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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind  - Julian Jaynes

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Read by James Patrick Cronin
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Bitrate: 96 Kbps

Length: 16 hrs and 1 min


In 1976 Julian Jaynes published his controversial book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, introducing the hypothesis of a two-chambered brain-mind model that preceded the evolutionary development of the conscious mind. Jaynes’ speculative model gave rise to a huge debate, which has reverberated throughout the current neuroscientific and neurophilosophical literature. Has the bicameral mind stood the test of time? To answer this question, the present paper adopts a multidisciplinary perspective and, after briefly summarizing Jaynes’ hypothesis, addresses two main critical issues: the neurological basis of the bicameral model and the philological accuracy of Jaynes’ arguments. Finally, the concept of a non-unitary Self is presented as one of the most relevant contemporary legacies of the bicameral mind.

It is now thirty years since Julian Jaynes first proposed his model of the bicameral mind, based on a wealth of archeological, anthropological, psychological, and neurological data . Not surprisingly, Jaynes’ thought-provoking and pioneering work in the field of consciousness studies gave rise to a longlasting debate, with contributions from a wide spectrum of disciplines (2-4). Even today, it has been argued that a multidisciplinary approach to the problem of consciousness and its development in the evolutionary process that shaped Homo sapiens cannot leave out an analysis of Jaynes’ theory of the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the preconscious bicameral mind (5,6). The present paper provides a brief summary of the bicameral mind model, followed by a critical reappraisal of some theoretical issues in the light of more recent acquisitions on the putative cerebral basis of bicamerality.

Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind

The background of Jaynes’ evolutionary account of the transition from bicamerality to the conscious mind is the claim that human consciousness arises from the power of language to make metaphors and analogies. Metaphors of “me” and analogous models of “I” allow consciousness to function through introspection and self-visualization. According to this view, consciousness is a conceptual, metaphor-generated inner world that parallels the actual world and is intimately bound with volition and decision. Homo sapiens, therefore, could not experience consciousness until he developed a language sophisticated enough to produce metaphors and analogical models.

Jaynes recognizes that consciousness itself is only a small part of mental activity and is not necessary for sensation or perception, for concept formation, for learning, thinking or even reasoning. Thus, if major human actions and skills can function automatically and unconsciously, then it is conceivable that there were, at one time, human beings who did most of the things we do – speak, understand, perceive, solve problems – but who were without consciousness. Man’s earliest writings (hieroglyphics, hieratic and cuneiform) are quite difficult for us to translate and understand in depth, especially when they refer to anything psychological. Thus, if we want to look for any historical evidence of consciousness – an analogous “I” narrating in a mind-space – we should go to a language with which we have some cultural continuity, and that is ancient Greek.

According to Jaynes, the earliest Greek text of sufficient size to test the question of whether there is any evidence of consciousness is the Iliad. In fact, the Iliad does not seem to mention any subjective thoughts or the contents of anyone’s mind. The heroes of the Iliad were not able to make decisions, no one was introspecting or even reminiscing. Apparently, they were noble “automata” who were not aware of what they did. Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as we do; he had no internal mind-space to introspect upon. Some lexical oddities in the Homeric text (such as the absence of a single word translating “consciousness”, “mind”, “soul”, or even “body”) led Jaynes to formulate the hypothesis that the Iliad was composed by nonconscious minds, which automatically recorded and objectively reported events, in a manner rather similar to the characters of the poem. The transition to subjective and introspective writings of the conscious mind occurred in later works, beginning with the Odyssey.

In short, Jaynes claims that men in the age of the Iliad learned to speak, read, and write, as well as conduct their daily lives, yet remained nonconscious throughout their lives. Being nonconscious, they were not responsible for their actions. Who, then, made the decisions? Jaynes’ answer is that whenever a significant choice was to be made, an auditory hallucination intervened, telling people what to do. These voices, in the Iliad always and immediately obeyed, were called Gods. Before the cultural evolution of consciousness, the human brain was organized in a bicameral fashion: the right hemisphere (the synthetic, poetic, “god-brain”) used to transmit hallucinatory verbal instructions to the left hemisphere (the analytical, rational, “man-brain”), especially in response to unusual or stressful situations. It follows that human mentality was divided into two parts, a decision-making part (located in the right hemisphere) and a follower part (in the left hemisphere), and neither part was “conscious”. According to Jaynes, the bicameral mind is to be observed not only in the most ancient literature but also in the contemporary examples of throwbacks to bicamerality, such as hypnosis and schizophrenia, since auditory or verbal hallucinations (VHs) can be regarded as a remnant of this early mentality. Moreover, the bicameral mentality allowed a large group to carry around with them, in the form of VHs, the directions of the king. The leaders used these stress-generated “voices” to lead the masses in cooperative unison. The bicameral mind enabled men to build societies and the earliest civilizations (the Near East, Egypt, Southern Africa, India, China, Mesoamerica) developed through common hallucinating voices attributed to Gods and other rulers – i.e. external “authorities” – and to various symbols, such as graves, temples, and idols.

Finally, Jaynes speculates that the development of modern human consciousness began as late as around 1400-600 B.C., when men were evolutionarily forced by the chaos of huge migrations induced by overpopulation and natural catastrophes, and by the widespread use of writing, to change their mentality.

While innovative and thought-provoking, Jaynes’ sophisticated hypothesis presents several difficulties, as shown by the criticism it attracted from different angles.

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