Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

I came across two books: Beyond Nature and Culture by Philippe Descola and How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn. They are about identity, experience, and perception. Both authors consider anthropological examples, through which they explore the relationship between the human and the world.

These books connect to much else I’ve been reading as of late. One of my long term projects is a series of posts about radical change, in relation to such things as Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism, the Axial Age, and the Enlightenment Age. I’m still thinking about it and not prepared to write anything in detail, but for the moment I wanted to throw out a few thoughts.

We have a hard time seeing outside of the world we are raised in. It is our entire reality. Perusing the books mentioned above reminded me of how true that is. An animistic worldview isn’t just a belief system, in the way we today talk about religion. Animism forms an entire reality, and to us modern Westerners it is a foreign reality.

Within animism, it isn’t just that the world is alive. It is also quite fluid. What is human and not isn’t absolutely demarcated, nor is the subjective and objective. Other distinctions also become less clear and certain: religion and society, economics and politics, individual and group.

One thing easily becomes something else. Perspective and its shifting defines everything. The world is alive and aware, overflowing with thinking beings, every mind a different mentality. The larger world is a society of beings and minds, spirits and gods, each species a potential community, each category of things a potential pattern of forces. This requires a careful attitude in relating to and negotiating with the others in the world, a constant concern and worry about breaking an agreement or trespassing boundaries (boundaries, by the way, that are social rather than conceptual).

This animistic world is a cacophany of voices, for those who hear them. These aren’t metaphorical notions. These people aren’t pretending to believe in what we scientific-minded moderns ‘know’ to be ridiculous. Still, it is hard for us to accept their reality for what it is.

Those who live in this animistic worldview typically are hunter-gatherers, although I don’t know if it is limited to them. In Jaynes’ theory, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle preceded the early civilizations where bicameralism developed. However, hunter-gatherers today aren’t the same as hunter-gatherers from before all of civilization. I doubt there is a single hunter-gatherer tribe that survived into the modern world without ever having been impacted by the bicameral and post-bicameral societies that surrounded them, whether through direct or indirect influences. Anthropologists have no firsthand observations of and knowledge about supposedly bicameral societies, much less pre-bicameral societies.

A while back, I discussed bicameralism with an anthropologist, Cris Campbell (see: All Mixed Up: Julian Jaynes). It was surprising that he didn’t understand this basic point. Even when others explained it to him, he wouldn’t concede its significance and relevance.

I got the sense that Campbell was too caught up in Jaynes’ language that he couldn’t fully take seriously the hypothesis itself and the evidence its based upon or something like that. He did admit that insights were to be found within Jaynes’ writings (see: here and here; not that he goes into great detail). Plus, he certainly has an understanding of and appreciation for animism, in which he mentions Philippe Descola (his blog in general is worth checking out).

For some reason, he believed some tribal people had escaped all influences and therefore should show evidence for Jaynes’ theory, despite the fact that Jayne’s theory never was about hunter-gatherer tribal people in the first place. Campbell apparently couldn’t take the theory on its own terms, even to criticize it on its own terms, which isn’t to say there aren’t genuine criticisms to be made (and already have been made by others, including those who have developed similar theories; e.g., Iain McGilchrist in his book, The Master and the Emissary–a book I mentioned to Campbell and received no response).

I don’t think it was ever made clear exactly what was the basis of Campbell’s doubt toward Jayne’s theory, besides the language issue. The discussion, in the comments section, simply ended without resolution. It seems he just gave up on the issue, which maybe just means he is giving it more thought. I hope that is the case, as I suspect he could delve much deeper into the topic.

Anyway, I wonder why there is such difficulty in taking Jaynes seriously (whether or not that is the case with Cris Campbell, for I admit that I’m likely not be giving him enough credit). My guess is that it has to do with how, to most people, such a proposed worldview appears alien and incomprehensible. How could people live without an interior sense of self, a society entirely dominated by external voices and social experience? It seems patently absurd, for someone who claimed such things today would be labeled as insane and probably institutionalized. And it seems beyond improbable that a society of people like this could actually be functional, especially to the extent of building great civilizations and massive monuments.

To take Jaynes seriously means to consider the immense potential within humans. This is what leads us down radical lines of thought and this is what causes many to pull back from that ledge. However, if we can anthropologically recognize what to us seems like the strange worldviews of hunter-gatherers, it is a small step to consider that the bicameral mind or something akin to it might have been a real possibility for ancient humanity.

21 thoughts on “Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

  1. The more I think about it, the more I believe our standard of living has something to do with biodiversity.

    • That makes sense to me.

      There is another aspect that ‘civilized’ people don’t understand about ‘primitives’. To put it simply, they were and are a lot less primitive than we are able to understand.

      Their societies and economies were much more closely intertwined with the environments within which they lived. They didn’t invest money into banks or, through taxes, into public infrastructure. For this reason, some claim that these people lacked surplus wealth.

      That is false. It’s just they had a different kind of surplus wealth and a different way of investing it.

      With gifts, they invested in social relationships and in the social order, securing their position in the society and cementing support systems. Also, with immense knowledge and effort, they altered and shaped the natural world around them (controlled burns, planting specific plants in specific places, redirecting water flow, etc).

      This surplus wealth and these investments were invisible to most foreigners and outsiders who came in contact with these hunter-gatherers, including many early anthropologists. Westerners, in particular, had become disconnected from their own hunter-gatherer ancestry and so had forgotten how such a world operates. All that imperialists and colonizers saw was wilderness, which in many cases was hunter-gatherer gardens that had grown unruly, because the hunter-gatherer gardeners had been massacred or died of disease.

      They couldn’t recognize that the health of a society was dependent upon the health of the environment, and they couldn’t understand that the hunter-gatherers they observed were those under extreme stress. Civilization had allowed the externalization of costs, often externalizing onto distant people, including the indigenous. Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, couldn’t externalize costs for there is no where to do so in such a lifestyle.

      However, we are getting to the point where civilization can no longer shove the problems off onto other people, other places, and other generations. We are only recognizing the utter necessity of biodiversity for survival as that biodiversity is quickly disappearing.

      There is no where else on planet Earth to escape to. No people left to conquer, no lands left to discover, and not even much resources left to steal. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point. The accumulated natural wealth of the Earth turns out not to be limitless, after all.

      Healthy ecosystems, once destroyed, are hard to bring back to life. The harm done to the entire planetary biosphere is an even greater challenge. Environmental blowback will be worse than any war or terrorism in history.

  2. Here is an interesting viewpoint:


    I don’t know how it might fit in with my thinking here, but it seemed potentially relevant. The article discusses the possibility of much earlier development of written language. The theory is based on the evidence of symbols in cave paintings.

    “For von Petzinger there is no question that the symbols she studied had been used intentionally, but what surprised her even more than this intentionality was the fact that 65% of them were already in regular use 40,000 years ago. The reason this is so significant is that this was approximately the time when modern humans came to Europe and started displacing the Neanderthals. If humans were already using a large number of symbols for communication at that time, the origins of written communications may have been even earlier. Von Petzinger told CBC, “… it doesn’t look like a beginning, it looks like something that’s already in practice.” The potential implications of this hypothesis, if proven, are major; so far anthropologists have argued that it was only after modern humans moved to Europe that they advanced culturally, developing in a relatively short period what we now consider modern human behaviour. Yet, if it turns out that they had created written communication, which is an instance of abstract thinking, back in Africa, the origins of modern human behaviour would be pushed significantly further back.”

    • Are you familiar with the work of David-Lewis Williams and Jean Clottes on cave art? If not I would recommend starting here https://www.amazon.com/Mind-Cave-Consciousness-Origins-Art/dp/0500284652/ref=pd_sim_14_6?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=0500284652&pd_rd_r=Y713G5FDN788A5F27XYY&pd_rd_w=0lLIO&pd_rd_wg=y9EjW&psc=1&refRID=Y713G5FDN788A5F27XYY
      David-Lewis Williams ideas on how to interpret the various figurative drawings, as well as the abstract patterns and symbols mentioned in the article you posted is very interesting and, to me, sounds much more convincing than the hypothesis that this symbols are some form of early writing. The author proposes that cave art originated in hallucinatory experiences and demonstrates how much of the visual most defining characteristics of cave art resonates with hallucinatory activity that can be recreated in laboratory conditions and depend upon universal neurological functions. The more abstract and geometrical patterns, and even the symbol-like marks, could then be better understood if entoptic phenomena (such as the scintillating scotoma experienced by migraine sufferers) were contemplated as something that prehistoric people would also experience and interact with.

      I was also deeply fascinated by his proposals because he truly takes into account something people often forget when thinking about this prehistoric productions: the extremely specific context in which this paintings were created, which, for the most part, were very, very deep and labirintic caves, with extremely narrow passages that had to be navigated with the help of the flickering light of a fire torch to the complete lack of natural light – all conditions that would very likely cause some sort of hallucinatory experience. I don’t remember if David-Lewis Williams mentions the fact that this places would often have seriously dangerous low levels of oxygen, but I’m sure about that because I recently assisted a faculty class in which this fact was mentioned, and this alone would certainly help to induce hallucinatory activity in the brain.

      As for the interpretations David-Lewis Williams draws from the similarities between cave art and visual hallucinations, I’m not so sure what to think of it… he associated the trance states of which the paintings would be one of several consequences with a shamanistic-based society. I would have to read the book again to be able to fully express why I didin’t fully agree with his proposal, but I do remember that at a certain point of the book he completely disregards Julian Jaynes ideas on the origins of counsciesness with arguments that I think show some misunderstandings of Jaynes theory…

      • I’m somewhat familiar with Williams and Clottes, as in I know who they are. I’ve read a little bit of the writings by the former, but not in any great detail. I have another book by him, Inside the Neolithic Mind, that I was looking at earlier this year.

        I wrote a bit more about cave paintings and language in another post:


        I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter. I just find it fascinating to think about. Those ancient people obviously went to great effort and care in creating those paintings, whatever their possible intentions and meanings.

        The shamanistic interpretation seems highly probable. That is particularly true with kinds of imagery, such as abstract symbols. From decades of reading about shamanism and psychedelic plants, I know there are consistent imagery that are associated with certain kinds of experiences, whether entoptic phenomena or psychedelic hallucinations.

        There can be some complex patterns that seem to extend across time and societies. Jacques Vallee pointed out that alien abduction stories closely follow the description of many accounts of fairy abductions and shamanistic initiations. A common plant drug is DMT and there the similar experiences are consistently had by shamans and others.

        It’s not that hard to create altered states through various means such as sensory deprivation (caves), meditation, chanting, dance, ritual, pain, stress, fasting, and of course psychoactive plants. Even other species will seemingly use plants to alter their experience or at least they sure act altered after choosing to consume these natural drugs. It would be far from surprising if ancient humans did similar things, as we know humans have been doing such things for at least thousands of years.

        As for Jaynes’ theory, misunderstandings are common. It’s a hard theory to wrap one’s mind around. And there are so many ideas presented. It isn’t a single hypothesis, as the theory is built on numerous separate hypotheses that aren’t necessarily dependent on each other. Most people never get past the a superficial grasp of his views on ancient societies and never get around to his detailed discussion about consciousness, metaphors, etc.

        By the way, in another post on a different but related topic, I included a passage from Petzinger about the use of color in cave paintings. In her book, she goes into quite a bit of detail of the development of tool use, pigments, art, and jewelry. It required a lot of effort and knowledge to create different colors of ochre. Here is a quote where she offers a conclusion about the importance of colors:


        “We know these artists had access to brown and black pigments, but at many sites they chose to paint animals in shades of red or yellow, or even purple, like the bison here at La Pasiega. These choices are definitely suggestive of there being some type of color symbolism at work, and it could even be that creating accurate replicas of real-life animals was not the main goal of these images.”

        • Yes, the shamanistic interpretation seems highly probable to me as well… I just feel that Julian Jaynes ideas on how slow and gradual the construction of an interior mind-space developed and the radically different mentality that would imply could be a huge contribution when it comes to imagine how different a shamanistic culture in a paleolithic pre-conscious context would be from more recent case studies of shamanistic societies that have been used to speculate on this matter. I’m mostly thinking about the dualistic worldview (physical world vs. spirit world) which David-Lewis Williams argues is already well established for cave-painting people of prehistory. What exactly is this “spirit world” and how clear is the division between the spirit and the corporeal for someone that doesn’t have yet an interior mental life in the sense that we, self-conscious modern people, have now?
          And in that regard David-Lewis Williams has indeed a very different understanding of what consciousness is from Julian Jaynes and is appalled by his suggestions. He specifically states: “It seems to me that Upper Paleolithic people could attend to inner voices without, as Jaynes contends, being semi-automatons, unable to think for themselves.” The problem with this comment, of course, is that Jaynes would surely reply that paleolithic people were in fact completely able to think for themselves, they just would not be able to think of themselves, which is different.
          For David-Lewis Williams, however, consciousness is simply a general state of awareness, a sensation of being in the world generated by all the electrical and chemical activity going on in the brain, an innate quality of which only the contents would be culturally constructed. He does in fact explains that “consciousness” is in constant flux within a very large spectrum that goes from alert / waking / problem oriented thought to a progressively more unconscious direction, that can either be related to normal sleeping patterns or be caused by what he calls the intensified trajectory (hallucinations and trance states). Each state of mind can then be labeled as “normal” or “altered” according to the norms of specific historical and cultural contexts and the collection of all the possible states, regardless of their characteristics or attributed importance, is the spectrum of consciousness.
          The fact that David-Lewis Williams doesn’t really provides a good argument against Julian Jaynes while operating with completely different conceptions on what consciousness is makes me curious of how different his re-construction of the past would be if his ideas were to be revised having in mind Jaynes theory on consciousness as self-awarness. And I think that is worth doing because despite their divergence on this matter, their theories share an important point on the common origins of religion and art on hallucinatory experiences…
          I’m now going to read the posts you indicated to me on this subject, thank you for the references, it is a very dear interest of mine.
          By the way, I’m sorry if my english sounds a bit laconic, I’m used to discussing these ideas in portuguese and it is amazing how something that feels so clear in all its subtleties in my mind suddenly takes shape into a very clumsy and hard edged explanation even though I read all of these ideas in english to begin with…

          • “I’m mostly thinking about the dualistic worldview (physical world vs. spirit world) which David-Lewis Williams argues is already well established for cave-painting people of prehistory.”

            I wonder. Why assume that such a dualistic worldview existed?

            Some more recent tribal people (e.g., Piraha) don’t seem to think and perceive that way. And those are tribes that already have interacted some with dualistic-minded Westerners. Ancient people living prior to all civilization would likely be profoundly different, maybe in ways we can’t imagine.

            Anyway, I’m always wary about possibly unhelpful biases and preconceptions. It is hard for many of us modern Westerners to conceive of a society without dualism, but that doesn’t mean that the world really does conform to our own way of thinking. It seems wiser to assume that societies in the distant past likely weren’t like ours, based on the anthropological record showing how different even present societies can be.

            “What exactly is this “spirit world” and how clear is the division between the spirit and the corporeal for someone that doesn’t have yet an interior mental life in the sense that we, self-conscious modern people, have now?”

            Good question. Proposing such a division seems to be proposing a consciousness that was already basically like our own. That is the mainstream idea that the human mind hasn’t changed much over time, the belief in a basic human nature with little variance across cultures.

            But what occurs to me is that this belief is itself dependent on a particular cultural worldview. Others have proposed that theory of mind has changed over time, in that how people conceived of the minds of others related to how their own mind functioned. The problem is that we use our own theory of mind in trying to understand the theory of mind of others, which makes us vulnerable to projection.

            That is what I liked about Jaynes’ view. It’s not a matter of to what degree he is right or wrong. I just like his attitude of intellectual humility and cautiousness. He doesn’t assume others are just like himself. And so he considers the possibility of taking people at their words, that they actually mean what they say/write, especially as with ancient people when their words is the strongest evidence we have available.

            “The problem with this comment, of course, is that Jaynes would surely reply that paleolithic people were in fact completely able to think for themselves, they just would not be able to think of themselves, which is different.”

            That is a great way of putting it. I appreciated the view that lacking consciousness, in the Jaynesian sense, didn’t mean that people were mindless zombies. Rather, it meant their minds were much more expansive, in not being limited to a single self. They could have complex thoughts and make complex plans by other means.

            There isn’t even a reason to assume that breakdown was inevitable, as social development could have taken another path. We aren’t forced to interpret societal change as Whiggish evolution with later civilizations being inherently superior.

            Much of history is arbitrary, it seems to me. We are the results, not the masters, of conditions far beyond our comprehension. But every society does the best it can under the circumstances at hand. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge other societies when it isn’t clear how long our own will last.

            “By the way, I’m sorry if my english sounds a bit laconic”

            That is fine. I understand you well enough.

  3. Great post. Very well written. Thankfully physics has come of age with advancements in quantum mechanics, field theory, holism and systems thinking, which I believe is leading us back to animistic ideas. For this reason, my experential understandings of conciousness and energy work that I have developed through my Shamanic practices can be articulated in contemporary terms. This is exciting for me because it means the metaphysics and esoteric practices of ancient cultures can be understood for the highly advanced sciences they were. Many thanks. I really dig it when people share links to their cool stuff.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C . Clarke

  4. I was thinking again of Cris Campbell. I came across his blog while doing a web search about Marx in relation to Jaynes. He didn’t actually have any posts that discussed the two together, but he did have some interesting posts about Marx.

    The reason I was interested in Marx is because of his rather radical views of human nature: species-being, alienation, and psychological change. I realized that Marxian and Jaynesian views might have some overlap or otherwise allow for a greater context of thought.

    At the same time, I was looking at a book about hunter-gatherers. It is The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum by Robert L. Kelly. The last chapter interested me the most, and here is what one reviewer said about it:


    “Chapter ten then logically looks at hunter-gatherers and prehistory in the light of the previ-ous chapters, and suggests why the arguably pejorative category of “hunter-gatherer” persist with any credibility at all, as these peoples are clearly not Palaeolithic relics. Here we enter the realm of evolutionary psychology, which assumes that the structure of the modern mind is modular, largely adapted to Palaeolithic lifeways, and retains the underlying psychological mechanisms developed mainly in the distant past. Kelly notes that the variability of ancient environments may well have matched the huge variability of ancient forages and hunters, making this approach diffcult to operationalise by looking at modern ethnographic examples. If you are studying prehistory and fail to read, follow, reference, or at least criticise part of the premise of this chapter, given its range and utility I would be simply astounded.”

    Kelly is making the same basic point I was trying to explain to Campbell. But Kelly of course does it with greater expertise and detail. It is a highly academic book, although also quite readable.

    There is the issue that pre-bicameral hunter-gatherers can’t tell us much if anything about the bicameral mind and bicameral societies. Even ignoring that, post-bicameral hunter-gatherers in the modern era can’t tell us much if anything about pre-bicameral hunter-gatherers, at least not without careful consideration of archaeological evidence. We can’t just assume all hunter-gatherers are basically alike. We have to prove a specific conclusion by testing it against the available facts.

    The reason for this is that conditions today are different than conditions in the past. Each hunter-gatherer society has to be taken on its own terms, which requires us to look at specific conditions. The point being that there was immense variance in past conditions and there remains immense variance in the present. Generalized conclusions are hard to make, not that we should never make them.

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