continuing quest to fill the void left by the breakdown of the bicameral mind. And so Jaynes concludes (p. 446):
“The very notion of truth is a culturally given direction, a part of the pervasive nostalgia for an earlier certainty. The very idea of a universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphology of history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind. What was then an augury for direction of action among the ruins of an archaic mentality is now the search for an innocence of certainty among the mythologies of facts.”