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Myths vs. Facts About Julian Jaynes's Theory

by Marcel Kuijsten

"The human mind likes a strange idea as little as the body
likes a strange protein, and resists it with a similar energy."
− William Ian Beveridge, Ph.D. (1908–2006), author of The Art of Scientific Investigation

There are a number of common myths and misconceptions regarding Jaynes's theory. Below I provide answers to the most common misconceptions seen on blogs, Amazon customer reviews, Wikipedia articles, or that frequently come up in conversation with those vaguely familiar with Jaynes's theory. The problem with myths and misconceptions is they are often unquestioningly taken as fact and then repeated until they take on a life of their own. I hope this page will help clear up some of the most common misconceptions, so that the debate can focus on Jaynes's actual theory, rather than misconceptions of it. If you feel I am mistaken on some point or would like to see another issue addressed here, please post a comment on the Discussion Forum or contact us.

For responses to more specific published critiques of Jaynes's theory, please see Critiques & Responses.

Attention Authors! If you are writing a book or article on Jaynes's theory, we are happy to review your draft for accuracy prior to its publication.

Julian Jaynes

Myth: Jaynes's book was not peer reviewed.

Fact: While Jaynes ultimately chose to publish his book with a non-academic publisher, which he felt might keep it in print for a longer period of time, Jaynes's book was reviewed and commented on by a number of academics during the publication process. These include Stanford psychologist Ernest Hilgard, psychologist Isodor Chein, an anonymous anthropologist, as well as others. Jaynes went on to publish articles and commentaries on his theory in peer-reviewed journals such as Canadian Psychology and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and discuss his ideas with other prominent scholars at conferences. We should also keep in mind that Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in a book intended for both a scientific and a lay audience — not in a peer-reviewed journal.

Myth: Jaynes was mistaken in areas outside of his expertise.

Fact: Jaynes — unmarried, without children, and uninterested in seeking tenure — dedicated his life to studying topics related to his theory. He read widely and was well acquainted with many academic disciplines. Jaynes studied several of the subjects related to his book during the 1960s while writing his lengthy History of Comparative Psychology, which he never completed. While writing The Origin, Jaynes consulted with scholars who were experts in many of the areas he discussed. These include Ronald Baker, Ph.D. (trance states), Joseph Bogen, M.D. (dual brain/neuroscience), John Kihlstrom, Ph.D. (hypnosis), Leonide Goldstein, D. Sc., (schizophrenia), A.K. Shapiro, M.D. (Tourette's Syndrome), Willard Van Orman Quine, Ph.D., among others.

While many of Jaynes's ideas remain controversial — for example, the necessity of language for consciousness, the origin and neurology of schizophrenia, and the mentality of ancient civilizations — and it is likely these issues will be debated for years to come, to date we are not aware of any major flaws in Jaynes's analyses that seriously call into question any of his four main hypotheses. Jaynes himself acknowledged there was much more work to be done, and areas that may require revision as new discoveries are made.

Myth: Jaynes was an "ethnocentrist."

Fact: This origin of this misconception is particularly confusing. A definition of ethnocentrist is: "the tendency to evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of one's own ethnic group, especially with the conviction that one's own ethnic group is superior to the other groups." This myth probably arose with individuals who did not read Jaynes's book but skimmed it or read summaries which mistakenly lead them to believe Jaynes based his entire argument on ancient Greece. Jaynes focuses on Greece because the oldest reliable writing (the Iliad) comes from Greece. He also examines the evidence for his theory in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica. He did not know Chinese so he could not evaluate the evidence for the transition from bicamerality to consciousness in ancient China. However, this has been done by Dr. Michael Carr (see Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, pgs. 343-416). Similar evidence for vestiges of bicameralism can be seen in nearly all pre-literate or pre-modern societies (Lévy-Bruhl, 1926). The fact that some cultures value trance states and hallucinatory experiences is evidence for Jaynes's theory, not against it (specifically his third hypothesis), as is sometimes argued. The transition from bicamerality to consciousness took place at different times in different places around the world. Furthermore, nothing about Jaynes's theory implies the superiority of one culture over another.

The Iliad

Myth: The gods in the Iliad were "just a literary device;" the Iliad is "just a story" and as such does not tell us anything about the lives of the Mycenaean Greeks.

Fact: Known as the "Homeric Question," many scholars do in fact believe the Iliad and the Odyssey are representative accounts of the Bronze Age (ending in 1200 BCE), the Iron Age (~1200-800 BCE), or, most likely, some combination of the two (although to what degree is debated), and look to the epics for information on the lives of the early Greeks. They study the poems to learn everything from the type of armor, weapons, and shields that were used, which cultures were in contact with one another, which groups conquered other groups, what cities were burned, the location of the city of Troy, etc. Clearly more than "just fictitious stories," the Iliad and the Odyssey tell scholars a great deal about the lives of the Mycenaean Greeks — and this includes their relationship to the gods. Hardly just a "literary device," there is a great deal of evidence from a variety of sources that the Greeks had a close personal relationship with the gods. The gods are seen in a number of other early Greek poems referred to as the "Epic Cycle" — poems we only have fragments of today. This myth also says nothing of why every other culture would also have developed commanding gods (or in the case of China, ancestral spirits). We also see a prominent role of gods in the lives of men in The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example. Was this also "just a literary device"? — that would be an incredible coincidence. For more on the subject of the lives of the ancient Greeks and the Iliad as a source of historical evidence, please see Cline (2006).

Jaynes's Theory

Myth: Jaynes's theory has been disproven.

Fact: Jaynes's theory breaks down into four main hypotheses, each of which can potentially stand or fall on their own: 1. consciousness based on language, 2. dating the emergence of consciousness, 3. a previous mental model based on auditory hallucinations called the bicameral mind, and 4. the neurological model for the bicameral mind. When someone says "Jaynes's theory has been disproven," the first question should be, which aspect of it?

As with any new theory that challenges existing paradigms, there is certainly disagreement with regard to each of Jaynes's four hypotheses. This is the norm in the scientific process, and disagreement does not equate to refutation. New research continues to shed new light on each of Jaynes's hypotheses, for example brain imaging studies of auditory hallucinations and the ongoing debate over the role of language in consciousness. There have been very few published, substantive criticisms of Jaynes's theory. An early criticism by philosopher Ned Block (that Jaynes confused the emergence of consciousness with the emergence of the concept of consciousness) was effectively countered by Jaynes as well as Daniel Dennett (1986). More recently, Block's arguments were meticulously countered by the Dutch philosopher Jan Sleutels (2007).

Myth: Modern neuroscience has disconfirmed Jaynes's ideas.

Fact: Quite the opposite. Recent neuroimaging studies have largely confirmed Jaynes's early predictions on the neurology of auditory hallucinations (his neurological model for the bicameral mind). For a full discussion of this issue see "Consciousness, Hallucinations, and the Bicameral Mind: Three Decades of New Research" by Marcel Kuijsten in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited (pgs. 116-120), as well as "New Evidence for Jaynes's Neurological Model: A Research Update" by Marcel Kuijsten in The Jaynesian, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (Spring 2009).

Myth: People could not have functioned in ancient civilizations if they were "crazy."

Fact: This misconception has to do with a misunderstanding of Jaynes's assertion that people in ancient civilizations were guided in decision-making situations by commanding voices that today we would call auditory hallucinations, and that schizophrenia is a vestige of this earlier mentality. People confuse their view of a modern person that is hospitalized and medicated for mental illness with what people might have been like in ancient civilizations, or, more recently, among pre-literate tribal societies. This misconception is based in part on failing to understand the significant difference between a conscious person who lives in modern society, and then suddenly experiences disconcerting commanding auditory hallucinations that don't have a cultural context (and which often lead to feeling ostracized by society), versus a person that was raised in a bicameral civilization where hearing voices was the norm and was culturally reinforced. These two very different scenarios are erroneously conflated.

Daily life in bicameral civilizations was likely largely habitual, with occasional voices directing behavior in novel situations. Put simply, at a point where today one finds themselves deliberating over a decision, the bicameral person would have experienced a guiding voice. This voice was based on the same unconscious problem solving processes that modern introspective decision-making often relies on.

In ancient civilizations, the person would likely have grown up with their hallucinated guiding voice, or "personal god," referred to as one's ka in ancient Egypt, one's genius among the early Romans, and one's ilu among the Mesopotamians. Recent estimates suggest that even today, between one-quarter and one-third of modern children hear voices, termed "imaginary companions." In most cases these voices are discouraged by parents and thus are socialized out of most children, however in some they persist into adulthood. In addition, a much larger percentage of "normal" people hear voices from time to time than was previously known (Watkins, 2008). Recent research into "command hallucinations" provides additional support for Jaynes's theory. Further, there is a great deal of evidence that pre-literate societies exhibit vestiges of bicamerality, including auditory hallucinations (Levy-Bruhl, 1926). For an detailed description of a modern person labeled schizophrenic whose experience closely parallels Jaynes's descriptions of the bicameral experience, see "A Schizophrenic Woman Who Heard Voices of the Gods" (Hurlbert, 1990).

Myth: Jaynes argues that people in ancient times heard the actual voices of gods or other supernatural entities.

Fact: I attribute this misconception to three things: 1) People that read a summary of Jaynes's theory (rather than his actual book) and misunderstood this aspect, 2) Jaynes's somewhat poetic writing style and the fact that he didn't make this point more clearly (presumably in an effort to not offend anyone), resulting in some individuals with a predisposition towards favorable ideas about divine intervention and spirit communication coming away with this misconception, and 3) the fact that Jaynes often dodged the question after lectures (again, presumably because he wanted to avoid offending anyone).

To clarify: Jaynes believes that people in ancient civilizations experienced auditory hallucinations emanating from their right temporal lobe and these people misinterpreted these auditory hallucinations as the voices of their dead relatives, chief, king, and eventually "the gods."

Let me provide some examples of statements made by Jaynes that will help put this myth to rest:

  • "The gods ... were amalgams of admonitory experience, made up of meldings of whatever commands had been given the individual" (Jaynes, 1976/1990, p. 106).
  • "[Hearing voices] was far more common back then ... you heard a voice telling you what to do. Of course I am thinking the voice is coming from somewhere in the brain. I am not thinking of spirits outside or anything of that sort" (Jaynes, 1982).
  • "The immediate results of this loss of hallucinated voices giving directions are several and new in world history. The idea of heaven as where the gods have gone; the idea of genii or angels as messengers between heaven and earth; the idea of evil gods such as demons — all are new phenomenon" (Jaynes, 1986).
  • "Verbal hallucinations ... evolved along with the evolution of language during the late Pleistocene as the response part of the brain register of all admonitory information. Its survival value at first was simply to direct an individual in various long-term tasks, which cued their occurrence. By 9000 B.C., such voices were called what we call gods. This theory is thus one that explains the origin of gods and therefore religion" (Jaynes, 2007).

Myth: Chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror, and this "provides clear evidence of self-awareness in chimpanzees" (Griffin, 1978).

Fact: Jaynes addresses this in the Afterword in the 1990 and later editions of his book (p. 460):

"This conclusion is incorrect. Self-awareness usually means the consciousness of our own persona over time, a sense of who we are, our hopes and fears, as we daydream about ourselves in relation to others. We do not see our conscious selves in mirrors, even though that image may become the emblem of the self in many cases. The chimpanzees in this experiment and the two-year old child learned a point-to-point relation between a mirror image and the body, wonderful as that is. Rubbing a spot noticed in the mirror is not essentially different from rubbing a spot noticed on the body without a mirror. The animal is not shown to be imagining himself anywhere else, or thinking of his life over time, or introspecting in any sense — all signs of a conscious life.

"This less interesting, more primitive interpretation was made even clearer by an ingenious experiment done in Skinner's laboratory (Epstein, 1981). Essentially the same paradigm was followed with pigeons, except that it required a series of specific trainings with the mirror, whereas the chimpanzee or child in the earlier experiments was, of course, self-trained. But after about fifteen hours of such training when the contingencies were carefully controlled, it was found that a pigeon also could use a mirror to locate a blue spot on its body which it could not see directly, though it had never been explicitly trained to do so. I do not think that a pigeon because it can be so trained has a self-concept."

Myth: People in bicameral civilizations behaved like "zombies" or "robots."

Fact: Jaynes sometimes used dramatic language, and I think this helped to excite people's imaginations about the theory. In most cases his poetic descriptions are enjoyable and illuminating. However, his description of bicameral people as "noble automaton" on p. 75 may have lead to this misconceptions about "zombie-like" bicamerals. I think what he meant here was simply the lack of introspection and internal dialogue, and in later lectures he never used this type of description.

The pre-conscious inhabitants of ancient civilizations would have had nothing zombie-like about them (other than in the philosophy of mind sense of the term). While non-habitual behavior was driven by auditory hallucinations rather than introspection, they would have been just as animated as modern, conscious humans (or, for that matter, non-human primates) are. Bicameral people were non-conscious but intelligent, had basic language, and were probably more social than modern conscious people in the sense that they would have typically lived and worked surrounded by others. They would have experienced what Jaynes describes as first tier (non-conscious) emotions such as fear, shame, and anger, but not second-tier (conscious) emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and hatred.

Myth: The Thera explosion and resulting tsunamis around 1600 B.C. could not have caused the mass migrations and social disruption in the Mediterranean Jaynes describes.

Fact: Recent investigations have revealed that the Thera explosion and resulting tsunamis had a much more devastating impact on the Mediterranean than was previously known, wiping out coastal communities and causing a period of widespread unrest. The Thera explosion is now believed to be ten times more powerful than the Krakatoa eruption in 1883, which killed 36,000 in Indonesia from the initial eruption and resulting tsunamis. "The destructive force was incomprehensible. ... A search turns up Theran ash 500 miles away in the Black Sea. ... We really are talking about the largest volcanic event in human history in Europe" ("Sinking Atlantis," PBS Home Video, 2008).

Sea floor deposits found inland and high above sea level along with building damage patterns suggest a massive tsunami triggered by the Thera explosion hit Crete and nearly wiped out the coastal Minoan civilization. The initial wave that hit Crete was at least thirty miles wide and followed by several other waves at intervals of 30–45 minutes. See "Sinking Atlantis" (Secrets of the Dead Series), PBS Home Video, 2008.

The series of tsunamis that hit Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other countries in December 2004 provide a modern example of the devastating impact of large tsunamis. The tsunamis, triggered by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake in the Indian Ocean, killed more than 225,000 people in 11 countries. Coastal communities were hit with waves up to 100 feet high. It is believed the tsunami following the Thera explosion was of a similar magnitude.

A related misconception is that Jaynes argues the Thera explosion somehow "caused" the emergence of consciousness. Jaynes argues the shift to consciousness was the result of a number of factors including complex metaphorical language and writing. The mass migrations and social disruption following the Thera explosion may have contributed to the process in the Mediterranean. Different cultures developed consciousness at different times in other parts of the world.

Myth: Most scholars do not take Jaynes's theory seriously.

Fact: There are many scholars interested in Jaynes's theory, but few if any are able to focus on it full time. An extensive list of scholars who have written favorably on Jaynes's theory can be found on the Academic and Scholarly Interest in Jaynes's Theory page. Furthermore, at last count over 9,000 books and articles listed on Google Books cite or reference Jaynes's theory. A significant percentage of these are by academics and scholars and the vast majority express a favorable opinion of the theory. Several hundred books referencing Jaynes's theory are listed in our Related Books section.

Jaynes was in high demand as a lecturer, and was frequently invited to lecture at conferences and symposia and as a guest lecturer at colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Emory, Johns Hopkins, Rutgers, Tufts, York, Dalhousie, Wellesley, Florida State, Northwestern, SUNY at Genesco, Plattsburgh, Oswego, and Brockport, the Universities of New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts at Amherst and Boston Harbor. He was Scholar-in-Residence at Skidmore, Lake Forest, and the University of Prince Edward Island. In 1983 he gave the keynote address at a conference on "Language: The Crucible of Consciousness." In 1984 he was invited to give the plenary lecture at the Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg, Austria. He gave six major lectures in 1985 and nine in 1986. He was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by Rhode Island College in 1979 and another from Elizabethtown College in 1985. Jaynes's theory was the subject of conferences at McMaster University in 1983 and Harvard University in 1988. A conference dedicated to studying Jaynes's theory was organized at the University of Prince Edward Island in 2006 and 2008. Jaynes's theory was the subject of a speaker session at the 2008 Toward A Science of Consciousness Conference. Jaynes's book has been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, French, and Persian.

References

Cline, Eric. 2006. Archaeology and the Iliad: The Trojan War in Homer and History. The Modern Scholar (audio lecture series).

Epstein, Robert, R.P. Lanza, and B.F. Skinner. 1981. 'Self-awareness' in the Pigeon. Science. 212: 695–696.

Griffin, Donald R. 1978. Prospects for Cognitive Ethology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4: 527–538.

Hurlbert, Russell T. 1990. "A Schizophrenic Woman Who Heard Voices of the Gods," in Sampling Normal and Schizophrenic Inner Experience. Springer.

Jaynes, Julian. 1976/1990. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Houghton-Mifflin.

Jaynes, Julian. 1982. Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind. Tufts University Lecture (audiotape). Julian Jaynes Society.

Jaynes, Julian. 1986. Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind. Canadian Psychology, Vol. 27 (2): 128-148.

Jaynes, Julian. 2007. Verbal Hallucinations and Pre-Conscious Mentality in M. Kuijsten (ed.) Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, p. 88; p. 93, note 11.

Kuijsten, Marcel (ed.). 2007. Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited. Julian Jaynes Society.

Levy-Bruhl, L. 1926. Primitive Mentality.

Regier D.A., et al. 1993. The de facto mental and addictive disorders service system. Epidemiologic Catchment Area prospective 1-year prevalence rates of disorders and services. Archives of General Psychiatry. Feb. 50 (2):85-94.

Sleutels, Jan. 2007. Greek Zombies. In M. Kuijsten (ed.) Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited. Julian Jaynes Society.

Watkins, John. 2008. Hearing Voices: A Common Human Experience. Michelle Anderson Publishing.