Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

How do we bring the problem of self-reference into our search for GSOT? Human perception has challenge enough finding order and regularity in the wild universe. So it almost seems too much to bend vision inward, trying to heed the inscription at Delphi to “Know thyself.”  But we can start by looking back to that ancient time when “Know thyself” first appeared in human history.

Julian Jaynes caused quite a stir with his mid-1970s pronouncement that humans became conscious sometime early in the first millennium BCE.[1]

Jaynes writes with a firmly and naïvely positivist viewpoint. Nevertheless, he makes an interesting case for a marked shift in the way humans think, occurring shortly before the classic age of Greece and before most of the writing of the Jewish Bible.

Jaynes uses the word “consciousness” to describe the new patterns of human thinking. I feel compelled to comment briefly on “consciousness,” a word for which the clearest role is to help market books. Then we’ll see how valuable his insights are.

Jaynes and other positivists [2] restrict their inquiry on consciousness to the examination of outward expressions of self-awareness, assuming a correspondence between inner thoughts and publicly definable events. They position themselves as external observers in order to derive the necessary measurements and results. The privileged vantage point of external observers arises from rules restricting observation to that which can compel agreement among suitably trained researchers like themselves. As we noted earlier, those rules demand reproducibility over time and space…and among observers, eliminating that which is immediate, personal, and particular.

The problem with thinking about consciousness under these restrictions is the loss of differentiation between me, you, us, him, her, them, it. To illustrate this, let me pose a question: Is there one consciousness or many? For the positivist, the answer is easy – of course, there are many consciousnesses. If there 3 people in a room, there are 3 consciousnesses. But I would suggest that the answer is far more difficult and complex. I think that consciousness has been much too readily identified with brain, behavior, test responses, etc. As for the 3 people in the room, there is far more at play than the interaction between 3 individual consciousnesses. What about the consciousness of the external observer? There is only one consciousness available in full measure to me; consciousness in you and in other people is a matter of projection and similitude of response. Another question: Is my dog Shep conscious? I am inclined to talk to Shep, care for him, and play with him entirely as if Shep is conscious, and it seems to me Shep responds in like manner.

Homer_British_Museum 2
Homer, blind poet

Despite these misgivings, Julian Jaynes seems to have identified a remarkable shift in the way that humans think, occurring early in the first millennium BCE. He analyzes the epic poem attributed to Homer, the Iliad, which was transmitted orally from the time of the events described around 1230 BCE until it was written down some 400-500 years later.



Jaynes notes the lack of any description of self-awareness among the Greek and Trojan heroes of the Iliad. Their reasons for sailing across the Mediterranean, for sulking in the camp (Achilles), for venturing out from the safety of the city (Hector), and for every act we might consider driven by human emotion or will was in fact described in the Iliad as the aural command of a god, immediately obeyed.

DeathOfAchilles_Rumpf_ChalkidischeVasen 2
Trojan war scene from a vase 540 BCE. Ajax defends the body of Achilles against Trojans, Glaukos and Paris. The goddess Athena with aegis of snakes helps Ajax.

Great deeds, either heroic or shameful, were automatic responses to a god’s command. Not only in the Iliad of Greece, but also in other cultures, Jaynes identifies the same pattern of a voice from a god commanding the action of humans. This includes the prophecy of Amos, which he considers to be the oldest written book of the Old Testament.

Jaynes comes up with the interesting theory that the voice of the god actually originates in a region of the right cerebral hemisphere analogous to Broca’s region for speech in the left cerebral hemisphere. (The speech region resides dominantly in the left hemisphere in right-handed people and in about half of left-handed people). Thus an “unconscious” right hemisphere would provide signals heard as a voice in the left hemisphere, which is equally “unconscious” but better connected for external hearing and speaking. Jaynes views this arrangement as an adaptive evolutionary strategy in early humans.

However, as city populations grew and communication became more complex, the previously adaptive strategy of dual-brain responsiveness failed to cope. The environmental pressure of urban living changed the right brain/left brain partnership to a state of left hemispheric dominance. Jaynes called this “the breakdown of the bicameral mind.” The change occurred too rapidly to represent genetic modification or selection, but more likely depended on the extraordinary plasticity of neural connections.

Once speech became consolidated in the left brain, the strange voices, commands from the gods, fell silent or largely so (schizophrenia a well-known exception). This allowed the left cerebral hemisphere to move in a different direction, far more adaptive to an increasingly complex society. Expressions of self-awareness began to appear. Even the Odyssey, composed somewhat later than the Iliad and also ascribed to Homer, began to show contemplation, consideration of alternative future courses, and reflection on the worthiness of a person’s own acts.

By the time of Augustine in approximately 390 CE, the notion of self-awareness could become a central philosophical theme:

Evodius:  You have taught me clearly that it is one thing to be alive and quite another to know that one is alive.

Augustine:  Which of the two do you think is better?

Evodius:  Clearly, the knowledge that one is alive is better.[3]

Jaynes’ psychological theory has great value for its identification of changing patterns of human thought just prior to an extraordinarily creative period in the development of human civilization in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. This period included the classic age of Greece, the rise of the highly influential Persian empire, and the time of composition of much of the Old Testament. The right brain/left brain part of Jaynes’ theory is a weaker aspect, which might or might not have some future use in understanding present human psychology and psychiatry.

In the next blog, we’ll look at Epimenides, the almost forgotten, half-legendary hero from the island of Crete whose life and thought helped to shape the remarkable transformation of GSOT described above.


Next post:  Epimenides, Prophet from Crete

Previous post:  Rule #4. Break These Rules

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Photo of bust of Homer in the British Museum, London, public domain, uploaded on Wikipedia by JW1805. Trojan war scene drawing based on a lost Greek vase from 540 BCE. A. Rumpf, Chalkidische Vasen (Berlin/Leipzig 1927), pl. 12, public domain. Wikimedia commons.

[1] Jaynes, J. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1976.

[2] For example, Hofstater, D.R., and Dennett, D.C. The Mind’s I. Basic Books, New York, 1981, also Dennett, D.C. Consciousness Explained. Little Brown, Boston, 1991.

[3] Augustine. On Free Choice of the Will, transl. Thomas Williams. Hackett, Indianapolis, 1993. p. 13.

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