I’m Struggling With Julian Jaynes


Julian JaynesI first came across Julian Jaynes and his controversial (or at least provocative) book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, back in the late 1970s. I bought a copy, and read part of it, but my life was in a bit of turmoil back then, and I didn’t get too far along in it. Over the years, the book left my shelves, possibly given away or traded in. It wasn’t until two years ago that I came across a used copy (the 1990 revised edition with Jaynes’ extensive afterword) at a stand in Kensington Market. I decided I should make another attempt, and bought it.

For the past several months, I’ve been slowly reading the book (one of many I read simultaneously, as is my wont), taking time to consider his ideas, statements, and hypotheses as seriously and completely as my limited, non-academic background in these areas allows. It hasn’t been easy. Of course, I’ve been somewhat distracted by other books and personal issues, but still…

Jaynes’ hypothesis is that consciousness is a later development in human history, one that occurred almost simultaneously with the development of civilization, and that it arose in humans through both language and the physiological separation of, and communication between, the two halves of our brains (the bicameral brain). The latter was heard as ghostly voices or the voices of the gods.

This is from the Julian Jaynes Society website:

Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by many people who hear voices today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.

The site further adds, “Dating the development of consciousness (as Jaynes carefully defines it) to around the end of the second millennium B.C. [sic] in Greece and Mesopotamia. The transition occurred at different times in other parts of the world.” Wikipedia adds,

…his theory has four separate hypotheses: consciousness is based on and accessed by language; the non-conscious bicameral mind is based on verbal hallucinations; the breakdown of bicameral mind precedes consciousness, but the dating is variable; the ‘double brain’ of bicamerality is not today’s functional lateralization of the cerebral hemispheres. He also expanded on the impact of consciousness on imagination and memory, notions of The Self, emotions, anxiety, guilt, and sexuality.

Interesting hypothesis, even if it somewhat baffles me. However, I am fascinated by the nature and origins of consciousness, how we define it, where it comes from, where it is located within us, and its future. I am reading other related books in my efforts to understand it (including some works on the simulation theory, superintelligence, and the consciousness of octopodes).

What so far sticks in my craw, now halfway through his book, are his historical examples from ancient civilizations, or rather how he interprets them to draw his conclusions. While on the surface they may support his ideas, drawing conclusions based on relics, statues, art, buildings, shrines, and even texts from civilizations long dead is always fraught with difficulty. We always see the past through the lenses of our own time and experiences and misinterpretation is quite likely.

We can never be confident that what is written about or exhibited in a carving means what we think it does, or even if what is shown or described is actually real. Just read Pliny or Herodotus and you’ll come across many clearly mythical, imaginary, or fictional elements described as if they were real. The Bible is chock full of imaginary events and creatures, too. Plato spends many pages on the fictional Atlantis. It doesn’t mean these things or creatures didn’t have some natural, real-world origin; but in the transmission of their stories became something else entirely. The fictional “Flood” in Genesis is just one such example. Plus, ancient worldviews may include things we no longer consider real, such as magic, demons, gods, and mythical places.

One only has to look at the wildly risible conclusions drawn from the same or similarly dated sources by the arch wingnut, Erich von Däniken, expounded on in his wacky books like Chariots of the Gods? and its sequels. His conclusions (or wild fantasies) were that pretty much everything from human past was the result of interactions with or influences from visiting alien species. Piffle, yes, but wildly popular among the lumpen for many years. Turn to the TV channels and see “documentaries” about ghosts and haunted houses. More egregious codswallop, yet believed by many hard-of-thinking viewers.

Of course, there are differences. Jaynes earned real academic credits as a respected psychologist, lecturer, and contributor to the fields of animal behaviour and ethology, while von Daniken was a former hotel manager convicted of embezzlement and defrauding his employer. When Jaynes offers an interpretation or a theory, even if seemingly questionable, the reader should at least give it serious consideration. When von Daniken offers an interpretation, one should simply giggle and guffaw.

Jaynes’ work has inspired actual research, and also many authors to expand on his ideas. It cannot be lightly dismissed simply because I do not fully appreciate or understand it.  So, even despite some misgivings about his conclusions, I continue to read Jaynes in the hope that his work will better help me understand better this world and the consciousness with which I view it.

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  1. The Jaynes book has been largely relegated to the sidelines over the decades following its original publication, as research has identified errors in his assumptions about physiology and about information processing in the brain. The entire book wasn’t completely erroneous, but it’s no longer regarded as definitive. (On the other hand, it isn’t castigated as being on the same level as Chariots of the Gods.)

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