Julian Jaynes's Theory

Incipient, Precomplex, Complex, and Latent Bicameral Mentality


Discontinuities and Continuities in Human Mentality

What was very early prebicameral and bicameral mentality like? With what we now know about the breakdown of bipartite mentality and the transition to consciousness three millennia ago we can expand on some key issues. Jaynes only devoted a very brief account of the precursor to full-blown bicameral mentality, but we can at least hypothesize about what it was like. So this essay, though admittedly speculative, is an extrapolation from what we do understand thanks to Jaynesian psychology.

Discontinuities and Continuities in Human Mentality

Human mentality over the past ten or more millennia has undergone tremendous breakdowns, ruptures, and changes as we have attempted to adapt as a species. These developments, from a biological evolutionary perspective, occurred in the blink of an eye. We can begin by postulating four successive types of bicamerality: (1) incipient or before ca. 12,000 BCE; (2) precomplex (ca. 12,000 to 3500 BCE); (3) complex (ca. 3500 to 1000 BCE); and (4) latent (after ca. 1000 BCE). These periods reflect not evolutionary changes but cultural upgrades. Each type is a function of social scale, i.e., the larger the group, the more pressures emerged to configure the most suitable mentality. In the same way technology periodically revolutionizes in order to keep pace with human expansion around the globe (for better or for worse), mentalities develop in order to accommodate population increases, economic and political complexity, and disruptions caused by new forms of knowledge.

But besides discontinuities, we also need to pay attention to continuities. First, we need to acknowledge how undergirding human behavior is a fundamental lateralization of our mental architecture, resulting in a governing “pilot” and a governed “executor” within the same individual. This is both a cause and consequence of our innate sociality, i.e., as we must inevitably deal with hierarchies and the nuances of convoluted interaction in a way that no other primate does, homo sapiens internalized a sort of miniature society of a governing subject and governed object. A second continuity is hallucinations. Vestigial hallucinations are currently witnessed in both clinical and nonclinical populations. Moreover, mental imagery, which is a hallucinoid experience, is a direct descendant of more intense and perceptually rich supernatural visitations. A sweeping examination of the history of human mentalities, then, indicates a revealing link to our very archaic ancestors.

Bicameral Mentality as Lateralization

Jaynes used “bicameral” to mean a two-tiered neurocultural arrangement in which “supernatural beings” (generated by the right hemisphere) controlled a “mortal person” (associated with the left hemisphere) through hallucinations. But the way Jaynes wrote about bipartite mentality is a specific account of something that characterizes many animals: An adaptation in which neuroanatomy has laterally evolved in order to more effectively utilize an organism’s neurostructures. Such organization will be configured for particular purposes and determined by a certain ecological niche in which the organism evolved. Asymmetrical brain structures afford a fitness benefit to many species as they reduce cognitive redundancy and increase efficiency. In a number of mammals, left-hemispheric superiority for the reception and production of species-specific communication is evident. It seems Homo sapiens inherited from mammals left-hemispheric dominance for conspecific vocalization and then developed this unbalanced neurological structure into the highly sophisticated language system with which we are familiar. The path lateralization followed in humans became indivisibly involved with the demands of stabilizing dominance hierarchies and social control, and by extension, high-level linguistic capabilities needed to navigate intricate group dynamics. Human duplex psychology and language capabilities co-developed and were inextricably intertwined, reinforcing each other; they cannot be understood apart from one another.

The human mind, then, both past and present, is a self-contained complex of sender (pilot) and recipient (executor) of commands. From a linguistic perspective, the pilot‒executor compound engages in highly advanced communicative acts. These involve a speaker and a listener. This communicative circuit of addressor-to-addressee is not just between individuals (interpersonal); it is also “within” an individual (intrapersonal). In other words, Homo sapiens engage in a fair amount of “self-talk” (here “self” means self-referential, not an intropectable sense of narratizable identity, i.e., in preconscious times selves as we understand them did not yet exist).

The effective spatial range of the two-tiered mentality is the optimum number of individuals that audiovisual hallucinations can reach and influence. This range, of course, is determined by belief. In other words, if an individual does not believe that a god-king or priest miles away can communicate over distances, he or she will not hear divine admonishments. But if the same individual were socialized to listen for and expect commands and guidance, he or she would experience divinely-issued orders and instructions. Expanding the operative extent of the two-tiered mentality requires the formation of legitimizing ideologies that justify unchallengeable hierarchies, unquestioned relations of dominance, dogmatic creeds, and rigid, ritualistic control; in other words, a highly charged super-religious worldview.

(1) Incipient Bicameral Mentality: Before the Neolithic Period

Demographic Scale and Political Structures: Small groups and extended kinship units — in the form of bands (20 to 100 individuals) — led a nomadic existent; even the most elementary systems of rulership were absent. Very early on the effective range of incipient, precivilizational bipartite mentality probably did not extend beyond the individual.

Technoeconomic Developments: Hallucinated voices developed in response to the demanding, repetitive techniques that Upper Paleolithic technological breakthroughs required. These hallucinated verbalizations were a side effect of the emergence of language sometime before the Neolithic era. Such proto-bicameral voices helped keep preconscious individuals on task (stone-chipping, firewood gathering, spearing fish, patiently sitting still while observing prey, etc.).

Hallucinations: Most likely the very first hallucinated voices were either of one’s parents or of one’s own voice, i.e., one took orders from one’s own hallucinated verbalizations. Preconscious people heard their own voice in a type of looping auto-communication between pilot and executor. Such auto-hallucination (or “self-hallucination”) is a strange concept for the modern mind to grasp, since we instinctively attribute verbalizations that we hear to another person. But in consciousless people, millennia before the emergence of social complexity, verbalized commands may have been unconnected to others and purely communicative acts shorn of any individuality or personal qualities.

As groups became somewhat bigger the voices of clan leaders presumably played a role in controlling behavior, and eventually the scope of hallucinated voices could reach to the band or extended kinship level.

Consciousness: Lacking a cultural matrix in which language containing mental words could be cultivated, it would be impossible for subjective introspectable self-awareness to emerge.

Self: While a pilot-and-executor complex existed during the protobicameral period, consciousness did not, since individuals lacked an imaginary mental space in which an “I” (subject self) could narratize and observe a “me” (object self). In others words this was a “preself” era.

(2) Precomplex Bicameral Mentality: The Neolithic Period

We can characterize the Neolithic period as “precomplex” or when bicameral mentality was emerging into more elaborated forms. “Complex” describes societies with relatively large populations, techno-economic advancements, surplus production and storage capabilities, role specialization and proliferation, priestly and sociopolitical hierarchies, well-developed theopolitical ideologies, written language (though confined to an elite group), often some degree of urbanization, and monumental architecture (which of these factors came first may vary). “Complex” (or “civilizational”)is admittedly a blunt term, but a word is needed for our attempt to correlate major changes in human psychology with our technological and intellectual advances.

Demographic Scale and Political Structures: Due to the advances in farming techniques, hunting and gathering subsistence patterns gave way to a less nomadic and more settled existence. From authorizations rooted in blood-relations grew a primitive extra-kinship “politics” for governing tribes, chiefdoms, and villages.

Technoeconomic Developments: From about 10,000 BCE the agricultural revolution set in motion a fast-moving (at least by evolutionary standards) train of cognitive, technological, and social organizational changes with which Homo sapiens continues to grapple.

Hallucinations: In one of the most important developments for Homo sapiens, extra-kinship relations emerged, and with it, the stretching of the effective range of bicameral voices from the individual (or peri-individual) to those outside his or her immediate, familial orbit. The seeds of government were planted. It was during this period of what might be called “Neolithic bicameral mentality” that religious hallucinations first developed. They probably began with authoritative voices from divinized ancestors and supernatualized chiefs. Eventually commanding verbalizations, in tones more officious and insistent, emanated from priest‒kings and god‒kings. What developed at the neurocultural level was a deity‒human composite, i.e., the pilot admonished and guided a person, while the executor obediently followed commands and saw instructions through to their completion.

Consciousness: There is no reason to believe that individuals were conscious during the era of Neolithic bicameral mentality.

Self: As in the incipient period, no narratizable selves moving about within a mental space yet existed.

(3) Complex Bicameral Mentality: From 3500 BCE to 1000 BCE

Demographic Scale and Political Structures: Eventually, populations surged in size and social roles diversified and proliferated. Consequently, hierarchical structures increased in height so as to include under their canopy the expanding populations of god-owned city‒states (though by today’s standards these were more like large towns). Hallucinated guidance and commands that were believed to have issued from one’s supernatural superiors cascaded down towering social pyramids.

Technoeconomics: Between the third and second millennium BCE an assortment of technologies and techniques — pottery, irrigation, early metallurgy, astronomy, calendrics, monumental mortuary architecture, early writing — had developed. What might be called literate‒urban bicamerality describes sophisticated societies that emerged sometime during the late fourth millennium BCE. By the Bronze Age they had impressively expanded in territory, population, and technological knowhow.

Hallucinations: Though in many respects dual psychology was florescent after around 3500 BCE, its very success sowed the seeds of its demise, i.e., population expansion put pressures on the inherently unstable hierarchies composed of teeming masses, officious priests, arrogant kings, and unapproachable god‒statues sequestered in temples. By the Late Bronze Age, hallucinations had probably weakened considerably resulting in semi-bicamerality. The gods were departing for the heavens.

Consciousness: Between the urban‒literate bicameral period and the first millennium BCE human mentality was probably a mixture of transitional states, ranging from incipient to semi-consciousness. For convenience’s sake the twelfth to tenth century BCE is given as the period when the super-religiously infused duplex psychology broke down under the weight of its own achievements and a new mentality of consciousness stepped onto the historical stage.

Self: A proto-self may have started to emerge in response to cultural complexification. This “incipient self” indicates that while individuals were not completely conscious, they possessed the rudimentary elements of an “I” and “me.”

(4) Latent Bicameral Mentality: The Emergence of Conscious Interiority

Though I have used “postbicamerality” in much of my writing, here it needs to be stressed that this term does not indicate the complete loss of duplex psychology. In fact the term “postbicamerality” is misleading as it suggests that bipartite mentality was completely left behind by history. In some ways this is true. However, bicameral impulses still remain dormant under layers of linguo-conceptualization, sometimes erupting in the form criticizing and scolding voices suffered by schizophrenics. Consciousness, a cultural invention, inhibits and deeply submerges an older, more primitive duplex psychology. “Latent” indicates that the two-tiered mentality — a sort of default mental architecture — has the potential to manifest itself in various ways, from spirit possession, channeling, hypergraphia, imaginary playmates, autoscopic phenomena (doppelgangers), glossolalia, hypnosis, to unwelcome voices and visions.

Demographic Scale and Political Structures: From the debris of the collapse of Late Bronze Age civilizations emerged larger, more advanced Iron Age societies, now equipped with the efficiencies of subjective introspectable self-awareness that could psychosocially underpin steeper hierarchies and more territorially enlarged, culturally diverse empires.

Technoeconomics: Though a multi-regional trade system had been in place before civilizational breakdown in the Late Bronze Age, after the first millennium BCE commercial activities increased and exchange networks expanded. By the mid-millennium BCE the gods had departed for the heavens, never to return, and philosophical speculation, proto-science, and proselytizing religions emerged.

Hallucinations: Though the ancestors and gods no longer regularly visit mortals and their very existence is questioned and doubted, occasional eruptions of the divine still play an important role in the lives of many. And in modern times vestigial hallucinations are seen in normal as well as pathopsychological populations. Moreover, mental imagery can be thought of as the descendent of hallucinations. These hallucinoid experiences differ from bicameral-era hallucinations since they are less vivid and watered down, transpire “within the person,” and are typically controlled by a volitional self.

Consciousness: Florescent bipartite mentality was replaced by conscious interiority.

Self: The advent of full-blown consciousness allowed a mental space to emerge in which moved about a self, a sort of homunculus imbued with self-reflexivity and self-narrativity. A vast historical distance separates preconscious personhood from conscious selfhood. However, we need to keep in mind that the dynamic between the subject “I” and object “me” of the self is homologous to the relation between the “supernatural” (pilot) and “mortal” (executor) during the period of duplex psychology.

Learn more about Julian Jaynes’s theory by joining the Julian Jaynes Society and reading our books.

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

One thought on “Incipient, Precomplex, Complex, and Latent Bicameral Mentality

  • One blatantly obvious piece of evidence for JJ’s bicameral model is the behavior, common to most religions, of begging (praying to) a deity to speak to the supplicant.

    Another is the modern appearance of cults, where members are willing to seemingly turn over their decisions to the cult leader or his/her designees, up to and including serious violence against nonbelievers or against themselves.

    Both these phenomena, which can seem inexplicable to outsiders, find a degree of explanation in JJ’s bicameral model.


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