Breaking Down Julian Jaynes:
A Review of The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/6/03
I’ve been delving in to such matters as consciousness & religiosity-
prompted by supplications from friends & acquaintances. I was snookered in
to reading the book Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, by my best
friend- an atheist- who longed to hear me praise the fallow & plodding tome.
I did not, as my review of the book attests, because although I
agreed with many of its takes on religion’s modern place in society, its
theory was full of holes, & the writing was too self-congratulatory &
dull. In turn, this led to my devoting a recent Omniversica radio
show to the subject. During the show my co-host (or cohort?) Art
Durkee mentioned a book he felt did alot better job at sorting out religion than
the Boyer book did. The book he mentioned (& loaned to me to read) was
Julian Jaynes’ The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The
Bicameral Mind (henceforth abbreviated as OCBM). Never having heard of the
man nor his book, before, I decided to read it as a counterpoint to the Boyer
book &- even though it was published in 1976 by Houghton Mifflin- it is a
significantly better read, & its ideas- although a bit of them have been
superseded by subsequent discoveries- hold up fairly well, or- at the least-
they provoke much thought. I also discovered that JJ was (he died in 1997) a bit
of a maverick in his field. OCBM was his only major book, but it has attracted a
cultic following over the decades. JJ has even gotten his own Society: The
Julian Jaynes Society which posts this information about itself & JJ:
primary goals of the Julian Jaynes Society are to foster discussion and a better
understanding of the life, work, and theories of Julian Jaynes (1920–1997),
the implications of his bicameral mind theory of consciousness, and the topic of
consciousness in general.
Born in West Newton, Massachusetts, Julian Jaynes did his undergraduate work at Harvard and McGill and received both his master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology from Yale. Julian Jaynes was a popular teacher, and he lectured in the Psychology Department at Princeton University from 1966 to 1990. In addition, he had numerous positions as Visiting Lecturer or Scholar in Residence in departments of philosophy, English, and archeology and in numerous medical schools. Julian Jaynes was an associate editor of the internationally renowned journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences and on the editorial board of the Journal of Mind and Behavior.
Julian Jaynes published widely, his earlier work focusing on the study of animal behavior and ethology, which eventually led him to the study of human consciousness. His more recent work culminated in 1976 in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a nominee for the National Book Award in 1978. Criticized by some and acclaimed by others as one of the most important books of the 20th century, it remains as controversial today as when it was first published. Expanding on this book are several more recent articles published in a variety of journals such as Canadian Psychology, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, The History of Ideas, and Art/World.
lambasted as a charlatan & toasted as a visionary. He was neither of those
things, but somewhere in between. Certainly, he was not as ignominious in his
field as Immanuel Velikovsky was in astronomy circles- although specious
comparisons have been made. A more apt comparison to JJ’s theory of
bicamerality & consciousness would be to compare it to Daniel Dennett’s
multiple drafts model of consciousness- outlined in his 1991 opus Consciousness
Explained. Not that the 2 men, nor their theories, have direct causal links
(the way 1 could infer the evolutionary progress of Protoceratops to Triceratops,
or Eohippus to Equus), rather that both men attempt to use science
& history as progenitors of their views on the subject. JJ’s take is more
dated than DD’s, nonetheless is well worth exploring.
In reading the book the 1st thing that really got my attention was how well written & interesting the book’s Introduction was. Let me quote a few of the more wonderfully lucid bits of writing from it before I have to assail the theory.
An apt take on a grand, but unremarked on, illusion:
feel it [consciousness] is the defining attribute of all our waking states, our
moods and affections, our memories, our thoughts, attentions, and volitions. We
feel comfortably certain that consciousness is the basis of concepts, of
learning and reasoning, of thought and judgment, and that it is so because it
records and stores our experiences as they happen, allowing us to introspect on
them and learn from them at will. We are also quite conscious that all this
wonderful set of operations and contents that we call consciousness is located
somewhere in the head.
On critical examination, all of these statements are false. They are the costume that consciousness has been masquerading in for centuries. They are the misconceptions that have prevented a solution to the problem of the origin of consciousness.’
On another illusion, & note the lucidity of explanation- something lacking in Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained:
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. How simple that is to say;
how difficult to appreciate! 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.
It is much more probable that the seeming continuity of consciousness is really an illusion, just as most of the other metaphors about consciousness are. In our flashlight analogy, the flashlight would be conscious of being on only when it is on. Though huge gaps of time occurred, providing things were generally the same, it would seem to the flashlight itself that the light had been continuously on. We are thus consciousless of the time than we think, because we cannot be conscious of when we are not conscious…. so consciousness knits itself over its time gaps and gives the illusion of continuity.’
Here on the Blank Slate idea(l?) of consciousness:
[John] Locke had lived in our time, he would have used the metaphor of a camera
rather than a slate. But the idea is the same. And most people would protest
emphatically that the - chief function of consciousness is to store up
experience, to copy it as a camera does, so that it can be reflected upon at
some future time.
So it seems. But consider the following problems: Does the door of your room open from the right or the left? Which is your second longest finger? At a stoplight, is it the red or the green that is on top? How many teeth do you see when brushing your teeth? What letters are associated with what numbers on a telephone dial? If you are in a familiar room, without turning around, write down all the items on the wall just behind you, and then look.
I think you will be surprised how little you can retrospect in consciousness on the supposed images you have stored from so much previous attentive experience. If the familiar door suddenly opened the other way, if another finger suddenly grew longer, if the red light were differently placed, or you had an extra tooth, or the telephone were made differently, or a new window latch had been put on the window behind you, you would know it immediately, showing that you all along "knew', but not consciously so. Familiar to psychologists, this is the distinction between recognition and recall. What you can consciously recall is a thimbleful to the huge oceans of your actual knowledge.’
Or these takes on the fundamental issue of: Where does consciousness take place?:
or almost everyone, immediately replies, in my head. This is because when we
introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes.
But what on earth do we mean by 'look'? We even close our eyes sometimes to
introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems
unquestionable. Moreover we seem to move or at least 'look' in different
directions. And if we press ourselves too strongly to further characterize this
space (apart from its imagined contents), we feel a vague irritation, as if
there were something that did not want to be known, some quality which to
question was somehow ungrateful, like rudeness in a friendly place.
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, maintaining periodic eye-to-eye contact (that remnant of our primate past when eye-to-eye contact was concerned in establishing tribal hierarchies), 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 tissue of one sort or another. And the fact that it is predominantly neurological tissue is irrelevant.
Now this thought takes a little thinking to get used to. It means that we are continually inventing these spaces in our own and other people's heads, knowing perfectly well that they don't exist anatomically and the location of these 'spaces' is indeed quite arbitrary….
Let us not make a mistake. When I am conscious, I am always and definitely using certain parts of my brain inside my head. But so am I when riding a bicycle, and the bicycle riding does not go on inside my head. The cases are different of course, since bicycle riding has a definite geographical location, while consciousness does not. In reality, consciousness has no location whatever except as we imagine it has.’
This sort of
lucidity is rare in writing- scientific or otherwise. I want to praise the
writing because scientific book reviews, & the like, rarely focus on such-
preferring to pettily savage the ideas- no matter if the book is well written.
That said, JJ basically lays out the problem of consciousness as a vivisectionist might- asking the reader to be willing to probe & explore. ***Caution- breathe a sigh of relief, because I will not toss around a lot of the polysyllabic jargon that JJ does, I will merely try to regurge it in bite-sized morsels.*** That said, here is a nutshell version of JJ’s theory:
Consciousness is not something that is a slow, steady, predictable
outcome of millions of years of physical evolutionary processes from amoeba to
men, rather it is a fairly recent- last few millennia- emergent property of
human culture. I.e.- while the Cro-Magnon tribes of 10,000 years ago, & even
the early Middle Eastern cultures of 3 or 4,000 years ago, were filled with
humans that were physiologically indistinguishable from Modern Man, they were-
on a psychological level- fundamentally different. They were de facto zombies
lacking a sense of the ‘I’. Their brains functioned naturally on what we
would today call a schizophrenic level- but they were not schizoid, this was
their natural or (to use Cyber Age jargon) default state of being. The brains of
these people functioned bicamerally- that is their 2 hemispheres were at odds
with each other. The Left was where the mortal man resided, going through tasks
in a rote autonomic way- even if laughing or crying, while the Right was the
demesne of the Gods. When ancient prophets had visions they were not crazy, it
was this God-self (what might today be recognized as intuition) giving warnings
or advice in the manner of voices &/or hallucinations. But, then society
complexed to the point that more direct modes of thought predominated. This
bicamerality (or as it’s known in poetic circles- Negative Capability)
soon was remanent only in the disaffected & or mentally ill. JJ attempts to
prove his points historically &- more interestingly- literarily (specifically
A really different take- 1 never posited before, & rarely approached
since. But, the overall theory fails with the details used to bolster it. Simply
put, most of the supports for the theory have been rotted away & weakened
through later discoveries about consciousness in both humans & other animals
(especially apes & whales). Yet the book’s supposition that human
consciousness did not begin in the mists of animal physical evolution, but was
learned, & only started to come into being about 3000 years ago, out of some
hallucinatory, & foggish pre-mentality, & is still evolving, has a heft
& appeal that cannot be denied- even if the years have not been kind to most
of JJ’s assertions. Were he right, the ramifications of this view would
reshape every aspect of psychology, history, culture, religion, philosophy,
& the eventualities of all of them. This theory, which states that the ancients could not think
as Modern Man does, that they were technically unconscious beings, almost
automata because of the domination of the right hemisphere, is very attractive
to people with a high euthenic bent- but genetics has interceded. The idea that
only catastrophes & creeping civilization forced Man to be conscious, to let
loose the power of the brain's left hemisphere, is also a highly ‘sexy’
idea. But, so is the idea of extraterrestrial visitation- & where does that
stand nowadays? This attempt at intellectual sex appeal also lends itself to
JJ’s very writing style. Here’s how JJ, himself, ends his
‘O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this
insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless
rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret
theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of
all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and
discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone,
questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we
may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An
introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This
consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet is nothing
at all — what is it? And where did it come from? And why?’
See? If you get that JJ is consciously striving to be deep & poetic,
you’re right. In fact, he uses the notion of poetry in his theorizing
throughout the book.
Let me now set the table for the rest of this essay. 1st I will chronologically, & briefly skim through, & limn out, the book’s course & ideas. Then I will expound upon them, with a little more depth- my own & some other comments & criticisms from others, before wrapping things up. All in all, however, regardless of the theoretical shortcomings & anachronisms, the book is a very good read- ideas are clearly delineated, given ample support (even if ultimately they proved wrong), & 1 never feels JJ is declaiming from on high- he’s merely elbowing a friend in the ribs as he explains this really cool things he’s found. If a near-450 page book dealing with the advent of consciousness & offering an insight in to the root of religiosity can be called a light easy read, then this is that book. Excelsior!
Having laid out the theory of bicamerality early on in the book, it is not until about page 80 that the 1st cracks in the theory show. It’s Chapter 3- The Mind Of The Iliad- & JJ again shows why it’s almost useless for non-creative types to try to provide exegesis for the arts- they simply do not have the complexity of thought processes to approach Creationary, or Visionary, level things with a Functionary mind. Basically, JJ states that The Iliad, & all literature before it, was bicameral, because the passages lacked the ‘analog I’- that part of us that inhabits our mind’s-eye. In other words, there are no instances of the Iliadic characters recognizing themselves as individuated- they are constantly besieged with visions from the gods. The cinching piece of proof that JJ uses are 2 nearly identical moments in the epic where the characters of Agenor & Hector exclaim, after soliloquies, ‘But wherefore does my life say this to me?’ The fact that the characters show surprise at their self-realizations strikes JJ as puzzling- since he believes these are later reworkings of the original tale. There are several problems with this: 1) Even if the tales were rewritten, JJ fails to account for the tried & true artistic technique of using paradigmic characters- in other words, the ancients did not see the arts as the province of realism, but idealism. What ideal being introspects? 2) Only flawed beings do that, & even though The Iliad’s (or Gilgamesh’s) characters were mostly ‘human’- they were idealized representations- as well as allegorical. They were not ‘real’- the way a Holden Caulfield or Huckleberry Finn are ‘real’ fictitious characters. 3) Even if points 1 & 2 were not true, there’s the very idea that this piecemeal poem will have contradictory impulses- so? This ‘evidence’ is not so much for proof of the bicameral consciousness of its authors, as much as it is evidence for the process of art that few non-artists get to see. Another point that leads 1 to the fallacy of this idea is that members of both the great apes & whale families have been shown, via a series of tests, to have developed senses of the analog I- for example, of knowing that the ape in the mirror is itself, of a highly developed musical language that whales understand, yet humans do not. So much so that a whale can leave off a song at a particular note, then resume the song at precisely the same point months later, given a similar prompt- time of day, location, proximity to an event or thing, etc. Lesser animals- say, songbirds, are incapable of this- as they are with inflections of sounds & motions. Both apes & whales seem capable of individuation & recognition of repetitive complex patterns in other individuals of their kind. A sense of the self is also present. If we now know this to be so, then the possibility of this being missing in the people of a few millennia removed, is almost nil.
Needless to say, this 1st misstep leads to an accumulation of errors which lead JJ further & further astray from actually solving the problem of consciousness. Chapter 4- The Bicameral Mind- adds to the muddle. Here JJ defines bicamerality in modern terms- imagine driving a car & conversing with someone. If you subtract the part of the brain that is consciously conversing you have the bicameral state- a being who can do things, & interact reciprocally, yet be unconscious. Then an accident occurs while driving. Modern Man’s reaction is to then direct the consciousness over to the accident & cogitate, while the bicameral man would non-consciously react according to the dictates of his God self’s voices. The problem is we’ve traced the roots of language in man back at least several tens of thousands of years- long before JJ’s posited breakdown of bicamerality. We know that language- or at least conversation- is an absolutely conscious act; 1 does not converse without a sentient backdrop. We know that rudimentary language & selfness exists in the great apes & many whale species, & the evidence keeps piling up that a root human proto-language developed anywhere from 30-100,000 years ago; even that our Neandertal cousins may have been lingual. This information was not known in 1976 when OCBM was 1st published.
Another blunder occurs later in the chapter when JJ posits that the hallucinated bicameral gods were released for a similar reason that a schizoid’s voices appear- stress. He then posits that in the bicameral era the stress threshold for hallucinations in average folk back then was much, much lower, therefore the whole of their societies were much more prone to hallucinations. Why is this a blunder? Not because it could not be true, but because it’s metaphysically unprovable- it’s a grand assumption based on nothing but a need to shoehorn the theory into a workable stage that JJ can further elaborate on. This ad hoc ideation is similar to alot of the Mother Necessity reasoning of Big Bang theorists, whose ideas are almost always unfalsifiable- therefore non-scientific. Another problem with this sort of reasoning is what I call the Joseph Campbell Fallacy. JC made a career out of overplaying the ‘Power of Myth’- so much so that the phrase is routinely parenthesized- as I just did. JC thought that every myth had its origin in a true event that resonated psychically through the generations- a sort of play off of the Jungian Collective Unconscious. The problem is it leaves nothing to the palpable power of human imagination- that childlike desire to just bullshit & lie to 1’s heart’s content. Another, lesser, error comes when JJ conflates the lack of interior thought in the Iliadic heroes to be proof of bicamerality. Nonsense. All this proves is a stylistic choice by the assembler(s) of the poem. Again JJ’s own Functional mindset intrudes.
Yet, let’s gander at some of the reviews the book 1st garnered:
‘When Julian Jaynes...speculates
that until late in the second millennium B.C. men had no consciousness but were
automatically obeying the voices of gods, we are astounded but compelled to
follow this remarkable thesis through all the corroborative evidence...
Updike, The New Yorker
[Obviously, the little corroborative evidence was obviated, & the
rest was simply not so.]
‘This book and this man's ideas may be the most influential, not to say
controversial, of the second half of the twentieth century. It renders whole
shelves of books obsolete.’
Harrington, Columbus Dispatch
[A typical generic blurb that may as well have been written by a wannabe
‘Having just finished The Origin of Consciousness, I myself feel something like Keats'
Cortez staring at the Pacific, or at least like the early reviewers of Darwin or
Freud. I'm not quite sure what to make of this new territory; but its expanse
lies before me and I am startled by its power.’
‘He is as startling as Freud was in The
Interpretation of Dreams, and Jaynes is equally adept at forcing a new view
of known human behavior.’
Headlee, American Journal of Psychiatry
[This is a surprise since JJ’s ideas contradict many sacred cows of
‘The bold hypothesis of the bicameral mind is an intellectual shock to
the reader, but whether or not he ultimately accepts it he is forced to
entertain it as a possibility. Even if he marshals arguments against it he has
to think about matters he has never thought of before, or, if he has thought of
them, he must think about them in contexts and relationships that are strikingly
R. Hilgard, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
most accurate assessment of the book so far.]
Although the book is badly
dated in some areas of its assertions there are some people who would describe
it as prescient & prophetic.
Another who leans in a Jaynesian direction, if not for the same reason, is
psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. In ‘Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of
the Human Mind’, from the Journal of Consciousness Studies, NH says
similarities exist between the cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic &
those of an autistic girl called Nadia. Now, autism is a problematic area that I
will tackle in a later essay. Nonetheless NH claims Nadia lacked language, yet
by 3 she drew horses & animals with far superior skill to those of
‘normal’ children. The animals have perspective, foreshortening, & are
never mono-dimensional. This was all from within Nadia- without any lessons. The
realism is striking to those of cave paintings, yet even the errors are similar:
a tendency for figures to be drawn on top of each another. Both have animals
with body parts from other animals. NH says they could mean nothing- but could
be a link. Personally, I’m not impressed- idiot savantism has been known for
eons, yet to link this to bicameralism? NH & others conclude that there is a
link between her artistic skill & inability to speak. NH wonders if the cave
painters painted because they were mute? It is assumed that the skill of these
ancient painters implies they were of a modern mind- replete with language. But
the Nadia files show this is not a given- if Nadia could draw in spite of
lacking language, so might they. Again, so what? All the evidence points against
that, as even ‘lesser’ beings as the great apes & whales (& some
would posit elephants & a few other mammals) have the rudiments of language
& abstraction- even to the degree of elephants creating sand/dust paintings
with their trunks!
NH never directly links himself with JJ but the similarities are there. 1 major difference is NH places the end of bicamerality between about 11,000 to 5,000 years ago. Another JJ descendant is neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Unlike NH AD explicitly references JJ in his book on human consciousness’s origins: The Feeling of What Happens. He goes in the other direction suggesting even later alterations to the mind- stating that Plato & Aristotle did not have a concept of consciousness the way we do today. This idea of consciousness is new- only 3-400 years old, & only dominated since the advent of the 20th Century. The aforementioned Daniel Dennett has had quibbles with JJ, but also finds alot still useful. He feels JJ was wrong about the import of hallucinations, but likes much of JJ’s approach- especially in the cyber age. The hardware of the human brain may be the same as it was eons ago, but a change in the organization of information-processing happened- our software was updated.
An argument that has been thrown out as proof of a change in human consciousness is the slowness that humans have applied technology they have discovered. Or, as some have stated: ‘If they used their heads the same way that we do then they would have built computers & starships 1000s of years ago.’ But this shows a lack of modern chaos theory, complexity, & emergent properties. Yet this learning by slowly evolving rote mimicry is how many feel human consciousness once was- similar to the way a baby learns to speak- by absorption. It was only a certain complexity point of no return that changed the human mind- that change being cultural, not biological. This has strong appeal- even in our genetically-obsessed age- but, again, has been superseded by facts.
As I see it, there seems to be 1 major flaw to JJ’s theories- apart & aside from the smaller points I made earlier, & the examples given of facts now known that JJ was oblivious to when the book was published. The flaw is 2fold: 1) Real consciousness seems to extend alot farther down the food chain (so to speak) than we have thought- & this does not even include things such as emotional IQ (well-known to exist in many mammals & some birds), etc., that was little thought of 3 decades ago. 2) Perhaps, rather than consciousness, JJ should have called his book The Origin Of Sentience In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, because sentience is more culturally & technologically-specific than consciousness. & that seems to be a bit more in line with JJ’s argument.
Still, now- as then- the book is awash in wonderful writing. Much interest was anticipated back in the fateful year of 1984 for the sequel ‘The Consequences of Consciousness’, but- for whatever reasons- it never happened. Whether or not JJ saw the theory’s flaws, or just could not work out a grander theory, I do not know.
But, his book is chock with gems- be they pithy witticisms- ‘Civilization is the art of living in towns of such size that everyone does not know everyone else.’ or ‘Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.’- or the profound- ‘Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastness of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor which it is.’- or the discredited- ‘Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics....Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository....If consciousness is this invention of an analog world even as the world of mathematics parallels the world of quantities of things, what then can we say about its origin? Consciousness comes after language! The implications of such a position are extremely serious.’- or the exceedingly thought-provoking- ‘The terms theory and model, incidentally, are sometimes used interchangeably. But really they should not be. A theory is a relationship of the model to the things the model is supposed to represent. The Bohr model of the atom is that of a proton surrounded by orbiting electrons. It is something like the pattern of the solar system, and that is indeed one of its metaphoric sources. Bohr's theory was that all atoms were similar to his model. The theory, with the more recent discovery of new particles and complicated interatomic relationships, has turned out not to be true. But the model remains. A model is neither true nor false; only the theory of its similarity to what it represents.
A theory is thus a metaphor between a model and data. And understanding in science is the feeling of similarity between complicated data and a familiar model.’
My hope is that another JJ is lurking out there (be it in whatever scientific field necessary to move the discussion of consciousness forward), ready to apply his/her own Negative Capability, or bicameralism, to the greater range of facts accumulated since OCBM’s initial publication. That combination might be a real synergy on par with that proposed 1 by JJ, in regards to consciousness & the origins of religiosity, all those years ago.
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