THE EXTRAORDINARY THEORY OF JULIAN JAYNES.
In the event that Jaynes's theory (summarised here for brevity!) ever does enter the halls of mainstream psychology, it will cause quite a rumpus. Atheists will see it as final proof of their stance while religious people will regard it with a degree of dismay. More sinisterly, there are aspects of the theory that will need to be managed lest they be exploited by far-right and racist elements.
The prophet Amos probably wasn't the life and soul of the average party. Going by his utterances in the Old Testament, he was pretty much exclusively concerned with what God told him when ever God took time out to talk to him. Much of that consisted of God railing at various kingdoms and cities, threatening what He'd do to them for having defied His Word. Amos never talked about himself, his past, his future - just the here and now and the Voice in his head. Nowadays, of course, such behaviour would be considered at least anomalous but back then, he occupied an exalted position in society - so much so that he was elevated to the level of prophet.
Of course, he wasn't alone. Abraham heard The Voice too. To Abraham too, the Voice was God and had to be obeyed - even when the Voice told him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Equally significantly, there's no evidence that I'm aware of that his contemporaries thought there was anything unusual about this. God spoke to some people and also appeared in their dreams (e.g. Jacob's dream of the Divine ladder) to issue instructions to them.
It wasn't just the peoples of the Old Testament. The Gods of the ancient Greeks seemed to be very chatty indeed and were always telling the demos in the street what to do. In early Greek legends such as the Iliad – if you interpret them literally – there is no evidence that the main protagonists actually thought for themselves at all. Basically, they did whatever they did because the gods told them to. Agamemnon received his instructions to start the Trojan War in a dream in which he is visited by a demi-god, Oneiros.
You find the same in many other ancient myths such as the Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh (at least the earliest written versions of it). Classical scholars used to regard these features as mere styles of writing; the voices of divinities were just metaphors for the thought process of the characters in the stories. That’s just the way ancient scribes did things.
Not so, said one Julian Jaynes, psychologist in the 1970s at Princeton University in what is regarded as one of the most remarkable books of the 20th century: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (bicameral meaning “two chambered” referring to the two spheres or chambers of the human brain). In it, he laid out a quite extraordinary theory about our species and our history. It's very difficult to accept at first but the more you read, the more you see that it explains so much about the human story and how religion and culture has developed across the millennia.
It's everything a theory should be in that the scope of it is well-defined, it can be concisely summarised and most importantly, it is easy to see what needs to be done to disprove it. The theory has not yet been disproved. And yet, it has not gained wide acceptance although other researchers have since - inadvertently - confirmed supporting aspects of the theory while not acknowledging that Jaynes had already discussed the phenomena they were reporting. In the event that Jaynes's theory ever does enter the halls of mainstream psychology, it will cause quite a rumpus. Atheists will see it as final proof of their stance while religious people will regard it with a degree of dismay. More sinisterly, there are aspects of the theory that will need to be managed lest they be exploited by far-right and racist elements. But that's all for later.
Jaynes's theory is this: that our ancient ("bicameral") ancestors up until about 3500 years ago (pre-1500 BCE) had a very different sort of mentality to what we ("unicamerals") have today. They didn’t think about things consciously they way we do, they didn’t rationalise, they didn’t moralise, they didn't lie or dissimulate. They didn't imagine the future or dwell on the past.
A quick aside will be useful here. Jaynesian consciousness is about far more than being merely awake. It's about what you're thinking about at a particular point in time. You might be at a boring lecture with your eyes fixed on the lecturer but, if your thoughts are elsewhere, you're not conscious of him/her or what they're saying.
Think about when you got out of bed this morning. What picture is now in your mind? You're probably seeing the room and the bed exactly as it is along with a blurry image of yourself getting up from the bed. For many people, the view might be from above. One way or another, it's not the view your eyes saw this morning as you got out of bed. It's a view that someone else would see had they been watching you. What you see is not merely a recording of what your eyes perceived a certain number of hours ago. It's a separate image that your conscious memory conjures up in your mind's eye - something that our distant ancestors couldn't do, he said.
So, if they didn't think consciously, how did they reach decisions? With us, conscious thinking is essential. Imagine you're in a restaurant and you've had the main course and now you're deciding on dessert. Friends have recommended the tiramisu and you remember that wee hotel in Florence last summer where you had the most amazing tiramisu ever. However, it's January and you want to lose a few kilos so maybe you should go for the fruit salad. As you ponder the decision, your mind's eye is almost certainly recalling visually the circumstances in which your friends recommended the tiramisu at this restaurant. You're also recalling the Florentine restaurant with the evening sun streaming in the window. Lastly, you're recalling (again visually) to your mind's eye the instance a week or so ago when you stepped off the bathroom scales and regretfully decided you needed to lose weight. All these images and the feelings they invoke will feed into your final decision.
According to Jaynes, our ancestors did things very differently. There was no recollection to conscious memory of previous events. Rather they reached decisions by literally hearing voices in their heads that in novel situations requiring a choice told them what to do. All other actions were done non-consciously, i.e. without consciously choosing to do them, much as we change gears in a car as we approach or move away from traffic lights. Things were simpler and choices were fewer for the vast majority of people. It's not difficult to imagine a society in which people went about their routine tasks of tending to their livestock or planting and harvesting crops according to the seasons without the need for much reasoning and decision-making in whatever form it might take.
Remember the human brain is composed of two hemispheres? When presented with an unfamiliar situation, the bicamerality would kick in. The voices would originate in the (now defunct language area of the) right hemisphere and pass across the corpus callosum (the link between the two sides of the brain) to the left. These voices were regarded as those of gods and were not to be disobeyed. Our ancestors were incapable of ignoring these voices and were not conscious of themselves as being distinct entities capable of doing their own thing in the way we are. Jaynes likened this mental state to modern day schizophrenia. People indoctrinated into religious cults or temporarily hypnotised also show similar behavioural attributes.
This method of reasoning was based on human language and human language was a pre-requisite for its development. The voices were actually heard and were spoken in the mother tongue of the hearer. Jaynes hypothesises that this voice might originally have been imagined as that of a recently deceased king, tribal leader or ancestor. Later, it came to be regarded as a god which directed the person in moments of stress and indecision - moments that today would cause us to consciously introspect and reflect on the options open to us, to draw on past experiences and imagine the future effects of each option.
To the bicameral person, past and future didn't exist. There was no drawing on past experience in the way we do in which previous events are brought to conscious visual memory. Nor was there consideration of potential future happenings. Indeed, according to Jaynes, the bicameral person didn't visualise time in the spatial way we do at all. Personally, I visualise a timeline in which events in the past stretch away to my left while the future years are to the right of my field of vision. Bicameral folk didn't do that: there was just the here and now.
We changed because we had to but we didn’t all change at the same time. He cited evidence that people in different parts of the world lost their bicamerality at different times and proposed that natural disasters and upheavals tended to lead to conditions of chaos where only the most conscious would survive. Increasing population led to competition and more pressure on natural resources. Hungry people move in search of food and the incursion of strange violent hordes speaking alien languages into the small world of the bicameral village was an event of such trauma that the voices either had no answer or else recommended unwise choices such as resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. The voices in the head were fine for doing routine tasks such as getting out of bed in the morning or planting crops at the right time. But if the crops were failing year in year out, or barbarians were storming through your region, the voices just weren’t proactive, creative or flexible enough to provide solutions. All in all, in a society facing prolonged chaos, those who could reason for themselves and perhaps engage in dissimulation stood a better chance of survival.
Jaynes does mention one natural disaster that could have been the one that brought the bicameral world crashing down in the decades before 1500BC - at least around the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. Sometime, at a date not known (although 1628-1626BC has been mooted), the Greek island of Thera (now Santorini) exploded in a truly enormous volcanic eruption that was many times larger than Krakatoa. The immediate effect would have been to send huge tidal waves racing across the Mediterranean - inundating coasts from Israel to modern day Spain. It is thought that this wiped out the Minoan civilisation on nearby Crete.
In the more medium term, vast quantities of volanic ash would have been hurtled into the atmosphere sharply reducing sunlight levels and hence agricultural production. Researchers are far away as Ireland report oak trees living in the bogs with narrow growth rings for the decade following 1628 BCE. It's not difficult to imagine the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East in a state of complete societal breakdown with mass starvation stalking the region and refugees invading neighbouring states to forcibly seize land, food and other resources and slaughter and/or rape anyone who opposed them.
So we evolved into conscious, introspective beings who were self-aware and could work things out consciously but no longer had the voices to guide us. The word "evolved" must be used carefully though. Survival of the fittest (read "least bicameral") it might have been but this was no Darwinian evolution driven by genetics. Jaynes is understandably unsure as to how we evolved into consciously thinking beings but it could have been by and large complete in a couple of generations.
The change was behavioural, cultural - and may simply have resulted from parents discouraging bicamerality in their children. There is evidence that many children still report hearing voices today. I recall an article recently saying that 20% of Irish children report them - a very low figure by international standards. As an aside, if as stated earlier, we accept the Jaynesian notion that language is a necessary pre-cursor for consciousness as we know it, then children who have not yet learned language are therefore not conscious in the Jaynesian sense of the word i.e. self-awareness, recalling to conscious memory of past events, contemplating the future etc.
Anyway, in a bicameral society, hearing these voices would be considered normal and would be reinforced by the mirroring behaviour of parents and other people. In a non-bicameral society, a child would learn that hearing voices is unusual and would learn to ignore and suppress them.
We missed the voices - sorely. Allied with famine, plagues and wars, the departure of the voices seemed to be a judgment from the gods, a punishment for some great wrong we did. The Book of Psalms mourns the lost voice of Yahweh. The Babylonian writer (addressing Marduk) says "My god has forsaken me and disappeared, My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance...". So we pleaded for them to come back and sought their help in everyday matters – just like they used to. Prayer evolved, religion (from the Latin religare, to reconnect) evolved as we sought to re-estabish the link with the god who seemed - quite literally - to have previously accompanied us in all our endeavours but had now departed.
And yet, the voices didn't completely depart. A priestly (or prophet) caste emerged who claimed to be able to contact the gods. Maybe they were the first ones to be conscious and seeing the dangers in how society was developing, seized the initiative to keep the mobs in line. Or perhaps they were the last ones to be bicameral and because they could still hear the departed voices, they attained a degree of influence. Who knows? One way or another, 700 years (c. 800 BCE) later, there still were the Amoses of this world who were hearing (or claimed to be hearing) the voices into their adulthood. If we could no longer hear the gods ourelves, the next best thing was to hear them through an intermediary. The ancient Israelites had their prophets while the Greeks had their oracles.
Obviously, the theory doesn't prove that there is no God or gods. Also, regardless of what Richard Dawkins says, the voices were as real to those who heard them as the red in a red flower is to us. However, it does provide a convincing reason for the emergence of religion.
The theory is disprovable. All that needs to be done is for someone to find a piece of text from before 1500BC that shows people had a mentality similar to us today, self-aware, able to recall the past and contemplate the future. The first real evidence of what might be regarded as a "modern mentality" can be seen around 600BC with the dawn of Greek philosophy, its questioning of the world and its increasingly empirical, observational approach. The Athenian statesman, Solon, whilst not being particularly recognised as a philosopher would be an early example of this. Interestingly, at the same time, Indian thought seemed to undergo a similar revolution with the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism. Confucius also lived during this period. In the context of the Old Testament, those familiar with Biblical texts will surely already have recognised the vast gulf in mentality between the Book of Amos and the regretful tone of self-doubt and worldly contemplation in Ecclesiastes which was composed some 500 years later.
It was stated earlier that different societies might have lost their bicamerality at different times. Jaynes has wondered about the pre-Columbian civilisations of Latin America. He has also used as part of his source material the works of the controversial French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who studied various "primitive" societies in the 1920s and declared in two books (Primitive Peoples and How Natives Think that "primitive" peoples were very different mentally to "civilised" people. Lévy-Bruhl cites the example of the Ten'a people of Alaska who claim to continually hear and even see spirits as well those of their recently deceased friends and relatives. These latter voices do fade away some time after the person has died.
Similarly, anthropologists who have worked with the Jarawa and Onge peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal report that they also claim that the dead live around them as spirits. More interestingly from the point of view of Jaynes's theory, others have referred to isolated societies who lack a spatialised concept of time. See source 1 below. This is very much in keeping with Jaynes's ideas that bicameral people didn't visualise time like we do.
After stating all this, it's important to stress again - to avoid the last two paragraphs being exploited for racial supremacist reasons - that according to Jaynes, the mentality we have today is to a large degree learned. Language plays a huge part and if a language lacks words for a particular concept, then speakers of that language won't have that concept. It's not genetic.
Julian Jaynes died in 1997 before he was able to advance his theory. He had apparently been planning another book to be called The Consequences of Consciousness in which he would develop further some ideas on the differences between our own "unicameral" mentality and that of the bicamerals. This new state of unicamerality as we'll see, was far from being just a benign freedom to rejoice in self-awareness and look upon the world empirically and dispassionately.
Since we can recall past events, we are also recalling the emotions we felt during those events - and to a large extent re-experiencing them. A bicameral person may experience a frightening incident but once the source of the fear is removed, the fear vanishes. A unicameral person will - on account of his/her conscious memory - be able to recall the event again and again, re-experiencing the fear until it becomes anxiety: fear in alliance with a conscious memory producing an entirely new and far more corrosive emotion.
Similarly, recollection of an event that made us angry at the time will cause us in the end to hate. Remembering an act of sexual intercourse can engender lust. Thinking at length over a delicious meal one had can trigger a false appetite and lead to gluttony, eating for the sake of eating. One shameful event can gradually lead to guilt, sadness to melancholy and rejection to jealousy. An ability to consciously reflect allows us to imagine how our lives might be, to compare ourselves to others we perceive to be better off and to feel the pangs of envy.
For this religion tried to provide answers. Abstemiousness recommended in place of lust, forgiveness urged for those who hate and the expectation of Divine Forgiveness for those tortured by guilt. Commandments warned us of the dangers of dishonest behaviour (bearing false witness or stealing), excessive sexual desire (covetting one's neighbour's wife) or envy (covetting one's neighbour's goods). The Seven Deadly Sins point out the dangers of indulging feelings that have distinct origins in unicamerality and conscious memory.
His theory is promoted today by the Julian Jaynes Society (Julian Jaynes Society | Exploring Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind Theory Since 1997) and there are far more facets to it than this post could ever hope to address. These voices are apparently quite common amongst people with non-verbal quadriplegia. There is also for discussion the point that schizophrenia is nothing more than a residue of bicamerality. People with schizophrenia report a mentality - when the voice(s) kick(s) in - that is remarkably similar to the bicameral one described by Jaynes. The dreams that bicamerals had were quite different to the ones we unicamerals have today. There's also the effect the new unicameral mentality had on religion - some of which was touched on above. How religion dealt with the unicameral's worries about the emptiness and despair of a looming death is worthy of a whole separate thread. The theory is controversial and is by no means widely accepted by mainstream psychology. But, fact or total fiction, it’s one hell of a story.
1.Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says | Culture and Art |Axisoflogic.com
3.Summary of Evidence for Julian Jaynes's Theory | Julian Jaynes Society
4.The Julian Jaynes Collection, Marcel Kuijsten (ed.), Julian Jaynes Society, 2012
5.The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books (1976, 2000)
6.Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, Marcel Kuijsten (ed.), Julian Jaynes Society, 2010
7.Artikelen van Erik Weijers - The origin of consciousness