Below you will find a short summary of a book from 1976 by Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This summary was written by Dutch author Erik Weijers’ and it explains the basics behind Jaynes’ theory of the origin of human consciousness. I encourage readers to go to Erik’s site and read the full summary, which the section below was extracted from, but I would consider this part to be the most essential to understanding Jaynes’ theory and my writings.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
How did human beings who lived five thousand years ago view themselves? How did they make decisions and how did they reflect on their past?
Julian Jaynes proposes a radical answer to these questions: until a few thousand years ago human beings did not ‘view themselves’. They did not have the ability: they had no introspection and no concept of ‘self’ that they could reflect upon. In other words: they had no subjective consciousness. Jaynes calls their mental world the bicameral mind. It is a mind with two chambers, the mind that is divided into a god part and a human part. The human part heard voices and experienced these as coming from gods. These gods were no judging, moral or transcendent gods, but were more like each person’s personal problem solvers. They were hallucinated voices that provided the answers when a person entered a stressful situation which couldn’t be solved by routine.
To avoid misunderstandings: the people with a bicameral mind were no barbarians who waved their bludgeons and uttered monosyllabic sounds. They had a fully developed language. But language alone is not enough for consciousness, according to Jaynes. The pivotal question is which concepts are available in a language. Consciousness, in Jaynes’ definition, is a box of conceptual tools that are not ‘included with the hardware’. It is a package of ‘software’ that had to be invented, like tools such as the wheel. The most important transitional phase towards this new mentality occurred between 1000 and 500 B.C., an era from which textual sources are available: the most telling ones are the Iliad, the Odyssey and of course the Bible.
Jaynes’ definition of consciousness
It is important to notice how Jaynes defines consciousness. It has nothing to do with perception or sensation. This means that many common connotations of the word are excluded. For example, the ‘conscious experience’ of a bright color red, or a sharp pain. These examples of subjective experience, that fascinating aspect of our mental life, is not what Jaynes wants to explain. However fascinated he may be by the question ‘where the color red is’ when we watch the setting sun – nothing but gray matter in our heads, after all – he is searching for another holy grail: how is it possible that we can pose these kinds of questions at all? Our puzzlement about our experience of the setting sun presupposes an advanced way of looking at ourselves, an advanced, reflective theory of mind. How did that ability evolve?
So then what is consciousness in Jaynes’ definition? As a first approximation: it is a process, not an immediate sensation. It is a narrative way of thinking which makes us capable of making judgments and decisions. It is a sort of self management. With consciousness, we do not need voices of gods or other superior beings. We have the capability of picturing ourselves as individuals with memories, a past, a future and a (more or less) free will. A conscious individual can view himself ‘from above’ and give orders to himself. He has tools, as it were, to isolate scenes from his life and to project these on an imaginary screen. To edit those at his own wish, and combine them into different scenarios.
Where does this ability originate from? Jaynes:
|Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. [1: Full quote below]|
What does this mean: ‘metaphors or analogs of behavior in the real world’? It means that the language in which we reason is built from metaphor. Take the concept of memory. We imagine memory somewhat like a container which can hold mental stuff, which can become full, in which one sometimes pokes in vain. Such a container does not really exist, but it is a useful way to visualize an aspect of our behavior.
In a sense, our entire mental vocabulary is figurative or metaphorical. Even the way in which we imagine time is metaphorical: a spatial extendedness. We place events on a timeline, on which left and right are analogue to before and after. Thus, a coherent story about the ‘self’ can be told, that wonderful fiction. No easy accomplishment! It must have been a long road for humandkind to invent it…
“Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.” (Page 55 The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind)