Title: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Author: Julian Jaynes
This book is a big one for me... literally (446 pages excluding the after word). It's actually comprised of three books in one. Jaynes had intended on writing four separate books, but wound up putting three of them together into one. He was to write the fourth book later, but never got around to it before passing away, which is a shame since I think he's onto something. Seeing that the book is pretty big, I'll be reviewing the three sections he called "books" in three individual reviews. This review will be about Book 1: "The Mind of Man".
I found a reference to this book while reading an interesting article on languages. It was written in 1976 and originally quite controversial. Jaynes posited that human consciousness is a relatively recent trait of humans. As recent as 3000 to 3500 years ago. This book was not well received by academia mainly because he touches on subjects that are far outside of his native discipline (psychology). Origin (as I will refer to it henceforth) touches on history, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology. A few other "ologies" are thrown in for good measure too.
He starts off with the introduction which is called "The Problem of Consciousness". In this part of the book he takes on all the theories which mankind has worked through to ascribe consciousness as an innate part of man and to try and say what consciousness actually is: consciousness as a property of matter, consciousness as a property of protoplasm, consciousness as the natural outcome of learning, and consciousness as a metaphysical imposition just to name a few. With each of these, he meticulously explains why these views may not be or possibly are not true. Just for an example (a weak one to start off with), he states, regarding consciousness as learning: "And hence a third solution, which states that consciousness began not with matter, nor at the beginning of animal life, but at some specific time after life had evolved. It seemed obvious to all the active investigators of the subject that the criterion of when and where in evolution consciousness began was the appearance of associative memory or learning. If an animal could modify its behavior on the basis of its experience, it must be having an experience; it must be conscious". He then recounts his experiments as a student (and the works of others) with signal learning when he worked with plants and then later protozoa to try and train them with stimuli. He believed at the time that if he could induce learning in these simple organisms, that would prove they were capable of consciousness.
Regarding this he says, "Ridiculous! It was, I fear, several years before I realized that this assumption makes no sense at all. When we introspect, it is not upon any bundle of learning processes, and particularly not the types of learning denoted by conditioning and T-mazes..." Why is this an incorrect assumption? The error "...was, and still is, that consciousness is an actual space inhabited by elements called sensations and ideas, and the association of these elements because they are like each other, or because they have been made by the external world to occur together, is indeed what learning is and the the mind is all about. So learning and consciousness are confused and muddled up with that vaguest of terms, experience".
In spite of a few parts that may seem weak, he persists in the remainder of the introduction and if you keep your mind open to it, you can see where he's coming from. A lot of it makes sense. His end goal with me was accomplished and is summed up by the closing words of the introduction, "We must therefore try to make new beginning by stating what consciousness is. We have already seen that this is no easy matter, and that the history of the subject is an enormous confusion of metaphor with designation. In any such situation, where something is so resistant to even the beginnings of clarity, it is wisdom to begin by determining what something is not. And that is the task of the next chapter.
At this point I was hooked and went onto the first chapter of Book 1 called "The Consciousness of Consciousness". This chapter is quite like the introduction, but instead of trying to work through all the things that people have used to describe consciousness as an unquestionable requirement in humans, he takes the reader on a quest to discover just how many of the things we do day-to-day are not conscious activities no matter how mentally involved they may be. Just as the introduction did he has sections such as: "Consciousness Not Necessary for Concepts", "Consciousness Not Necessary for Learning", "Consciousness Not Necessary for Thinking" and my personal favorite "Consciousness Not Necessary for Reasoning".
A few small excerpts from, Consciousness Not Necessary for Reasoning: "Reasoning and logic are to each other as health is to medicine, or --- better --- as conduct is to morality..." "...Logic is how we ought to think if objective truth is our goal --- and the everyday world is very little concerned with objective truth..." "...My point here is that for such natural reasoning to occur, consciousness is not necessary. The very reason we need logic at all is because most reasoning is not conscious at all".
Then he presents an example: "A boy having observed on one or more past occasions that a particular piece of wood floats on a particular pond, will conclude directly in a new instance that another piece of wood will float on another pond. There is no collecting together of past instances in consciousness, and no necessary conscious process whatever when the new piece of wood is seen directly as floating on a new pond. This is sometimes called reasoning from particulars, and is simply expectation based on generalization..." "...Such reasoning is the structure of the nervous system, not the structure of consciousness".
As a juxtaposition against the introduction where we were told what consciousness is not a property of, this section gets you prepared to accept that many of the things that we view as indicators of consciousness are in fact completely non-conscious activities. My favorite quote from this chapter is regarding reason and logic: "Surely, we exclaim, this cannot be true of the highest processes of intellectual thought! Surely there at last we will come to the very empire of consciousness, where all is spread out in a golden clarity and all the orderly processes of reason go on in a full publicity of awareness. But the truth has no such grandeur. The picture of the scientist sitting down with his problems and using conscious induction and deduction is as mythical as a unicorn".
Chapter 2 is called "Consciousness" and he begins to focus on language, specifically written language, as being a requirement for the the start of consciousness in humans. The very first section of this chapter is about metaphor and how most of the words in any language, if you dig far back enough started out as metaphors. Essentially, when new concepts are introduced, the best way to convey the new concepts is via metaphor. He provides a series of examples and then works up to the idea that metaphor is really the "language of the mind". As he progresses he becomes more specific about language and how the concepts of "I" and "me" fit into our existing experience with consciousness. There is a lot of bouncing back and forth between the history of languages and human consciousness today with the linking entity being metaphors. This chapter is certainly even more information dense than the introduction or the first chapter.
It is in the third chapter that we start getting to why he supposes that consciousness arose in humans 3000 to 3500 years ago when written language first began to appear. He starts by using Homer's The Illiad as some of his supporting evidence: "There is in general no consciousness in the Illiad. I am saying 'in general' because I shall mention some exceptions later. And in general therefore, no words for consciousness or mental acts". He uses the lack of internal motivation in all characters as another piece of evidence. The characters are only made to do things at the whim of the gods: "When, toward the end of the war, Achilles reminds Agamemnon of how he robbed him of his mistress, the king of men declares, 'Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus, and my portion, and the Erinyes who walk in darkness: they it was in the assembly put wild ate upon me on that day when I arbitrarily took Achilles' prize from him, so what could I do? Gods always have their way.' (19:86-90). And that this was no particular fiction of Agamemnon's to evade responsibility is clear in that this explanation is fully accepted by Achilles, for Achilles is also obedient to the gods".
Just after this point, Jaynes finally gets to the meat of the theory behind Origin. He suggests that the point of view that all men in the Illiad are driven by "the gods" and no sense of individual motive at all was not a mere poetic device. Instead he suggests that at this point in human development most humans were in fact experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations which they perceived as gods. These hallucinations were essential to humans at this time to allow them to function day to day. To give them guidance and structure. This is what he calls the Bicameral mind: "In distinction to our own subjective conscious minds, we can call the mentality of the Myceneans a bicameral mind. Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then 'told' to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend of authority figure or 'god', or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these voices because he could not 'see' what to do by himself".
The purpose of the auditory and visual hallucinations, according to Jaynes, has a physiological basis. He describes the physical structures of the brain and how the left and right hemispheres are joined together by the central commisures. His point is that the vastly larger number of neurons firing on either side of the brain need some efficient way to communicate information to the other hemisphere. After explaining the power of auditory stimuli and how it cannot be shut out, especially if emanating from within and then moving onto auditory and visual hallucinations, he suggests that these experiences are the communications protocol between both halves of the brain.
In a sense, if you look at it from today's computer science and telecommunication fields, hallucinations (if Jaynes is correct) are a form of data compression for both halves of the brain to exchange information. Or at least they were, for the bicameral man. The need for these hallucinations to provide structure and organization in humans went away when consciousness began and humans could begin to function as individuals. Of course, he doesn't believe this happened right away and suddenly everyone was conscious. He believes that this happened over a long period of time and that there are still lingering elements of bicameralism in humans today. He looks at the limited studies of the day on schizophrenics and the voices and visions they experience.
After making this bold statement, he then walks through a few assumed counter-responses and provides his answer why he believes these arguments against him are incorrect. At one point in the chapter he also points to the greek gods in the Illiad and their limitations. They are not supernatural. They are limited by the laws of the natural world. They cannot create anything out of nothingness. They are not at all like the Hebrew god.
The remaining three chapters in Book 1 flesh out the rest of his reasoning as to why he came to his conclusion about humans living without consciousness. He writes more on the origins of language, the experience of modern day schizophrenics (and even a controversial statement that their voices may not be a negative in some cases), his views on how and when language arose, the development from crude burial rituals to religions and then eventually when and why consciousness happened in humans. This all leads up to Book 2 which I will be reviewing when I finish it.
So far, I've enjoyed this book quite a bit. Partially because it pokes holes in well established and very sound beliefs, but also because it's a fascinating prospect and fairly well thought out. Sadly, even with it's current length just for Book 1, my review really can't convey the huge amount of information that is in the book. This is why I decided to break the review up into three parts as I complete each Book. I felt that this would be the only way to even partially express what he does in the book and give it fair shot.
The book was apparently a pretty big hit when it was released originally. I was too young to have known or cared so I'm coming to the party a bit late. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, apparently the book is quite popular with a few people I respect. The most notable being the cyberpunk author, Neal Stephenson. Supposedly a few ideas from Jaynes pop up in Stephenson's "Snow Crash". It's been over a decade since I read that so I can't say I remember any of that, but it wouldn't surprise me. Jaynes' book is really very information dense. It's not a light read either, but it's compelling one.
Up Next: "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Book 2)"