July 20, 2007


While pulling The Journey of Man off the shelf (I can never never remember the title), I noticed the thick whit spine of Julian Jaynes' work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I read it as an undergraduate in college, and reread it last year.

Then as now (well, as last year anway) I came away thinking that Jaynes' scholarship at times can be rather shoddy. He intereprets wall drawings or temple architecture of cultures that have left hardly any written records (certainly not enough to make sweeping pronouncements on the interpretation of ideofacts) and insists they prove his theory, which is that the early humans were not conscious in the way that we're conscious. Rather, voices from the right side of the brain guided the left side of the brain. Schizophrenia may represent nothing more than a vestigial human mental pattern. There's a pretty well done summary of his theory at Wikipedia--read it if you want to know more about it (and see here too for more).

Auditory hallucinations.jpg

To give an idea of Jaynes' method, one need look no farther than the photo above or the drawing (much clearer) below of the same rock carving from Yazilikaya, Turkey, in the 13th Century BC. It depicts the penultimate Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (the smaller figure) with the god Sharruma; Jaynes interprets this as an emblem of the bicameral mind rather than a political symbol suggesting that god and king stand together. I am not saying my interpretation is more likely correct than Jaynes's, but rather that it is very difficult to reconstruct the message that average Hittites derived from their art. I'm not saying that Jaynes is a kind of Eric von Däniken, by any means -- there is far more intellectual rigor -- but nonetheless, I'm not sure that either literature or art (both of which always have their conventions) are up to the task of proving that our ancestral mental apparatus involved right brain to left brain transmissions, until modern consciousness evolved (Jaynes sees it coming to age as a result of a number of calamities around 1100 or 1200 B.C. -- bicameral societies could only sustain so much complexity and frequently broke down; the crises--climactic, human induced, etc.--of the late 2nd millenium B.C. threw different populaitons together, who had to develop more sophisticated means of organizing themselves--thus introspection, self-awareness and the origins of true consciousness...).

bicameral emblem.gif

This latter bit is what interests me. Homo Sapiens have been around for something like 130,000 years (perhaps longer, perhaps shorter). Yet we only find agriculture around 8,000 years bp (this is a generous date), writing around 3000 BC, metallurgy around the same time -- no disrespect intended (I can barely change the oil in my lawn mower), but it's not like our ancestors went from incandescent bulbs to iPhones in a century and change.

Jaynes is groping toward an explanation of that, and while I remain unpersuaded by his arguments, I am not entirely unconvinced by them. The notion, though, that we continue to evolve -- that our consciousness or the wiring of our brain becomes increasingly sophisticated -- is a very optimistic notion.

Posted by Ideofact at July 20, 2007 12:44 AM

I enjoyed your discussion. By the way have you read the new book on Jaynes's theory? It's a collection called "Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited."

Posted by: Jim at September 18, 2007 05:51 PM