Ten Questions Critics Fail to Answer About Julian Jaynes’s Theory


Critics of Jaynes’s theory generally attempt to show that Jaynes was wrong on one or two very specific points, and then imply that this therefore refutes his entire theory. Many of these critiques are based on misunderstandings of Jaynes’s theory and are addressed in the Critiques & Responses section. No critiques have attempted to take on each of Jaynes’s four hypotheses in any kind of systematic manner, or offer alternative explanations for many of the phenomena Jaynes’s theory so convincingly explains.

Critiques of Jaynes’s theory, if they are to be taken seriously, should at least attempt to offer more compelling explanations for each the following phenomena:

  1. The Saliency and “Normalcy” of Visions in Ancient Times. Why have hallucinations of gods in the ancient world been noted with such frequency? Based on mainstream psychology’s understanding of hallucinations, hallucinations should have been very rare and only noted in individuals identified as mentally ill. Yet much of the action in the Iliad is prompted by what seems to be auditory and visual hallucinations of gods. The notion that the gods were simply a literary device seems highly unlikely in light of the fact that evidence for similar hallucinations (hearing the voices of gods or other entities) can also be found in the Greek Epic Cycle, the writings of Herodotus and Hesiod, Plato’s descriptions of Socrates, the books of Old Testament, and early texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia (e.g. personal gods). Critics of Jaynes’s theory fail to offer an explanation for the important role of hallucinations in the ancient world.

  2. The Frequency of “Hearing Voices” Today. Why do auditory hallucinations occur more frequently in the general population than was previously known? If hallucinations are simply a symptom of a dysfunctional brain, they should be relatively rare. Instead, they have been found in normal (non-clinical) populations worldwide. This would seem to indicate a genetic, previously functional basis, as indicated by Jaynes’s theory. Critics of Jaynes’s theory have offered no alternate explanations for these findings.

  3. Imaginary Companions in Children. Why do between one-quarter and one-third of modern children “hear voices,” called imaginary companions? Further, researchers have identified a “conscience-related” variety of imaginary companion concerned with issues of behavior and telling right from wrong. This is what Jaynes’s theory would predict. Critics of Jaynes’s theory, as well as mainstream psychology, have altogether failed to offer a persuasive explanation for this widespread phenomenon.

  4. Command Hallucinations. Why do patients labeled schizophrenic, as well as other voice-hearers, frequently experience “command hallucinations” that direct behavior — as would be predicted by Jaynes’s theory? If hallucinations are simply a symptom of a dysfunctional brain, one would expect they would consist of random voices, not commentary on behavior and behavioral commands. Critics of Jaynes’s theory have never addressed this issue.

  5. Voices and Visions in Pre-literate Societies. Why are auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as divination practices and visitation dreams, found in pre-literate societies worldwide? In the absence of Jaynes’s theory, one would expect that these phenomena would be infrequent at best, if not rare. They are noted by anthropologists, but generally not explained. Critics of Jaynes’s theory either do not take up this question or operate under the misconception that hallucinations and divination practices have not been found in pre-literate, pre-industrialized societies.

  6. The Function of Language Areas in the Non-Dominant Hemisphere. Why is the brain organized in such a way that the language areas of the non-dominant hemisphere are the source of auditory hallucinations — unless this provided some previous functional purpose? This prediction by Jaynes (his neurological model of the bicameral mind) has now been confirmed by dozens of neuroimaging studies over the past decade. Most researchers have noted these findings, but have failed to provide a theoretical basis for why this would be the case, while others have deferred to Jaynes’s theory. This issue has not been addressed by critics of Jaynes’s theory.

  7. The “Religious” Function of the Right Temporal Lobe. Why is right temporal lobe implicated in auditory hallucinations, intense religious sentiments, and the feeling of a sensed presence? Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory is the only one that I am aware of that provides an explanation as to why this would be the case. Critics of Jaynes’s theory have never mentioned this fact or provided an alternate explanation.

  8. Visitation Dreams. Why do ancient and modern dreams differ so dramatically? Studies of dreams in classical antiquity show that the earliest recorded dreams were all “visitation dreams,” consisting of a visitation by a god or spirit that issues a command — essentially the bicameral waking experience of hearing verbal commands only during sleep. This has also been noted in tribal societies. It is not until after consciousness develops that dreams take on the conscious narratization we are familiar with today. Thus modern dreams are consciousness operating during sleep, and the study of dreams in the ancient world add further confirmation of Jaynes’s dating for the development of consciousness. These differences between ancient and modern dreams are not widely known and this issue has never been addressed by critics of Jaynes’s theory.

  9. The Inadequacy of Current Thinking to Account for the Origin of Religion. Why are the worship of gods and dead ancestors found in all cultures worldwide? Mainstream cultural explanations for why a belief in gods emerged would suggest that these beliefs would be far less universal. Critics of Jaynes’s theory fail to address this issue, presumably deferring to mainstream explanations of the origin of religion that are both unpersuasive and fail to account for the entire range of evidence (e.g., personal gods, neurological aspects). Worse yet, some reject Jaynes’s theory based on their own latent God beliefs.

  10. Accounting for the Ubiquity of Divination. Similarly, why were divination practices also universal? Further, why so much importance was placed on oracles throughout cultures such as ancient Greece. Mainstream theories fail to explain the ancient obsession with the will of the gods. For example, for nearly every major decision described by Herodotus, the will of the gods is sought via the oracles. What could account for the widespread proliferation of idols if not as hallucinatory aids? Divination, oracles, and idols are simply accepted as a curiosity of the ancient world, without explanation. Critics of Jaynes’s theory have failed to address this issue.

Jaynes’s theory of a previous bicameral mentality accounts for all of these phenomena, and, in the complete absence of persuasive alternative explanations, appears to be the best explanation for each of them. As one professor once said to me, “There is either Jaynes’s theory, or just ‘weird stuff happens.'” The next time you are debating someone about Jaynes’s theory, ask them to provide more persuasive alternate explanations for each of these phenomena.

Further discussion as well as references to the relevant research for all of these points can be found in the Introduction to The Julian Jaynes Collection as well as the chapter on the new evidence for Jaynes’s theory in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness.

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

Marcel Kuijsten

Marcel Kuijsten

Marcel Kuijsten is the Founder and Executive Director of the Julian Jaynes Society.

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