Evidence of the Bicameral Breakdown

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's second hypothesis - that before the development of consciousness, humans operated under a previous mentality called the bicameral mind.
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Evidence of the Bicameral Breakdown

Post by vsaluki »

I want to start out by saying that Jaynes' book is an impressive piece of thinking. I don't think that I have ever learned so much from a book when I disagreed with the basic premises. Simply following the exploration of a first class mind, such as Jaynes', makes his book a must read. But ultimately I am not convinced that consiousness came into being roughly 3,000 years ago. I have read the critiques section as well as the myth and facts section at this site, and it seems to me that most of the objections that have been raised against Jaynes are simply misunderstandings of his ideas or of the facts of neuroscience. But I think that there are still many objections that go unanswered.

Jaynes' approach to dating the evolution of consiousness is to use the literature of the period as a reflection of the mental processes that were active for the period. The problem that I have with such an approach is that I see no necessary link between what is written about and what is thought about. Writing has undoubtedly had its own evolution. In the beginning the ability to write was held by the very few. And people were not taught to write so that they could express their inner thoughts or emotions. Writing was more of a pragmatic tool for recording commerce or the major actions and campaignes of kings and gods. So I cannot agree that the nonexistence in writing of elements that Jaynes considers to be markers for consiousness is equivalent to those processes not happening in everyday life. The other side of this equation is that the breakdown of the bicameral mind is, at least in part, attributed to writing - that there was a connection between writing and people no longer "hearing" their gods. But in the period where this transition was suppose to occur, the vast majority of people were still illiterates. Writing could not have caused them to loose their gods, because they could not read or write to begin with.

Another problem that I have is the idea that thinking could not have been happening in a mindspace that involved the narratization of the problem to be dealt with. Instead the solutions to problems were given to people as auditory hallucinations from gods. The problem with this is that we would expect such auditory hallucinations to result in recommendations that are no better than advice from a lower aninal if there was, in fact, no working out of the problems in a mindspace of some sort. Let us remember that those auditory hallucinations from god were coming from the right hemisphere. And how did the right hemisphere generate the solutions that it fed to the left by way of auditory hallucinations. We are dealing with fairly advanced cultures here, indicating that the right hemisphere was not just feeding nonesense to the left. The quality and advancement of the culture would seem to indicate that what the right hemisphere was doing required a level of abstraction that could only be done if there was a spacial and temporal mindspace to do it in. Where would the idea of representing objects in the real world as cuniform on a tablet occur if not is some mindspace. Certainly, the words of the cuniform do not look anything like the objects that they represent. Those words are complete abstractions. And when those words are read, they must once again be reconstructed from raw symbols to ideas that are located in a mindspace. Let's go back even further in time and say that I am a stone age human living in a cave. I begin to draw a picture of a buffalo on the wall of my cave. It is highly unlikely that the buffalo is standing there as my model. What am I drawing that image from if not from a corresponding image that I can investigate at will in my own mindspace?

I have many more questions about Jaynes' book, but I will stop here for the moment.
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Re: Evidence of the Bicameral Breakdown

Post by Moderator »

You've raised some good points for discussion here. I think these are common areas that are hard to really wrap one's mind around after first reading Jaynes's book. First, I'd like to encourage you to read the follow up books we've published, The Julian Jaynes Collection and Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, as well as all of the newsletters. In the books and newsletters you will find a great deal of additional discussion of the finer points of Jaynes's theory, and most of these issues are addressed specifically. I'll briefly touch on some of them here.

You raise the objection that ancient writing is perhaps not representative of ancient mentality. I would think of it more broadly. The Iliad was based on oral tradition, so they could have relayed anything they pleased, yet with the exception of later additions mental language is absent and the gods direct behavior. The gods direct behavior in writings from the Epic Cycle as well. Jaynes takes issue with the notion of widespread illiteracy, noting inscriptions in worker's areas, etc. However once consciousness got going, so to speak, in part due to writing, it could have been spread culturally.

And while writing is an important piece of the puzzle but the evidence for bicamerality is not limited to literary evidence. There is also the archaeological evidence (in the presence of idols, etc.) and the cultural evidence in the existence of gods in the first place, how idols were handled, etc. What Jaynes left out of his book was the importance of studying tribal societies, and the parallels we see in the mentality of tribes and ancient civilizations. Dreams are another important area of evidence for the transition, as described in detail in the newsletter and new book.

For your second point, I would suggest that you are ascribing far too much importance to the role of mind-space and narratization in problem solving. If you think about it, most non-technical problems even today are solved without narratization. Yet we often have the illusion that our consciousness plays a more significant role in problem solving than it actually does. The right hemisphere to a large extent still works out solutions to problems unconsciously (often during sleep), then provides solutions in the form of sudden insights rather than auditory hallucinations.

It is counter intuitive, but Jaynes argues one can have written symbols and non-metaphorical language without introspection. Again, these are difficult concepts to wrap one's mind around, because we are so accustomed to attributing everything to consciousness.

The issue of cave art is addressed at some length in both books. The short answer is that consciousness is not necessary for art, and cave art most likely is indicative of eidetic imagery (renderings of photographic memories or visual hallucinations), and not at all art in the modern sense. There is fairly convincing evidence for this.

I'll leave it at that for now and look forward to your additional questions.
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