FeaturedJulian Jaynes's Theory

Buddhism and Bicamerality


by Todd Gibson

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes has painted a vivid picture of the collapse of archaic mentality in the Near East and in Ancient Greece, showing how what we in the modern world call “religion” underwent a major transformation. Previous to about the first millennium B.C., he says, humanity was not “conscious,” by which he means people did not have the capacity for introspection, of narratizing about past and future based on a concept of an internal self-existing in a metaphorical “inner space.” Instead, they were guided in unfamiliar situations by the dictates of “gods,” who were hallucinated voices (and sometimes visions) that had evolved as a side effect of language. These voices functioned as repositories of the accumulated wisdom of their societies, but were not cognized as being part of an individual’s psychological makeup; as such a notion was impossible for a pre-conscious mentality. Because these voices seem to have been localized in predominantly one hemisphere of the brain, Jaynes calls this early mentality “bicameral.”

Jaynes argues that in both the Near East and Greece, a series of historical catastrophes led to a situation in which the counsel and guidance of the ancestral voices suddenly became inadequate for the conditions prevailing in those parts of the world. The voices came to be heard by fewer and fewer people, while their pronouncements became more and more erratic. Eventually, as direct contact with the divine voices disappeared altogether, civilizations came to rely on recorded pronouncements of the gods (as is the case with the great religions of the West), or else resorted to techniques such as divination or astrology in attempts to discover the hidden patterns of nature and the cosmos.

Jaynes’s perspective on the history of religion in antiquity is both novel and persuasive, but it is for the most part largely dependent on data derived from the two cultural spheres mentioned above, which after all make up only a small (if disproportionately influential) part of world history. Since the belief that people in all cultures are fundamentally the same seems to be a commonplace of modern Western society, one might assume that all peoples of the world probably traveled a similar road to consciousness; a more detailed examination of the theory in relation to other cultural spheres might test this proposition. The focus of this essay will be on one Indic religion which originated during the period of history crucial to Jaynes’s theory.

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4 thoughts on “Buddhism and Bicamerality

  • I was glad to see this post. This is an important direction to pursue, as it demonstrates that a Jaynesian psychology has it legs and can be empirically substantiated in different parts of the world. I look forward to hearing more about how the Indian spiritual tradition can be contextualized within a Jaynesian framework.

  • As a devout Buddhist for whom Julian Jaynes’s theory was the first effective criticism of Buddhism that I had encountered (and I have encountered many), I was impressed by the ways in which this article respected and supported Buddhism. The story of the Buddha’s renounciation is powerful, I know. I have two points, though, that I would like to raise:

    1. The standard name for Shakyamuni Buddha (in Sanskrit) is Siddhartha Gautama.

    2. The earliest surviving canon of Buddhist scriptures are the Pali Canon, so it surprised me to read that they were never cited nor mentioned in this article. The Pali Canon contains much discussion about consciousness, even though it does not adhere to the Yogacaran Buddhist Eight Consciousnesses model of the mind. Are future articles planned?

  • It strikes me that what Gautama was actually teaching was a way to deal with the collapse of the bicammeral mind. The point of the enlightenment is to realize that in fact it is not just the gods that are a delusion but *everything* you see is a delusion as is your sense of an integrated self.

    And, this is literally true. The right brain from which Jaynes hypothesizes the god-voice came from now functions as that-space-which the left hemisphere is mapping and can verbalize that it is mapping.
    But, the left hemisphere believes that the space it is mapping is real, when in fact it is not. The space it is mapping is itself a map of — well, that the Buddha says is impoderable.

    And, indeed we know this is true. It is space made up of mostly empty space with atoms that themselves turn out to be mostly empty space, at the center of which is a nucleus that turns out to be a confusing collection of balls of….well nothing in the material sense—just excitations of a field which manifest with zero volume. Or so that’s our best take.

    In any case it is certainly not a world made up of fully extensive objects that have an intrinsic substance to them. Buddha taught that it was simply form-itself and like sea foam that fades away as you try to touch it. This is not far off.

    The upshot, however, is that when you realize that this interior space is not actually recording something real you can

    1`. Be less hung-up about the map you drew, whether its vertical or not and whether the objects, people, relationships etc are where the map says they are. They are not, because the objects, etc are not actually objects they are something that cannot be conceived of but only experienced.

    2. That god that you were looking for is right here and has been with you all along. It is your very awareness and it still “knows” everything it knew as a god. There is nothing to seek after, only to realize that there is no “otherness” that you cannot find, only a “oneness” that you have not until now realized.

    3. The problem is that when I say all this to you, you take me to be talking about the map and you already know — even if you don’t like to think about it — that the map is not real. But, no the territory is not real. Unfortunately, when I say that you, you make the territory a map inside of an imaginary meta-territory around we go. You have to break through this and there are no words that can help.

  • It seems when Buddha came into being He, had that mentality of self.
    To reflect the inward feelings of hidden patterns of the inner nature of self.
    Analog of, I, & Me, and later when the ego kicked in, mine!!
    This is why Buddhism is not a religion, because there are no gOds.
    Only one’s inner self.
    Even Christ, had said,
    One my find the Kingdom of Heaven,
    within themselves,
    righty here on earth.
    So even if there were no actual Christ,
    whoever wrote these words,
    knew the gOds were the voices in the head,
    that disappeared, hence seeking gOd,
    lay within oneself.
    This is how one may find inner peace,
    because within themselves is the other.
    Once they realize this,
    there is no seeking outside the mind and body,
    everyone is the sacrament of life as an individual being,
    within themselves.
    The Nature of,
    ╰ ((ºLº)) ╮


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