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