Close Encounters with a Different Mind

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, March 1978, 17,1.

When we visit ancient castles, palaces, or ruins, we often try to imagine what their inhabitants looked like and how they acted. Sometimes we try to imagine what they felt, or how they thought, or how they saw themselves. What did they really think? How did their minds work? Were they really like us? Did they share in our emotions? Often such visits serve to confirm human similarity and continuity – the same basic emotions, fears, problems, and eventual destinies. A tombstone tells the story yof a mother who died in childbirth, and her infant who died a few months later and is buried with her. Another tombstone tells of a beloved mother, mourned by her children. We find that humans who lived centuries ago experienced the same human emotions as we. But was it always like that? Is it possible that human consciousness has changed in the course of human history? Julian Jaynes looks at a great deal of evidence about human civilizations and finds a major discontinuity together with the many continuities.

This book was written to be epoch-making. It presents the results of an ambitious and unique project to explain the creation of culture as we know it today as a neurological evolution occurring in fairly recent historical times. The context in which the book was written includes the remarkable progress made in recent years in neuroscience and a parallel development of speculative socio-biology, which attempts to generalize from animal behavior to human behavior.

Jaynes’s main thesis, state briefly, is that mankind for most of its existence has not known what we recognize today as consciousness. For most of human history, mankind operated with a bicameral mind, with two brain hemispheres operating independently. The right hemisphere … was the source of auditory hallucinations perceived as the voices of gods and spirits. The appearance of contemporary consciousness is a fairly recent event which happened only about 3,000 years ago. Even today we still are affected by the bicameral mind, either in our attempts to achieve complete freedom from it, or in our regressions to bicameral consciousness. Religious ecstacy, hypnosis, and schizophrenia are all contemporary expressions of the old consciousness. …