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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
"When Julian Jaynes . . . speculates that until late in the twentieth millennium b.c. men had no consciousness but were automatically obeying the voices of the gods, we are astounded but compelled to follow this remarkable thesis."
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A number of the more recent reviews here include comments I would make. The latest review I think mistakenly states that the theory is that the two halves of our brain did not communicate like they do now -- I think the point is that unlike now, when the right hemisphere has become subordinated to the left "conscious" hemisphere, in ancient times both hemispheres worked actively, were engaged actively, and were each given equal attention. I will also say that I took both a bachelor's and master's degree in communicative disorders in the early to mid 1990s and continued until just recently keeping up to date on neuroanatomy as a practicing medical speech-language pathologist, and everything posited by Jaynes agrees completely with the more current "brain science." As it turns out, I have been a lifelong (45 years of study at this point) student of history, literature, archeology and religion, and again everything posited by Jaynes rings true.
Having just finished reading the book, I doubt that I've yet worked out all of the implications that Jaynes' theory holds for these various disciplines, but my sense is that it is immense. This is certainly a book that should be on a "must read" list. While the writing is dense and there is a huge amount of information to be absorbed here, he was also a much more literate and literary writer than most these days. You need to pay attention to his every word and often go back over statements, so it's not at all an easy read, but it certainly is a worthwhile one.
Dr. Jaynes is up-front about his theory right from the beginning. Consciousness as we understand it today is a relatively new (past few thousand years) and learned phenomenon. That which contributes the most to its learning, that is how and in what ways we think of our selves as conscious beings, is the evolution of spoken and written language along with evolving social context. He begins his book by demonstrating how tenuous and vague a thing consciousness is by suggesting examples and simple experiments illustrating how much of our lives goes on apart from some experience that we take to be the core of consciousness, the relation of our sense of self, our "I" to the rest of the world.
In Jaynes' view the first humans had a consciousness much like the higher animals. There was a perceptual arena to be sure, but not any sort of recursive evaluation of it. As humans began to communicate with more sophisticated languages, languages with some grammer and structure, consciousness evolved with those changes not into today's version of it, but rather into a situation where decisions faced in novel situations were made based on the linguistic expressions of hallucinated voices. Such voices told people how to act, not in common everyday circumstances but when faced with novel situations. As human beings came together into larger groups teaching themselves to farm and domesticate animals (presumably with the help of their voices), this mechanism evolved along quite sophisticated lines into "the gods" of old speaking to everyone, but with higher gods represented in the voices of leaders, kings, priests, etc. All the idols of antiquity were not merely superstitious projections, the people, all people, actually heard them talking!
As language evolved this mechanism became sophisticated enough to support major civilizations like Sumer, Babalyon, and early Egypt, likely also similar developments in India and China. Eventually however, advancing language and more sophisticated social requirements became too much for the mechanism and it began to break down. Even so it did not disappear over-night and evolved into various oracular sorts of phenomena that we find in Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere as history progresses though the last millenium BC. Jaynes traces all of this later evolution through the nature of literature as it appears from the earliest books of the Illiad, the Old Testament, and many other sorts of documents. He points out that the notion of a self-reliant or recursive self is simply not mentioned in the earliest literature and speculates that this is not because people had no words for it, but rather that they had no words for it because they didn't experience it!
If all of this seems rather odd, it seems less odd as Jaynes applies his ideas to modern phenomena like hypnotism, schizophrenea, and the imaginary companions of some children. Jaynes here is not suggesting that schizophrenics (to take one example) are simple reversions to a human consciousness of 4000 or more years ago, because in those contexts, what was heard and how it was treated were not pathological conditions but the normal stuff of everyday life! But he does claim that the same physiological mechanisms are at work and that his theory puts such modern phenomena in a more meaningful context than other theories. As crazy as it sounds, I found myself agreeing with him as I got further along in the history and especially into the psychology. Starting out an extreme skeptic I came away at least convinced of the theory's reasonableness. If it should turn out to be true, we are not yet at the end of the story. Consciousness as we presently find it is in great part a product of language as we presently have it along with social context. Looking back from another thousand or two thousand years in the future, it is quite possible we will not recognize ourselves.
This is one of the first ideas Jaynes tries to get across in this book. He offers plenty of other interesting perspectives. The biggest one is that up until about 3 thousand years ago, men weren't conscious in general. They made decisions based on what the voices in their heads told them. One half of their head was telling the other half what to do. That's what he means by bi-camerality.That is, they were like modern schizophrenics (or whatever they call this affliction these days). We gradually became conscious, in Jaynes meaning of the term, and this was a defining stage of human evolution.
The thesis is so out there, I don't know what to say. It wouldn't have occurred to me. And this speculation leads Jaynes to other results. Dig this, where he's talking about the Old Testament - "The first thing to realize is that the very motive behind their composition around Deuteronomy at this time was the nostalgic anguish for the lost bicamerality of a subjectively conscious people. This is what religion is." Agree or not, the author is bold.
Pros - lot's of off the wall ideas. Some interesting history. Some interesting ideas from modern psychology experiments.
Cons - can be a little long. Some ideas are hard to grab onto, for me at least. Repeats himself somewhat.