The BiCameral Mind – Part 1


I don’t find the following information controversial at all and I think the bi-cameral-mind situtation is still evident today as indicated at:

Article copyright Beatrix Murrell (reprinted with permission)

Consciousness In The Cosmos: Perspective of Mind: Julian Jaynes

Back in 1976 when he was a professor of psychology at Princeton, Julian Jaynes published a very controversial theory about the emergence of the human mind. Indeed, even today his theory of the “bicameral mind” remains a controversy.

Rather than just harkening to behavioral psychology or brain biology, Jaynes presents his theory from the perspective of psycho-cultural history.

Going back to the the earliest writings and studying particularly the many early civilizations of the Near East, Jaynes came to the conclusion that most of the people in these archaic cultures were *not* subjectively conscious as we understand it today.

Jaynes provides extensive illustrations–ranging from Sumer, Ur, Babylon, Egyptian, Early Mycenean, Hebrew, and even Mayan and Asian cultures–that support his theory of the bicameral mind. But he mainly focuses on Mycenean (Greek) material–and it is this material which we will examine mostly in this post.

Jaynes bluntly declares “There is in general no consciousness in the ILIAD.” Analyzing Homer’s great epic, Jaynes came to the conclusion that the characters of the Trojan siege did not have conscious minds, no introspection, as we know it in the modern human. [Julian Jaynes, THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, p. 69]

Whether Achilles or Agamemnon, there was no sense of subjectivity. Rather they were men whom the gods pushed about like robots. The gods sang epics through their lips. Jayne declares that these Iliadic heroes heard “voices,” real speech and directions from the gods–as clearly as those diagnosed epileptic or schizophrenic today.

Jaynes stresses that the Iliadic man did not possess subjectivity as we do–rather “he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon.” This mentality of the Myceneans, Jaynes calls the bicameral mind. [Ibid, p. 75]

Now what was this bicameral mind? Jaynes briefly discusses brain biology–in that there are three speech areas, for most located in the left hemisphere. They are: (1) the supplemental motor cortex; (2) Broca’s area; and (3) Wernicke’s area. Jaynes focuses on Wernicke’s area, which is chiefly the posterior part of the left temporal lobe. It is Wernicke’s area that is crucial for human speech.

Pursuing the bicameral mind, Jaynes focuses on the corpus callosum, the major inter-connector between the brain’s hemispheres. In human brains the corpus callosum can be likened to a small bridge, a band of transverse fibers, only slightly more than one-eighth of an inch in diameter. This bridge “collects from most of the temporal lobe cortex but particularly the middle gyrus of the temporal lobe in Wernicke’s area.” And it was this bridge that served as the means by which the “gods” who dwelled in one hemisphere of the human brain were able to give “directions” to the other hemisphere. It is like thinking of the “two hemispheres of the brain almost as two individuals.” Hence the bicameral mind! [Ibid, p. 117]

Archaic humans were ordered and moved by the gods through both auditory hallucinations and visual hallucinations. The gods mainly “talked” to them–but sometimes “appeared,” such as Athene appeared to Achilles. And “when visual hallucinations occur with voices, they are merely shining light or cloudy fog, as Thetis came to Achilles or Yahwey to Moses.” [Ibid, p. 93]

Jaynes believes in the mentality of the early Mycenean that volition, planning and initiative were literally organized with no consciousness whatsoever. Rather such volition was “told” to the individual–“sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or ‘god,’ or sometimes as a voice alone.” [Ibid, p. 75]

Now Jaynes thinks the great agricultural civilizations that spread over much of the Near East by 5000 b.c.e. reflected the bicameral mind. These civilizations were rigid theocracies! They were reminiscent of the Queen Bee and the bee-hive. These bicameral societies reflected “hierarchies of officials, soldiers, or works, inventory of goods, statements of goods owed to the ruler, and particular to gods.” [Ibid, p. 80]

Jaynes contests that such theocracies were the only means for a bicameral civilization to survive. Circumventing chaos, these rigid hierarchies allowed for “lesser men hallucinating the voices of authorities over them, and those authorities hallucinating yet higher ones, and so” to kings and gods. [Ibid, p. 79]

According to Julian Jaynes, “the idols of a bicameral world are the carefully tended centers of social control, with auditory hallucinations instead of pheromones.” [Ibid, p. 144]

In these ancient bicameral societies the idol or the statue was literally the god, so says Jaynes. The god/goddess had its own house. It was usually the center of a temple complex. The size varied according to the importance of the god and, of course, the wealth of the city.

In these theocracies the owner of the land was the divine idol–and the people were the tenants. The steward-king served the god by administrating the god’s estates. According to cuneiform texts, the gods also enjoyed eating, drinking, music and dancing. They required beds for sleeping and connubial visits from other gods. They (the statues) were washed and dressed, driven around on special occasions. Ceremony and ritual evolved around these idols.

The collapse of the bicameral mind came slowly, it was a slow erosive breakdown. But Jaynes spotted the first serious indications of collapse by the time of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, around 1700 b.c.e. Authority had started to crumble–and due to this Egypt had to re-unify itself, hence the Middle Kingdom.

Jaynes considers that this slow collapse was caused by natural disasters, such as the Santorini volcanic explosion that devastated many Greek islands. Migration of different peoples into new areas disrupted the bicameral societies already in place. Conquest over peoples by others resulted in further collapse. And writing gradually eroded the “auditory authority of the bicameral mind.” [Ibid, pp. 208, 212-213, 220]

Jaynes felt a real tipoff of this bicameral breakdown could be discerned in the Babylonian lines: “My god has forsaken me and disappeared, My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance… [To Marduk]

It was with this, according to Jaynes, that one could detect for the first time the mighty themes of the world religions: “Why have the gods left us? Like friends who depart from us, they must be offended. Our misfortunes are our punishments for our offenses. We go down on our knees, begging to be forgiven. And then find redemption in some return of the word of a god.” [Ibid, p. 226]

For Jaynes this ruin, this bitter bicameral breakdown led to the growth of subjective consciousness in Greece. Moving from the ILIAD, Jaynes declares that Homer’s ODYSSEY is unlike its predecessor. Here we have wily Odysseus, the hero of many devices, a man of a “new mentality.” The ODYSSEY was about a man who was learning how to get along in a “ruined and god-weakened world.” [Ibid, 272-273]

With the Golden Age of Greece, in the starstruck sixth century b.c.e., with Solon, with Thales, Anaximander, and Pythagoras, Jaynes claims we are now with human minds with whom we can feel mentally at home!

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  • Eric

    Have you seen the new book on Jaynes’ theory? It’s called “Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness” by Marcel Kuijsten. Definitely a must-read if you are interested in Jaynes.

  • Jinny

    Not sure that this is true:), but thanks for a post.

  • Maxwell

    Thanks, Eric! I’ll look that up.

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