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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
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I also note that the author taught at Princeton University (he died in 1997), so his theories ought to have received a hearing. But apparently the follow-up book he intended was never published, and he was considered somewhat of a maverick, if not quite a crackpot. This website offers some perspective: [...]
His theory, in simplest terms, is that until about 3000 years ago, all of humankind basically heard voices. The voices were actually coming from the other side of the brain, but because the two hemispheres were not in communication the way they are now for most of us, the voices seemed to be coming from outside. The seemed, in fact, to be coming from God or the gods.
So far, so good. That is certainly imaginable to most of us, because we know that schizophrenics and some others still hear voices in apparently this manner today.
But he also posits that many sophisticated civilizations were created by men and women who were all directed by these godlike voices. What is not very clearly explained (a serious gap in his theory) is how all the voices in these "bicameral civilizations," as he calls them, worked in harmony. But his theory is that ancient Greece, Babylon, Assyria, Egpyt, and less ancient but similar Mayan and Incan kingdoms were all built by people who were not "conscious" in our modern sense.
When one hears voices, whether then or now, the voices tend to be commanding and directive, and the need to obey them compelling. Free will is not possible.Read more ›
Basically, he posits that lacking full consciousness (yet having language), prehistoric man's actions were often governed by voices, which are in many ways similar to certain forms of schizophrenia. His full argument is much deeper and far more subtle than I can deliver in a one-line synopsis.
The book is not a drum-beating New Age manual for making peace with our proto-selves, although many readers seem to have taken just that away from his discussion on the origins of religion.
The thesis is, of course, utterly unproveable, and both orthodox classicists and anthropologists are at odds with it. But it is remarkable in its originality. One needn't be convinced by the book to enjoy it; read it purely for Jayne's breadth of knowledge and his originality of thought and it will be well worth your time.
Whatever Jaynes may have gotten wrong, his insights into the problems posed by consciousness, the self, and political evolution seem more giant each time I revisit this book. Too few scholars are willing to look at the darker chambers of the human psyche through history, especially the vulnerability of the mind to the "power of suggestion" found in hypnosis and schizophrenia, and the recurring, prominent role of trance in religious ritual. Like Freud, Jaynes reminds us we aren't half as rational and autonomous as we tell ourselves we are (ironically it is the "faith-based" philosophies that seem most threatened by this idea.)
150 years ago we bristled at the suggestion that our distant ancestors were apes. Even the "intelligent design" crowd doesn't take issue with this fact today. But to suggest that our ancestors of just 200 generations ago were, by our modern standards, just plain nuts raises all the old hackles. Why? Are we each afraid, at such a small remove, that we might personally revert to our quasi-schizophrenic, bicameral origins? If Jaynes had postulated an origin of consciousness 10 millenia ago instead of 3 would be breathe more easily?Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I first heard of this book while in graduate school the year it was written. As superficially described by various reviewers at the time it seemed like a crazy idea, but Kindle... Read morePublished 6 days ago by Matthew Rapaport
I'm a quarter of the way into this book...again...and I'm absolutely loving it. I picked it up years ago and somehow never finished, but now I'm wondering how I could have put it... Read morePublished 7 days ago by Isaac Morehouse
I first read this book when it came out in 1976. At the time, I accepted the author's arguments for the most part. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Gerald G.
The most amazing mind opening experience Ive had in my personal quest for what consciousness is and why we think we are.Published 2 months ago by Leapinlizards
Interesting but seems to lack research in relation to schizophrenia.Published 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
This significant piece of work has been around for years and it's still a useful reference for human emotional evolution.Published 5 months ago by Drea Siebert
As far as I can determine – without reading this book, his is absolute Euro-centrism. He should have spent some time in the caves in southern France and Spain, or listened to... Read morePublished 6 months ago by David Anderson