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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Paperback – August 15, 2000
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From The New Yorker
- Publisher : Mariner Books; 31578th edition (August 15, 2000)
- Language: : English
- Paperback : 512 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0618057072
- ISBN-13 : 978-0618057078
- Item Weight : 1.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.25 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #112,335 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
"A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself." -Delia Owens Learn more
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Jaynes' theory, as numerous reviewers here recount, is that human self-consciousness, as we understand it, is a very recent development, beginning only in the 1st Millennium BCE, and then in only certain areas. It's an extraordinary claim. At first when I read blurbs saying Jaynes' theory asserts true consciousness began 3000 years ago, I thought it was a misprint, and they dropped a zero. But it was no misprint. That is the claim.
Jaynes evidently was a very smart, extremely well read psychologist, and developed his theory largely based upon his readings of ancient classics such as the Illiad and the Odyssey. He detected in these works an absence of a modern conception of subjective self-awareness. Where you or I might subjectively puzzle over a dilemma, or introspect upon a feeling, these works attribute this type of contemplation and decision making to the gods. Jaynes discusses other early civilizations as well--less convincingly--to maintain that all humans, including those that built the earliest civilizations in the Middle East, Egypt, China and India, did so essentially unconsciously, guided by hallucinated god-voices. This explains, according to Jaynes, ancient idol worship, and theocratic states.
Of course, there are a lot of other explanations for these things, really everything else historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have maintained written or claimed until Jaynes came along. And the fact is, while the theory is interesting, and the book makes good reading, Jaynes' evidence for his assertions is paper thin. While evidently quite convinced he was right, he also understood the weakness of his case, and throughout the book acknowledges this in various ways, usually by saying things like "...further research of this is required."
The theory also leads to some odd and even prejudicial conclusions, such that I doubt he'd get a major publisher to produce it today. For example, in Jaynes' view, Native American peoples were almost completely lacking in modern human consciousness at the time of the European arrival. In other words, they were something akin to higher animals psychologically, but not fully aware humans as we understand things today. This explains Jaynes, is largely why a massive empire such as that of the Inca, could fall to a small band of Europeans led by a middle ranking Spanish soldier. I would not reject such a theory out of modern political correctness. But I would reject such a provocative theory without better evidence, which Jaynes simply doesn't provide.
There are also very strange omissions from the theory, most noticeably almost completely ignoring the development of Islam. Whether this is because the rise of Islam did not fit his theory (it doesn't) or because Jaynes just never thought about it, I don't know. However, Islamic ideas and history alone largely upend his theory.
According to Jaynes, the first area of the world to shed bicameralism in favor of full self-consciousness was the Middle East, and this began toward the end of the 2d Millennium BCE and was complete by about 500 BCE. By the time of Mohammed over 1000 years later, Jaynes claims that bicameral man was long gone, if some atavistic remnants remained (and remain) in human psychology. But Mohammed himself is the bicameral man par excellence. The whole story of Islamic revelation is a bicameral event. The Angel Gabriel appears to Mohammed and directly conveys God's commands--at length. But Mohammed could not have been a bicameral man according to Jaynes. They were already bred out of existence through natural selection. I suppose Jaynes might have figured out a way to get around this--Mohammed a rare bicameral throwback. But the fact that Jaynes completely ignores it, either suggests that he could not fit it in, or that dealing with Islam never occurred to him. This is either intellectually dishonest, or ignorant. Either way, it does not do much to recommend the theory.
There are a ton more problems with Jaynes' theory which would take its own long book (...the Bicameral Mind is itself a rather long and sometimes grueling read), but I will note just one more from the Afterward in the new edition which was written about 15 years after original publication of the book. In it Jaynes seeks to rebut some of the objections raised to the theory, one of which was the popularity of the mirror in ancient civilizations and its depiction in art. Why critics asked, would non-self conscious people want to look at themselves in the mirror? Jaynes, as he does frequently, never answers the question, instead setting up a straw man and knocking it down. Recognizing oneself in the mirror is not a self-conscious act he says, and then proves it by a lengthy discussion of how primates, very young children and even trained pigeons can do it. However, that is not the objection. The objection is vanity. The use and production of mirrors, and the very artistic depiction of people using mirrors in these civilizations, demonstrates a self-consciousness which Jaynes simply cannot refute. So he just argues around it. Much of the original book is like this as well.
"...the Bicameral Mind" is an interesting read in the same way of other contemporaneous books of the 1970s that sought to explain old ideas with bold new claims are interesting. Throughout, I could not help but think that the whole thing was a lot like Eric von Daniken's "Chariots of the Gods" about the search for ancient astronauts. Like Jaynes, at about the same time, von Daniken sought to explain ancient mysteries with a stunning if outlandish theory. Both are thought provoking, interesting and make pretty good reads. They are not good history, or good explanations for human accomplishments and behaviors.
Jaynes was far ahead of his time, and his theory remains as relevant and influential today as when it was first published. Many consider Jaynes's book to be one of the most important of the twentieth century.
Since the publisher has only included one editorial review, I will add additional reviews below. But first, a word about some of the negative or critical reviews of Jaynes's book. I encourage you to view these with skepticism, as most reflect a very poor understanding of Jaynes's theory, and can easily be dismissed. Jaynes's book is not difficult to understand, but nonetheless many seem to only skim the book or for other reasons fail to grasp his ideas.
The most common pitfall in understanding Jaynes's theory is misunderstanding how Jaynes defines consciousness. Jaynes defines consciousness in a very precise way (and he explains why this is so important), and confusing his definition for more broad, vague definitions of consciousness will lead to failure to understand the theory as a whole.
The internet, social media, and other factors have ushered in somewhat of an epidemic of lack of humility, where many seem to feel they are qualified to weigh in on nearly everything, regardless of their background or experience with the subject matter. They are quick to offer their opinion on nearly anything, regardless of whether or not they actually know what they are talking about. Amazon also encourages this, by soliciting customer reviews. In the case of the purchase of a garden hose, a set of shelves, other household basics, and many other everyday products, this often makes sense. But for books such as Julian Jaynes's, the average person's opinion may not be all that useful, if not counterproductive.
In 2016, Julian Jaynes's theory was discussed in HBO's hit series "Westworld," potentially exposing nearly a million new people to the theory. While it is wonderful that so many new people were turned on to Jaynes's fascinating ideas, it's safe to say that many of these new readers (along with many others) have little if any background with the subject matter. Just as you wouldn't trust your accountant to repair your plumbing, or your eye doctor to handle your legal affairs, so too you should be highly skeptical of the ability of Amazon reviewers with no background in the subject matter to have a sufficient enough understanding of Jaynes's theory after perhaps skimming it once to properly evaluate and review it.
Jaynes's theory provides a fascinating reexamination of the psychology of our ancient past and also has far-reaching modern-day implications. Read it for yourself, and make up your own mind. Regardless of whether or not they agree with Jaynes on every point, many feel that Jaynes's book is one of the best books they have ever read -- including people like David Bowie, who included it on his list of favorite books.
Since the publication of Jaynes's book, Jaynes's neurological model for the bicameral mind has been confirmed by modern brain imaging studies, his theory inspired the modern interest in hearing voices among normal people (and helped inspire the founding of the worldwide "Hearing Voices Network"), children's imaginary companions have been found to often involve actual hallucinations, his theory helped re-ignite scholarly interest in the role of language in consciousness, vestiges of the bicameral mind have been documented in many pre-literate societies, the transition from bicamerality to consciousness has been documented in other cultures (such as China and Tibet), and much more.
** For more information on Julian Jaynes's theory, including new evidence that supports the theory that's been discovered since it was first published, please visit the Julian Jaynes Society at julianjaynes.org. Also be sure to take a look at our follow up books on Julian Jaynes's theory: Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind, The Julian Jaynes Collection, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, and The Minds of the Bible. **
The following is a small sampling of comments by reviewers whose background and expertise puts them in a better position to offer an informed opinion on Jaynes's theory:
“The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those lush, overambitious books … that readers, on finishing it, find that they think about the world quite differently.” — T.M. Luhrmann, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, Stanford University
“[Jaynes] has one of the clearest and most perspicuous defenses of the top-down approach [to consciousness] that I have ever come across.” .... "Something like what he proposes has to be right." — Daniel Dennett, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University
“The weight of original thought in it is so great that it makes me uneasy for the author’s well-being: the human mind is not built to support such a burden.” — David C. Stove, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University of Sydney
“Julian Jaynes’s theories for the nature of self-awareness, introspection, and consciousness have replaced the assumption of their almost ethereal uniqueness with explanations that could initiate the next change in paradigm for human thought.” — Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, Laurentian University
“Neuroimaging techniques of today have illuminated and confirmed the importance of Jaynes’ hypothesis.”
— Robert Olin, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus in Preventive Medicine, Karolinska Institute
“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 new.” — Ernest R. Hilgard, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
“Daring and brilliant … well worth reading by any person interested in theories of human learning and behavior, in theory development, and in seeing a scholarly, fertile and original thinker at work.” — Martin Levit, Ph.D., Professor of Education
“Some of Jaynes’ original ideas may be the most important of our generation . . . And I feel weak as I try to convey some slight impression of Jaynes’ fantastic vision in this short review. Not since Freud and Jung has anyone had the daring and background to pull together such a far reaching theory.” — Ernest Rossi, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience
“This book and this man’s ideas may be the most influential, not to say controversial, of the second half of the twentieth century. I cannot recommend the book emphatically enough. I have never reviewed a book for which I had more enthusiasm. . . . It renders whole shelves of books obsolete.” — William Harrington, in The Columbus Dispatch
“… Scientific interest in [Jaynes’s] work has been re-awakened by the consistent findings of right-sided activation patterns in the brain, as retrieved with the aid of neuroimaging studies in individuals with verbal auditory hallucinations.” — Jan Dirk Blom, M.D, Ph.D.
“… [O]ne of the most thought-provoking and debated theories about the origin of the conscious mind.” — Andrea Cavanna, M.D.
“… I sympathize with Julian Jaynes’s claim that something of great import may have happened to the human mind during the relatively brief interval of time between the events narrated in the Iliad and those that make up the Odyssey.” — Antonio Damasio, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Neurology, University of Southern California
“[Jaynes’s] description of this new consciousness is one of the best I have come across.” − Morris Berman, Ph.D.
“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.” — Raymond Headlee, M.D. in American Journal of Psychiatry
“Julian Jaynes is a scholar in the broad original sense of that term. A man of huge creative vitality, Julian Jaynes is my academic man for all seasons.” — Hubert Dolezal, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology
“… [Jaynes’s] proposal is too interesting to ignore.” — David Eagleman, Ph.D., neuroscientist, Baylor College of Medicine, in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
“… Read the book and make up your own mind. I can guarantee that you will be enormously interested if not entirely persuaded, as I am myself.” — Charles Van Doren
“… [The] more I thought about Jaynes’s thesis, the more reasonable it sounded, and the more I read in anthropology, in history, and above all, in poetry, the more evidence I found to support the idea that hallucinated voices still give socially useful commands.” — Judith Weissman, Ph.D., author and Professor of English, Syracuse University
Top reviews from other countries
At first glance it's a startling theory. At second glance, too - but in a different way, particularly when one looks at the world today to see that many, many people are still subservient to the inner commands of perceived deities.
Jaynes's insights are extraordinary. Essentially, he seems to be writing about self-awareness and introspection, but his evidence is convincing and painstakingly researched. He admits that many of his ideas are, at base, assumptions, albeit supported by detailed historical substatiation, but they are nonetheless plausible and compelling, and as an investigation into how the mind works it's revolutionary. Best followed up, for added clarity, with Marcl Kuijsten's 'The Julian Jaynes Collection', 'The Origin of Consciousness...' is a mind-changing work.