Summary of The Origin of Consciousness

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 (1920 – 1997) 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 the mental space of these pre-conscious people the bicameral mind. It is a mind with two chambers, the mind that is divided in 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 problem solvers. They were hallucinated voices that provided the answers when a person entered a stressful situation which couldn’t be solved by routine.

This is not to say that people with a bicameral mind were barbarians waving their bludgeons and uttering monosyllabic sounds. They were social creatures with 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’s definition, is a box of conceptual tools that is not ‘included with the hardware’. It is ‘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’s 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’s 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.

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 mental 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.

The bicameral mind of the Iliad
What did the world look like before consciousness came into being? Jaynes searches for answers in the Greek epic the Iliad (eighth century BC). According to Jaynes, this work of literature was created in a time in which the bicameral mind was already breaking down, but was still operational to an important degree.

The remarkable thing about the heroes of the Iliad is that they don’t show initiative and do not reason about their behavior. Everything is given to them by their gods. These tell or instruct their fellow humans something, and man acts accordingly. The gods are in charge and man can only be his puppet. Jaynes:

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon (1:197ff.). It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath on the beach by his black ships, […] a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, […]

The ever present involvement of gods is regarded by many historians as only a poetic device, a playful way of the writer(s) of the Iliad to enliven the deeds of the protagonists. Jaynes, however, argues that the gods should not be taken as a literary trick. Instead, their presence in literature is a faithful reflection of their omnipresence in everyday experience.

The gods are, as mentioned before, no judging, moral gods, but were perceived more like authorative personal problem solvers of each man. In disturbing or very novel situations man hears – hallucinates even – what he has to do. According to Jaynes, in a similar fashion as schizophrenes in our time, who still hear voices that tell them what to do.

So this is the bicameral or two-chambered mind. A mind that is not yet undivided (individual) and does not make conscious decisions. In a sense, this mind does not make decisions at all, since all action is either a matter of routine or directly based on what is spoken to man by his god-side.

The origin of the bicameral mind
Jaynes speculates about the origin of the divided nature of the bicameral mind. Imagine, he proposes, a stage in the evolution of mankind where there was a primitive language, but nothing remotely like consciousness, like self-management. We imagine a social context of a small group of hominid hunter/gatherers. Language was to these creatures a great tool for exchanging information and enforcing power. Initially, language was exclusively audible, always something external. Only when complex solitary behavior was required, was there an evolutionary advantage for some form of internal speech. It is plausible that the first inner speech acts were copies of the most elementary external communicative act: a spoken command from one person to another.

This internalization of a communicative act – which by definition always involves two parties – is a possible explanation for the origin of the divided nature of the bicameral mind. The inner voice speaks, man acts upon it. In an early stage these voices might have been echoic repetitions of an order made by a leader. In more advanced stages they could have incorporated more and more knowlegde and intelligence and might have been ascribed to higher beings which transcended the direct social circle: the god-king for example.

This mental structure constituted the cohesive force of the social hierarchy in early civilizations. The voice was the authorative force which controlled human action. Remember we are talking about a time without a written law. This explains why real-life authorative figures like kings were identified as gods. They were in a very real sense gods. Namely in the sense that they were, ultimately, the voice that had to be obeyed. The origin of the belief in after-life becomes understandable from this perspective. After the king died, his imagined voice did not vanish immediately (Jaynes re-interprets the puzzling Old-Egyptian word ka, which scholars have translated as soul or ‘cosmic double’, as meaning bicameral voice).

The breakdown of the bicameral mind
The bicameral mind grew organically from a straightforward social structure. And the knife cuts both ways: the bicameral mind depended on such a structure in which it could thrive (schizophrenia can be viewed as a relapse that is utterly disfunctional in modern society). As societies grew larger and increasingly more complex, all kinds of intermediates/priests, ‘intermediate gods’ and idols were necessary to manage affairs (idols, according to Jaynes, are a way to invoke the speech of the god).

It is conceivable that a society that is organized in such a bicameral-bureaucratic way becomes vulnerable at a certain level of complexity. Indeed, there are many historical examples of dynasties that collapsed, apparently without external cause such as disasters. Another factor that would undermine the bicameral mind was the invention of writing. As a result, the voices could no longer remain the highest authority. They would be replaced by the Law, carved in stone or written on paper.

The rigid bicameral mind might not be flexible enough to deal with complex social dynamics. Whatever the direct cause was – a big earthquake of flood? – from all sources it appears that in the second millennium B.C. it was a chaos of mass migration and war in the area we now call the Middle-East. From that era stems the first evidence that the bicameral mind was eroding.

The pictures display something that had never been seen before: a king who kneels before an empty throne. The texts from this era speak of gods having left humankind:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance,
The good angel who walked beside me has disappeared


A king who kneels before an empty throne… Cuneiform from the reign of King Marduk of Babylon, around 1230 B.C.

A lament that in a certain sense can still be heard today. The difference, however, is that the longing for God in our age is a romantic longing. The people who lived three millennia ago felt abandoned in the most literal, practical sense. They had nothing to guide them.

The origin of consciousness
By leaps and bounds, with intermediate phases we will probably never know of, and undoubtedly with relapses into old mentality, a new mind came into existence. A few crucial ingredients were needed. An important and very basic ingredient is the trick of spatializing concepts. Certain concepts are only imaginable if they are cast in spatial metaphor. The concept of time is a crucial example. The brilliant idea to imagine time as a spatial thing, for example a line, opens a world of possibilities. It makes history possible, both for a person and for a people. We daily rewrite our ‘autobiographies’. Keeping track of that is an essential element of consciousness. It makes a stable concept of ‘self’ possible.

Another crucial component of consciousness is the insight that human behavior is not caused by a god, but by the person himself. The initial cause of action had to be internalized. Some chapters of the Origin are about the complex evolution of this invention. A brief account of this extremely interesting phase follows here.

When the bicameral mind began breaking down, man had to start making decisions. In the bicameral age, the decision making process had been a non-conscious one: some inaccessible mental process (after all, most intelligent behavior stems from processes that are inaccessible to us) which resulted in an inner voice instructing what to do next. Man’s first attempts at making his own decisions are called divination. Examples are the studying of omens, watching the stars, throwing and studying sticks and bones (sortilege), ‘reading’ animals’ intestines, etcetera. These are all methods that project the will of the gods, who were still thought to exist, into the external world. So decision making was in this phase a process that took place in the world, not in the mind. Jaynes:

What is important here is to understand provoked divination such as sortilege as involving the same kind of generative processes that develop consciousness, but in an exopsychic, nonsubjective manner.

Iliad and Odyssey as transitional period
The next big steps took place when these ‘exopsychic’ methods were internalized. And so the gods were not needed anymore, at least not as instigators of human action. Man learned to picture himself as cause of his own action. And what would be better candidates for the instigators of action than sensations of the intestines? In the Iliad these are kradie, which is the heart, and phrenes, the lungs, and thumos, roughly the feeling of an adrenaline rush, or being in a state of fight-or-flight. It is thumos which can give strength, thumos which can be spoken to a and which can even speak itself to a man. Phrenes can be filled with anger. Noos is perception, derived from noein, to see. In the Iliad this objective meaning gets for the first time, however hesitatingly, the metaphorical, subjective meaning that is so important for consciousness (to ‘see something’ with your mind’s eye). ‘Speak, conceal not in noos, so that we both may know’.

The next important step is that these concepts get even more metaphorical attributes. The lungs can not only fill with anger, something can also be ‘put inside them’, a representation for example. Jaynes:

All these metaphors are extremely important. Saying that the internal sensations of large circulatory and muscular changes are a thing into which strength can be put is to generate an imagined ‘space’, here located always in the chest, which is the forerunner of the mind-space of contemporary consciousness. And to compare the function of that sensation to that of another person or even to the less-frequent gods is to begin those metaphor processes that will later become the analog ‘I’.

In the Odyssey these words get richer and more consciousness-like meanings. The thumos can give a command, the phrenes can even contain the description of a future event, or a secret. The kradie (heart) gives Odysseus a warning for imminent danger. These are all functions which were in previous eras accomplished by the gods. The process will finally result in an ‘I’ which unites them all.

Once the invention of this mindspace is completed, it leads to an explosion of Old-Greek philosophy. An entire new domain of knowledge emerges. From what stuff is this newly discovered Mind made? Is it immortal? The first great figure of this new order is Solon of Athens, with his revolutionary slogan: ‘know thyself’ – an advice that would have been unthinkable in the bicameral age.

The Bible
Jaynes also uses the Old Testament as a source of evidence. He reads it as a history of mentality. He invites us to compare the books of Amos and Ecclesiastes. Amos is an example of the bicameral mind (‘And God said unto me..’). Ecclesiastes, written six centuries later, is an example of subjective consciousness (‘I said to myself:…’).

The era of the prophets is a transitional phase. Only they can still experience the visions or auditory hallucinations of the gods. But also these figures lose their power. Around 400 B.C. the prophets have left the stage.

After the transition to a new mentality, the time is ripe for a religious reformation. The teachings of the New Testament can be seen as a religion for ‘people with consciousness’. Sin and contrition are now internalized.

Vestiges of the bicameral mind
An entire part is dedicated to the vestiges of this old mentality in our own minds. This interesting part, which I will not summarize here, contains all kinds of indirect evidence for the development of our present psychological state. I already mentioned schizophrenia, but also historical phenomenons like oracles and prophecy are taken into account. Until the present age we are reminded that there are phenomena like mediums, possession, hypnosis… these are all mental states that resemble the ancient bicameral mind in the sense that they depend on a lower level of consciousness and an externalization of control.

Review of The Origin of Consciousness

I always thought that the invention of fire and the wheel were the most important breakthroughs in the history of mankind. After reading The Origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind (Julian Jaynes, 1976) I wonder if conceptual innovations were not at least as revolutionary. Jaynes makes us realize that mental abilities that we take for granted are in fact hard-won achievements.

Brain gymnastics
Understanding The Origin requires quite a bit of brain gymnastics. I remember reading for an hour and a humble eight pages or so, feeling excited but exhausted and having to put the book aside. I would not believe someone who says to have read the entire book within a few days – and claiming to have understood it. It takes time to process the concepts and the new perspective they give on all kinds of familiar phenomena.

Jaynes begins by analyzing subjective consciousness in all its parts. What would remain if we would subtract all these items from our bag of mental tricks – would we still call what remains consciousness? Jaynes asks us, for example, the following. Imagine a culture in which people do not view the future as ahead of them, like we do, and neither as something that they fall into backwards (like the old Greek are said to have pictured it in a certain era). Instead, imagine that in this culture there is no way to visualise time in either direction. In other words: a way of thinking in which time cannot be imagined in a spatial way. Which implications would this have for the psychology of the those people? As Jaynes argues, a lot depends on this apparently simple trick.

Idols from Mesopotamia

Idols from Mesopotamia

And so the demolition continues (read the quotes or the summary for a more in-depth account), until finally we can more or less imagine a mentality that differs so radically from our own that it is indeed questionable if we would be right to call it consciousness. Once Jaynes has ‘broken down’ our own subjective consciousness, he then proceeds in the opposite direction, as a kind of ‘reverse mind engineer’. He demonstrates how humankind invented, in the course of centuries, a self and an I which can move in a metaphorical space.

Jaynes makes us understand that for the people with a pre-conscious mentality, the ‘gods’, so curious from our perspective, served the purpose of both propelling and explaining behavior. Propelling behavior, because they were the voices telling people how to act on certain occasions. Explaining behavior, because they were entities that explained behavior in a kind of proto-mentalistic vocabulary. A vocabulary which lacked concepts such as consideration, choice, memory – let alone the concept of free will.

The tricky business of evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary psychology consists, broadly speaking, of two methods. Method one, the modern approach, is to perform experiments – literally in the psychological laboratory – after the workings of modern human mind. On the basis of what is found there – the talents, the twists, the apparent anachronisms – something is deduced from the psychological environment in which the human mind evolved. Method two is the classical philology: the analysis of word use in ancient texts.

Julian Jaynes uses both methods to reach his spectacular conclusion. And he attaches much value to the textual method two:

‘Let no one say that these are just word changes. Word changes are concept changes and concept changes are behavioral changes.’

The strongest chapters are those in which he traces the evolution of the meaning of words that were the predecessors of our current mentalistic vocabulary – most notably chapter 5 of the second book: The Intellectual Consciousness of Greece.

Can we learn from textual sources about the way people thought in a certain time? Jaynes’ main posit – the fast evolution of human consciousness between 1000 and 500 B.C. – rests on this assumption. But one could object: how can we be sure that the writers of the Iliad were faithful to reality? Wasn’t it a stylistic ‘matter of speaking’ to attribute the cause of human action to the gods? Jaynes rejects this option, and I agree with him on this issue. He convincingly explains that the difference between Iliad and Odyssey, between Biblical Amos and Ecclesiastes, is not merely a difference in language. The characters in these stories move in essentially different psychological worlds, in which they perform radically different acts. ‘Word changes […] are behavioral changes.’ (This approach also comes across clearly in Metaphors we live by by Lakoff and Johnson. The metaphors that we use to describe our everyday actions even determine these actions. For example: a culture which incorporates the metaphors ‘time is money’, operates in a different way from a culture in which this metaphor does not exist. This is not merely a matter of putting the same process in different words. Instead, the words create the difference.)

The less crucial chapters, which are even more speculative, are the method-one chapters. Especially Chapter 5 of Book 1, The Double Brain, in which Jaynes relates the anatomy of our brain to the structure of the bicameral mind. Indeed, it is a nice coincidence that our brain has two sides and that the bimameral mind is also dual in nature. But the question if the latter can be reduced to the first might be not so crucial after all. Suppose that future research would arrive at radically different insights about the organisation of our brains – not our minds. I feel that this would still leave Jaynes’s central position concerning the organisation of our minds unaffected. After all, we are dealing here with mind and metaphor, with ‘software’, not with the hardware of the brain.

Another speculative argument, gathered both from ancient texts and present-day psychology, is that the voices which are still heard today by schizophrenics are remnants of the old bicameral mind. According to Jaynes, this aspect of hallucination was crucial to the inner voices. But still I am inclined to say: would it really matter if the voices were hallucinated or ‘simply’ heard? Wouldn’t this be a ‘difference in volume’, and not a functional difference (Dennett proposed, during an early conference on the book, the alternative that the voices might have had the character of ‘jingles’: repetitive fragments of music and speech). Jaynes would probably object that this does imply a functional difference, because the absolute authority of the voices could only be attained by the force of hallucination.

Like every author who proposes a revolutionary theory, Jaynes can’t resist putting a huge amount of circumstantial evidence on the table. The entire third part/book can be read as such: Vestiges of the bicameral mind in the modern world. The ‘necker cube has flipped’ and a lot of psychological phenomena must now be put in the new perspective. Although his examples are inspiring and pretty convincing, Jaynes has made himself vulnerable. Because it may seem to some readers that if one of the pillars of his theory would be removed, the entire building would collapse. However, I consider his theory foremost as a collection of mutually reinforcing hypotheses, none of which is crucial.

Three obstacles to understanding
There are a few obstacles that need to be cleared before one can accept Jaynes’s central argument. Put very briefly, this argument goes as follows:

‘In a distant past, people had no subjective consciousness, that is to say no elaborate concept of self. Instead, they heard voices that told them how to solve dilemma’s according to social norms. Subjective consciousness as we know it only came into being after a period of social chaos, which forced people to invent new concepts to deal with this changed environment – and thereby creating a new environment. The new subjective consciousness that emerged is basically a collection of metaphors.’

Put this briefly, this train of thought is hard to follow. That is why I want to remove three main obstacles along the way. First, the voices. What on earth are we to make of those? Secondly, the relation between structure of society and the individual minds therein. And finally, the relation between language, metaphor and mind. The story of Odysseus will nicely unite these three problems and their understanding.

1. The voices
So what about these voices of the gods? Is Jaynes making supernatural claims about the minds of ancient mankind, as some naive readers have understood it? Not at all. From one perspective, there is nothing strange about people hearing and obeying voices. I also hear ‘a voice in my head’, but I experience it (fortunately) as coming from ‘me’, as an ‘internal’ monologue or dialogue. And although the voice in me does not have the force of a hallucination, I still don’t have that much control over it. What I do have is the ability to direct it a little bit and to confront it. I can frame it; it is embedded in a mental organisation in which it can have an antagonist voice. My voice has all kinds of tools and a lot more ‘space to move’, which makes it more flexible than the bicameral mechanism of ‘voice-speaks-I-obey’.

A second difference, of course, between my voice and bicameral voices is that the latter are hallucinated. I must admit that although Jaynes defends his case in a good way, I still find it hard to accept that hallucinations were a normal part of mental life of past millennia – at least on occasions: people were not hallucinating all the time. Somehow, a change of ‘cold’ concepts is easier for me to accept than the ‘high temperature’ with which trains of thought were supposedly experienced in this past.

2. Society and mind
Let alone the problem with the voices, many people will understandably just not buy the idea that mankind without consciousness was capable of all the great accomplishments it achieved: the invention of agriculture, pyramids, etcetera. But remember how much intelligent behavior we conscious beings are capable of without using conscious thought. Conscious thought is only required at certain occasions. Which brings me to the second point. I find it plausible that, in relatively simple and predictable social environments, consciousness is actually not that crucial in everyday life. I am reminded of a Dutch documentary in which an old, old-fashioned farmer is asked by his son: ‘but father, what is your personal opinion on this matter?’ After a long silence, father responds: ‘What do you mean, personal opinion?’ (This charming piece of dialogue is quoted in historian Geert Mak’s book Jorwerd: the death of the village in late twentieth-century Europe, which original Dutch title translates literally as – very appropriate in this context – How God left  Jorwerd.) I quote it here to stress that any person who is embedded, as this farmer is, in a stable, highly cyclical social and economical environment, may not need a lot of introspective conscious thought to function normally.

I am not claiming anything as drastic that this farmer is ‘not conscious’. But compare his mind to the mind of a lone, nomadic person. Any person who is drifting and is insecure of what the next day will bring, has to represent the world and his place therein in different and probably more advanced ways than people in highly organized and predictable societies. This shift towards higher complexity and individuality is what happened to mankind as a whole in the course of millennia.

3. Metaphor, mind and the story of Odysseus
The relation between society and mind brings me to Odysseus. This unbound and lawless hero had to get by without the stability of a social structure. According to Jaynes, the transition from one mentality to another began in a period of social chaos, in which humankind was torn from its old social equilibrium. That is why the figure of the lone Odysseus, this ‘hero of the new mentality of how to get along in a ruined and god-weakened world’, is pivotal. Not just in the Origin, but in the history of mankind. Jaynes points at an eery coincidence, namely that the Odyssey, which for Jaynes serves primarily as a source of evidence on the level of word usage and word meaning, is on a topical level about the very same matter that the Origin is about! The theme of the Odyssey is the journey of its hero towards a new identity. This long journey involves testings, deceit, disguises and recognition. These are concepts that are mostly unheard of in older writings such as the Iliad. So the emerging theme of the Odyssey is the discovery of a new self, the adventures of a mind that is no longer a puppet of a god.

Is this thematic similarity between the Odyssey and the Origin a weird coincidence? Not if one accepts Jaynes’s profound idea of what the Odyssey meant to people in those days. First, he reminds us that epics like the Odyssey were primarily orally transmitted by travelling poets (aoidoi), who in times of social chaos travelled from refugee camp to refugee camp. Next, he stresses that these chanted poems were to the audience much more than mere entertainment: ‘Poems are rafts clutched at by men drowning in inadequate minds.’ In other words, these poems provided people with new ways of thinking about themselves, at a time at which the old bicameral ways of thinking were no longer useful.

So the Odyssey has even more historical significance than we thought it had. The above implies that besides being a beautiful metaphorical account of a historical process – mankind’s discovery of a new mentality – the adventures of Odysseus are the discovery of the new mentality! Jaynes claims that (a poem like) the Odyssey, in oral form, was the vehicle that helped establishing and spreading a new way of thinking. It was a collection of active ‘memes’. Returning to the opening question of this paragraph: on second thoughts it makes perfect sense that the first text in which these new concepts of consciousness are to be found, is not about, let’s say, interior decoration, but about the discovery of consciousness itself.

It amounts to this: mankind invented consciousness by telling itself a story about a loner who discovered consciousness. That is how the story of Odysseus has the fascinating property of being at the same time a metaphor for an invention and the invention itself. This can be so because in this case the invention is metaphor. The 0dyssey, this new story, these new concepts, these new metaphors, constitute a new ‘space’ that allows a new kind of human mind to inhabit it. In my view, Jaynes’s treatment of Odysseus unites many crucial elements of his main argument. It teaches us something about the relation between psychology and society, about lost authority and finding a new voice, and about the relation between metaphor and mind. Jaynes:

From a will-less gigolo of a divinity to the gore-spattered lion on his own hearth, Odysseus becomes ‘Odysseus’ (p.277)

Controversy, neglect and praise
Almost fourty years after its publication, the dust still hasn’t settled. In many academic debates, the name Jaynes pops up, always good for a stir in the discussion. The book gets more and more credits for its pioneering role. There is a growing sense of acknowledgment that it has, at the very least, created an new and serious topic for discussion. In the words of an early reviewer:

‘even as the skeptic marshals arguments against Jaynes’s theory, ‘he has to think about matters he never thought of before, or, if he has thought of them, he must think about them in contexts and relationships that are strikingly new’ (Hilgard quoted in Gliedman, Julian Jaynes and the ancient mindgods).

Still, for such a controversial book, it is remarkable how few scholars have made an attempt at an in-depth discussion, either favorable or unfavorable. A clever mind like Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, still does not know what to make of it: ‘either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I am hedging my bets.’ Pascal Boyer, in his thought-provoking book Religion Explained, does not even mention Jaynes, and neither do a lot of handbooks of consciousness or evolutionary psychology! Why all this hesitation? Marcel Kuijsten, editor of the recent book on the topic, Reflections on the dawn of consciousness, Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory revisited, blames this on two things. First, the apparent outrageousness of the theory, which not every respected academic would risk his reputation on. And second: the expertise that is required to encompass a broad spectrum of academic disciplines, ranging from neuroscience to Old-Greek literature.

I would add another problem: the fact that some of the arguments are impossible to falsify or affirm. Consider the sequence of events that Jaynes pictures when he ponders on the prehistorical evolution of the bicameral mind, namely as a means of internalizing social control for a group of hominid hunter/gatherers. This bold and tantalizing sort of speculation has no or very little backup of any historical evidence. It is ‘reverse engineering’, it is idealized history, in big chunks and with giant leaps. It depends very much on one’s taste and intuitions if one becomes convinced. Personally, I find myself exhilirated, but I guess many scientists are simply allergic to this type of reasoning. Daniel Dennett, however, as one of the early advocates of the book, has the following opinion:

If we are going to use this top-down approach, we are going to have to be bold. We are going to have to be speculative, but there is good and bad speculation, and this is not an unparalleled activity in science. […] Those scientists who have no taste for this sort of speculative enterprise will just have to stay in the trenches and do without it, while the rest of us risk embarrassing mistakes and have a lot of fun.

The Origin and its intellectual kin
How does the Origin relate to other publications of the era? Apart from is pioneering role, it is not in all respects a revolutionary book. As an exponent of the cognitive revolution in psychology, it is clearly akin to the spirit of the age. It rejects behavioristic approaches of psychology and favors the view that we must not be afraid of mentalistic terms. Or compare the Origin to the aforementioned Metaphors we live by (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), which also stresses the importance of metaphor in language. The crucial link is that metaphors itself can be the invention. Interestingly, the Origin was published in the same year as Dawkins’s pioneering The Selfish Gene, which introduced the concept of the meme. I wonder if and when Jaynes read Dawkins, but he probably would have liked the implications that the concept of the meme has for human psychology as an evolutionary process.

An interesting question is how Jaynes’s work relates to the research field that emerged in the nineties: Embodied Embedded Cognition (EEC). That is the idea that much of our behaviour does not merely result from ‘computation’ in our brain, but takes shape as an interplay between brain, body and world. So this movement is somewhat of a counter-revolution against the cognitive revolution that I see Jaynes part of. But remember that it was Jaynes who reminded us that there was a phase in our history in which an even larger part of our mental behavior was ‘embedded’ in the external world. To make a decision was in this stage an external process more than it is now: it was to peek in the intestines of animals, to watch the stars, and things like that (note that this was the period after the collapse of the bicameral mind). A large part of this behavior has since been internalised via metaphor. I suppose that Jaynes, despite his frequent use of ‘internalisation’, would agree with the advocates of EEC that it is an interesting question to which degree our thinking still takes place in the external world.

The merit of Jaynes is that he lets us think about consciousness in a new way. It is by sketching an alternative mentality that our view of ourselves suddenly becomes ‘three-dimensional’. It does not really matter if his sketch of the bicameral mind is right to the level of detail – how could it be, considering the scarce evidence? The merit is that the new perspective is created at all.

Two important things have become clear to me since reading The Origin. First: consciousness depends very much on language and the concepts that a language has at its disposal. To put it in a different way: one could imagine a grammatically fully developed language that still would not produce consciousness in the minds of the people who speak it. And second: how relative is the truth of our own mentalistic jargon! Aren’t our current words for mental processes almost as fictional as the good old gods? That bunch of metaphorical expressions, these ‘loanwords’ we use to denominate ‘processes in our heads’?

I must admit that I had often goose bumps while reading. Jaynes is a lyrical writer on the occasions he wants to convey the overwhelming scope of his subject matter. The final paragraphs on Odysseus are an example of his lyrical style. He deals with evolutionary psychology in the most spectacular of historical contexts. This deserves more than a reserved, scientific writing style. And so Jaynes’s words radiate a palpable awe of his subject.

The main character in Jaynes’s story is mankind itself, in its succession of mental stages through many millennia. Mankind, which lost its gods and had to figure things out on its own. Poor mankind, which invented all kinds of tricks to discover the intention of its lost gods: throwing sticks, poking in the intestines of animals… Mankind, which began so bravely with its first attempts at introspection. And which was so clever to use its existing vocabulary as source of metaphors to invent a new, inner territory. But also: a mankind that is doomed to carry on forever without divine support…

This is a history of Biblical proportion. I think that Jaynes is not exaggerating when he draws the parallel with the Genesis story of man’s Fall. Indeed it is fascinating that even the Bible mentions a watershed in human history. It is the parable of Adam and Eve who eat from the tree of knowledge (self knowledge?) and who from that moment on can no longer be in direct contact with their God. I would not go so far as calling this passage proof of Jaynes’s theory, but it got me thinking again about the relationship between god and humankind. It is nowadays common to consider God an invention of the human mind: we are supposed to have invented God, killed God, and now God is dead – at least to some of us. But Jaynes reverses the historical order: ‘The voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself.’ So in a very real sense, ‘God’ or ‘the gods’ or ‘the voices’ came first and ‘we’ came later. That is if we mean by ‘we’ a humankind that has subjective consciousness. I am glad that for the first time I seem to be able to put in perspective this Biblical order of things, which had always been incomprehensible to me.

Goodbye gods, goodbye unassailable authority. Nevermore the comfort of voices that tell us what to do. So that is our unfortunate fate, but also our grandeur. I have never read a book on evolutionary psychology of such a deep significance.

Quotes from The Origin of Consciousness

The bicameral mind

The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of anyone. They were man’s volition (p 202).

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. […] The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of gods. (p 72)

Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard today by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices. (p 73)

Sound is a very special modality. We cannot handle it. We cannot push it away.

And if one belonged to a bicameral culture, where the voices were recognized as at the utmost top of the hierarchy, taught you as gods, kings, majesties that owned you, head, heart, and foot, the omniscient, omnipotent voices that could not be categorized as beneath you, how obedient to them the bicameral man! (p 98)

The breakdown of the bicameral mind

Populations were continuously increasing. As they did so, problems of social control by hallucinations called gods became more and more complex. The structuring of such a control in a village of a few hundred back at Eynan in the ninth millenium B.C. is obviously enormously different from what it was in the civilizations we have just discussed [Mesopotamian and Egyption theocracies] with their hierarchical layers of gods, priests, and officers. (p 194-195)

And as this complexity develops, there is the first unsureness, the first need for personal gods to intercede with the higher gods, who seem to be receding into the heavens where in one brief millenium they will have disappeared. (p 202)

One who has no god, as he walks along the street
Headache envelops him like a garment. (p 225)
[inscription on stone tablet, +-1230 BC, Mesopotamia]

What is authority? Rulers without gods to guide them are fitful and unsure. They turn to omens and divination […]. (p 227)

What is important here is to understand provoked divination such as sortilege as involving the same kind of generative processes that develop consciousness, but in an exopsychic nonsubjective manner. (p 241)

As the gods recede into special people called prophets or oracles, or are reduced to darkly communicating with men in angels and omen, there whooshes into this power vacuum a belief in demons. The very air of Mesopotamia became darkened with them. (p 232)

The evolution of subjective consciousness in Greece

As the gods are heard progressively less and less, these internal response-stimuli of progressively greater stress are associated more and more with men’s subsequent actions, whatever they may be, even coming to take on the godlike function of seeming to initiate action themselves. (p 258)

These [internal body sensations] are then the supposed substantives inside the body that by literary metaphor, by being compared to containers and persons, accrue to themselves spatial and behavioral qualities which in later literature develop into the unified mind-space with its analog ‘I’ that we have come to call consciousness. (p 271)

Poetry, from describing external events objectively, is becoming subjectified into a poetry of personal conscious expression. (p 274)

In a word, Odysseus of the many devices is the hero of the new mentality of how to get along in a ruined and god-weakened world. […] (p 273) It is a story of identity, of a voyage to the self that is being created in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. (p 276)

Sometimes attributed to Solon […] is the famous ‘Know thyself’[…] This again was something inconceivable to the Homeric heroes. How can one know oneself?’ […] Suddenly, then, we are in the modern subjective age. (p 287)

All this curious development of the sixth century B.C. is extremely important for psychology. For with this wrenching of psyche = life over to psyche = soul, there came other changes to balance it as the enormous inner tensions of a lexicon always do. The word soma had meant corpse or deadness, the opposite of psyche as livingness. So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. And dualism, the supposed separation of soul and body, has begun. (p 291)

Transition to subjectivity in the Bible

They [Old-Testamentary prophets] were transitional men, partly subjective and partly bicameral. And once the bright torrent was released and the call came, the nabi [prophet] must deliver his bicameral message, however unsuspecting (Amos 7:14-15), however unworthy the nabi felt (Exodus 3:11; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 20:7-10). What does it feel like to be a nabi at the beginning of one of his bicameral periods? Like a red coal in one’s mouth (Isaiah 6:7) or a raging fire shut up in one’s bones that cannot be contained (Jeremiah 20:9) and that only the flowing forth of divine speech can quench. (p 300)

And then the voices are as a rule no longer actually heard. In their place is the condsidered subjective thought of moral teachers. Men still had visions and heard dark speech perhaps. But Ecclesiastes and Ezra seek wisdom, not a god. They study the law. They do not roam out into the wilderness “inquiring of Yahweh.” By 400 B.C., bicameral prophecy is dead. (p 312)

Behavior now must be changed from within the new consciousness rather than from Mosaic laws carving behavior from without. Sin and desire are now within conscious desire and conscious contrition, rather than in the external behaviors of the decalogue and the penances of temple sacrifice and community punishment. The divine kingdom to be regained is psychological not physical. It is metaphorical not literal. It is ‘within’ not in extenso.’ (p 318)

Subjective consciousness

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. (p 55)

Consciousness is a much smaller part of mental life than we are conscious of, since we cannot be conscious of what we aren’t conscious of. (p 23)

We have said that consciousness is an operation rather than a thing, a repository, or a function. It operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’, that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it. It operates on any reactivity, excerpts relevant aspects, narratizes and conciliates them together in a metaphorical space where such meanings can be manipulated like things in space. (p 65-66)

Conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. Consciousness operates only on objectively observable things. Or, to say it another way with echoes of John Locke, there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first. (p 66)

[…] the presence of voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself, can order and direct, and that the creation of such a self is the product of culture. In a sense, we have become our own gods. (p 79)

But the mind is still haunted with its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities; and the yearning, the deep and hollowing yearning for divine volition and service is with us still. (p 313)