In 1976, the polymathic Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It is one of those rare books which is mostly wrong but is filled with so many penetrating and provocative insights that it still deserves to be read. It’s a big idea book that aroused considerable scholarly response, most of it critical. While current academic interest in Jaynes is minimal, his popular audience remains large. Some of his followers have formed a society which maintains a cult-like website devoted to all things Jaynes.
Though it isn’t possible to do Jaynes justice in a short space, his most famous idea was that the ancient human mind was of two parts: it was “bicameral.” Inspired by research showing the brain is right-left specialized, Jaynes hypothesized that in the evolutionary past the left brain must have been completely separated from the right brain. The effect, according to Jaynes, would have been disquieting: language generated in the left brain would have been interpreted by the right brain as coming from outside or somewhere else. Ancient people, in other words, were functionally lobotomized and regularly experienced auditory hallucinations. These voices were called gods and this supposedly explains the origin of religion. For Jaynes, the bicameral mind lacked what he calls “consciousness.”
With this hypothesis in hand Jaynes began scouring the historical record looking for evidence of bicamerality. In the Iliad, an ancient oral poem finally written down around 800 BCE, Jaynes thinks he has found it:
[I]f you take the generally accepted oldest parts of the Iliad and ask, “Is there evidence of consciousness?” the answer, I think, is no. People are not sitting down and making decisions. No one is. No one is introspecting. No one is even reminiscing. It is a very different kind of world.
Then, who makes the decisions? Whenever a significant choice is to be made, a voice comes in telling people what to do. These voices are always and immediately obeyed. These voices are called gods. To me this is the origin of gods. I regard them as auditory hallucinations similar to, although not precisely the same as, the voices heard by Joan of Arc or William Blake. Or similar to the voices that modern schizophrenics hear. Verbal hallucinations are common today, but in early civilization I suggest that they were universal.
Jaynes must then explain the origin and evolution of the bicameral or “unconscious” mind, which he does here:
But why is there such a mentality as a bicameral mind? Let us go back to the beginning of civilization in several sites in the Near East around 9000 B.C. It is concomitant with the beginning of agriculture. The reason the bicameral mind may have existed at this particular time is because of the evolutionary pressures for a new kind of social control to move from small hunter-gatherer groupings to large agriculture based towns or cities. The bicameral mentality could do this since it enabled a large group to carry around with them the directions of the chief or king as verbal hallucinations, instead of the chieftain having to be present at all times.
I think that verbal hallucinations had evolved along with the evolution of language during the Neanderthal era as aids to attention and perseverance in tasks, but then became the way of ruling larger groups.
Setting aside for a moment the objection that modern humans are only minimally descended from Neanderthals and we don’t know whether they had language, Jaynes obviously believes that bicamerality is ancient and ancestral. All humans, in other words, descended from these hallucinating hunter-gatherers. Much later in time some of these hunter-gatherers (those in the Near East) developed agriculture and the “voices” were pressed into the service of social control. Even when the ruler-god isn’t present, people hear voices and attribute the commands of those voices to the ruler-god.
It’s all very tidy. The problem, however, is that the bicameral mind on which everything is built and depends eventually breaks down. The story that Jaynes tells about the breakdown is remarkable, indeed fascinating, but for my purposes the details are unimportant. All we need to know is that in complex agricultural societies, pressures and contradictions increase until the bicameral mind finally dissolves: it becomes unified or unicameral. This is the beginning, for Jaynes, of “consciousness.” It is the hallmark of fully modern minds which recognize the voice inside the head not as “god” but as “I.”
It is that this point that Jaynes’ story, still believed by many, runs into deep trouble: some groups of people never practiced agriculture, never lived in complex societies, and never experienced a breakdown of bicameralism. These people are of course hunter-gatherers, many of whom continued foraging until relatively recently and some of whom still do. These groups, descended directly from the hallucinating ancients, presumably retained bicameral minds and lacked “consciousness.”
If this were the case (it isn’t), our histories and ethnographies would be filled with fantastic and unbelievable tales about bicameral hunter-gatherers. They would have been strange beings incapable of recognizing that the voices inside their heads weren’t real. While this is the obvious implication of Jaynes’ theory, we needn’t take my word for it. Here is how recent “pre-literate tribal” people are described by the Jaynes Society:
They have limited inner mental life (and experience frequent auditory hallucinations) but they can be just as animated as non-human primates are. Bicameral people were non-conscious but intelligent, had basic language, and were probably more social than modern conscious people in the sense that they would have typically lived and worked surrounded by others. They would be able to express first tier (non-conscious) emotions such as fear, shame, and anger, but not second-tier (conscious) emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and hatred.
This is stunning. It reads like a racist Victorian description of non-European subhumans, and if I didn’t just pull it from a website advocating Jaynes’ views, that’s what I would think it was.
Here is how we know Jaynes is wrong: there is no evidence that historically recent hunter-gatherers were or are biologically-neurologically different or that their minds were metaphorically bifurcated. Nothing in the ethnohistoric or ethnographic record suggests this and in fact the opposite is true. What we find in the record is that these people, despite their different histories and cultures, were (and are) just like us.
Jaynes, Julian. (1986). Consciousness and The Voices of the Mind. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 27 (2), 128-148 DOI: 10.1037/h0080053