Mar 07

Top 5 Science Books You May Not Have Read – #4 Julian Jaynes ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’

Proven By Science13 comments • 2,613 views

Crazy title, crazy book. And for a while Jaynes was painted as a crackpot too — he had committed the sin of publishing his theory as this popular and accessible book instead of in the technical language of a peer-reviewed journal. The book received a sort of Von-Daniken vibe, but it gradually became a bit of a cult best seller and was widely discussed in the many relevant academic communities.

There are not many science books like this, which is perhaps why it took on cult status. Most science books take a close look into a narrow niche of science – expanding what can be found outwards, showing you why it matters. TOOCITBOTCM, as everyone is calling it, is quite the reverse. The theory at the book’s core provides a new perspective and a broad panorama showing connections between archaeology, literature, neurology, psychology, philosophy and all the sights inbetween. The occasionally florid prose clues the reader to the author’s eclectic knowledge and the wide roaming ideas that pack out this book.

Quickly then… Jaynes theory is that consciousness is not an innate feature of the brain – but it is a trick that we learned. The trick is now learned by children in modern societies, but was only hit upon in historically recently times – specifically some time around 1000BC. Prior to this, human beings were already language using, social creatures, but not self-aware or able to deliberate. Think “big ants”. More than big ants though cos we had built up an executive bit of the brain to keep us socially controlled and able to take on prolonged tasks – building towns, temples and so on. It was a built in king/queen, always with us, directing us.

Here we have the eponymous “bi-cameral” nature of the brain/mind: the “executive module” situated in the right brain, a mirror to the language-understanding regions found in the left brain. When the exec communicates, across the tiny connection between the hemispheres, this manifests as an auditory command. The word of the gods.

That popping sound is your own mind being blown.

Around 1000BC, goes the theory, specific disasters and the stress brought on by more complex decisions, decisions that the exec was not able to handle, precipitated a breakdown in this system. Consciousness – an ability to see ourselves in a mental space, to ‘narratise’ events – was the end result. A lot of the book is Jaynes looking at evidence for this crisis and the change in mentality caused by the breakdown. He surveys a fabulous range of evidence: the language in the Iliad, the preponderance and later destruction of idols, temple building, a general pining for lost gods, historical descriptions of oracles and so on.

He also looks at what you might call the archaeology of the mind – residues of when the bicameral system was dominant. Things like auditory hallucinations, schizophrenia, the neurological association between music/rhythm and rapture.

It’s a throughly entertaining and persuasive book. It’s not 100% persuasive, but the dizzy energy keeps you going so that you don’t notice that his just so stories are like those archaeological reconstructions that extrapolate from the toe of a statue to improbable details of everyday life. The ‘error bars of history’ are massive, and the evidence supports any number of ‘lines of best fit’, but this is an attractive line indeed.

Here’s a pdf of a deeper outline i found on Jaynes official site.


  1. 1
    Tom on 21 Mar 2007 #

    How does Jaynes explain the two most successful world religions beginning well after this trick was learned?

  2. 2
    Alan on 21 Mar 2007 #

    In a sense there was no religion before the breakdown because we were always in touch with our gods. Religion, roughly speaking, is a response to the loss of contact with this authority. Or do you mean why was it was well after?

  3. 3
    Tom on 21 Mar 2007 #

    No – and that explaination works nicely, thanks!

  4. 4
    Pete Baran on 23 Mar 2007 #

    I have just bought this on this recomendation. I got the last cheap one!

  5. 5
    DV on 23 Mar 2007 #

    a guy collared me at a party and went on about this book once. It sounds interesting, but I’m not entirely convinced. Or at least I find the concept of “consciousness” problematic. I’m not sure that people are really conscious, even if they think they are. Or maybe not all people are conscious all the time. How would you tell if someone was conscious or not, and what difference would it make to their behaviour?

    Conversely, it might be that all living things are conscious in at least some sense.

    I am also having problems with this bicameral mind thing and what it amounts to in practice, but maybe should give the book a go first.

  6. 6
    Alan on 24 Mar 2007 #

    ‘What consciousness is’ is so thorny that the ‘lets define our terms’ part of this book only goes into what consciousness is not. Which is the right approach for this book.

    If you want to google, the idea of people who are otherwise identical to ourselves, in what they say, how they behave, but who are not conscious is often referred to as the ‘zombie problem’. (haha, though you can ignore the hits there that refer to computer ‘zombie processes’!)

  7. 7
    DV on 24 Mar 2007 #

    I have another problem with this book. Basically he is saying that people were not conscious before c. 1000BC and were thereafter following a crisis of some sort. Now, was this a crisis that happened everywhere in the world, affecting all people in the same way? This is somewhat unlikely. Maybe it was a crisis that happened in a localised area, making the people there conscious, and this consciousness spread virally to the other peoples they interacted with (like that Tharg’s future shock about the alien life form that is an idea). This is also problematic. I’m open to correction on this, but by 1000 BC people were very spread around the world, and there would have been substantial islands of people who had little or no interaction with people outside their area. So, did they remain unconscious until whitey showed up in the age of exploration? It seems a bit unlikely.

  8. 8
    DV on 24 Mar 2007 #

    aha, they have this book in the Spy School library – I will go and borrow it now.

  9. 9
    Alan on 24 Mar 2007 #

    He does specifically suggest that it arose in the near/middle east and spread. I have to agree with you though – and I think there are many things wrong/implausuble in his specifics, but it’s still a fascinating idea given the evidence he cites in support.

    Like most of the bits of his theory though, the rest can still stand even if the breakdown is not precipitated by the disasters he suggests. The journey from bicameral to conscious could be a progression driven by other processes – to pick another ‘just so’ story that’s out there, perhaps increased socialisation and the selective advantage of being able to plan and deceive people leads to more sophisticated language which leads to the reorganisation needed.

  10. 10
    DV on 26 Mar 2007 #

    Skimming the book suggests that it is COMPLETE GENIUS even if the theory is also raving madness. I also find that thinking about its subject too much makes me start hearing voices… AM I TURNING BICAMERAL?

  11. 11
    David on 10 Apr 2007 #

    That last comment sounds like it was taken from Richard Dawkins’s comments on Jaynes in his latest book “The God Delusion.”

    I just read a follow up book to Jaynes’s “Origin” that was quite good: “Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisted,” by Marcel Kuijsten.

  12. 12
    behnam on 26 Oct 2007 #

    The theory is complete .

    That was interesting while he explained
    right Wernicke’s function.I’m a neurosurgery resident and it really happens at our patients.

    Old literature provides great documents on neurologic functions of human and he shows them.

    Animals like Gibbons remind me of “2001 ODYSSE” by Cubrick stanley and also articles of Bertrand Russel.He explains ancient time and draw a picture of Pleistocene period.My quetions were answered by Jaynes’ theory.

  13. 13
    Alan on 26 Oct 2007 #

    i really did, and still do, mean to get to #3. i started to overthink the “you may not have read” bit of the series title.

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page