Sunday, March 06, 2005

Julian Jaynes

In 1976, with considerable fanfare, Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes put out a provocative and fascinating book that purported to explain human consciousness, religion, ancient history, and even some forms of mental illness. This all-encompassing theory was presented under the imposing title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

The crux of Jaynes's argument is an apparently outrageous claim – that modern consciousness, in the sense of self-awareness, is a historically recent development, dating back only to about 1000 BC, and that earlier civilizations, including those of the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Babylonians, were founded and maintained by people who were essentially "unconscious." That is, they received marching orders from voices in their heads which they took to be the voices of the gods, but which were actually generated by the right hemisphere of the brain. (The division of the mind into two halves, godlike instructor and passive listener, is what Jaynes calls "bicameral.") In a trancelike state that lasted a lifetime, primitive people carried out these instructions, living, marrying, working, and dying in the thrall of the "gods" who ordered and organized every detail of their lives. Later, the left hemisphere became dominant and the gods died out, persisting (in a debased and altered form) only in certain cases of schizophrenia.

There is an air of triumphalism about the book – the annunciation of a staggering new truth, blinding in its simplicity and awesome in its implications. One reviewer enthused that Origin "renders whole shelves of books obsolete." The book's lengthy title was clearly chosen to reflect Darwin's Origin of Species, the longer title of which is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Jaynes felt that he had solved the problem of the origin of consciousness as decisively as Darwin had solved the problem of the origin of species.

Yet although Jaynes's theory received a great deal of press, it has found relatively few takers. Only a handful of academics have endorsed Jaynes's views, and his ideas today spark little interest. The official Web site of the Julian Jaynes Society features a forum in which members can discuss the book and its implications. When I last looked, a total of only 31 messages had been posted there.

(Correction, March 18: A reader pointed out to me that the forum was newly created when I looked at it, so the small number of messages does not indicate a lack of interest in Jaynes. I take the point and stand corrected. However, I would still maintain that the academic community has shown little willingess to embarce Jaynes's ideas. This could be due to the inertia and closed-mindedness of the establishment, but below I argue that there are other explanations.)

There are several reasons for the widespread indifference to such challenging ideas. First, Jaynes's theory is inherently difficult to accept. An entire civilization comprised of people who are unconscious is simply too far removed from our normal way of understanding the world. To support such an idea, Jaynes has to regard consciousness as nonessential to human life – as a mere ability to "narratize" behavior we would have performed anyway. He goes to great lengths to convince us that consciousness is unnecessary for most human activities, pointing out, for instance, that we can drive a car without paying conscious attention to the task. But surely we need to be conscious when we learn how to drive a car; only after this skill has been habituated can we afford to drive on "autopilot," and even then we need to be able to snap back into full alertness in an emergency. The idea that such vast engineering projects as the ziggurats and pyramids could be carried out unconsciously is anti-intuitive in the extreme.

Second, Jaynes has a disconcerting tendency to quote selectively from his sources. When mining ancient literature for hints of the bicameral mind, he culls examples that buttress his point while ignoring or explaining away countless other examples that work against his position. One example of his tendentiousness is his treatment of Hesiod's Works and Days, a very early Greek poem that consists of instructions on how to manage a farm. Jaynes interprets the poem as having been dictated by the "god" side of the brain; in effect, he argues, Works and Days is a written record of the kind of voice that our ancestors heard incessantly.

But the poem itself contains scattered verses indicating a very different origin. The narrator tells us that he and his brother Perses inherited their father's farm, that Perses is shiftless and incompetent, and that having taken Perses to court and lost, the narrator has put together this instruction manual for Perses in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the farm. None of this is consistent with the bicameral mind hypothesis.

Jaynes deals with this considerable impediment to his argument by brushing it aside; the sections of the poem containing these references, he says, must be later interpolations. "The protest lodged in the crucial lines 37-39 [was] added later," he writes, providing no evidence. This special pleading is repeated in his treatment of the Iliad, the Bible, and other ancient sources. Where a passage supports (or can be made to support) his theory, he assumes it to be old and authentic. Where a passage does not support his theory, he assumes it to be newer and "modern."

Finally, Jaynes falls into the trap that awaits any specialist who ventures outside his area of expertise. As a psychologist with no special training in ancient literature, he seems to misunderstand the ancient sources themselves. A good example of this misunderstanding, and its strange persistence even in the face of a cogent argument to the contrary, is found in a question and answer period in which Jaynes participated, posted here as an Adobe Reader document.

An audience member trenchantly observes that Biblical references to idols, upon which Jaynes relies quite heavily, may be unreliable.

Questioner: ... the biblical Hebrews’ notion that the “idol worshippers’ actually believed that their statues in fact spoke to them seems to have been based on a misconception of what it was these statues did (what purpose they served) in the surrounding cultures. Kaufmann (1960) in commenting on the ancient religion of Israel claims, in fact, that ancient Jews were so far removed from idolatry that they no longer understood what it was that the idol-makers believed in. Kaufmann says of the Jews that their view of idolatry was laughably simplistic. The ancient Jews thought erroneously that idolaters, in fact, believed that their icons would speak to them, something which I think you, Dr. Jaynes, believe as well. Kaufmann, however, asserts that in idolatrous societies, the icons behaved more in the way that ... a picture of the Pope or an icon of Jesus behaves to a believing Catholic. These icons were simply icons that represented a deity, not real gods themselves that anyone in those idolatrous societies actually spoke to....

Jaynes: If I could first reply to that. Indeed, such statues are definitely called gods in the Hebrew bible.

Questioner: That’s right, but erroneously!

Jaynes: I am not making judgments.

Here, Jaynes simply fails to understand the point of the question. It is not an issue of "making judgments," but of grasping the context in which the Biblical passages were written. Jaynes makes much of Biblical writings that depict pagans worshipping their idols as literal gods, but if these writings themselves are inaccurate, and if pagan idolatry was in fact much more sophisticated, then Jaynes's arguments are fundamentally flawed. Jaynes continues:

Jaynes: I am just looking at the whole series. Nor am I just looking at the Jews. The evidence for idols, a truer term than icons, during the time period of the Hebrew Testament is considerable. Else why would so many of the prophets inveigh against them?

Again, Jaynes is failing to grasp the point. No one disputes that Hebrew prophets inveighed against idols. The question is whether the prophets correctly understood the nature of pagan idolatry.

Jaynes: Idols are particularly evident in the early books, from the elohim or gods that Laban accuses Jacob of stealing (Genesis 31:30) to centuries later when the Philistines after defeating Saul run and tell their atsabim, their idols, before they tell their people (I Samuel 31:9; I Chronicles 10:9).

To repeat the point: no one disputes the fact that idols make frequent appearances in the Hebrew Bible. But whether the cultures of idol-worshipping nations were properly understood by the writers of the Bible is a separate issue. Moreover, the parallel passages from I Samuel and I Chronicles don't necessarily support Jaynes' point. I Samuel 31:9 reads, "[they] sent [the weapons of their defeated enemy Saul] throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people." (NASB) There is nothing here to indicate that they "run and tell their ... idols, before they tell their people." Since the house of their idols, i.e., their temple, was obviously a center of their community, taking the weapons there would be a way of proclaiming the victory to the populace. Indeed, the very next verse reads, "They put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth ..."

Jaynes: To call such god-idols merely icons like pictures of the Pope is a serious misreading of the texts and contradicted in many passages (see, for example, I Chronicles l6:26).

Here, wrapping up his answer, Jaynes merely asserts that any view of idols that is different from his own is a "misreading." He offers no evidence of this claim other than yet another Biblical reference. The cited passage reads in part, "For all the gods of the peoples are idols" – which reiterates the common view among Hebrews of this period that pagans worshipped their idols as gods. But the accuracy of the Hebrews' understanding of pagan customs is the very point in contention. (An alternate translation, mentioned in the NASB's notes, is "For all the gods of the peoples are nonexistent things," which omits any reference to idols.)

Jaynes's inability or unwillingness to properly address the question, or even to understand it, suggests to me that he suffered from a condition sometimes described as "theory blindness." Having constructed a comprehensive theory by which to view the world, he was simply unable to think his way out of that mental box.

Though Jaynes continued to promote his theory for the rest of his life, his promised sequel to The Origin of Consciousness never materialized. He died in 1997, leaving it to other academics to continue his work. Few have taken up the challenge. Today discussions of Jaynes's book are found mainly on New Age Web sites, mixed in with references to the pseudoscientific writings of Velikovsky and Von Daniken.

For myself, I have come to think that The Origin of Consciousness gets history exactly backward. In Jaynes's materialist worldview (in which consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon of matter), there can be no such things as gods and spirits or any other paranormal phenomena. Thus the universal acceptance of such things in ancient (and modern) cultures is a puzzle requiring some explanation. The bicameral mind is his answer to the problem; the gods and spirits are simply a more primitive part of the brain.

But suppose there actually are paranormal or supernatural phenomena. Suppose there are spirits and what we might call gods - or God. Then the universality of such beliefs does not require complicated rationalistic explanations. If anything, it is the absence of such beliefs among the intelligentsia of the Western world today that raises questions. Rather than hunting for the gods in some forgotten corner of our nervous system, we might do better to seek out truths that "primitive" peoples knew – and which we have forgotten.

Near the end of his book, Jaynes laments misguided modern efforts to recapture the gods through mysticism, religion, poetry, and even science – "attempts to return to what is no longer there, like poets to their inexistent Muses ..."

But what if the Muses did exist, and still do - and we have simply stopped listening?

Note: This post was slightly revised and expanded on March 11, '05.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would probably have been good to note the Jaynes forum was less than 2 weeks old when you stumbled upon it...The notion that few people are interested in Jaynes's theory is a mistaken one. For one, the book is still in print 30 years later...

March 18, 2005 2:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would probably have been good to note the Jaynes forum was less than 2 weeks old when you stumbled upon it...The notion that few people are interested in Jaynes's theory is a mistaken one. For one, the book is still in print 30 years later...

March 18, 2005 2:11 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

I hadn't noticed that the forum was only two weeks old, but you're right - when I looked again, I saw that it was created on Feb. 25 of this year. So it was wrong of me to suggest that the small number of messages reflected a lack of interest. I'll correct the text of my post.

I think it is true, though, that there has been little interest in the academic community. The only scholarly book known to me that was inspired by Jaynes's ideas is Of Two Minds: Poets Who Hear Voices, by Judith Weissman. Of course, the academic world is notoriously resistant to new ideas - all those tenured professors don't like having their expertise challenged by a newcomer!

March 18, 2005 1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the topic of idols, even some mainstream anthropologists are of the opinion that they were the source of hallucinations, esp. among ancient Egyptians who bathed and dressed them, and performed the "opening of the mouth" ritual.

It's true there has not been much of a follow up on Jaynes's work in terms of books, but there have been a number of articles. Also a chapter in a book called "The User Illusion."

The forum mentions a new book on the bicameral mind will be released in 2006, with chapters by different scholars from a variety of disciplines. Should make for interesting reading...

March 20, 2005 9:41 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Could you point me toward a reference in which the "opening of the mouth" ritual is interpreted this way? I Googled various terms (e.g., "opening of the mouth" + "ritual" + "hallucination") but didn't find anything relevant. When I removed the term "hallucination" I got many more hits. Here's an excerpt from the first one that came up, at :

"This ritual itself may have been a symbolic re-enactment of the clearing of a baby’s mouth at birth....

"The ancient Egyptians believed that ritual existed which would bring sensory life back to the deceased’s form, enabling it to see, smell, breathe, hear, and eat, and thus partake of the offering foods and drinks brought to the tomb each day....

"Once the deceased was rejuvenated back with all his senses, he could also interact and watch over the family members, affecting their lives. Letters have been found attesting to the continued contact, or at least, belief in the continued contact, between deceased and living. Letters such as this one, from the scribe Butehamun to his deceased wife Ikhtay, where he asks her to intercede with the Lords of Eternity on his behalf. 'If you can hear me in the place where you are ... it is you who will speak with a good speech in the necropolis. Indeed I did not commit an abomination against you while you were on earth, and I hold to my behavior.'"

While this letter does indicate a belief in life after death, it also suggests that the living did not interact with or hear the deceased directly. Note how the writer phrases it: "If you can hear me in the place where you are ..." This is not much different from the way a grieving husband might address his dead wife today.

But I'm happy to look at the hallucination hypothesis if you can direct me to a Web site or book. I don't pretend to be an expert in these things.

March 21, 2005 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry I don't have a web reference off hand. Also, I should have been more specific... the quote you posted above refers to the opening of the mouth ceremony performed on the dead (which is also of interest), but it was also performed on statutes and idols, which represented the gods. Morenz (Egyptian Religion) describes how the ancient Egyptians made no distinction between the god and his image. Priests bathed and dressed the idols, and performed the opening of the mouth or washing of the mouth ceremony on them. I think I may have also read more on this in Trigger's "Understanding Early Civilizations" but I don't have it in front of me. Morenz also discusses how the gods spoke to and commanded the Egyptians. While these authors discuss the gods/idols speaking to the people, they don't use the term "hallucination."

I don't mean this in a negative sense, and forgive me if I am mistaken, but I do get the impression that you have not read Jaynes's book in its entirety, maybe just sections of it or the articles that are online.
Some quotes from Morenz on commands of the gods:

"Subject to such divine commands are the living...who are ordered by the earth-god Geb to provide food for the dead."

"Even at the close of Egyptian history the idea is still alive that the deity disposes of beings who are in his service and act 'as he had commanded them to do.'" (p. 60)

"This also throws light on the dual nature of the king: he is god, but simultaneously the obediant servant ('the son') of the national god, whose commands he carries out as his official duty."

"In this way divine commandments regulate both secular and sacred matters, as the occasion demands." (p. 61)

"As far as the heart is concerned, in which men's decisions are brought into maturity, [the gods] seem to offer guidance at moments either of complete confusion or of deepest insight." (p. 63)

March 25, 2005 4:02 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

No, I've read Jaynes's book in its entirely at least twice, and parts of it three or four times. I was really into it for a while, until I started reading the orginal sources (The Iliad, Bible, etc.) and became disillusioned when I saw how selectively Jaynes quotes from them. I admit that it's been several years since I last read the book, so perhaps some of my recollections are fuzzy.

The ritual described in the Web site actually did involve an idol. The idea was to open the idol's mouth and pour in the dead man's life force, which was then believed to inhabit the idol. (It is true, though, that the idol was not viewed as a god, merely as a vessel for the dead man's essence.)

I agree that one could imagine the priests (or others) hearing a hallucinated voice from an idol, but other, less exotic explanations are also possible. Even today, people pray before statues of saints without believing that the statues are talking to them. (Of course, Jaynes would call this behavior a holdover from our bicameral days.)

Whether the priests drew a distinction between the god and the idol is a controversial issue, with Morenz apparently taking one side and Kaufman taking the other side.

The quotes from Morenz are interesting, but all they seem to indicate is that the Egyptians believed they were commanded to do certain things by the gods. These commands may have come in the form of Jaynesian hallucinations, but they may also have taken the form of dreams, divinations, intuition, or religious revelation. It's also possible that the "commands of the gods" were only an official cover story used to justify whatever program the priests or pharaohs had in mind. Jaynes would call this last theory anachronistic or "presentist" (reading present-day psychology into the past), but this is begging the question, since he is trying to prove that human psychology has changed radically in the past 3,000 years. If he is wrong, then it is no fallacy to interpret the ancient Egyptians or Bablylonians in the light of contemporary human nature.

March 25, 2005 12:42 PM  
Blogger Brins said...

I for one had never even heard of Jaynes or his book until I read this, and since have only seen him mentioned

It does surprise me that Jaynes, with such a potentially controversial book, hasn't achieved the same status as, say, Darwin with Origin of Species. By this I mean that he isn't a household name. It just puzzles me that I've never heard of him.

April 02, 2005 5:23 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

I think Jaynes's ideas do circulate somewhat on the Web. They seem to play a role in the hodgepodge philosophy called "Neo-Tech," for instance (which, from what I can tell, is a mixture of Ayn Rand's Objectivism and various other things). But Jaynes has not inspired much of a following in academia, though his book remains in print. The book, incidentally, is very well written and, once you get past some difficult early sections on the nature of consciousness, quite easy to read. It's a stimulating and provocative text. I just think it's almost certainly wrong. : )

April 02, 2005 1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, no question, there are certainly multiple interpretations of these ancient rituals. I personally think Jaynes's idea of actual hallucinations fits the data well, esp. in this case the bizarre procedure of bathing, dressing, and feeding an idol twice per day. However I am coming at it with a psychology background.

I don't think Jaynes's work is compelling unless one looks at the evidence from multiple disciplines, for example the new research on 'command hallucinations' experienced by schizophrenics, the higher than previously known prevalence of auditory hallucinations in the population in general, and the new neuroimaging studies supporting Jaynes's neurological model.

Why was there no concept of prayer before roughly 1500 B.C.? Also the trend from polytheism to monotheism around the same time fits well with the bicameral theory.

Why would schizophrenics experience command hallucinations instructing their behavior if not as a vestige of the bicameral mind? For this and many other phenomenon, such as trance states and possession, you really have either Jaynes's bicameral mind, or just "weird stuff happens." Alternate ideas on these topics amount to little more than guessing.

I'm sure we won't change each other's minds, but it's been a pleasure chatting with you. Good luck with the novels!

April 03, 2005 2:50 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your stimulating comments. I'll just add one thing, at the risk of losing all credibility (not a big risk, since I have little credibility to begin with).

Schizophrenia is a mystery, but one possible approach to it, which goes against the grain of our materialist culture, was outlined by Carl Wickland in his book Thirty Years Among the Dead. (Amazon sells used copies, or it can be read online at .) Wickland was a psychiatrist who treated many schizophrenics. He and his wife also dabbled in mediumship. One day he tried combining the two interests by using his wife to communicate with any lost or confused spirits that might be entangled with his patients' minds. As far-fetched as this sounds, he swears he got results. Patients whose illness had been intractable were suddenly cured - once the spirit that had possessed or overshadowed them had been convinced to move on (to "go into the light," in modern parlance).

As I recall, the patients did not even have to be present for the sittings, so it was probably not a case of the power of suggestion.

If there are supernatural forces, then perhaps they are involved in at least some cases of mental illness - especially cases in which voices are heard. In this case, the origin of the voices would not be the bicameral mind, but a different realm of existence that we can access only dimly.

Jaynes, a confirmed modernist, would have laughed off such speculations. But there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio ... Well, you know how it goes.

April 04, 2005 4:19 PM  

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