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 and influential 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, archaeology, 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, susceptibility to persuasion, psychological anomalies such as hypnosis and possession, and our ongoing conscious development.

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. Most of the misunderstandings about Jaynes’s theory stem from not understanding Jaynes’s more precise definition of consciousness.
  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 (as Jaynes defines it) 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 (now confirmed by brain imaging studies).

Why Julian Jaynes’s Theory is Important

There are many reasons why it’s important to understand Julian Jaynes’s theory, including:

  1. It provides a better understanding of human history and the human condition. People that understand Julian Jaynes’s theory see the world and humanity in a completely different way.
  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 future generations.
  3. Jaynes’s theory explains a wide range of otherwise inexplicable phenomena, such as divination, idols, the pyramids and other forms of monumental mortuary architecture, hallucinations, and children’s imaginary companions.
  4. Jaynes’s theory explains the origin of gods and the origin of religion – previously one of the great mysteries of civilization.
  5. Jaynes’s theory provides a historical context for hearing voices, which is often helpful to those who have the experience.
  6. Jaynes’s theory provides a neurological model for hearing voices, which has now been verified in dozens of brain imaging studies, and is being used to develop future treatments for those with persistent, obtrusive voices.

Understanding Julian Jaynes’s Theory

There’s no short cut to understanding Julian Jaynes’s theory, but the effort is well worth it. 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 comments and potential misunderstandings, we recommend that you study Jaynes’s theory yourself. 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. If you are short on time, start by reading Julian Jaynes’s article “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind.”
  2. Join the Julian Jaynes Society: Access exclusive content to better understand Julian Jaynes’s theory while helping to support our mission. The Member Area also provides a summary explanation of the theory. Subscribe to our Mailing List to get the latest updates and news related to the theory.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. Review the Myths vs. Facts and Critiques & Responses sections of the website. Questions can be posted on the Discussion Forum.
  5. For those serious about gaining an in-depth understanding of Jaynes’s theory, our Self Study Course provides additional reading recommendations.