Did Ancient Humans Talk with Gods?
A Book Review of The Origin of Consciousness by Julian Jaynes
I’ve seen this book mentioned countless times, and I was really excited to get into it. It was written in 1976 and remains quite popular today. Bicameralism, which the title alludes to, is the view that the human mind once had two separate parts. One that spoke, and one that obeyed, and it was first proposed in this very book and remains the authority of the hypothesis.
He claims that before the second/third millennium BC, humans were not conscious, by which he means self-consciousness is how we understand it today. Rather, our minds were populated by Gods. These were not metaphysics, but rather psychological. One part of the brain gave commands (the world perceived always as something to act), and the other part of the brain is the listener. Although in this period, the listener did not know where the voices came from, and they were experienced as real auditory hallucinations. Eventually, we grew out of this bicameral consciousness, and the ego as we experienced as born — what he calls “conscious mind”. This transformation happened due to writing and the increasing complexity of society.
He supports his hypothesis with mostly historical and religious literature. For example, one of the texts he uses the most is Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (8th BC). He notes that in this text, and others like it, the characters are never seen to have a drive of their own. Rather, they always seem to be commanded by Gods. Introspection is never mentioned, which is such a key element of our self-consciousness. He also provides some evidence from studying language which I find fascinating. He tracks the origin of words and how they are derived from basic behaviour and progressively abstracted throughout history.
This bicameral mode is the “default”, and our conscious mind is simply a change induced by culture. This mode seems to revert back to its original states in certain situations, like hypnosis, meditation, religious experiences, or schizophrenia. While I have never put it in these terms as I wasn’t familiar with bicameralism, my study of psychology, psychiatry, and religion has always pushed me to a similar view, and I was surprised to see it articulated so well well over half a century ago.
What is interesting about this book is that in my opinion, it gets a lot of it right and a lot of it wrong. There are tons of interesting observations, but yet some parts seem really far-fetched. He tries to ground the bicameralism in the brain’s hemispheres and specific brain religions like Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, for example, which is unlikely to be the case. Furthermore, alternative explanations can often be thought of for some of the phenomena he presents.
I ended not finishing the book. I don’t leave books unfinished very often, but when I do, it’s because they are bad. This is an exception. I did so because I was a bit too excited for my next book, I got a bit tired of reading it as the book itself is pretty long, close to 500 pages. I felt like it was getting a bit repetitive, and reading further would likely not bring any significant new insights. But the book is incredibly interesting, and if these topics are of interest to you, it’s definitely worth reading as long as you take everything with a grain of salt. While perhaps his hypothesis went a bit too far, I believe his general insight into the transformation of consciousness is spot-on, even if the level of such transformation is debatable.
While I haven’t read it but I plan to, Iain McGilchris presents some similar ideas but with much more updated science. If you’re interested in this book, you can read McGilchris after Jaynes’, or go directly to McGilchris.
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