my reads: ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,’ by Julian Jaynes

I had to pick up this 1976 book because it features so heavily in Robert Sawyer’s WWW series, which I wrote about recently. As Sawyer indicates, it explores an outrageous but gripping idea about how and when consciousness in humans developed (Sawyer applies some of Jaynes’ theory to his story about a consciousness awakening on the Net, and how that might happen), and it is mindblowing — pun intended.

Jaynes suggests that up until as recently as around three thousand years ago, humans were not conscious, that we lacked introspection and self-awareness. Obviously Jaynes is separating intelligence and cognition and other higher brain functions from consciousness, because it’s quite plain that prior to three thousand years ago, humans were doing things that required intelligence and cognition, like inventing civilization and fighting wars and so on. It rings weirdly true, too, because how often have you found yourself doing things that clearly require intelligence and cognition without actually being aware of having done them? Have you ever “woken up” while driving on a highway and suddenly realized that you didn’t know where the last 20 or 50 miles went? Your conscious mind was busy with other things — and I don’t mean obvious distractions such as talking on the phone, but simply wandering or daydreaming or thinking about whatever is preoccupying you at the moment — while your unconscious mind was busy with the driving.

When you consider experiences like that, it’s a little easier to understand how our consciousness is distinct from our intelligent, tool-using brains.
Jaynes goes further in exploring what that preconscious mind would have been like: the “bicameral” brain is one basically severed in two (or, more properly, one that had two halves that had not yet been connected). Instead of having two halves of the brain communicating directly with each other — that is, “conscious” thinking — these preconscious people would have “heard” “voices” from the cognitive side of their brains “telling” the other side of their brains, the one responsible for actually doing and saying things, what to do and say. Jaynes sees evidence for that in ancient literature such as the Old Testament and the Iliad: he’s suggesting that it is not metaphorical that people heard the voices of “gods” or “muses,” but that these people were literally hearing the “voices” of the other side of their brains, which they misinterpreted as coming from somewhere outside their heads.

Then, around three thousand years ago, such things as the development of writing and the growth of cities forced human minds to become more adaptable in response to changing cultural pressures, and the two distinct halves of the brain started working more in unison. (A leftover of the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes? Schizophrenia.) So the suggestion is, then, that either consciousness is cultural or that it’s biologically based and that we’re still in the process of evolving away from it.

(A pretty good fuller synopsis of Jaynes’ theory is available at Wikipedia.)

Either prospect is at once insane and compelling and hugely provocative. I was drawn to the book because I wondered whether Jaynes would address a notion that I’ve wondered about for a long time (one that I thought would be an interesting basis for a science fiction novel): What if not everyone is conscious? Jaynes does not address this, but his theory certainly supports the possibility, at least theoretically, that people could be perfectly intelligent, perfectly functional human beings without being introspective and self-aware. (And I think we all know people who appear to lack introspection and self-awareness!)

And Jaynes’ theory has implications for the future, too. If our minds — as opposed to our brains, the meat from which our minds arise — are still in the process of changing, what might our culture look like three thousand years from now? If religion is what arose from our mistaking where the voices we heard were coming from, could religion disappear as more people (perhaps) become more “conscious”? Are there fuller depths of consciousness the human mind can achieve?

This is a tough, challenging read. I sail through most books without stopping, but I found I could only take small does of Jaynes before I had to put the book down and think about what I’d already read before I could continue. And while Jaynes mounts a persuasive argument, I don’t know whether I “believe” him or not. But whether Jaynes’ hypothesis can be supported scientifically — the debate is still ongoing — it nevertheless represents a fascinating way to think about consciousness. It has certainly rocked my thinking about, you know, thinking.

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