The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (also, the cutest kitten photos ever!!)

OK, I’m lying about the kitten photos.  It’s just that the title of the post seemed a wee bit abstruse without throwing in some kittens.

The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes was a bestseller when it was published in 1976.  Its thesis, briefly, is that consciousness as we know it arose very recently in human history — around 3000 years ago.  Before that, human beings were more like zombies, lacking introspection, and responding to auditory hallucinations coming from the right side of their brains — hallucinations that they typically interpreted as being the voices of gods.  This “bicameral mind” started to break down during the second millennium BCE in the face of the stresses of migrations, natural disasters, the development of writing, and so on.

Julian Jaynes

When I read the book, the evidence I found most interesting was Jaynes’s comparison between the Iliad and the OdysseyNone of the characters in the Iliad show any introspection — they are the playthings of the gods.  In the Odyssey, on the other hand, Odysseus is supremely introspective; the gods are still integral to the story, but Odysseus is his own master.  (Of course, the dating of both epics is pretty conjectural, since they had they origins in oral performance, probably hundreds of years before they were written down.)

Anyway, the book disappeared from my consciousness after I read it, and I never noticed any other books by Jaynes.  Was he just another scientific crank like Velikovsky?

The answer, it seems, is (pretty much) no.  The first time I encountered a reference to Jaynes in recent years was in a footnote to Dawkins’s The God Delusion, where he says, “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.”  That sounds about right to me.  The book does, of course, offer an intriguing explanation of sorts for the origin of religion, but Dawkins just mentions it in passing.

I was more surprised last week when Jaynes came up in a UC Berkeley course I was listening to called “Scientific Approaches to Consciousness.”  The professor devoted his final lecture to Jaynes’s theory, without offering any criticism of it — apparently it is worthy of being taught, more or less uncritically, to Berkeley undergrads.

The Wikipedia articles suggest that Jaynes’s theory is not quite in the scientific mainstream, but lots of interesting people (like Daniel Dennett) continue to have good things to say about it.  There is a Julian Jaynes Society, the existence of which strikes me as rather culty.  Here is a recent critique of the theory.  Time to reread the book itself, I guess.

And OK, here is a cute kitten: