Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1976, pp. 467.

I first encountered Julian Jaynes ideas about bicameralism through Jack Dann's classic The Man Who Melted five years ago. I enjoyed the novel greatly, but was skeptical of the theory underlying it. Jaynes' theory, after all, holds that consciousness is not something intrinsic to life or humanity, but a cultural creation, which did not emerge until the second millennium B.C.. It seemed to me impossible that humanity could have ever been without consciousness, let alone reached an Iron Age level of civilization without it. How, for instance, could the "bicameral" mind have organized such a feat as the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops? How, too, could such a theory possibly be reconciled with the indications that even some higher animals (apes, dolphins) possess self-awareness?

Jaynes' book did not fully satisfy me with its answer to the first question, and didn't address the second question at all, but it did make the theory considerably harder to dismiss. In discussing the book, it seems appropriate to start with the author's definition of consciousness--which is not a capacity for sensation and observation, memory, or the ability to learn, think or reason. (Even these last, he argues, are predominantly unconscious processes.) Rather, consciousness is a model of the world around us we carry around in our heads enabling us to introspect, visualize and take decisions in a self-aware manner. Built upon the capacity of language to create metaphors, it consists of selected ("excerpted") details, arranged according to a sense of space and "spatialzed" time, and organized in narrative form, with dissonant information reconciled around an image of the self (as seen by oneself and by others)--and on the whole, a relatively small part of our mental life for all its complexity.

Prior to the arrival of consciousness, Jaynes posits the "bicameral" mind as the dominant thought mode. For bicameral persons, the left and right hemispheres of the brain worked rather more separately than is the norm today, with an important aspect of the separation the generation of auditory hallucinations, especially in moments when unconsciously acquired habit was inadequate, and stress high. Their mental life, in fact, is compared by Jaynes to contemporary observations of schizophrenia. A key difference, however, is that this was the norm rather than an exception. Indeed, he suggests society was actually structured hierarchically around such hallucinations, with priest-kings hallucinating the voices of gods (in many cases, originating in predecessors whose voices they continued to "hear" after their passing), and subordinates at each level the voices of the authority above them at such times, a control reinforced by such hallucinatory aids as centrally located houses of worship and ubiquitous depictions of deities – themselves organized as hierarchically as humans were. (This put the conflicting voices that torment so many schizophrenics in line, and as Jaynes has pointed out, this kind of sorting is not unknown among those suffering this condition today).

Jaynes suggests that bicameralism may have enabled the beginnings of civilization by making human beings subject to such a method of control. However, it did not endure. The intrinsic frailty of this system apart, it grew decreasingly effective as polities expanded – as with the empire of Hammurabi. An increased use of writing was one way of compensating, but the activity probably weakened bicameralism as well. The Bronze Age collapse (theorized by Jaynes as having been a result of the Theran catastrophe) knocked over these vulnerable structures, flinging together uprooted peoples forced to reckon with the inappropriateness of earlier modes of conduct, and with each others' differences (which may have led them to think that difference was internal for the first time), in harsh circumstances where deceit (thinking one thing and appearing to do another) had a high survival value. (Jaynes speculates also that there may have been an aspect of natural selection in the process, and that the development of narrative epics like Homer's Iliad contributed to the process as well.)

Over the millennium or so that followed, the conception of our behavior's driving forces was internalized, intellectualized (recognized as mental processes) and synthesized into consciousness as we now know it, which had clearly arrived by the time of such figures as Solon and Pythagoras, whose notions of mind, volition and responsibility are recognizable as similar to those we possess today. Still, a nostalgia for the certainties of divine voices speaking to us personally remained, in the laments of our myths of a "fall" which has distanced us from the gods, in methods of divination which attempt to reach those increasingly distant deities (like auguries, oracles, prophets and possession), and even in "scientism" (the quasi-religious treatment of scientific inquiry).1

In examining the argument over three decades after Jaynes' initial presentation of the theory, it seemed to me that, my initial objections aside, many of the smaller claims on which he has built his larger argument (like the nature of consciousness) remain a subject of dispute. His focus on the eastern Mediterranean region--he looks principally at Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and the Biblical Israelites--appears rather narrow. And the evidence available for his examination even of this history was necessarily limited, and full of ambiguities and gaps, from the uncertainty regarding the dating of particular works, to the meanings of key terms, to the question of how representative the works in question really were of how people lived and thought at the time (all of these evident in, for example, his reading of ancient Greek literature). Still, Jaynes is quite aware of the scantiness of some of the material, and the speculative nature of many of his claims, frequently acknowledging that what he presents is but a starting point for a fuller investigation.

Of course, the proof that would really convince a skeptic--proof that a society can actually function this way, let alone proof that this really was the way the species lived--may be unobtainable. However, what Jaynes does with the material available to him is genuinely impressive, the theory at the least fitting a great many facts. In the process, he makes a contribution to the indisputable view that our recognition and expression of abstract thought and subjectivity has grown enormously over these millennia (a view going back at least to G.W.F. Hegel), and a good case that schizophrenia and hallucination have played a larger role in antiquity than we appreciate. In the process he points the way to a significant part of the human story – as is so often the case with those who dare to offer Big Ideas, even when they do not persuade us completely of their version of the larger picture.

1. As Jaynes notes, in the second millennium B.C., human beings heard the voices directly; in the first millennium B.C., they were only able to access those voices through exceptional individuals, sites and efforts, like prophets and oracles; in the first millennium A.D., even these fell increasingly silent, leaving behind the texts based on them; and in the past thousand years, those texts have seen their authority eroded.

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