Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited


Chapter 1: Julian Jaynes: Introducing His Life and Thought

In West Newton, Julian grew up in the big family home where he was born, a house that the congregation had built for the Rev. Jaynes in 1895. Julian once told an interviewer: "What some would think a disadvantage, growing up in a fatherless home, didn’t seem so at the time. There was a single parent and a father was spiritually present, so to speak, and he didn’t have any faults because he wasn’t there to show them." His father’s possessions stayed in the house, along with stories to go with them. On the third floor, the Rev. Jaynes’s study contained 48 volumes of his sermons that his son Julian delved into for many years.

Chapter 3: Verbal Hallucinations and Preconscious Mentality

... It was concluded that the reason verbal hallucinations are found so extensively, in every modern culture, in normal students, schizophrenics, children, and vividly reported in the texts of antiquity is that such hallucinations are an innate propensity, genetically evolved as the basis of an ancient preconscious mentality.

Chapter 4: Consciousness, Hallucinations, and the Bicameral Mind: Three Decades of New Research

Jaynes maintained that we are still deep in the midst of this transition from bicamerality to consciousness; we are continuing the process of expanding the role of our internal dialogue and introspection in the decision-making process that was started some 3,000 years ago. Vestiges of the bicameral mind — our longing for absolute guidance and external control — make us susceptible to charismatic leaders, cults, trends, and persuasive rhetoric that relies on slogans to bypass logic. The tendency within us to avoid conscious thought by seeking out authoritative sources to guide our actions has led to political movements such as Marxism-Leninism and Nazi Germany, cult massacres such as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, and fundamentalist religions worldwide. By focusing on our inner dialogue, reflecting on past events, and contemplating possible future outcomes, we expand the role of consciousness in decision-making, enhance our ability to engage in critical thinking, and move further away from the commanding guidance of authoritative voices and non-thinking, stimulus-response behavior.

Chapter 5: Auditory Hallucinations in Nonverbal Quadriplegics

I believe the many similarities between my findings and Jaynes’s speculations about the voices of ages past serve as current validating evidence for his theory, which, for the most part, was developed from a historical perspective. There is one major difference: whereas the voices of ancient man pre-empted consciousness as we know it today, the voices of these handicapped residents occur in addition to consciousness. When these residents are asked about the source of their thoughts, they know the difference between their own ideas and those of their voices. Ancient man, it appears, would not have known the meaning of the question.

Chapter 6: Language and Consciousness: Jaynes's "Preposterous Idea" Reconsidered

Jaynes’s consciousness has definitive features that create an "analog world" with its own space, agents and objects, story-telling ability, and capacities to selectively excerpt, rationalize, and create its own inner reality distinct from the outer world. Foreshadowing Michael Gazzaniga’s left hemisphere "interpreter" or Antonio Damasio’s “extended consciousness," J-con "is ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing."

Chapter 7: The Self as Interiorized Social Relations: Applying a Jaynesian Approach to Problems of Agency and Volition

A self is an internalized conceptualization of agency, imported by socialization processes through the use of metaphoric mind-words "into" our heads. The self dwells in a culturally-fabricated "mind-space." A self is not conscious of itself, nor is it consciousness: only a person can be conscious, not a person’s interiorized representation or “self.” Rather, a self is an object of consciousness, in the same way any other object of the world is. And just as there is nothing innate or inborn about our notions of being a person, there is nothing intrinsic about our ability to introspect and to conceive of our “selves.” These are all culturally learned and historically specific, and do not result from natural bio-evolutionary processes.

Chapter 8: A Knowing Noos and a Slippery Psychê: Jaynes's Recipe for an Unnatural Theory of Consciousness

Jaynes notes that in Book I, Aristotle discussed and rejected each of the previous attempts to define psychê, including those by Democritus, Anaxagoras, Plato, and Heraclitus. Each writer had attempted to describe the soul in terms of movement and sensation, but encountered difficulties, according to Aristotle, because psychê was regarded as an independent or separate entity. Aristotle concluded that the soul was not some type of matter or combination of matter, but was, “… the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it." Jaynes underlined this passage and highlighted the following points (italicized below) in Aristotle’s elaboration ...

Chapter 9: The Oracles and Their Cessation: A Tribute to Julian Jaynes

... To heirs of the Enlightenment such as myself, the reasons for the very existence of religion have remained an absolute mystery. Nor is this a minor matter: not to understand religion is, quite simply, not to understand nine-tenths of human history. There is no mystery about why there is farming or industry, why there is instruction of the young, why there is architecture, medicine, or law. But the most salient fact of all human history is this: that all those things, and many others, have almost always been suffused through-and-through with religion, and subordinated to it. All right: but why does religion exist?

This is the question of questions concerning Homo sapiens. And I want to commend — and argue with — a book published some dozen years ago which to my mind comes closer to answering that question than everything else I have read about the matter put together ...

Chapter 10: The Meaning of King Tut

These three figures show Tutankhamun in the middle with his ka in tow. Note that the ka is wearing the Osirian beard — only the king’s ka was an aspect of Osiris and could be so shown. The dead king is absorbing his ka and himself lovingly into the gently resisting figure of Osiris. This is what tradition with its absolute expectancies had decreed. And when it is said that each divine king in death becomes Osiris, this means according to the bicameral theory a merging of hallucinated voices into the bicameral mind of his successor. Hence the "Opening of the Mouth" by Ay of the Tutankhamun-Osiris mummy on the right of the mural.

Chapter 11: Greek Zombies: On the Alleged Absurdity of Substantially Unconscious Greek Minds

Even if Kant is right in his analysis of consciousness, this does not necessarily invalidate Jaynes’s claims about the mental life of earlier cultures. It is far from inconceivable that earlier minds were not minds in the Kantian sense. As is well-known, Kant tied his account of the transcendental ego very closely to the historical conditions of Western science. Kant himself was fully aware of the fact that his view of the mind was specifically calibrated to meet the requirements of a number of scientific disciplines (specifically Aristotelian logic, Euclidean geometry, Arabian arithmetic, and Newtonian physics). Now, the Mycenaean Greeks and other putatively bicameral people were quite obviously strangers to that intellectual enterprise. That their minds may have been profoundly different from the minds shaped by Kant’s needs is a very real possibility indeed.

Chapter 12: Dragons of the Shang Dynasty: The Hidden Faces

Also consistent with other bicameral kingdoms is the slow transition of the Shang away from the bicameral mentality, until in its last phase at Anyang, it is reduced to communicating with its dragon god with oracle bones — even as Mesopotamia at approximately the same time was discovering their gods’ decisions in animal entrails and stars. Indeed, I suggest that the reason the Zhou so easily engulfed the Shang is because the dragon-god was failing and easily replaced by the ancestor gods of the Zhou.

Chapter 13: The Shi ‘Corpse/Personator’ Ceremony in Early China

... After a corpse had decayed, a bicameral individual might still have heard voices from a shi ‘corpse; effigy’ (perhaps a muzhu ‘wooden spirit tablet’). Third, a borderline bicameral/conscious person, who rarely or never hallucinated voices, could have relied upon a ceremonial shi ‘corpse; personator’ to transmit them. Fourth, rational people would realize that ancestral spirits were not actually speaking through either personators or effigies. Increasing skepticism and criticism led to the rejection of both practices, which were replaced by wholly symbolic shi ‘corpse; ancestral/spirit tablet’, usually made of wood or stone. Thus, the answer is affirmative; bicamerality aptly explains personation of the dead.