Julian Jaynes - “The Origin Of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”

A fascinating and unexpected perspective on what makes us human. We are far less conscious than we think. I recommend you read it yourself as my summary below is rather hastily written.

Like a flashlight experiencing everything to be lit all the time, we can’t experience periods of being turned off or understand the greater environment which is dark. Most human functions, including cognitive ones, are automatic and are not conscious. Consciousness hinders effectiveness of those “muscle memory” events.

Language is formed of metaphors which are a sensory organ, not a communication device. Consciousness works by creating analogs to already known things. The axioms are behavioral and bodily.

Transilience from bicamerality to consciousness:

  1. Weakening of the auditory by the advent of writing.
  2. Inherent fragility of hallucinatory control.
  3. Bad adaptation of gods in times of upheaval and chaos.
  4. Positing of internal cause in observation of difference in others
  5. Acquisition of narratization from epics.
  6. Survival value of deceat.
  7. Natural selection.

Metaphors: metafriends, metafires, parafriends, parafires.

Historically, without language, humans were animals with automatic instinctive responses. The development of language as a survival tactic caused changes in the brain where the synthetic right hemisphere started directing the analytic and instinctive left hemisphere via inner voice, a “god”. This voice was an auditory hallucination, sometimes even enforced with a visual component. Which voice a given person heard depends on the local societal structure. Could be the father, could be a king. This concept is called the bicameral (two-chambered) mind. The reason this is considered unconscious is that there is a lack of meta-reflection: in times of stress and novel situations, the right hemisphere processes information and memories to order the left hemisphere to act. The left hemisphere treats this stimulus as objective truth, just as it is able to perform other simpler automatic actions without second-guessing. Examples of automatic action in contemporary mind: playing the piano, driving the car.

This explains human history very well, for example how kings became divine. Their subjects heard the voice of the king as their god, including after the death of the king. So the next king felt compelled to build a house for the dead king and feed him. This is the origin of churches, altars and sacrifices.

In time the bicameral mind caused civilization to flourish with no consciousness. The Hammurabi code of law, the Illiad and oldest parts of the Bible demonstrate this well.

When different civilizations collided, the bicameral mind encountered people who do not hear the same god, who have different goals and who speak a different language. This caused the brain to grow subjective consciousness as a new survival tactic. Treachery allows one to behave differently from his thoughts in name of a more long-term goal.

In time the bicameral voice grew weaker which gave rise to methods of awakening it, from stressors, through drugs, awesome nature, to idols and paintings that spoke. This is the burning bush of Moses and the golden calf. Incompatible voices ordered others to be killed which explains the “us vs. them” mentality of the jealous old testament god and others.

Later the number of people able to hear voices fell and those were prophets. The nature of externally induced voices became less clear to humanity so the notion of “possessions”, oracles (or seance mediums), and animated statues/paintings appeared.

Remnants or bicamerality appear in schizophrenics.