Julian Jaynes

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Review by Nathan Bieniek, 2008

Julian Jaynes. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Mariner Books, 1976. 491 pages. $18.00.

Understanding the nature, composition and origins of consciousness is a pursuit central to psychology, but is a subject in many of the other arts and sciences as well. Julian Jaynes' delves into many disciplines including literature, poetry, biology and neurology in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in order to offer a radical approach to solving the ancient problem of consciousness. He suggests that human consciousness did not arise at the same time as humanity itself, but that consciousness came after language, and even after a multitude of ancient civilizations had risen and fallen. He contends that consciousness was not a natural evolution in the human species, but arose in the prolonged and chaotic aftermath of the breakdown of an earlier and utterly different form of social control called the “bicameral mind.” The bicameral mind was characterized not by anything like the consciousness we experience today, but was divided into two parts. First, the subservient and non-conscious man who operated like an organic automaton, and second, the “gods” that man hallucinated who guided him through the world. To support such an extraordinary claim Jaynes gathers a wealth of evidence (some parts he admits are stronger than others) by studying literature, archeology, history and the possible echoes of the bicameral mind in modern psychology and neurology.

The work is broken up into three Books: I—The Mind of Man, II—The Witness of History, and III—Vestiges off the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World. Book I explores issues of modern understandings of consciousness in order to introduce the concept of the bicameral mind, followed by neurological evidence to support the possibility of this ancient and alien form of mind. Book II explores archaeological and historical evidence to support Jaynes' claims of the nature and organizational power of the bicameral mind. He also consults ancient literature like the Iliad, the Odyssey, and even the Old Testament. Book III explores possible echoes of the bicameral mind as seen in modern phenomena like schizophrenia, hypnosis and organized religion.

Jaynes' radical understanding of the bicameral mind emerges in the first book. He holds that the bicameral mind was organized around twin language centers in the brain. In the left hemisphere is Wernicke's Area, the primary zone responsible for speech, while a matching zone in the right hemisphere does not seem to be utilized by modern man. Jaynes asserts this second, unused, language center exists because “the language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of the gods” (103-4). This use of language means not only that consciousness came after language, but so did the bicameral mind. In his examination of the functionality of the left and right sides of the brain, Jaynes asserts that the two hemispheres can operate independently, as if they were almost different people. (For theoretical simplicity Jaynes generalizes the dominance of the left side of the brain over bodily function and the role of the right side in organization and pattern recognition.) In bicameral man the right side organized experience and, utilizing the language center of the right hemisphere, issued orders to the left side of the brain in the form of hallucinated language that was recognized as a god.

These hallucinations were not experienced as modern subjective consciousness understands hallucination. Jaynes states that there was no “I” or subjective consciousness to experience the hallucinations. The right side of the brain simply spoke to the left (in any manner of speech ranging from suggestion to order), and the left side, which dominated bodily function, acted. Jayne supposes this relationship between the left and ride sides of the brain was effective enough to move ancient humans from hunter-gatherer groups to simple societies, all the way up the scale of complexity to the ancient Mesopotamian, Asian, and American civilizations.

The most important aspect of the second book is the exploration of how the bicameral mind was not perfect. As civilizations became increasingly complex and a series of natural disasters rocked the ancient Mediterranean world, Jaynes supposes that the bicameral mind broke down. How? Jaynes holds that the adaptation that lead to the bicameral mind, that of language, was also the first factor to weaken it. As language evolved in complexity and began to take on written form, it exerted a social control that made the hallucinated voices of the gods less necessary. This exacerbated the decline of hallucinations as subjective consciousness slowly began to emerge as a more effective way of coping with the confusion in the world at the time.

Still, subjective consciousness did not simply appear as a full-blown mind state, but gradually emerged as human beings began to construct metaphorical understandings of the differences between others. The understanding developed that if others were different from each another, held different beliefs and opinions, then maybe there was something inside them that made them different. Then, as Jaynes states, “the tradition in philosophy that phrases the problem as the logic of inferring other minds from one's own has it the wrong way around. We may first unconsciously (sic) suppose other consciousnesses, and then infer our own by generalization” (217). Jaynes' examines literature, philosophy and history in order to bear out the slow emergence of consciousness from the ruins of the culture of the bicameral mind. He finds some evidence for the emergence of consciousness in the shifting usage of words in the ancient epics, moving from simple descriptions of the world, to metaphorical applications of internal spaces associated with feelings and eventually thoughts.

While the rest of book II explores the different ways the ancient world changed as consciousness supplanted the bicameral mind as the dominant organization of humanity, the third book explores the lasting impressions the bicameral mind left on the modern world. He argues that subjective consciousness still seems to be developing. Schizophrenia is a throwback to the bicameral mind, misunderstood in our modern culture to be an aberration rather than an alternative organization of the human mind. The ubiquitous presence of religion is also reminiscent of the power of the hallucinatory gods as central to civilization millennia ago. Hypnosis, as a state of extreme suggestibility like that of the left side of the brain in relation to the right side may also be a evidence of the ancient bicameral mind.

The Origin of Consciousness is a sweeping and revolutionary work that challenges both ancient and modern solutions to the question of the origin of consciousness, but it leaves much to be explored. A great deal more research needs to be done in order to corroborate Jaynes' positions, as the neurological basis of the bicameral mind is suggestive, but far from proven. Also, while Jaynes' examination of historical evidence for the emergence of the bicameral mind and then that of consciousness, in terms of the study of literature, archeology, and religion, is of an impressive scope, he deals by and large with the precursors to Western and Middle Eastern culture. He spends time speculating about the interaction of the Andes civilizations with the Conquistadors, but does not detail the evolution of the consciousness afterward in the same way he explores the evolution of Mediterranean consciousness. As for the Asian civilizations, he briefly alludes to Japan and Vedic religions, but does not present evidence of the bicameral mind in Asia. Still, The Origin of Consciousness is a powerful work that reveals the range of possibilities still open in the exploration of consciousness, even as it seeks to provide a solution to the problem.