The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Book Review)

Owen Barfield, Teachers College Record, 1979, 80, 3, 602-604.

Excerpt: Professor Julian Jaynes, a teacher of psychology at Princeton University, has given us a theory of the development of consciousness and (to employ one of the many neologisms, some of them useful, with which he sprinkles his book) of the psychohistory of mankind in terms of a varying relation between the two hemispheres of the brain. “The right hemisphere, perhaps like the gods, sees parts as having a meaning; it looks at wholes. While the left or dominant hemisphere, like the man side of the bicameral mind, looks at parts themselves.” The psycho-history of mankind, he says, can be understood only as an age-long progress, or transition, from the dominance of the right hemisphere, through a “bicameral mind” period when the two hemispheres were both about equally effective, into the dominance of the left hemisphere, which largely prevails today ….

It is in fact an extensive, well-documented, and competently indexed account of the evolution of human consciousness, out of a primitive condition that must, it seems, be designated “mental” – though it was neither experience nor consciousness – through the stage of mere consciousness and on into the detached self-consciousness of modern humanity. And as such it has indeed shining qualities and contains very much of interest, whether the author is discussing Egyptian mythology or the egoless psychology of Homer’s heroes, or considering the relation between “topic” and “song” in the development of Greek accents, or presenting the Old Testament as a majestic and wonderful record of “the birth-pangs of our subjective consciousness.” All these riches, and much more, the judicious reader will discover for himself.