In the 1970s Julian Jaynes, a distinguished Princeton psychologist, wrote an influential book with a cumbersome title: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes defines the bicameral mind as a two-part mind, or brain, that functions as a single unit — as distinct from a brain with two hemispheres operating separately but joined by a bridge. Attributing the conscious mind to the left hemisphere and the unconscious to the right, he suggests that in a bicameral mind there is no division between conscious and unconscious. He argues that in the early days of settled civilizations, around the third millennium BCE, the human brain was still bicameral. This is why in the records from that era Sumerian and Babylonian documents and even Homer's telling of the Trojan War — we find kings and prophets hearing "the voices of the gods" in the form of auditory hallucinations. The gods thus intervened into human history, commenting on and dictating policy on whether to go to war, build fortifications, store up food, and so on. Something resembling modern consciousness was enabled, Jaynes says, only when this early, bicameral stage of the human mind "broke down" into two tenuously linked but separate spheres of mentality.

(The Fundamentalist Mind, Stephen Larsen)


An Excursion into Paleontology of Consciousness

Despite its intimidating title. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes is a book on evolutionary psychology which the layman mind-watcher would enjoy. The book opens with a passage which could have been written by Edgar Allan Poe, his discussion of the auguries of science remind us of Thomas Carlyle and the thesis on the breakdown of the bicameral mind is presented in language reminiscent of Chesterton in Orthodoxy. It is undoubtedly idiosyncratic but it does for evolutionary psychology what Harold Bloom's Western Canon does for literary criticism or Hofstadter's Godel, Escher and Bach does for artificial intelligence. It combines great erudition with great readability and does not hesitate to attempt a fundamental theory, on what the true blue academics might consider to be only "songs and snatches and dreamy lullaby". At the end it comes out as a virtuoso excursion into the 'paleontology of consciousness' which traverses anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, literature, evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology.

Human beings in the early civilizations, Jaynes believes, had a mentality which was profoundly different from our own, "in fact they were not conscious like us, were not responsible for their actions and therefore cannot be given credit or blame for anything done over these vast millennia of time." A part of the individual's nervous system worked to the commands of hallucinatory voices of the god-king or the king-god. The other part was the subjective consciousness of the individual. The hallucinatory voices in Jaynes' view were not figments of the imagination. "They were man's volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere and from stores of admonitory and perceptive experience, transmuted the experience into articulated experience which then 'told' man what to do. This internally held speech often had to be primed with the corpse of the chieftain or the body of a jewel eyed statue in the house." From the evidence he presents Jaynes finds this "astonishing consistency of pattern from Egypt to Peru, from Ur to Yucatan."

The brain-mind identity theory is not specifically mentioned in Jaynes' book but Jaynes makes it clear that he does not subscribe to the view that consciousness is the result of a purely neuro-biological state. He says, for instance, that mere study of the reticular formation or a complete wiring diagram of the nervous system will not solve the problem of consciousness. "Though we know the connection of every tickling thread of every single axon and dendrite in every species that ever existed together with all its neurotransmitters and how they varied in all its billions of synapses of every brain that ever existed, we could still never, not ever from a knowledge of the brain alone know if that brain contained a consciousness like our own". Jaynes believes in a world of inner experience which in his opening passage reminiscent of late Poe or early Borges he calls "a secret theatre of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel" where "the ephemeral existences of our lonely experience fit into the ordered array of nature that somehow surrounds and engulfs this core of knowing". He asks "Where and how in evolution could all this wonderful tapestry of inner experience have evolved? How can we derive this inwardness out of mere matter? And if so when?"

Jaynes' theory of language evolution is the key to his "paleontology of consciousness." The first stage in this brief chronology is the period up to 40,000 BC when man used only the crudest of stone tools, the fashioning of it did not call for language. The second stage is the period from 40,000 to 25,000 BC when calls, modifiers and commands were used in the wake of important cultural changes following the mass migrations in the last glacial age and the development of new tools from bone and flint. The third stage from 25,000 to 15,000 BC according to Jaynes is the age of the nouns which coincides with the drawings of animals on the walls of caves or on horn implements. And as life nouns began animal drawings so nouns beget new things. Jaynes suggests that invention of pottery, pendants, ornaments, barbed harpoons and spearheads followed. Jaynes cites the evidence from fossils that the frontal lobe in front of the central sulcus was increasing with a rapidity which astonishes the modern evolutionist and speculates that by the time of the Magdalenian culture, the language areas of the brain as we know them had developed.

From this launching pad of anthropology, paleontology and linguistics. Jaynes puts forward his hypothesis that verbal hallucinations were a side effect of language comprehension which evolved by natural selection as a method of behavioral control. For the performance of time consuming tasks either self assigned or assigned by others, like construction of a fish weir, men needed 'internal' verbal hallucinations telling them what to do... Jaynes believes that articulate speech under selective pressures of enduring tasks began to become unilateral in the brain to leave the other side free for these hallucinatory voices which could maintain such behavior.

Now follows stage four which Jaynes suggests took place in the Mesolithic era. About 10,000 to 8000 BC when names were invented as a response to the greater stability of population in the warmer post-glacial period. With more fixed populations, with more fixed relationships, longer life-spans, the advent of agriculture and larger groups in which individuals had to be distinguished names became a necessity. Jaynes suggests that hallucinatory voices of the king, who in time became the god-king and later the king-god may have evolved as a side effect of language and may have served the purpose of keeping individuals persisting at the longer tasks which tribal life now imposed. The fifth stage is the period between 8000 and 3000 BC with the spread of farming communities and the formations of large urban settlements. Jaynes thinks that "in this complex civilizing of mankind, the evidence suggests that the modus operandi of it all was the bicameral mind".

He illustrates this with a capsule history of Mesopotamia where the ordered development of civil government and the idea of law took place under steward kings who served as the mediums of the gods. The greatest of these was Hammurabi who ruled till 1750 BC. In what is popularly known as the Code of Hammurabi inscribed on an eight-foot high basalt stele. Hammurabi, speaks in the prologue of his own achievements in pompous, tub-thumping passages. Following this are two hundred and eighty two pronouncements on civil, criminal and commercial matters which lay down the law in cold and precise terms. In Jaynes' view Hammurabi speaks in the prologue as Hammurabi and on in the edicts with the voice of Marduk. the city-god of Babylon. On this contrast, Jaynes' comment is that "indeed they sound like two different men and in a bicameral sense. I think they were. They were two integrated organisms of Hamurabi's nervous system, one of them in the left hemisphere writing the prologues and the other in the right hemisphere composing the judgments."

However, the wide use of writing for communication, Jaynes thinks, marked a reduction in the auditory hallucinatory control of the bicameral mind which put into motion cultural determinants which changed the very structure of mind. The huge cities which came up with their organization and methods of working led to the lapse of divine controls in the mind. The collapse of important bicameral mind-societies in vanishing of entire cultures as for instance in the tidal wave on the Aegean coast off Santorini in 1470 and the whole Mediterranean coast.... also contributed to the collapse of the bicameral mind and the transition to the subjective conscious mind. According to Jaynes' chronology, therefore, the mind of man, as we know it today is only around 3000 years old. Compared to the total history of man, the human mind as we know it is very young.

There is much in Jaynes' model which may appear fanciful and implausible. Apart from the two cultures syndrome Jaynes language reminiscent as it is of Carlyle, Poe, Coleridge and Borges will not endear him to the scientific community. At the core however there are important messages that he is conveying. They are that the human mind has evolved but that man's neurobiological development does not hold the answer to the development of his consciousness. The development of the areas that we associate with consciousness has been rapid. There is an inner working to man's mentation which cannot be explained in terms of neural circuitry. The mind which man possesses today is the result of the history of the human race.

At the end of his book, Jaynes gives us a synoptic view of the scenario over the last lour thousand years. "In the second millennium BC we stopped hearing the voices of gods. In the first millennium BC those of us who still heard the voices, our oracles and prophets, they too died away. In the first millennium AD it is their sayings and hearings preserved in the sacred texts through which we obeyed our lost divinities. In the second millennium AD these writings lose their authority. The Scientific Revolution turns us away from the older sayings to discover the lost authorization in Nature. What we have been through in the last four millennia is nothing but the slow, inexorable profanation of our species."

With its mix of purple prose and its rich historical and anthropological narrative, Jaynes' book tends to exercise an almost hypnotic effect on the reader. It is only when you close the book that you realize that what Jaynes has been recalling with so much nostalgia is a vision of a vanished society of zombies. In this thick book, we find the Odyssey, the Olmecs, omens, oracles and Osiris. But nowhere in its 464 pages do we find a mention of Orwell whose 1984 was published 27 years earlier. The omission is significant. For the hallucinatory voice of the God King from which bicameral mind took directions in ancient times is nothing but the voice of the monolithic Big Brother which Orwell had warned us against. Clearly, the one man's paradise lost is very much the other man's nightmare. And when at the end of his carefully constructed thesis Jaynes' laments that "what we have been through in the last four millennia is nothing but the profanation of our species," he would rightly have few fellow mourners!

Last Frontier of the Mind - Challenges of the Digital Age, Mohandas Moses, Chapter 14

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