Myth 8: “The voices were actual gods, spirits, or entities”

Myth 8: “Julian Jaynes argues that people in ancient times heard the actual voices of gods, spirits, or other supernatural entities.”

Fact: I attribute this misconception to three things: 1) People that read a summary of Jaynes’s theory (rather than his actual book) and misunderstood this aspect, 2) Jaynes’s somewhat poetic writing style and the fact that he didn’t make this point more clearly ( in an effort to not offend anyone and to keep the focus on his ideas on consciousness), resulting in some individuals with a predisposition towards favorable ideas about divine intervention and spirit communication coming away with this misconception, and 3) the fact that Jaynes sometimes answered the question indirectly after lectures (again, because he wanted to avoid offending anyone and wanted his ideas on consciousness to be the focus).

To clarify: Jaynes believes that people in ancient civilizations experienced auditory hallucinations emanating from their right temporal lobe and these people interpreted these auditory hallucinations as the voices of their dead relatives, chief, king, and eventually “the gods.”

Let me provide some examples of statements made by Jaynes that will help put this myth to rest:

  • “The gods … were amalgams of admonitory experience, made up of meldings of whatever commands had been given the individual” (Jaynes, 1976/1990, p. 106).
  • “[Hearing voices] was far more common back then … you heard a voice telling you what to do. Of course I am thinking the voice is coming from somewhere in the brain. I am not thinking of spirits outside or anything of that sort” (Jaynes, 1982).
  • “The immediate results of this loss of hallucinated voices giving directions are several and new in world history. The idea of heaven as where the gods have gone; the idea of genii or angels as messengers between heaven and earth; the idea of evil gods such as demons — all are new phenomenon” (Jaynes, 1986).
  • “Verbal hallucinations … evolved along with the evolution of language during the late Pleistocene as the response part of the brain register of all admonitory information. Its survival value at first was simply to direct an individual in various long-term tasks, which cued their occurrence. By 9000 B.C., such voices were called what we call gods. This theory is thus one that explains the origin of gods and therefore religion” (Jaynes, 2007).

Marcel Kuijsten

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

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