Overview of Julian Jaynes’s Theory of Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind

In January of 1977 Princeton University psychologist Julian Jaynes (1920–1997) put forth a bold new theory of the origin of consciousness and a previous mentality known as the bicameral mind in the controversial but critically acclaimed book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes was far ahead of his time, and his theory remains as relevant today as when it was first published.

Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by many people who hear voices today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.

To support his theory, Jaynes draws evidence from a wide range of fields, including neuroscience, psychology, archeology, ancient history, and the analysis of ancient texts. Jaynes’s theory has profound implications for human history as well as a variety of aspects of modern society such as mental health, religious belief, susceptiblity to persuasion, psychological anomalies such as hypnosis and possession, and our ongoing conscious evolution.

Jaynes’s theory can be broken down into four independent hypotheses:

  1. Consciousness — as he carefully defines it — is a learned process based on metaphorical language.
  2. That preceding the development of consciousness there was a different mentality based on verbal hallucinations called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind.
  3. Dating the development of consciousness to around the end of the second millennium B.C. in Greece and Mesopotamia. The transition occurred at different times in other parts of the world.
  4. The neurological model for the bicameral mind.

Why Julian Jaynes’s Theory is Important

There are a number of reasons why Julian Jaynes’s theory is very important to understand. These include:

  1. It provides a more accurate view of human history.
  2. Jaynes’s definition and understanding of consciousness brings more clarity to the issue than other theorists, and encourages us to learn better ways of expanding our own capacity for conscious thought and teaching consciousness to children.
  3. It explains a wide range of otherwise inexplicable phenomena (divination, idols, monumental mortuary architecture, hallucinations, imaginary companions, etc.)
  4. It explains the origin of religion.
  5. It provides a historical context for hearing voices, which is often comforting to those who have the experience.
  6. It provides a neurological model for hearing voices, which has now been verified in dozens of brain imaging studies, that could help lead to future treatments for those with persistent, obtrusive voices.

Understanding Julian Jaynes’s Theory

There is no short cut to understanding Jaynes’s theory. Brief summaries and reviews do not do it justice, and unfortunately many of the comments written on the theory online (including Wikipedia) often contain mistakes. Rather than reading other people’s misunderstandings and misconceptions, we recommend that you study Jaynes’s theory yourself and form your own opinion. If you are interested in gaining a thorough understanding of Jaynes’s theory, we recommend the following:

  1. Start by reading Jaynes’s book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
  2. Next, read The Julian Jaynes Collection, which contains additional material by Jaynes as well as interviews and in-depth discussion of his theory, and Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind and Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, which provide additional discussion of Jaynes’s ideas by a variety of scholars, as well as articles by Jaynes himself. These three books expands on various aspects of Jaynes’s theory, update the reader on research relevant to his ideas, and address common critiques of Jaynes’s theory.
  3. Listen to the Digital Audio Programs on Jaynes’s theory and read The Jaynesian, the newsletter of the Julian Jaynes Society. Both of these provide additional insights and discussion on Jaynes’s theory. Subscribe to our Mailing List to get the latest updates and news related to the theory. Review the Myths vs. Facts and Critiques & Responses sections of the website. Questions can be posted on the Discussion Forum.
  4. For those serious about gaining an in-depth understanding of Jaynes’s theory, our Self Study Course provides additional reading recommendations. We encourage you to attend one of the upcoming conferences.