“Beyond that, there is only awe.”

“What is the meaning of life?” This question has no answer except in the history of how it came to be asked. There is no answer because words have meaning, not life or persons or the universe itself. Our search for certainty rests in our attempts at understanding the history of all individual selves and all civilizations. Beyond that, there is only awe.
~ Julian Jaynes, 1988, Life Magazine

That is always a nice quote. Jaynes never seemed like an ideologue about his own speculations. In his controversial book, more than a decade earlier (1976), he titled his introduction as “The Problem of Consciousness”. That is what frames his thought, confronting a problem. The whole issue of consciousness is still problematic to this day and likely will be so for a long time. After a lengthy analysis of complex issues, he concludes his book with some humbling thoughts:

For what is the nature of this blessing of certainty that science so devoutly demands in its very Jacob-like wrestling with nature? Why should we demand that the universe make itself clear to us? Why do we care?

To be sure, a part of the impulse to science is simple curiosity, to hold the unheld and watch the unwatched. We are all children in the unknown.

Following that, he makes a plea for understanding. Not just understanding of the mind but also of experience. It is a desire to grasp what makes us human, the common impulses that bind us, underlying both religion and science. There is a tender concern being given voice, probably shaped and inspired by his younger self having poured over his deceased father’s Unitarian sermons.

As individuals we are at the mercies of our own collective imperatives. 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 to 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 or praise for ourselves or for our ideas, that our communications are shaped into these historical patterns, these grooves of persuasion which are even in the act of communication an inherent part of what is communicated. And this essay is no exception.

That humility feels genuine. His book was far beyond mere scholarship. It was an expression of decades of questioning and self-questioning, about what it means to be human and what it might have meant for others throughout the millennia.

He never got around to writing another book on the topic, despite his stated plans to do so. But during the last decade of his life, he wrote an afterword to his original work. It was placed in the 1990 edition, fourteen years after the original publication. He had faced much criticism and one senses a tired frustration in those last years. Elsewhere, he complained about the expectation to explain himself and make himself understood to people who, for whatever reason, didn’t understand. Still, he realized that was the nature of his job as an academic scholar working at a major university. From the after word, he wrote:

A favorite practice of some professional intellectuals when at first faced with a theory as large as the one I have presented is to search for that loose thread which, when pulled, will unravel all the rest. And rightly so. It is part of the discipline of scientific thinking. In any work covering so much of the terrain of human nature and history, hustling into territories jealously guarded by myriad aggressive specialists, there are bound to be such errancies, sometimes of fact but I fear more often of tone. But that the knitting of this book is such that a tug on such a bad stitch will unravel all the rest is more of a hope on the part of the orthodox than a fact in the scientific pursuit of truth. The book is not a single hypothesis.

Interestingly, Jaynes doesn’t state the bicameral mind as an overarching context for the hypotheses he lists. In fact, it is just one among the several hypotheses and not even the first to be mentioned. That shouldn’t be surprising since decades of his thought and research, including laboratory studies done on animal behavior, preceded the formulation of the bicameral hypothesis. Here are the four hypotheses:

  1. Consciousness is based on language.
  2. The bicameral mind.
  3. The dating.
  4. The double brain.

He states that, “I wish to emphasize that these four hypotheses are separable. The last, for example, could be mistaken (at least in the simplified version I have presented) and the others true. The two hemispheres of the brain are not the bicameral mind but its present neurological model. The bicameral mind is an ancient mentality demonstrated in the literature and artifacts of antiquity.” Each hypothesis is connected to the others but must be dealt with separately. The key element to his project is consciousness, as that is the key problem. And as problems go, it is a doozy. Calling it a problem is like calling the moon a chunk of rock and the sun a warm fire.

Related to these hypotheses, earlier in his book, Jaynes proposes a useful framework. He calls it the General Bicameral Paradigm. “By this phrase,” he explains, “I mean an hypothesized structure behind a large class of phenomena of diminished consciousness which I am interpreting as partial holdovers from our earlier mentality.” There are four components:

  1. “the collective cognitive imperative, or belief system, a culturally agreed-on expectancy or prescription which defines the particular form of a phenomenon and the roles to be acted out within that form;”
  2. “an induction or formally ritualized procedure whose function is the narrowing of consciousness by focusing attention on a small range of preoccupations;”
  3. “the trance itself, a response to both the preceding, characterized by a lessening of consciousness or its loss, the diminishing of the analog or its loss, resulting in a role that is accepted, tolerated, or encouraged by the group; and”
  4. “the archaic authorization to which the trance is directed or related to, usually a god, but sometimes a person who is accepted by the individual and his culture as an authority over the individual, and who by the collective cognitive imperative is prescribed to be responsible for controlling the trance state.”

The point is made that the reader shouldn’t assume that they are “to be considered as a temporal succession necessarily, although the induction and trance usually do follow each other. But the cognitive imperative and the archaic authorization pervade the whole thing. Moreover, there is a kind of balance or summation among these elements, such that when one of them is weak the others must be strong for the phenomena to occur. Thus, as through time, particularly in the millennium following the beginning of consciousness, the collective cognitive imperative becomes weaker (that is, the general population tends toward skepticism about the archaic authorization), we find a rising emphasis on and complication of the induction procedures, as well as the trance state itself becoming more profound.”

This general bicameral paradigm is partly based on the insights he gained from studying ancient societies. But ultimately it can be considered separately from that. All you have to understand is that these are a basic set of cognitive abilities and tendencies that have been with humanity for a long time. These are the vestiges of human evolution and societal development. They can be combined and expressed in multiple ways. Our present society is just one of many possible manifestations. Human nature is complex and human potential is immense, and so diversity is to be expected among human neurocognition, behavior, and culture.

An important example of the general bicameral paradigm is hypnosis. It isn’t just an amusing trick done for magic shows. Hypnosis shows something profoundly odd, disturbing even, about the human mind. Also, it goes far beyond the individual for it is about how humans relate. It demonstrates the power of authority figures, in whatever form they take, and indicates the significance of what Jaynes calls authorization. By the way, this leads down the dark pathways of authoritarianism, brainwashing, propaganda, and punishment — as for the latter, Jaynes writes that:

If we can regard punishment in childhood as a way of instilling an enhanced relationship to authority, hence training some of those neurological relationships that were once the bicameral mind, we might expect this to increase hypnotic susceptibility. And this is true. Careful studies show that those who have experienced severe punishment in childhood and come from a disciplined home are more easily hypnotized, while those who were rarely punished or not punished at all tend to be less susceptible to hypnosis.

He discusses the history of hypnosis beginning with Mesmer. In this, he shows how metaphor took different form over time. And, accordingly, it altered shared experience and behavior.

Now it is critical here to realize and to understand what we might call the paraphrandic changes which were going on in the people involved, due to these metaphors. A paraphrand, you will remember, is the projection into a metaphrand of the associations or paraphiers of a metaphier. The metaphrand here is the influences between people. The metaphiers, or what these influences are being compared to, are the inexorable forces of gravitation, magnetism, and electricity. And their paraphiers of absolute compulsions between heavenly bodies, of unstoppable currents from masses of Ley den jars, or of irresistible oceanic tides of magnetism, all these projected back into the metaphrand of interpersonal relationships, actually changing them, changing the psychological nature of the persons involved, immersing them in a sea of uncontrollable control that emanated from the ‘magnetic fluids’ in the doctor’s body, or in objects which had ‘absorbed’ such from him.

It is at least conceivable that what Mesmer was discovering was a different kind of mentality that, given a proper locale, a special education in childhood, a surrounding belief system, and isolation from the rest of us, possibly could have sustained itself as a society not based on ordinary consciousness, where metaphors of energy and irresistible control would assume some of the functions of consciousness.

How is this even possible? As I have mentioned already, I think Mesmer was clumsily stumbling into a new way of engaging that neurological patterning I have called the general bicameral paradigm with its four aspects: collective cognitive imperative, induction, trance, and archaic authorization.

Through authority and authorization, immense power and persuasion can be wielded. Jaynes argues that it is central to the human mind, but that in developing consciousness we learned how to partly internalize the process. Even so, Jaynesian self-consciousness is never a permanent, continuous state and the power of individual self-authorization easily morphs back into external forms. This is far from idle speculation, considering authoritarianism still haunts the modern mind. I might add that the ultimate power of authoritarianism, as Jaynes makes clear, isn’t overt force and brute violence. Outward forms of power are only necessary to the degree that external authorization is relatively weak, as is typically the case in modern societies.

This touches upon the issue of rhetoric, although Jaynes never mentioned the topic. It’s disappointing since his original analysis of metaphor has many implications. Fortunately, others have picked up where he left off (see Ted Remington, Brian J. McVeigh, and Frank J. D’Angelo). Authorization in the ancient world came through a poetic voice, but today it is most commonly heard in rhetoric.

Still, that old time religion can be heard in the words and rhythm of any great speaker. Just listen to how a recorded speech of Martin Luther King jr can pull you in with its musicality. Or if you prefer a dark example, consider the persuasive power of Adolf Hitler for even some Jews admitted they got caught up listening to his speeches. This is why Plato feared the poets and banished them from his utopia of enlightened rule. Poetry would inevitably undermine and subsume the high-minded rhetoric of philosophers. “[P]oetry used to be divine knowledge,” as Guerini et al states in Echoes of Persuasion, “It was the sound and tenor of authorization and it commanded where plain prose could only ask.”

Metaphor grows naturally in poetic soil, but its seeds are planted in every aspect of language and thought, giving fruit to our perceptions and actions. This is a thousandfold true on the collective level of society and politics. Metaphors are most powerful when we don’t see them as metaphors. So, the most persuasive rhetoric is that which hides its metaphorical frame and obfuscates any attempts to bring it to light.

Going far back into the ancient world, metaphors didn’t need to be hidden in this sense. The reason for this is that there was no intellectual capacity or conceptual understanding of metaphors as metaphors. Instead, metaphors were taken literally. The way people spoke about reality was inseparable from their experience of reality and they had no way of stepping back from their cultural biases, as the cultural worldviews they existed within were all-encompassing. It’s only with the later rise of multicultural societies, especially the vast multi-ethnic trade empires, that people began to think in terms of multiple perspectives. Such a society was developing in the trade networking and colonizing nation-states of Greece in the centuries leading up to Hellenism.

That is the well known part of Jaynes’ speculations, the basis of his proposed bicameral mind. And Jaynes considered it extremely relevant to the present.

Marcel Kuijsten wrote that, “Jaynes maintained that we are still deep in the midst of this transition from bicamerality to consciousness; we are continuing the process of expanding the role of our internal dialogue and introspection in the decision-making process that was started some 3,000 years ago. Vestiges of the bicameral mind — our longing for absolute guidance and external control — make us susceptible to charismatic leaders, cults, trends, and persuasive rhetoric that relies on slogans to bypass logic” (“Consciousness, Hallucinations, and the Bicameral Mind Three Decades of New Research”, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, Kindle Locations 2210-2213). Considering the present, in Authoritarian Grammar and Fundamentalist Arithmetic, Ben G. Price puts it starkly: “Throughout, tyranny asserts its superiority by creating a psychological distance between those who command and those who obey. And they do this with language, which they presume to control.” The point made by the latter is that this knowledge, even as it can be used as intellectual defense, might just lead to even more effective authoritarianism.

We’ve grown less fearful of rhetoric because we see ourselves as being savvy, experienced consumers of media. The cynical modern mind is always on guard, our well-developed and rigid state of consciousness offering a continuous psychological buffering against the intrusions of the world. So we like to think. I remember, back in 7th grade, being taught how the rhetoric of advertising is used to manipulate us. But we are over-confident. Consciousness operates at the surface of the psychic depths. We are better at rationalizing than being rational, something we may understand intellectually but rarely do we fully acknowledge the psychological and societal significance of this. That is the usefulness of theories like that of bicameralism, as they remind us that we are out of our depths. In the ancient world, there was a profound mistrust between the poetic and rhetorical, and for good reason. We would be wise to learn from that clash of mindsets and worldviews.

We shouldn’t be so quick to assume we understand our own minds, the kind of vessel we find ourselves on. Nor should we allow ourselves to get too comfortable within the worldview we’ve always known, the safe harbor of our familiar patterns of mind. It’s hard to think about these issues because they touch upon our own being, the surface of consciousness along with the depths below it. This is the near difficult task of fathoming the ocean floor using rope and a weight, an easier task the closer we hug the shoreline. But what might we find if cast ourselves out on open waters? What new lands might be found, lands to be newly discovered and lands already inhabited?

We moderns love certainty. And it’s true we possess more knowledge than any civilization before has accumulated. Yet we’ve partly made the unfamiliar into familiar by remaking the world in our own image. There is no place on earth that remains entirely untouched. Only a couple hundred small isolated tribes are still uncontacted, representing foreign worldviews not known or studied, but even they live under unnatural conditions of stress as the larger world closes in on them. Most of the ecological and cultural diversity that once existed has been obliterated from the face of the earth, most of it having left not a single trace or record, just simply gone. Populations beyond count have faced extermination by outside influences and forces before they ever got a chance to meet an outsider. Plagues, environmental destruction, and societal collapse wiped them out often in short periods of time.

Those other cultures might have gifted us with insights about our humanity that now are lost forever, just as extinct species might have held answers to questions not yet asked and medicines for diseases not yet understood. Almost all that now is left is a nearly complete monoculture with the differences ever shrinking into the constraints of capitalist realism. If not for scientific studies done on the last of isolated tribal people, we would never know how much diversity exists within human nature. Many of the conclusions that earlier social scientists had made were based mostly on studies involving white, middle class college kids in Western countries, what some have called the WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. But many of those conclusions have since proven wrong, biased, or limited.

When Jaynes’ first thought on such matters, the social sciences were still getting established as serious fields of study. His entered college around 1940 when behaviorism was a dominant paradigm. It was only in the prior decades that the very idea of ‘culture’ began to take hold among anthropologists. He was influenced by anthropologists, directly and indirectly. One indirect influence came by way of E. R. Dodds, a classical scholar, who in writing his 1951 The Greeks and the Irrational found inspiration from Ruth Benedict’s anthropological work comparing cultures (Benedict taking this perspective through the combination of the ideas of Franz Boas and Carl Jung). Still, anthropology was young and the fascinating cases so well known today were unknown back then (e.g., Daniel Everett’s recent books on the Pirahã). So, in following Dodds example, Jaynes turned to ancient societies and their literature.

His ideas were forming at the same time the social sciences were gaining respectability and maturity. It was a time when many scholars and other intellectuals were more fully questioning Western civilization. But it was also the time when Western ascendancy was becoming clear with the WWI ending of the Ottoman Empire and the WWII ending of the Japanese Empire. The whole world was falling under Western cultural influence. And traditional societies were in precipitous decline. That was the dawning of the age of monoculture.

We are the inheritors of the world that was created from that wholesale destruction of all that came before. And even what came before was built on millennia of collapsing civilizations. Jaynes focused on the earliest example of mass destruction and chaos leading him to see a stark division to what came before and after. How do we understand why we came to be the way we are when so much has been lost? We are forced back on our own ignorance. Jaynes apparently understood that and so considered awe to be the proper response. We know the world through our own humanity, but we can only know our own humanity through the cultural worldview we are born into. It is our words that have meaning, was Jaynes response, “not life or persons or the universe itself.” That is to say we bring meaning to what we seek to understand. Meaning is created, not discovered. And the kind of meaning we create depends on our cultural worldview.

In Monoculture, F. S. Michaels writes (pp. 1-2):

THE HISTORY OF HOW we think and act, said twentieth-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is, for the most part, a history of dominant ideas. Some subject rises to the top of our awareness, grabs hold of our imagination for a generation or two, and shapes our entire lives. If you look at any civilization, Berlin said, you will find a particular pattern of life that shows up again and again, that rules the age. Because of that pattern, certain ideas become popular and others fall out of favor. If you can isolate the governing pattern that a culture obeys, he believed, you can explain and understand the world that shapes how people think, feel and act at a distinct time in history.1

The governing pattern that a culture obeys is a master story — one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.

Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside. It teaches us to fear and distrust other stories; other stories challenge the monoculture simply by existing, by representing alternate possibilities.

Jaynes argued that ideas are more than mere concepts. Ideas are embedded in language and metaphor. And ideas take form not just as culture but as entire worldviews built on interlinked patterns of attitudes, thought, perception, behavior, and identity. Taken together, this is the reality tunnel we exist within.

It takes a lot to shake us loose from these confines of the mind. Certain practices, from meditation to imbibing psychedelics, can temporarily or permanently alter the matrix of our identity. Jaynes, for reasons of his own, came to question the inevitability of the society around him which allowed him to see that other possibilities may exist. The direction his queries took him landed him in foreign territory, outside of the idolized individualism of Western modernity.

His ideas might have been less challenging in a different society. We modern Westerners identify ourselves with our thoughts, the internalized voice of egoic consciousness. And we see this as the greatest prize of civilization, the hard-won rights and freedoms of the heroic individual. It’s the story we tell. But in other societies, such as in the East, there are traditions that teach the self is distinct from thought. From the Buddhist perspective of dependent (co-)origination, it is a much less radical notion that the self arises out of thought, instead of the other way around, and that thought itself simply arises. A Buddhist would have a much easier time intuitively grasping the theory of bicameralism, that thoughts are greater than and precede the self.

Maybe we modern Westerners need to practice a sense of awe, to inquire more deeply. Jaynes offers a different way of thinking that doesn’t even require us to look to another society. If he is correct, this radical worldview is at the root of Western Civilization. Maybe the traces of the past are still with us.

* * *

The Origin of Rhetoric in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Ted Remington

Endogenous Hallucinations and the Bicameral Mind
by Rick Straussman

Consciousness and Dreams
by Marcel Kuijsten, Julian Jaynes Society

Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture
by Sarah Perry, Ribbonfarm

“I’m Nobody”: Lyric Poetry and the Problem of People
by David Baker, The Virginia Quarterly Review

It is in fact dangerous to assume a too similar relationship between those ancient people and us. A fascinating difference between the Greek lyricists and ourselves derives from the entity we label “the self.” How did the self come to be? Have we always been self-conscious, of two or three or four minds, a stew of self-aware voices? Julian Jaynes thinks otherwise. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind—that famous book my poetry friends adore and my psychologist friends shrink from—Jaynes surmises that the early classical mind, still bicameral, shows us the coming-into-consciousness of the modern human, shows our double-minded awareness as, originally, a haunted hearing of voices. To Jaynes, thinking is not the same as consciousness: “one does one’s thinking before one knows what one is to think about.” That is, thinking is not synonymous with consciousness or introspection; it is rather an automatic process, notably more reflexive than reflective. Jaynes proposes that epic poetry, early lyric poetry, ritualized singing, the conscience, even the voices of the gods, all are one part of the brain learning to hear, to listen to, the other.

Auditory Hallucinations: Psychotic Symptom or Dissociative Experience?
by Andrew Moskowitz & Dirk Corstens

Voices heard by persons diagnosed schizophrenic appear to be indistinguishable, on the basis of their experienced characteristics, from voices heard by persons with dissociative disorders or by persons with no mental disorder at all.

Neuroimaging, auditory hallucinations, and the bicameral mind.
by L. Sher, Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience

Olin suggested that recent neuroimaging studies “have illuminated and confirmed the importance of Jaynes’ hypothesis.” Olin believes that recent reports by Lennox et al and Dierks et al support the bicameral mind. Lennox et al reported a case of a right-handed subject with schizophrenia who experienced a stable pattern of hallucinations. The authors obtained images of repeated episodes of hallucination and observed its functional anatomy and time course. The patient’s auditory hallucination occurred in his right hemisphere but not in his left.

What Is It Like to Be Nonconscious?: A Defense of Julian Jaynes
by Gary William, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

To explain the origin of consciousness is to explain how the analog “I” began to narratize in a functional mind-space. For Jaynes, to understand the conscious mind requires that we see it as something fleeting rather than something always present. The constant phenomenality of what-it-is-like to be an organism is not equivalent to consciousness and, subsequently, consciousness must be thought in terms of the authentic possibility of consciousness rather than its continual presence.

Defending Damasio and Jaynes against Block and Gopnik
by Emilia Barile, Phenomenology Lab

When Jaynes says that there was “nothing it is like” to be preconscious, he certainly didn’t mean to say that nonconscious animals are somehow not having subjective experience in the sense of “experiencing” or “being aware” of the world. When Jaynes said there is “nothing it is like” to be preconscious, he means that there is no sense of mental interiority and no sense of autobiographical memory. Ask yourself what it is like to be driving a car and then suddenly wake up and realize that you have been zoned out for the past minute. Was there something it is like to drive on autopilot? This depends on how we define “what it is like”.

“The Evolution of the Analytic Topoi: A Speculative Inquiry”
by Frank J. D’Angelo
from Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse
ed. Robert J. Connors, Lisa S. Ede, & Andrea A. Lunsford
pp. 51-5

The first stage in the evolution of the analytic topoi is the global stage. Of this stage we have scanty evidence, since we must assume the ontogeny of invention in terms of spoken language long before the individual is capable of anything like written language. But some hints of how logical invention might have developed can be found in the work of Eric Havelock. In his Preface to Plato, Havelock, in recapitulating the educational experience of the Homeric and post-Homeric Greek, comments that the psychology of the Homeric Greek is characterized by a high degree of automatism.

He is required as a civilised being to become acquainted with the history, the social organisation, the technical competence and the moral imperatives of his group. This in turn is able to function only as a fragment of the total Hellenic world. It shares a consciousness in which he is keenly aware that he, as a Hellene, in his memory. Such is poetic tradition, essentially something he accepts uncritically, or else it fails to survive in his living memory. Its acceptance and retention are made psychologically possible by a mechanism of self-surrender to the poetic performance and of self-identification with the situations and the stories related in the performance. . . . His receptivity to the tradition has thus, from the standpoint of inner psychology, a degree of automatism which however is counter-balanced by a direct and unfettered capacity for action in accordance with the paradigms he has absorbed. 6

Preliterate man was apparently unable to think logically. He acted, or as Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, puts it, “reacted” to external events. “There is in general,” writes Jaynes, “no consciousness in the Iliad . . . and in general therefore, no words for consciousness or mental acts.” 7 There was, in other words, no subjective consciousness in Iliadic man. His actions were not rooted in conscious plans or in reasoning. We can only speculate, then, based on the evidence given by Havelock and Jaynes that logical invention, at least in any kind of sophisticated form, could not take place until the breakdown of the bicameral mind, with the invention of writing. If ancient peoples were unable to introspect, then we must assume that the analytic topoi were a discovery of literate man. Eric Havelock, however, warns that the picture he gives of Homeric and post-Homeric man is oversimplified and that there are signs of a latent mentality in the Greek mind. But in general, Homeric man was more concerned to go along with the tradition than to make individual judgments.

For Iliadic man to be able to think, he must think about something. To do this, states Havelock, he had to be able to revolt against the habit of self-identification with the epic poem. But identification with the poem at this time in history was necessary psychologically (identification was necessary for memorization) and in the epic story implicitly as acts or events that are carried out by important people, must be abstracted from the narrative flux. “Thus the autonomous subject who no longer recalls and feels, but knows, can now be confronted with a thousand abstract laws, principles, topics, and formulas which become the objects of his knowledge.” 8

The analytic topoi, then, were implicit in oral poetic discourse. They were “experienced” in the patterns of epic narrative, but once they are abstracted they can become objects of thought as well as of experience. As Eric Havelock puts it,

If we view them [these abstractions] in relation to the epic narrative from which, as a matter of historical fact, they all emerged they can all be regarded as in one way or another classifications of an experience which was previously “felt” in an unclassified medley. This was as true of justice as of motion, of goodness as of body or space, of beauty as of weight or dimension. These categories turn into linguistic counters, and become used as a matter of course to relate one phenomenon to another in a non-epic, non-poetic, non-concrete idiom. 9

The invention of the alphabet made it easier to report experience in a non-epic idiom. But it might be a simplification to suppose that the advent of alphabetic technology was the only influence on the emergence of logical thinking and the analytic topics, although perhaps it was the major influence. Havelock contends that the first “proto-thinkers” of Greece were the poets who at first used rhythm and oral formulas to attempt to arrange experience in categories, rather than in narrative events. He mentions in particular that it was Hesiod who first parts company with the narrative in the Theogony and Works and Days. In Works and Days, Hesiod uses a cataloging technique, consisting of proverbs, aphorisms, wise sayings, exhortations, and parables, intermingled with stories. But this effect of cataloging that goes “beyond the plot of a story in order to impose a rough logic of topics . . . presumes that Hesiod is 10

The kind of material found in the catalogs of Hesiod was more like the cumulative commonplace material of the Renaissance than the abstract topics that we are familiar with today. Walter Ong notes that “the oral performer, poet or orator needed a stock of material to keep him going. The doctrine of the commonplaces is, from one point of view, the codification of ways of assuring and managing this stock.” 11 We already know what some of the material was like: stock epithets, figures of speech, exempla, proverbs, sententiae, quotations, praises or censures of people and things, and brief treatises on virtues and vices. By the time we get to the invention of printing, there are vast collections of this commonplace material, so vast, relates Ong, that scholars could probably never survey it all. Ong goes on to observe that

print gave the drive to collect and classify such excerpts a potential previously undreamed of. . . . the ranging of items side by side on a page once achieved, could be multiplied as never before. Moreover, printed collections of such commonplace excerpts could be handily indexed; it was worthwhile spending days or months working up an index because the results of one’s labors showed fully in thousands of copies. 12

To summarize, then, in oral cultures rhetorical invention was bound up with oral performance. At this stage, both the cumulative topics and the analytic topics were implicit in epic narrative. Then the cumulative commonplaces begin to appear, separated out by a cataloging technique from poetic narrative, in sources such as the Theogony and Works and Days . Eric Havelock points out that in Hesiod, the catalog “has been isolated or abstracted . . . out of a thousand contexts in the rich reservoir of oral tradition. … A general world view is emerging in isolated or ‘abstracted’ form.” 13 Apparently, what we are witnessing is the emergence of logical thinking. Julian Jaynes describes the kind of thought to be found in the Works and Days as “preconscious hypostases.” Certain lines in Hesiod, he maintains, exhibit “some kind of bicameral struggle.” 14

The first stage, then, of rhetorical invention is that in which the analytic topoi are embedded in oral performance in the form of commonplace material as “relationships” in an undifferentiated matrix. Oral cultures preserve this knowledge by constantly repeating the fixed sayings and formulae. Mnemonic patterns, patterns of repetition, are not added to the thought of oral cultures. They are what the thought consists of.

Emerging selves: Representational foundations of subjectivity
by Wolfgang Prinz, Consciousness and Cognition

What, then, may mental selves be good for and why have they emerged during evolution (or, perhaps, human evolution or even early human history)? Answers to these questions used to take the form of stories explaining how the mental self came about and what advantages were associated with it. In other words, these are theories that construct hypothetical scenarios offering plausible explanations for why certain (groups of) living things that initially do not possess a mental self gain fitness advantages when they develop such an entity—with the consequence that they move from what we can call a self-less to a self-based or “self-morphic” state.

Modules for such scenarios have been presented occasionally in recent years by, for example, Dennett, 1990 and Dennett, 1992, Donald (2001), Edelman (1989), Jaynes (1976), Metzinger, 1993 and Metzinger, 2003, or Mithen (1996). Despite all the differences in their approaches, they converge around a few interesting points. First, they believe that the transition between the self-less and self-morphic state occurred at some stage during the course of human history—and not before. Second, they emphasize the cognitive and dynamic advantages accompanying the formation of a mental self. And, third, they also discuss the social and political conditions that promote or hinder the constitution of this self-morphic state. In the scenario below, I want to show how these modules can be keyed together to form a coherent construction. […]

Thus, where do thoughts come from? Who or what generates them, and how are they linked to the current perceptual situation? This brings us to a problem that psychology describes as the problem of source attribution ( Heider, 1958).

One obvious suggestion is to transfer the schema for interpreting externally induced messages to internally induced thoughts as well. Accordingly, thoughts are also traced back to human sources and, likewise, to sources that are present in the current situation. Such sources can be construed in completely different ways. One solution is to trace the occurrence of thoughts back to voices—the voices of gods, priests, kings, or ancestors, in other words, personal authorities that are believed to have an invisible presence in the current situation. Another solution is to locate the source of thoughts in an autonomous personal authority bound to the body of the actor: the self.

These two solutions to the attribution problem differ in many ways: historically, politically, and psychologically. In historical terms, the former must be markedly older than the latter. The transition from one solution to the other and the mentalities associated with them are the subject of Julian Jaynes’s speculative theory of consciousness. He even considers that this transfer occurred during historical times: between the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Iliad, according to Jaynes, the frame of mind of the protagonists is still structured in a way that does not perceive thoughts, feelings, and intentions as products of a personal self, but as the dictates of supernatural voices. Things have changed in the Odyssey: Odysseus possesses a self, and it is this self that thinks and acts. Jaynes maintains that the modern consciousness of Odysseus could emerge only after the self had taken over the position of the gods (Jaynes, 1976; see also Snell, 1975).

Moreover, it is obvious why the political implications of the two solutions differ so greatly: Societies whose members attribute their thoughts to the voices of mortal or immortal authorities produce castes of priests or nobles that claim to be the natural authorities or their authentic interpreters and use this to derive legitimization for their exercise of power. It is only when the self takes the place of the gods that such castes become obsolete, and authoritarian constructions are replaced by other political constructions that base the legitimacy for their actions on the majority will of a large number of subjects who are perceived to be autonomous.

Finally, an important psychological difference is that the development of a self-concept establishes the precondition for individuals to become capable of perceiving themselves as persons with a coherent biography. Once established, the self becomes involved in every re-presentation and representation as an implicit personal source, and just as the same body is always present in every perceptual situation, it is the same mental self that remains identical across time and place. […]

According to the cognitive theories of schizophrenia developed in the last decade (Daprati et al., 1997; Frith, 1992), these symptoms can be explained with the same basic pattern that Julian Jaynes uses in his theory to characterize the mental organization of the protagonists in the Iliad. Patients with delusions suffer from the fact that the standardized attribution schema that localizes the sources of thoughts in the self is not available to them. Therefore, they need to explain the origins of their thoughts, ideas, and desires in another way (see, e.g., Stephens & Graham, 2000). They attribute them to person sources that are present but invisible—such as relatives, physicians, famous persons, or extraterrestrials. Frequently, they also construct effects and mechanisms to explain how the thoughts proceeding from these sources are communicated, by, for example, voices or pictures transmitted over rays or wires, and nowadays frequently also over phones, radios, or computers. […]

As bizarre as these syndromes seem against the background of our standard concept of subjectivity and personhood, they fit perfectly with the theoretical idea that mental selves are not naturally given but rather culturally constructed, and in fact set up in, attribution processes. The unity and consistency of the self are not a natural necessity but a cultural norm, and when individuals are exposed to unusual developmental and life conditions, they may well develop deviant attribution patterns. Whether these deviations are due to disturbances in attribution to persons or to disturbances in dual representation cannot be decided here. Both biological and societal conditions are involved in the formation of the self, and when they take an unusual course, the causes could lie in both domains.

“The Varieties of Dissociative Experience”
by Stanley Krippner
from Broken Images Broken Selves: Dissociative Narratives In Clinical Practice
pp. 339-341

In his provocative description of the evolution of humanity’s conscious awareness, Jaynes (1976) asserted that ancient people’s “bicameral mind” enabled them to experience auditory hallucinations— the voices of the deities— but they eventually developed an integration of the right and left cortical hemispheres. According to Jaynes, vestiges of this dissociation can still be found, most notably among the mentally ill, the extremely imaginative, and the highly suggestible. Even before the development of the cortical hemispheres, the human brain had slowly evolved from a “reptilian brain” (controlling breathing, fighting, mating, and other fixed behaviors), to the addition of an “old-mammalian brain,” (the limbic system, which contributed emotional components such as fear, anger, and affection), to the superimposition of a “new-mammalian brain” (responsible for advanced sensory processing and thought processes). MacLean (1977) describes this “triune brain” as responsible, in part, for distress and inefficiency when the parts do not work well together. Both Jaynes’ and MacLean’s theories are controversial, but I believe that there is enough autonomy in the limbic system and in each of the cortical hemispheres to justify Ornstein’s (1986) conclusion that human beings are much more complex and intricate than they imagine, consisting of “an uncountable number of small minds” (p. 72), sometimes collaborating and sometimes competing. Donald’s (1991) portrayal of mental evolution also makes use of the stylistic differences of the cerebral hemisphere, but with a greater emphasis on neuropsychology than Jaynes employs. Mithen’s (1996) evolutionary model is a sophisticated account of how specialized “cognitive domains” reached the point that integrated “cognitive fluidity” (apparent in art and the use of symbols) was possible.

James (1890) spoke of a “multitude” of selves, and some of these selves seem to go their separate ways in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (see Greening, Chapter 5), dissociative identity disorder (DID) (see Levin, Chapter 6), alien abduction experiences (see Powers, Chapter 9), sleep disturbances (see Barrett, Chapter 10), psychedelic drug experiences (see Greenberg, Chapter 11), death terrors (see Lapin, Chapter 12), fantasy proneness (see Lynn, Pintar, & Rhue, Chapter 13), near-death experiences (NDEs) (see Greyson, Chapter 7), and mediumship (see Grosso, Chapter 8). Each of these conditions can be placed into a narrative construction, and the value of these frameworks has been described by several authors (e.g., Barclay, Chapter 14; Lynn, Pintar, & Rhue, Chapter 13; White, Chapter 4). Barclay (Chapter 14) and Powers (Chapter 15) have addressed the issue of narrative veracity and validation, crucial issues when stories are used in psychotherapy. The American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Trustees (1993) felt constrained to issue an official statement that “it is not known what proportion of adults who report memories of sexual abuse were actually abused” (p. 2). Some reports may be fabricated, but it is more likely that traumatic memories may be misconstrued and elaborated (Steinberg, 1995, p. 55). Much of the same ambiguity surrounds many other narrative accounts involving dissociation, especially those described by White (Chapter 4) as “exceptional human experiences.”

Nevertheless, the material in this book makes the case that dissociative accounts are not inevitably uncontrolled and dysfunctional. Many narratives considered “exceptional” from a Western perspective suggest that dissociation once served and continues to serve adaptive functions in human evolution. For example, the “sham death” reflex found in animals with slow locomotor abilities effectively offers protection against predators with greater speed and agility. Uncontrolled motor responses often allow an animal to escape from dangerous or frightening situations through frantic, trial-and-error activity (Kretchmer, 1926). Many evolutionary psychologists have directed their attention to the possible value of a “multimodular” human brain that prevents painful, unacceptable, and disturbing thoughts, wishes, impulses, and memories from surfacing into awareness and interfering with one’s ongoing contest for survival (Nesse & Lloyd, 1992, p. 610). Ross (1991) suggests that Western societies suppress this natural and valuable capacity at their peril.

The widespread prevalence of dissociative reactions argues for their survival value, and Ludwig (1983) has identified seven of them: (1) The capacity for automatic control of complex, learned behaviors permits organisms to handle a much greater work load in as smooth a manner as possible; habitual and learned behaviors are permitted to operate with a minimum expenditure of conscious control. (2) The dissociative process allows critical judgment to be suspended so that, at times, gratification can be more immediate. (3) Dissociation seems ideally suited for dealing with basic conflicts when there is no instant means of resolution, freeing an individual to take concerted action in areas lacking discord. (4) Dissociation enables individuals to escape the bounds of reality, providing for inspiration, hope, and even some forms of “magical thinking.” (5) Catastrophic experiences can be isolated and kept in check through dissociative defense mechanisms. (6) Dissociative experiences facilitate the expression of pent-up emotions through a variety of culturally sanctioned activities. (7) Social cohesiveness and group action often are facilitated by dissociative activities that bind people together through heightened suggestibility.

Each of these potentially adaptive functions may be life-depotentiating as well as life-potentiating; each can be controlled as well as uncontrolled. A critical issue for the attribution of dissociation may be the dispositional set of the experiencer-in-context along with the event’s adaptive purpose. Salamon (1996) described her mother’s ability to disconnect herself from unpleasant surroundings or facts, a proclivity that led to her ignoring the oncoming imprisonment of Jews in Nazi Germany but that, paradoxically, enabled her to survive her years in Auschwitz. Gergen (1991) has described the jaundiced eye that modern Western science has cast toward Dionysian revelry, spiritual experiences, mysticism, and a sense of bonded unity with nature, a hostility he predicts may evaporate in the so-called “postmodern” era, which will “open the way to the full expression of all discourses” (pp. 246– 247). For Gergen, this postmodern lifestyle is epitomized by Proteus, the Greek sea god, who could change his shape from wild boar to dragon, from fire to flood, without obvious coherence through time. This is all very well and good, as long as this dissociated existence does not leave— in its wake— a residue of broken selves whose lives have lost any intentionality or meaning, who live in the midst of broken images, and whose multiplicity has resulted in nihilistic affliction and torment rather than in liberation and fulfillment (Glass, 1993, p. 59).



30 thoughts on ““Beyond that, there is only awe.”

    • Which book are you referring to?

      In response to the article, there is an inherent stupidity about the two-party system. It causes people to become disconnected from the world around them and dissociated from their own behavior. Maybe it has to do with two dominant parties that are continuously reacting to the other, not allowing for even a moment of self-awareness to emerge.

      I don’t see any of this as complicated. It’s the obvious that so many are blind to. But all they have to do is open their eyes. I knew Obama was a phony before he was elected. It didn’t require any secret knowledge and special insight for me to figure that out.

    • When you say “Will read that book later,” do you mean Jaynes’ book on bicameralism? I assumed that was the book you meant. I must warn you that it is a thick, dense book. That is even with Jaynes sometimes poetic language. He doesn’t just talk about metaphors but uses them regularly.

      I’ve found it an engaging work, but also challenging. I should point out that I’ve never actually read the book in linear fashion. I’ve jumped around the book reading sections as they interest me. And I’ve listened to the audio version of it repeatedly, although I do so as I fall asleep at night. It’s taken me years to really let his ideas sink in.

      It is one of those books that is discussed more than it is read. It’s not a difficult read in a straightforward sense. It just requires much thought, as his he brings a unique approach to his discussion of consciousness and metaphor.

      • It’s the type of book that I find fascinating. It’s an important topic. But it would be of little interest to most people, even most intellectuals. I’d be reluctant to recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already seriously interested in the topic. As it was published 40 years ago, it is only a starting point. There are other articles and books that discuss more recent research and scholarship as it applies to bicameralism and similar theories.

        It wouldn’t be a good introductory text to any of these topics. There are probably better books about any given single topic, such as consciousness or metaphors. You only read a book like this because you want to be challenged, as his take is unique. He defines consciousness in a particular way and for a particular purpose, but it isn’t the common and mainstream understanding of consciousness as basic awareness. And he coined his own terminology to explain how metaphors work, since such terminology didn’t exist when he wrote his book.

        In the process, he ends up tipping over many sacred cows of our culture. If he is correct about his views of the neurocognition and more generally human nature, it brings much doubt and many questions about the beliefs our society is built upon. That is the main problem most people likely have with the book. Taking bicameralism as even merely plausible forces a person to question their own identity. Few people are interested in questioning their own identity, with the idea that their personal assumptions might be wrong and that their consciousness might be much more limited.

        It’s not a comforting book. But if you are used to alternative views, there is nothing shocking about it. I’ve come across thousands of other ideas and theories that are way more odd or even crazy. Assuming you can read the likes of Carl Jung and Ken Wilber without flinching, you should be able to handle Jaynes. Certainly, bicameralism is tame compared to the amusing notions of Robert Anton Wilson, Terence Mckenna, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, Jacques Vallee, etc.

        I have a high tolerance for the odd and unusual. If authors were drugs, Jaynes would be a mild drug like a puff of marijuana or maybe several shots of whiskey compared to other authors who’d be the hard drugs like cocaine and LSD. But for someone who has never even smoked a cigarette, marijuana might just blow their mind or make them very uncomfortable.

      • I was thinking some more about Jaynes’ book. I’ve enjoyed digging into it recently. But it does take a lot of work. I’m still trying to get clear on how he speaks about metaphor with the terminology he uses.

        For an introduction to his ideas, it might be easier and more enjoyable to read one of the collection of essays that Marcel Kuijsten put together. Or Ian McGilchrist’s book is good as well, although the theory he presents is slightly different. Those are more recent books that present more up-to-date views and research.

        Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness:
        Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited
        by Marcel Kuijsten (editor)

        Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind:
        The Theories of Julian Jaynes
        by Marcel Kuijsten (author, editor)

        The Master and His Emissary:
        The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
        by Iain McGilchrist

  1. I’ve been reading the Jaynes book, and so far I really like it.

    Since I haven’t read it all, I may be re-inventing the wheel and saying things he says himself later on, but here goes: If consciousness is essentially a cultural innovation rather than anything we inherit from birth, it brings up some interesting questions.

    According to “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, there were a few basic circumstances that made mass food production, and therefore social and cultural advances and technological leaps, much more possible in what the author calls “Eurasia” than anywhere else in the world (and by the way, he considers North Africa part of the Mediterranean region, and therefore lumps it in with Eurasia). Basically, a lot of the best domesticatable species of crops and animals only existed there in the first place, and had to then be exported to other parts of the world. That ecological accident led to a lot of the events of recorded history, and most of the imbalances of power we’ve recorded.

    I wonder if it might follow that Consciousness-Proper may also have developed first in the cultures near the Fertile Crescent, and then cascaded outward through history. Perhaps there are pockets of still-nonconscious humans alive today. Maybe Europeans were more versed in consciousness than their Native-American victims, which could have been another contributing factor to how thoroughly they were subjugated. I read a book called “How the Irish Saved Civilization”, and according to the author, Augustine (a North African Bishop) is perhaps the first example in History of someone who wrote in what we would call an autobiographical way.

    This then begs the question of what advantages or disadvantages being conscious may offer to an individual and to a culture at large. On the face of it I would actually expect a mostly non-conscious tyrannical empire to be more advantaged psychologically than a bunch of think-for-yourselfers would be, when they come into conflict with each other, like a pack of wolves facing off against a bunch of domesticated dogs… I would think that acting as a psychologically cohesive unit would give a considerable advantage.

    On the other hand, I believe Jaynes himself is pretty clear that even modern humans function non-consciously most of the time. And a person with a well-formed consciousness can still employ unconscious behavior. As a former Marine myself, I know firsthand that a LOT of military training is about learning to play a largely non-conscious role as a subordinate to the will of the chain of command. To extend the metaphor, we take dogs and try to teach them to be wolves again. Maybe being able to voluntarily phase in and out of consciousness as needed IS a psychological advantage, because you theoretically could enjoy the advantages of both.

    Which brings me to my last and more immediate point… I’m starting to think of Conscious thought as a discipline that you choose to engage in. “The unexamined life” may not be worth living, but I think it’s plain to see it’s more than possible to live it anyway, probably you could say it’s our natural state and our comfort zone. I think even today, with human consciousness being a relatively old invention, most of us are non-consciousness most of the time, and there seems to be a large spectrum dividing groups of people, some of whom are rethinking and rehashing relatively a lot, and others who are apparently still living the bicameral life.

    • One thing to keep in mind is that Jaynes writes about consciousness in a specific way.

      A non-conscious person still has environmental, social, and bodily awareness; and still has sensory perception, biological reactivity, cultural knowledge, and capacity for complex thought. What they would lack, according to theory, is a self-consciousness that is individualized, interiorized, spatialized, and narratized. If you ever think to doubt the abilities of supposedly bicameral societies, look at the pyramids. Or consider the other inventions of bicameral societies such as advanced agriculture, literacy, numeracy, and astronomy.

      Jaynes’ theory doesn’t necessitate consciousness having arisen in a single location. It’s assumed that consciousness is simply a cultural tool, not unlike agriculture. The Levant wasn’t the only place where agriculture developed and so it didn’t simply spread from there. Agriculture was developed independently in multiple parts of the world. The Americas also had early development of agriculture, the origin of a large number of crops grown around the world today. You can see that in even specific forms of agriculture. Rice cultivation, for example, independently developed in both Asia and West Africa.

      Besides, there is no connection between agriculture and consciousness. Jaynes specifically proposed that it was the most advanced civilizations at the time that were bicameral. He never focused on tribal hunter-gatherers who would have been pre-bicameral. A bicameral society requires a fairly complex society to even be possible. A simpler society wouldn’t even need bicameralism, as bicameralism is a way of ordering the early city-states. That said, you can find bicameral-like tribal societies, such as the Ugandan Ik, but the Ik are agricultural and so maybe that is a key element.

      What Jaynes does discuss is conflicts between bicameral and post-bicameral societies, as would have been inevitable. The bicameral societies were originally the most powerful civilizations around, as they were the wealthiest and most advanced. They had high concentrations of populations in urban areas with trained armies. They were extremely stable societies, but there weakness was that they were dependent on particular conditions.

      There is much speculation about what weakened them and made them vulnerable to attack or else collapse from within. One factor is that, because of their success, they grew so large that bicameralism was no longer as effective as it had been. An even more important factor is that years or decades of mass catastrophes hit those early civilizations with a domino effect of social chaos: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, flooding, droughts, refugee crises, mass migration, wars, piracy, etc.

      Post-bicameral societies based on consciousness weren’t necessarily superior in a general sense. Their advantage was situational. In that period of mass disruption of the likes never seen before or since, societies that didn’t require stability were able to wipe out those that did require stability. Those civilizations that did survive, such as Egypt, were forced to adapt to an entirely new world, as the entire basis of their bicameral society disappeared around them.

      In Eurasia, this transition from bicameralism to post-bicameralism might have taken a thousand years to be fully completed. Advanced bicameral civilizations would have existed in places like the Americas as well. The difference is that the Americas apparently didn’t experience as much of the mass catastrophe as did Eurasia. More stability was maintained in the Americas. So, it’s possible that bicameralism survived longer there. When Europeans showed up, they might have seen a type of civilization that hadn’t existed in Eurasia for two thousand years.

      I’d be careful in analyzing this, though.

      What brought down the Aztecs may have had little to do with cultural differences. The Spanish brought diseases with them that would have sickened and wiped out a large part of the population quite quickly, including among the warriors who would have been able to defend against attack. It would have been like a people with immunity to the plague attacking defenseless European kingdoms during the Black Death. Compared to what happened in the Americas, Europeans found the opposite situation in some equatorial regions where they lacked immunity to the local diseases and, even though the local populations were tribal, Europeans were unable to conquer and colonize them.

      A bicameral civilization at its height of stability and power would have been a formidable opponent. To outside threats, the entire bicameral society would have been organized and mobilized, in a way not possible in a non-bicameral society.

      About non-consciousness, that would include not just bicameral societies but also what might be called pre-bicameral societies (i.e., those that never went through a bicameral phase). I’ve written about the possibility of the latter still existing in the world, such as the Ik and Piraha. There are definitely societies that lack our variety of consciousness. The Piraha, for example, appear to have no stable identity in the way we consider normal, from spirit possessions to spirit encounter name-changes. Still, the Piraha aren’t bicameral, according to what Jaynes meant when talking about ancient Eurasia and such. For one, bicameral societies were highly organized and hierarchical, the complete opposite of the Piraha.

      I would point out another thing. Bicameral societies weren’t tyrannical. It was only with the breakdown of bicameralism that tyranny became both possible and necessary. The earliest post-bicameral societies were violently tyrannical because there was no longer the bicameral voice-hearing traditions to maintain social order and social norms. Bicameral societies would have been extremely peaceful and orderly societies, under normal conditions. They would have been way more peaceful and orderly than our own society because disobedience would have been unimaginable to the bicameral mind. Bicameral societies didn’t need laws and police, both inventions of post-bicameral societies.

      As such, bicameral military strategies and fighting styles would have been far different. I assume it would have been systematic with a strong order of military ranking. A bicameral army would have been an organized force, but probably inflexible and unable to easily adapt to changing situations. I suspect their fighting would have been formalized and ritualistic, though it might not have appeared organized as compared to a post-bicameral externalized order such as marching (I’m not sure how it would have appeared). Two bicameral societies probably rarely engaged in full-out war.

      You are correct about Jaynes view that we moderns are largely unconscious. And I suppose there is an advantage in having the capacity to switch between consciousness and unconsciousness. In a modern military, as you say, the common soldier is trained to obey commands and to act according to training and so to largely suppress their individual consciousness. Only those in a command position typically require fuller consciousness, specifically during a battle. That is the difference for a bicameral army that wouldn’t require a command structure, at least not in the way it operates in a modern army, even as there would have been a strict hierarchy.

      About a point you made in your last paragraph, it’s not quite right to say that conscious thought is a discipline you choose to engage in. That is because the ‘you’ who chooses anything is a product of consciousness. You have to already be conscious to choose conscious thought as a discipline. But in being conscious, you can choose to develop it further and so become even more conscious which then gives you greater capacity of choice. Or so that is how a the worldview of consciousness would explain it.

      Much of consciousness is self-deception, a denial of the unconscious mind that never really goes away. Some argue that consciousness chooses nothing, as the only power the conscious mind has is a veto power over what is unconsciously chosen (something shown in neurocognitive research). As such, consciousness can only ever come after something has already been initiated, but of course consciousness tends to rationalize its role as greater than it actually is. We probably shouldn’t too easily dismiss the importance and influence of the unconscious mind, which is more of who we are than is our conscious mind. Without the powerful effectiveness and immense potential of the unconscious mind, the human species would have gone extinct and civilization would never arisen.

      Your very last sentence gets at an important issue. There does seem to be a large spectrum of consciousness and unconsciousness or probably multiple spectrums, since individuals can be highly conscious in one area of life while being entirely or largely unconscious in other aspects. Consciousness isn’t a singular thing because it coexists and operates in concert with unconsciousness. Consciousness can’t exist without unconsciousness. There is no polar opposition between them. But if Jaynes is right, unconsciousness doesn’t need consciousness as much as the other way around. Consciousness is a lot less necessary than the conscious mind likes to admit.

      As for rethinking and rehashing, that reminds me of a personality trait like neuroticism which relates to worrying. Neuroticism can have advantages in making someone highly aware in certain ways, especially emotional and social sensitivity, but pushed to an extreme it can be dysfunctional. That is probably the situation for consciousness in general. There can be too much of a good thing. Consciousness has been built on a divided sense of self which can be severely problematic. If you want to understand why it can be problematic, I’d recommend Iain McGilchrist’s book, “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”.

      Here is some further reading:


      • Ok yes, agriculture itself developed in several different places independently of each other. Most impressive in my opinion is that North Americans managed to domesticate corn, which is the only time in history that was ever done. It’s particularly remarkable when you consider that the wild corn they had to work with in the beginning had cobs only about as big as your thumb. Also impressive is anyone ever having domesticated a certain kind of nut (whose name escapes me at the moment) that is poisonous in the wild, and has to be roasted carefully to be edible in the first place.

        Things like that demonstrate that there’s nothing any better or more adept about the PEOPLE of Eurasia, because other places domesticated what they could, as you pointed out. But of the nine best crop species, only two of them grow natively outside Eurasia in the first place. So generally speaking they were first cultivated there, and moved elsewhere. Of course there are exceptions to this, but having those native species around was a huge historical advantage, which other parts of the world clearly would have also taken advantage of it they had the chance.

        Equally important is the fact that there is a similar factor at play when you look at domesticatable animal species. Again, there are exceptions, like alpacas and llamas in the Americas, which were domesticated and employed to some degree. Dogs were also domesticated in several different places. But horses, cattle, oxen, pigs… all are native to Eurasia and therefore were domesticated there and over time brought elsewhere. In short, anything you can hitch a plow to came from Eurasia. That leaves even the other places that DID experiment with agriculture using only hand tools. It was moderately successful for what it was, and a couple of American empires in particular did extremely well with it, in combination with hunting and gathering. But cultivating with the help of beasts of burden, and the ability to fertilize using large amounts of manure, put the Eurasian version of agriculture on a whole new plane (again, Eurasian in this case apparently includes Northern Africa).

        The overabundance of food production capacity that Crop/Animal combination provided led to concentrations of population that had mostly never been seen before. Generally speaking it prompted the invention of the City as a widespread practice. Again, there are exceptions and there WERE cities that arose anyway without this combination, but in general it’s the reason they took off. In turn, the larger capacity for food production led indirectly to lots of things that don’t appear to have anything to do with agriculture, like the new kinds of diseases you mentioned wiping out most of the Native American population, or metalsmithing, or a literate class of bureaucrats. Unless there is an abundantly productive farming class to support specialized laborors, societies can only develop so far. You can DO some amazing and impressive things on hand-labor based food production and hunting/gathering, there are stunning examples of that. But human history took off in a whole new way starting with, and following along with the spread of, Animal/Plant food production.

        Having said all that, I still haven’t read enough to say anything definitive, but I still think it’s plausible that the gradual development of consciousness also got started mainly in Eurasia. I guess this is only plausible if a concentrated population tends to lead to consciousness the way it led to other developments, or made them more possible. Now that I think of it though, I have no idea WHAT may have led to consciousness developing where it did, or how exactly it happened, so I could be totally wrong about that.

        As for consciousness being a discipline, what you said in response was also what I meant to say myself. Only that, once you ARE a “conscious person”, that capacity can be almost completely static and dormant. I don’t mean to say that any of us bring ourselves to consciousness initially of our own will… like you said that doesn’t really make sense. Only that, being in a sense conscious beings NOW, we can choose varying degrees of intentionality in cultivating that capacity.

        I think there are any number of institutions these days that would like nothing more than for us to accept their ideals as their own, to the point that they become unconscious and unexamined elements of our own worldview and thought processes. Some groups and people would love for their narrative to flavor our own personal narrative in which we live. I can see that reality in myself, as both a religious person and someone who was raised as a white, male, conservative. Even when I DO try to be intentional about unlearning some of the biases and opinions I was handed before, it’s not easy. And that difficulty is what I meant in calling the cultivation of conscious thought a discipline.

        • The domestication of animals in Eurasia is probably the most unique and important factor. Other parts of the world simply did not have the same advantage.

          That makes me wonder what kind of agriculture that supposedly bicameral societies would have had and to what degree they used domesticated animals. They originally were city-states and so didn’t require as large scale of agriculture. They probably were more dependent on human labor for farming, but I don’t know.

          I particularly wonder when horses became common and in which societies. Horses, because of multiple uses including war, would be the most disruptive and destabilizing of domesticated animals. Chariots reached their height in importance (1300 BC) around the time last bicameral societies were being challenged by changing conditions, in the era right before their collapse (1200 BC).

          Chariots would have made militaries more effective over larger areas. That would have made larger empires also possible. Also, the increasing use of plows would have created greater food surplus. Bicameral societies, Jaynes’ speculates, became less effective as they grew beyond the size of city-states as there was too much distance for the authority of voice-hearing to create a coherent social order.

          I should clarify a point. Jaynes actually didn’t think any bicameral societies would be left in the world. He assumed that even the remaining tribal people are the descendants of collapsed post-bicameral societies or else have been impacted by post-bicameral societies. We can’t really look to existing societies for bicameralism, but they still offer hints of how a different kind of society could operate with a different kind of mentality.

          It’s too bad that the Australian Aborigines weren’t somehow studied before full contact by outsiders. They were possibly the most isolated people that existed at one point, having left Africa so early and having become separated. Lynne Kelly’s book got me curious about them. Her research into their mnemonic system shows how a seemingly simple society could maintain vast amounts of complex, detailed knowledge.

          About your last comment, that is what interest me the most. I want to understand what all of this might indicate about present humanity and society. I have great respect for the unconscious mind. We live our lives as if half asleep and groggily dreaming. I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on this issue, specifically in connecting it back to my own speculations about what I call symbolic conflation. We create social realities that then rule over our minds. It’s a strange thing.

        • By the way, Jaynes has a different view than what I presented about war.

          He does see violence between bicameral societies as being pushed to its extreme. I’m not sure what I think about that, but I see his logic. I would still imagine that such wars would have been rare, for the simple reason of how costly they would have been, in terms of both resources and lives. Bicameral societies wouldn’t have been so successful for so long if they were typically violent and destructive.

          Also, most bicameral societies were probably separated by a fair amount of distance. Beyond limited trade, there would have been little contact between them. A war would have involved long distance travel and been time-consuming for societies that couldn’t afford much of that kind of activity. My guess is that war was only typical of late bicameral societies when they had grown too large and become destabilized, along with becoming more imperialistic and so more often finding themselves in conflict.

          He thinks they were precarious and prone to collapse. I’ve thought about that. They were highly dependent on specific conditions, but in the ancient world those conditions remained stable for a long time. During that golden era of bicameralism, those societies weren’t likely all that precarious. But once changes began to happen, they couldn’t easily adapt quickly enough.

          “Let us consider a meeting between two individuals from two
          different bicameral cultures. Let us assume they do not know
          each other’s language and are owned by different gods. The
          manner of such meetings would be dependent upon the kind of
          admonitions, warnings, and importunings with which the individual
          had been reared.

          “In peaceful times, with the god of the city basking in prosperity,
          the human tilling of his fields, the harvesting, storing, and
          sorting out of his produce all going on without hitch or question,
          as in a colony of ants, it could be expected that his divine voice
          would be basically amicable, and that indeed all man’s voicevisions
          would tend to be beautiful and peaceful, exaggerating the
          very harmony this method of social control was evolved to preserve.

          “Thus, if the bicameral theocracies of both individuals meeting
          have been unthreatened for their generation, both their directive
          gods would be composed of friendly voices. The result may have
          been a tentative exchange of gestural greetings and facial expressions
          that might grow to friendship, or even an exchange of gifts.
          For we can be very certain that the relative rarity of each other’s
          possessions (coming from different cultures) would make such
          an exchange mutually wished for.

          “This is probably how trade began. The beginning of such
          exchanges goes back to food sharing in the family group which
          grew into exchanges of goods and produce within the same city.
          Just as the harvested grain of the first agricultural settlements
          had to be doled out by certain god-given rules, so, as labor became
          more specialized, other products, wine, adornments, clothes, and
          the building of houses, all had to have their god-set equivalents to
          each other.

          “Trade between different peoples is simply the extension of
          such exchanging of goods to another kingdom. Texts from 2500
          B.C. found in Sumer speak of such exchanging as far away as the
          Indus Valley. And the recent discovery of a new city site at Tepe
          Yahya, halfway between Sumer and the Indus Valley, at the
          mouth of the Persian Gulf, whose artifacts clearly indicate that it
          was the main source of steatite or soapstone, used for utensils
          extensively in Mesopotamia, establish it as a center of exchange
          between these bicameral kingdoms.2 Small two-inch-square tablets
          have been found with counting marks on them which were
          probably simple exchange rates. All this was during a peaceful
          era in the middle of the third millennium B.C. I shall suggest
          later that extensive exchanging of goods between bicameral theocracies
          may in itself have weakened the bicameral structure that
          made civilization possible.

          “Now let us return to our two individuals from different cultures.
          We have been discussing what occurs in a peaceful world
          with peaceful gods. But what if the opposite were the case? If
          both came from threatened cultures, both would probably hear
          warlike hallucinated voices directing each to kill the other,
          whereupon hostilities would follow. But the same result would
          happen if either came from a threatened culture, putting the
          other into a posture of defense, as either the same god or another
          directed him as well to engage in fighting.

          “There is thus no middle ground in intertheocracy relations.
          Admonitory voices echoing kings, viziers, parents, etc., are unlikely
          to command individuals into acts of compromise. Even
          today, our ideas of nobility are largely residues of bicameral
          authority: it is not noble to whine, it is not noble to plead, it is not
          noble to beg, even though these postures are really the most
          moral of ways to settle differences. And hence the instability of
          the bicameral world, and the fact that during the bicameral era
          boundary relations would, I think, be more likely to end in all-out
          friendship or all-out hostility than anything between these

          “Nor is this the bottom of the matter. The smooth working of a
          bicameral kingdom has to rest on its authoritarian hierarchy.
          And once the priestly or secular hierarchy is disputed or upset,
          its effects would be exaggerated in a way that in a police state
          would not occur. Once cities become a certain size, as we have
          already seen, the bicameral control must be extremely precarious.
          The hierarchy of priests to sort out the various voices and
          give them their recognitions must have become a major preoccupation
          as bicameral cities grew in size. One jar to this balance of
          human and hallucinated authority, and, like a house of cards, the
          whole thing might collapse. As I have mentioned in both previous
          chapters, such theocracies occasionally did indeed suddenly
          collapse without any known external cause.

          “In comparison with conscious nations, then, bicameral nations
          were more susceptible to collapse. The directives of gods are
          limited. If on top of this inherent fragility, something really new
          occurred, such as a forced intermingling of bicameral peoples,
          the gods would be hard pressed to sort anything out in a peaceable

        • Below is what Jaynes says about diffusion in his book. He doesn’t see it as necessary.

          Consciousness, like language and agriculture, appear to be things that humans naturally develop if the right conditions exist and enough time elapses. Humans tend to come to similar solutions to problems and find similar ways of dealing with the world.

          In this sense, consciousness is a tool. I was thinking of this in terms of Daniel Everett who sees language as a tool.

          Here is what he writes:

          “While the matter is in much current debate, the view I am
          adopting is that civilization began independently in various sites in
          the Near East, as described in the previous chapter, then spread
          along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, into Anatolia
          and the valley of the Nile; then into Cyprus, Thessaly, and Crete;
          and then somewhat later by diffusion into the Indus River valley
          and beyond, and into the Ukraine and Central Asia; then, partly
          by diffusion and partly spontaneously, along the Yangtze; then
          independently in Mesoamerica; and again, partly by diffusion and
          partly independently, in the Andean highlands. In each of these
          areas, there was a succession of kingdoms all with similar characteristics
          that, somewhat prematurely, I shall call bicameral.
          While there were certainly other bicameral kingdoms in the
          history of the world, perhaps along the margins of the Bay of
          Bengal or the Malay peninsular, in Europe, certainly in central
          Africa by diffusion from Egypt, and possibly among the North
          American Indians during the so-called Mississippi Period, too little
          has been recovered of these civilizations to be of assistance in
          checking out the main hypothesis. ”

          And a little later on in the text:

          “The Inca himself was the god-king, a pattern so similar to Egypt’s that
          less conservative historians of American antiquity have felt that
          there must have been some diffusion. But I suggest that given
          man, language, and cities organized on a bicameral basis, there
          are only certain fixed patterns into which history can fit.”

        • For my interests, the details about ancient societies are less relevant. They are often harder to understand and put into context. The evidence is so limited that many interpretations are possible.

          My focus has always been on what it says about the human mind and consciousness, about culture and language, etc. That is the red meat I can bite into, since we can look to what modern science shows us, from neurocognitive studies to anthropological observations.

          Still, I’m endlessly fascinated by ancient societies. The evidence, however limited, can be so tantalizing. If nothing else, it points to how little we know.

          • The part about two bicameral individuals from different societies meeting reminds me of something I read once about early North America. I don’t know whether the Native American tribes would have still been Bicameral at all by then (if they ever were), but when white settlement was first making its way through the area of the Great Lakes (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, etc), apparently the Native Tribes had been used to practicing a very different kind of “War” among themselves. They did things like “counting coup” and other versions of what we would almost call games. Assuming what I read was correct, they almost never actually killed anybody, because there was almost an unwritten understanding that whatever they were fighting over wasn’t actually worth losing any of your people. Especially when you consider how low their numbers tended to be, so losing just a handful of workers during a “War” could be devastating to your tribe, even if you did end up winning the conflict. Again, I have no idea if it would still be some Bicameral Influence, that late in History, or just a widespread social norm. Either way, it makes sense that this would give a huge advantage to the whites, since they were actually used to killing people to get their way.

            One thing that I wonder about, in terms of Jaynes’ Bicameral Societies… do you think being in a Bicameral society precludes the possibility for being individually selfish or corrupt? Is it possible to take advantage of others and “game the system” even without consciousness? The question reminds me of some of the stories in Genesis of the Hebrew Patriarchs or their peers essentially conning people, whether by pretending your wife is your sister, or offering your daughter in exchange for seven years of labor, only to pull a bait and switch and instead offer the OTHER daughter at the end of the seven years, knowing the guy will stay another seven years to get the bride he really wanted.

            It makes me wonder whether the powerful elite in a Bicameral Theocracy may have ever knowingly used their influence to manipulate the supposed voice of the god for selfish purposes. I was always interested in the notion of a god-king, and wondering whether that individual running the society sincerely believed he was divine, or if he was just secretly using that story as an ancient propaganda to keep his people in line. Now that I’m thinking about the idea of Bicameralism, it seems just as possible, maybe more so, that the Pharaohs heard the same external voices their people did, and the voices kept the Dynasties in charge without necessarily any selfishness on their part. But the alternative is also still compelling to me, that the kings knew it was a sham, and even taught their heirs to continue the ruse, and how best to go about it.

          • I don’t know what it would be like. It just seems that, if bicameral societies actually did exist, their warfare would look entirely different than anything seen in the modern Western world. It’s hard to even imagine what it would have been like. Most accounts of war from the ancient world are from the period supposedly following the collapse of bicameral societies. The few accounts from the hypothetical bicameral period don’t tend to have much detail.

            Looking at tribal people in recent centuries is useful in one way. Those examples show us the variety of human potential, in terms of culture and social behavior. When we can find what to us appears as unusual examples within modern accounts, it stands to reason that examples from the ancient world would be even stranger still. We have almost no basis to imagine what the world was like in the earliest civilizations. But the one thing is clear is that those societies were not like our society.

            According to Jaynes, early bicameral societies were bicameral in every area and at every level of the social order. He speculates that the earliest hints of non-bicameralism might have come from traders dealing with foreign societies. But I suspect that trade only became increasingly common in the later bicameral societies that were less stable and, in many ways, less bicameral. That kind of social system ruled by voice-hearing hallucinations was weakening long before full collapse happened.

            It is highly plausible that certain parts of society would have lost bicameralism or severely lessened in its influence long before other parts of society. In some cases, the last rulers of bicameral societies might not have been bicameral themselves. But that would have been fairly late in the game.

            If you enjoy fiction, you could read the story “Bluff”. It’s written by Harry Turtledove and based on Jayne’s bicameral theory. The story is about what might happen when an individual gained consciousness in a bicameral society. I won’t spoil it for you, in case you do want to read it.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s