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

Cover of Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

As I mentioned in my Facebook posts about the book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (published in 1976) is a wild ride, not at all for everyone. It could especially prove problematic for those espousing religious belief. Or, indeed, belief in the veracity of science. Or in any kind of certainty at all. Furthermore, at times, Origin goes speculative to what for some will be intolerable degrees, and Jaynes’s writing style can turn florid and irritating. I was in it for the idea that the human brain and the consciousness it houses have changed radically since early periods of civilization, an idea that bravely contradicts common belief that human consciousness bloomed suddenly full-flowered upon early man. This idea that social (and perhaps physical) human structures and functions have changed more drastically than we might be aware is one that has only recently begun to turn up in language evolution studies and other disciplines focused on human expression.  For instance, in Homo Narrans, John D. Niles speaks of the profoundness of our mistake in imposing on medieval literature our modern social perspectives because even 500 years ago people lived and thought very differently from how we now do. We are hampered in accurately perceiving the human condition because our dominant social constructs, darling biases, and cherished expectations block the view. No surprise, really, since we often suffer difficulties wrapping our minds around our contemporaries’ perspectives even today. Projecting pet motives onto our neighbor and viewing her behavior through self-colored lenses is common practice. How much more difficult, then, the problem of looking into the long ago, when brain functions and the social conventions they gave rise to might have been so dissimilar as to be incomprehensible to the modern mind.

I’m glad I read Origin, because it stimulated my thinking. But I am probably above-average patient with narrative, regardless of idiosyncrasies, because I’m a language freak and find interesting matter in unique ideas and strange turns of phrase. Origin is stuffed with both. Jaynes’s discussions of the rise and purposes of metaphor as a transitional step between earlier phases of human consciousness (essentially unconsciousness) and modern-day consciousness is really interesting and kind of out there, providing a fascinating view into Jaynes’s mind if not into the recesses of human history. Jaynes holds that metaphor arose as mankind’s shifting consciousness “lost” brain-generated auditory (and sometimes visual) hallucinations commonly believed to be the constant parental chatter of the gods. Once consciousness began moving out of this hallucinatory state, we looked for other means by which to connect with the divine. Through auguries and similar forms of divination, early ancestors employed metaphor as new linguistic technology to extend their reach to the heavens and draw down the voices of gods whom they perceived had withdrawn, leaving mankind lonely and in confusion as to what to do with itself. Poetry and music, Jaynes says, came into being mainly to prime and excite the mind for contact with those gods.

Most of the book traces support for Jaynes’ theories through several ancient periods, drawing  evidence from some of the world’s oldest writings and from the shapes and relics of temples and other monumental devotional structures. Near the end of the book, Jaynes posits that schizophrenia, with its auditory and visual hallucinations and with the sufferer’s loss of the “analogue I”, is a strong candidate for being a remnant of the long-lost bicameral mind. He discusses the advantages schizophrenia may have provided humanity—that is, why natural selection might have perpetuated it. While some of his assertions about schizophrenia’s upside might seem far-fetched, having had some intimate experience with a version of this brain variable, I recognized several of his descriptions of schizophrenia’s outstanding qualities as being spot-on.

Jaynes’ final chapter “The Auguries of Science” especially caught my attention. In it he proposes that mankind’s “problem” of authorization—that is, who will provide the voice of authority that will guide modern civilization on its path as it unfolds into the future—may work out slowly or swiftly, “perhaps even with some further changes in our mentality.” He perceives that neither religion nor science is exempt from more individualized cliques “of every description” forming in the wake of the changes both camps have already experienced. “In this period of transition from its religious basis,” he proposes, “science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause.” He calls this urge for conviction the innocence of certainty. One thing I admire: As Jaynes discusses the unrootedness of science in this transitional period, he acknowledges the ephemeral condition of knowing, saying that we express the totality of our ideas with self-insight that is currently very limited. He includes in this myopic library the ideas he proffers in Origin:

“We see over our everyday attentions, our gardens and politics, and children into the forms of our culture darkly. And our culture is our history. In our attempts to communicate or persuade or simply interest others, we are using and moving about through cultural models among whose differences we may select, but from whose totality we cannot escape. And it is in this sense of the forms of appeal, of begetting hope or interest or appreciation for ourselves or for our ideas, that … these grooves of persuasion which are even in the act of communication [become] an inherent part of what is communicated. And this essay is no exception.”

Most of you reading this review will not wish to immerse yourselves in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s as difficult a read as its title suggests. It reaches back into the past with a long, ghostly arm, pulling forward texts famous and obscure and strange relics, brandishing them as proof for a radical concept of mankind’s earliest civilized mindscapes. Neither religion and science, Jaynes asserts, are the mature, knowing entities either styles themselves to be. You can hardly say anything that will be more unpopular. The idea that we are all half-blind when looking at each other now and when examining the human past might seem a desolate one to a culture that bedecks itself in the “pomp of factness” (love that phrase!). Yet at the same time, in pointing out this dilemma, Jaynes might just be showing us a frontier of open-bodied potential and new depths of relation and language against whose unimagined spectacle much of our current beloved insights will fade like candlelight at dawn.

And—heh—this review is no exception.


Patricia Karamesines1Patricia Karamesines {p.karamesines@gmail.com} is the author of The Pictograph Murders (Signature Books 2004), an award-winning mystery novel set in the Four Corners area. Her poetry appears in the landmark anthology Fire in the Pasture (Peculiar Pages 2011) and has also been published in Dialogue and Irreantum. A long time ago, she was the founding editor of BYU’s literary journal Inscape, a feat she remains satisfied with. She has won numerous awards for her poetry and essays. She writes for A Motley Vision and runs the nature writing blog Wilderness Interface Zone that advocates for the greening of human language. Currently, she is an English tutor and adjunct at Utah State University-Eastern Blanding where she works closely with the university’s Native American student population.