Julian Jaynes's Theory

Compared to Other Scientific Ideas, Jaynesian Psychology Isn’t So Farfetched

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— But How Confident Can We Be that Jaynes Is Right?

We accept as fact the magical transformation of species (Darwinian evolution), the warping of spatiotemporal fabric (Einsteinian astrophysics), and the superposition of particles and “spooky action at a distance” (quantum mechanics). So surely, one would think, acknowledging the cultural roots of consciousness and that supernatural visitations and visions (hallucinations) governed societies seems rather tame. Compared to other well-established scientific ideas, Jaynes’s arguments do not seem so implausible. But many of us still find his ideas unpersuasive. Indeed, while we are comfortable with the way the hard sciences defy our commonsensical assumptions about the how the natural world works, when it comes to consciousness, we feel uncomfortably challenged if confronted by something as so supposedly radical as Jaynesian psychology. It seems we are all “experts,” convinced that our own views must accurately describe something so personal, immediate, and “obvious” as subjective introspectable self-awareness.

The Necessity of Persuasive Evidence

Sweeping pronouncements may be true, but we still need to get into the weeds of empirical investigation and hypothesis testing. Scientific facts rest on decades of painstaking data collecting and experimentation. Progress is often more of a dialogue between competing but equally plausible viewpoints. Rarely are what seem like advances a definitive series of self-assured declarations. Refining terminology, agreeing on protocols, qualifying theoretical stances, and searching for subtlety of expression should be the goal. We need to remember that the aforementioned wild ideas in this essay’s opening sentence do not appear so improbable now, especially after decades of meticulous work that includes the application of mathematical modeling, testing with sophisticated instruments, exploration of unchartered parts of the globe, etc.

What Are the Odds that Jaynes Is Correct?

At least for this writer, the more we learn about human history and our anthropological record as a species, the more commonsensical Jaynes becomes. Let’s look at what we do know. First, hallucinations presently play a salient role, in clinical as well as nonclinical “normal” populations. However, to date they have not been adequately explained. Second, even a cursory examination of Bronze Age civilizations show how utterly different they were compared to post-first-millennium BCE societies. Such dramatic differences need to be confronted intellectually, in particular the role of hallucinatory experiences and the lack of clear-cut mental words where we have written records. Third, the part performed by metaphors in driving forward the evolution of mental words as a response to changing social situations is well established. Fourth, anomalous but ubiquitous psychological behaviors — spirit possession, hypnosis, imaginary playmates, glossolalia, hypergraphia, autoscopy, etc. — have not been adequately positioned into an explanatory and satisfactory framework. No one set of theories (except for Jaynes’s) ties all these behaviors into a neat, parsimonious theoretical package. Unlike the natural sciences, theory-testing in the social sciences and history should be allowed more latitude since the number of variables is so great. With that stated, the validity of a theory can be measured on a scale from highly unlikely, unlikely, 50-50, likely, to highly likely. The question, then, is given the reviews, criticisms, critiques, commentaries, elaborations, and testing of Jaynesian ideas to date, where do his hypotheses fall on the scale? Readers, of course, can decide for themselves. But for this writer we are very much passed the indeterminate 50-50 point, confidently and comfortably in the “likely” position, and probably into the “highly likely” quintile.

Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh has a MS in counseling and a PhD in Anthropology, Princeton University. He researches how humans adapt, both through history and therapeutically. The author of 17 books, his latest publication, "The Self-healing Mind: Harnessing the Active Ingredients of Psychotherapy" (2022), adopts a Jaynesian framework to explain how therapy works. He works as a licensed mental health counselor.

Brian McVeigh

2 thoughts on “Compared to Other Scientific Ideas, Jaynesian Psychology Isn’t So Farfetched

  • I wonder how Jaynes’ theory works with the cultures of Southeast Asia, Polynesia, and the Natives of North/South America. I have read Jaynes’ work as well as “The Dawn of Everything.” Were our fore fathers and mothers, out hunting mammoth and aurochs, not working as a team? And could someone answer me this: If people were hallucinating or hearing voices, how could they hunt and harvest?

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  • Yes, much more research needs to be done. We’ve been corresponding with two professors that have just completed an article applying Jaynes’s theory to the Maya. As to your second question, keep in mind that other non-human animals (such as wolves and dolphins) hunt in packs, and some species of ants “harvest” fungus. Thus, working as a team, hunting, and harvesting do not require an “analog ‘I’ narratizing in a mind-space.” Right hemisphere hallucinations only served to guide behavior in key moments of what we would today call decision-making — otherwise following the group’s leader took precedence. Understanding exactly what consciousness is and is not necessary for — and not confusing consciousness as described by Jaynes with more broad/vague definitions — is critical to understanding Jaynes’s theory. We recommend rereading Jaynes’s first two chapters several times, along with reading some of the JJS publications.

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