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Critiques and Responses Part 1

by Marcel Kuijsten

"Reflexive rejection of novel concepts is the antithesis of discovery."
− Michael Persinger, Ph.D. in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness

Below are a selection of published critiques of Jaynes's theory, followed by brief responses or references to more lengthy responses. For responses to general myths and misconceptions, please see Myths vs. Facts About Julian Jaynes's Theory.

Nature of Consciousness

Critique: "Consciousness is an innate biological feature, therefore consciousness cannot be a social construction based on language and learned in childhood" (paraphrasing). − Ned Block, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, New York University, in a book review of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in Cognition and Brain Theory (1981).

Response: This critique has been dealt with exhaustively by Prof. Jan Sleutels in a chapter titled "Greek Zombies: On the Alleged Absurdity of Substantially Unconscious Greek Minds" in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness and by Gary Williams in an article titled "What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious?: A Defense of Julian Jaynes" published in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences (2010). See also Dennett (1986).

Critique: "Consciousness is biologically innate and not based on language, consciousness involves a range of more basic mental processes that Jaynes leave out, schizophrenia is due to some form of neurological atrophy and has nothing to do with the bicameral mind, etc." (paraphrasing). − John Smythies, Center for Brain and Cognition, U.C. San Diego, book review of Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 21, Issue 4 (2007).

Response: I have countered each of these criticisms in "Close-Mindedness and Mysticism in Science: Commentary on John Smythies's Review" in The Jaynesian, Vol. 3, Issue 2 (Winter 2009).

Dating of Consciousness / The Iliad and Old Testament

Critique: "There are instances that show introspection in the Iliad, therefore Jaynes's theory must be wrong" (paraphrasing). − Ivan Leudar, Professor of Analytical and Historical Psychology, University of Manchester, and Philip Thomas, Consultant Psychiatrist with Bradford Community Trust and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bradford, in Voices of Reason, Voices of Insanity (2000).

Response: According to Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore (1951), the events that led to the legend of the Iliad probably took place somewhere around 1250-1150 B.C., and were recounted via singer-poets until written by Homer around 850 B.C. These dates are only speculative and based on statements by Herodotus (484 B.C.-ca. 425 B.C.) and others. Also, tradition holds that Homer was blind and that the poems were not actually written down by him, but may have been dictated to a scribe. This is also a matter of debate. Very little is known about Homer and some scholars question whether he actually existed. Also questioned is whether or not the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed (or even transcribed) by the same person, with the majority of scholars now concluding they were not, simply referring to them as "Homeric literature."

Of particular relevance to the current discussion, Lattimore notes that "it is quite possible that the text was edited at Athens in the time of Peisistratos" (~560 to 528 B.C). Jebb (1887) writes that "The poems were handed down by oral recitation, and in the course of that process suffered many alterations, deliberate or accidental, by the rhapsodes. After the poems had been written down circ. 550 B.C., they suffered still further changes." The neoclassicists also argue that the Iliad is made of older and more recent layers. An example of evidence for this is the armor of Ajax, which is from a much earlier time period (Cline, 2006).

Later editing and additions to the Iliad are highly relevant, yet are not even mentioned by Leudar & Thomas in their criticism of this aspect of Jaynes's theory. It is likely that the Iliad is made up of various older and more recent layers, with the older layers reflecting a more bicameral mentality and newer layers showing evidence of consciousness. Jaynes discusses the issue of later additions on page 77 of The Origin, as well as in subsequent lectures. Perhaps he did not emphasize it enough. For more on the issue of later additions to the Iliad, see Leaf (1886), Lawton (1905), Jebb (1887), and Cline (2006).

When evaluating the evidence for consciousness in Iliad (and contrasting it with the Odyssey), we must keep certain facts in mind (Weissman, 1993):

  1. The Iliad was recited orally for centuries before being written down (or dictated) by (most likely) someone named Homer. It was not immediately written down in the manner someone would compose a poem today.
  2. The Iliad only tells us about the end of the bicameral period, not the beginning.
  3. Large parts of the Iliad show bicamerality, i.e. when the characters receive clear commands from the gods similar to command hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics.
  4. Parts of the Iliad show instances of consciousness, i.e. when the gods are speaking to each other and are not issuing commands. The discussion of the gods with one another show things like planning and deceit, seem to reflect a later mentality, and may indicate a later addition to the poem.
  5. Different parts of the poem reflect different stages in human consciousness. It is difficult to know which sections of the Iliad reflect specific time periods, i.e. what were the later additions to the oral poetry of previous centuries.
  6. The use of prayer and omens in the Iliad shows that people were no longer entirely bicameral, or these sections were added at the time it was written down, or sometime thereafter. Furthermore, the omens are sometimes ignored.
  7. The Odyssey contains important differences from the Iliad, including less reliance on direct commands from the gods, a growing dependence on prayer, omens, and divination, increased use of deception, the possibility of disobedience to the gods, an increased awareness of time, and less rules and more freedoms for both men and women.

It should be pointed out that evidence for consciousness in the Iliad relates primarily to Jaynes's second hypothesis, or the dating of the emergence of consciousness, and would not necessarily impact hypotheses one, three, and four (see Myths vs. Facts). In other words, even if this critique were accurate, it does not contradict the many instances of human behavior directed by gods found in the Iliad, and the entire process Jaynes describes could theoretically have taken place at an earlier date.

The Iliad is one piece of evidence for Jaynes's bicameral mind theory which should not be viewed in isolation but rather within the larger context of the overall pattern of evidence, which includes evidence of auditory hallucinations in other ancient texts, behavioral commands experienced by modern voice-hearers, historical linguistics (the evolution of words used for 'mind' in ancient Greek and Chinese), idols, oracles, divination, split-brain research, the psychology of pre-modern tribes, etc. None of these other areas are addressed by Leudar & Thomas.

Critique: "In the Book of Daniel, thoughts are attributed to individuals and not just to the gods" (paraphrasing). − David Martel Johnson, Professor of Philosophy, York University, in How History Made the Mind, p. 122.

Response: The Book of Daniel is estimated to have been composed sometime around 160 B.C. − well into the conscious period. Jaynes did not assert that the entire Old Testament was purely bicameral in nature. What he states is that in comparing the oldest books (i.e. Amos, ~750 B.C.) with the more recent books (i.e. Ecclesiastes, ~200 B.C. ) we can see the transition from bicamerality to consciousness. All of the prophets were living in the post-bicameral era − it was the fact that they were still operating in a partially bicameral manner (i.e. regularly experiencing trance states and auditory hallucinations) that made them of interest. The Book of Daniel − again, one of the most recent books of the Old Testament − does include a series of hallucinatory visions.

Bicameral Mind / Jaynes's Neurological Model

Critique: "[Roger] Sperry rejected the notion that there were two individuals inside anyone's head, and most agreed." − Robert M. Sapolsky, Professor of Biological Sciences and Neurology, Stanford University, in The Trouble with Testosterone (1998), p. 217.

Response: In a brief critique of Jaynes's theory, Sapolsky confuses Jaynes's description of the bicameral mind in ancient man with the related but very different debate over the issue of multiple 'selves' (one per hemisphere) in modern conscious split-brain patients. In addition to this confusion, Sapolsky's comments are also misleading. For example, with regard to split-brain patients, Roger Sperry (1964) very clearly states: "Everything we have seen so far indicates that the surgery has left each of these people with two separate minds, that is, with two separate spheres of consciousness." Elsewhere, Sperry (1974) notes that "both the left and right hemisphere may be simultaneously conscious in different, even mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel." (See also Sperry, 1984.) Sapolsky's statement clearly misrepresents Sperry's view on the subject. In addition, Sapolsky leaves out the fact that two of Sperry's colleagues − Michael Gazzaniga, a psychologist, and Joseph Bogen, a neurosurgeon, who both studied split-brain patients for decades − have also argued that the split-brain procedure results in two distinct 'selves', one per hemisphere. Bogen comments that "the data are consistent with the interpretation that disconnection of the hemispheres splits not only the brain but also the psychic properties of the brain" (1973, see also 1983). Gazzaniga notes that after the split-brain procedure, "common normal conscious unity is disrupted, leaving the split-brain patient with two minds" (1972) and "both hemispheres can be viewed as conscious" (2002, see also 1967). The issue continues to be debated.

Critique: "It seems very unlikely that such a dramatic remodeling of extensive neural networks could have come about in the space of three millennia or so − the time taken, according to Jaynes' theory, for the transition from the bicameral mind to the modern conscious mind." (In other words, Jaynes's theory proposes that a dramatic neurophysiological change to the human brain took place that couldn't possibly have happened in such a short time frame.) − Andrea E. Cavanna, Michael Trimble, Federico Cinti and Francesco Monaco, in "The 'Bicameral Mind' 30 Years On: A Critical Reappraisal of Julian Jaynes' Hypothesis," Functional Neurology, Vol. 22, Issue 1 (2007).

Critique: "I do not think of the Greek intellectual revolution (a la Jaynes) as, or as involving, some dramatic, inner, physiological transformation of the human brain." − David Martel Johnson, Professor of Philosophy, York University, in How History Made the Mind, p. 129.

Critique: "One [problem for Jaynes's theory] is the unlikely possibility that in the short span of a couple of thousand years of recent history, humans switched from schizophrenic-like to conscious beings." − W.R. Klemm, Professor of Neuroscience, Texas A & M University, in Atoms of Mind, p. 35.

Response: These critiques reflect a misunderstanding of Jaynes's theory. Jaynes did not suggest that the shift from bicamerality to consciousness was a neurophysiological one (see Jaynes p. 122-125). Rather, the same biological brain was used in a new and innovative way based on adaptations to changes that occurred culturally. A child today raised in a bicameral society would be bicameral and a child from an ancient bicameral civilization raised in modern culture would be conscious. Consciousness in the Jaynesian sense is a learned process based on language. To use the computer metaphor, the transition from bicamerality to consciousness was a software change using the same hardware (Dennett, 1986).

Having said that, there could have been a slight genetic component to this change, and new research in genetics shows that humans are still evolving and that genetic changes can move through a population much more rapidly than was previously believed. Consider this quote from the anthropologist Gregory Cochran:

"There is evidence that such change has occurred. My anthropologist colleague at the University of Utah Henry Harpending and I have made a strong case that natural selection changed the Ashkenazi Jews over a thousand-year period or so, favoring certain kinds of cognitive abilities and generating genetic diseases as a side effect. The geneticist Bruce Lahn's team has found new variants of brain development genes: One, ASPM (abnormal spindle-like microcephaly associated) appears to have risen to high frequency in Europe and the Middle East in about six thousand years. We don't yet know what this new variant does, but it certainly could affect the human psyche ... This concept opens strange doors. If true, it means that the people of Sumeria and Egypt's Old Kingdom were probably fundamentally different from us: Human nature has changed − some, anyhow − over recorded history. ... Jaynes may have been on to something" (Cochran, 2007).

Cochran also states that recent discoveries have revealed that "...the rate of human evolution over the past few thousand years is far greater than it has been over the past few million years" (Biello, 2007).

Or this from neuroscientist Michael Persinger:

"Within the last five years science has found that single point mutations on genes can produce permanent changes in speech production. There is now evidence that point mutations, whose mechanisms must still be discerned, can diffuse within decades throughout entire populations. There have been approximately 15 million changes in our species' genome since our common ancestor with the chimpanzee. There are human accelerated regions in the genome with genes known to be involved in transcriptional regulation and neurodevelopment. They are expressed within brain structures that would have allowed precisely the types of phenomena that Jaynes predicted had occurred around 3,500 years ago. Related genes, attributed to religious beliefs, are found on the same chromosome (for example, chromosome 10) as propensities for specific forms of epilepsy (partial, with auditory features) and schizophrenia. ..." (Persinger, 2007).

Finally, recent studies of brain plasticity show that massive changes can take place in an individual's brain during their developmental years. For example, if someone is blind, their occipital lobe (normally used for vision) can take on new roles, in some cases processing auditory or tactile information instead. Hemispherectomy patients, who have had one brain hemisphere removed (usually performed during childhood as a treatment for severe epilepsy), also show dramatic changes in the function of brain areas. Language processing can switch from the left to the right hemisphere in cases where the left hemisphere is removed. Musical abilities, motor capabilities, and attention span can switch to the left hemisphere in cases where the right hemisphere is removed (Battro, 2001). If the brain can adapt this rapidly in an individual, we can also imagine changes in brain function over just a few generations due to cultural or environmental factors given the right conditions.

I address this critique in much greater detail in "New Evidence for Jaynes's Neurological Model: A Research Update" in Vol. 3, Issue 1 of The Jaynesian.

Critique: "Jaynes postulates that hallucinations arise in the right hemisphere and in normal humans are suppressed by the dominance of the left hemisphere ... but there are few modern studies using sophisticated quantitative EEG that address this question." − W.R. Klemm, Professor of Neuroscience, Texas A & M University, in Atoms of Mind, p. 36.

Critique: "...It is now well known that lesions of the right-sided areas corresponding to Broca's or Wernicke's areas result in expressive or receptive aprosodias ... these areas would thus seem more related to the negative symptoms of schizophrenia (such as restricted affect) than to the positive hallucinatory symptoms." (In other words, Jaynes's neurological model is wrong and he was incorrect in his speculation that the right temporal lobe areas are the source of auditory hallucinations.) − Psychiatrists Ghazi Asaad and Bruce Shapiro, in response to "What About the Bicameral Mind?" (Letter to the Editor) by H. Steven Moffic, M.D., in American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 144:5 (1987).

Response: Drs. Asaad and Shapiro's comment that there is no evidence for the involvement of the right temporal lobe in auditory hallucination was incorrect even at that time (see Buchsbaum, 1982), and an increasing number of studies since that time provide additional evidence for right hemisphere involvement in auditory hallucinations. Beginning in 1999, neuroimaging studies have provided compelling evidence supporting Jaynes's neurological model, i.e. auditory hallucinations arising in the right temporal-parietal lobe and being transmitted to the left temporal-parietal lobe. This was pointed out by Dr. Robert Olin in Lancet (1999) and Dr. Leo Sher in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience (2000). There are now dozens of brain imaging studies showing a right/left temporal lobe interaction in auditory hallucinations. For a complete discussion of the new evidence for Jaynes's neurological model, see my chapter "Consciousness, Hallucinations, and the Bicameral Mind: Three Decades of New Research" in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited (pgs. 116-120), as well as my essay "New Evidence for Jaynes's Neurological Model: A Research Update," and book review of Language Lateralization and Psychosis in The Jaynesian (Vol. 3, Issue 1 and Vol. 4, Issue 1).

Critique: "Evidence on the evolution of cerebral asymmetry ... suggests that the left cerebral dominance for language may go back to at least H. habilis." − Michael Corballis, Dept. of Psychology, University of Auckland, in The Lopsided Ape, p. 212.

Response: Corballis presents this as a critique of Jaynes's theory but in reality it is not. First, Jaynes never argues that some degree of language lateralization could not have occurred prior to the bicameral period, as the hallucinatory commands do not contain the same level of language sophistication as normal speech. Neuroimaging studies over the past decade have confirmed Jaynes's neurological model (i.e. that auditory hallucinations arise in the right hemisphere language areas and are processed in the left hemisphere language areas). Again, see my chapter "Consciousness, Hallucinations, and the Bicameral Mind: Three Decades of New Research" in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, and my essay "New Evidence for Jaynes's Neurological Model: A Research Update," and book review of Language Lateralization and Psychosis in The Jaynesian. This again brings up the issue of brain plasticity (see my discussion above in the second response in this section): in children who have their left hemisphere removed, the right hemisphere language areas take over. Finally, the evidence for language in H. habilis is highly speculative at best.

Critique: "We can in any case rule out the idea that only the left hemisphere is conscious." − Michael Corballis, Dept. of Psychology, University of Auckland, in The Lopsided Ape, p. 212.

Response: This reflects a misunderstanding of Jaynes's theory. Jaynes never states that "consciousness is mediated by the left hemisphere," as Corballis suggests. Writing decades before the advent of fMRI brain imaging technology in the early 1990s, Jaynes never speculates on the brain areas that might be involved in consciousness (Jaynes, writing on brain plasticity: "... it would be wrong to think that whatever the neurology of consciousness now may be, it is set for all time," p. 125). Perhaps because the "man-side" of the bicameral mind resides in the left hemisphere and the "god-side" in the right, Corballis took this to mean that after the breakdown of the bicameral mind, consciousness would be predicated on activity in the left hemisphere. There is evidence from split-brain studies that demonstrate that the left hemisphere is associated with one's sense of self when the connection between the hemispheres has been severed. For example, commands given to the right hemisphere are acted upon outside of the person's conscious awareness, similar in some ways to a post-hypnotic suggestion. Corballis, who also comments on the split-brain research of Roger Sperry in the same section, may have confused some of Jaynes's conclusions with Sperry's. Corballis continues, "There is evidence that patients remain aware of their surroundings when the left hemisphere is incapacitated..." Readers of Jaynes will immediately recognize that "awareness of one's surroundings" is not evidence of consciousness. If this were the case then all living things with awareness of their surroundings would be conscious, rendering the term practically meaningless. This gets back to the problem of confusing consciousness with more basic mental processes such as sensory perception, addressed in the responses in the first section of this page. In my view the limited language and independent preferences of the right hemisphere (in left hemisphere dominant individuals), documented in the split-brain studies by Sperry, Gazzaniga, and Bogen, provide supporting evidence for Jaynes's bicameral mental model by demonstrating that the two hemispheres can act in a more independent fashion than they typically do today.

Critique: "[A problem] for Jaynes' argument is the fact that billions of todays's evolved humans who do not hallucinate still hold religious beliefs of one sort or another. Mentally normal people still believe at least some of what their prophets may have hallucinated about." − W.R. Klemm, Professor of Neuroscience, Texas A & M University, in Atoms of Mind, p. 36.

Response: Here Klemm seems to be confusing the bicameral mind with vestiges of the bicameral mind. According to Jaynes, textual, archaeological, and anthropological evidence supports the fact that first everyone experience hallucinations, then only a select few. First these people were labeled oracles and prophets; today they are labeled mentally ill. Jaynes's theory does not predicate modern religious belief on the direct experience of auditory hallucinations by each individual believer. While divine revelation in the form of auditory hallucinations was the historical basis for ancient religion, modern religion is a vestige of the bicameral mind maintained through social conditioning, cultural tradition, and some degree of neurological predisposition. Many people suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, for example, experience sudden hyperreligiosity. To my knowledge, only Jaynes's theory explains why both auditory hallucinations and hyperreligiosity would be associated with the right temporal lobe.


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Boyle, Mary. 2002. Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion? Routledge.

Cavanna, A.E., Trimble, M., Federico, C., and Monaco, F. 2007. The 'Bicameral Mind' 30 Years On: A Critical Reappraisal of Julian Jaynes' Hypothesis. Functional Neurology, 22 (1): 11-15.

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