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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, (original 1976; edition 1976)

by Julian Jaynes

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Member:Smethers
Title:The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,
Authors:Julian Jaynes
Info:Houghton Mifflin (1976), Paperback
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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (1976)

  1. 30
    Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited by Marcel Kuijsten (mkuijsten)
  2. 00
    Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher (chmod007)
    chmod007: The first few chapters of Through The Language Glass talk about color as a cultural construct, drawing upon 19th century inquiries into the works of Homer and his seeming indifference to the finer hues of the spectrum. The beginning of TOOCITBOTBM starts with a similar exploration of ancient conceptions (or lack thereof) of consciousness, supported by linguistic evidence.… (more)
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According to the author, language is a prerequisite of consciousness, and civilization is possible without consciousness. In fact, the author says that earlier than about 3000 years ago, the ancient civilizations of the world (e.g. Egypt, Sumeria, Greece and others) were populated with pre-consciousness people.

Prior to about 1000 BC, the human mind was “bicameral” - a term the author coined to describe pre-conscious humans. The term “bicameral” refers to a particular way in which the brain operates without consciousness. Jaynes describes the “bicameral” mind this way:
“Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then 'told' to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or 'god', or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not 'see' what to do by himself.” (p. 75)

The book begins by reviewing various theories of consciousness. The author finds all of these to be inadequate, and then proposes to try to understand consciousness by looking at what it is not. Chapter 1 provides a very interesting analysis of many ordinary human mental activities which do not involve consciousness, and in which sometimes, consciousness would be an impediment.

The “breakdown”, mentioned in the title, is a consequence of the difficulty for the bicameral mind, relative to the conscious mind, to adapt to quickly changing environmental conditions. The author believed that initially the bicameral mind made civilization possible (p. 149), where he defines civilization as,
“Civilization is the art of living in a town of such size that everyone does not know everyone else.” (p. 149)
However, bicameral civilizations were strongly hierarchical in structure (ch. 1). These civilizations would undergo frequent collapse when environmental conditions changed quickly, and then the society would have to rebuild itself. The author believes that around 1000 BC, social changes occurred so quickly, that bicameral mind yielded to conscious mind which is better able to adapt to frequent or larger changes.

A large portion of the book is devoted to demonstrating the transition from bicameral civilization to conscious civilization using evidence found in ancient texts of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations of 2500 to 4000 years ago. In particular, the author focuses on the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Other ancient texts are also analyzed as well as customs, such as the Greek oracles.

This is clearly a very original work, whether correct or not, and there are many ideas suggested through out (such as the significance of metaphors to consciousness). A weakness of the original 1977 edition was the lack of a final summary chapter tying the many ideas together. This was corrected to some extent in the 1990 edition in which an Afterword is added. In this Afterword, the author lists and summarizes 4 main hypotheses of the book:
1. that Consciousness is based on language,
2. that before consciousness developed, the human mind functioned in a way that the author calls “the bicameral mind”,
3. that Consciousness originated no earlier than about 1000 BC,
4. that the double brain is significant in understanding how the mind functions.
I had difficulty following the author's explanation of last hypothesis. I would have guessed that the bicameral mind was somehow related to the two hemispheres of the brain. However, Jaynes writes: “The two hemispheres of the brain are not the bicameral mind but its present neurological model.”
Following this summary of the original book, the author seems to expand on the book with more thoughts on the implications of consciousness ( “The Cognitive Explosion”, “The Self”, “From Affect to Emotion”, “From Fear to Anxiety”, “From Shame to Guilt”, “From Mating to Sex”).

This book is incredibly interesting, albeit difficult to fully understand for us non-experts in both psychology and ancient Middle Eastern literature and civilization. And the author conceded that his ideas are only hypotheses that he is not yet able to prove. But for anyone interesting in the mystery of consciousness, it is highly recommended.

Aside:
With respect to Jaynes' claim that language is a prerequisite of consciousness, a similar idea is suggested in the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. Since the Yoga Sutra is written in Sanskrit, it must be translated into English. Numerous translators have provided slightly different results. The sutras of interest are 1.6 and 1.9. Yoga Sutra 1.6 identifies five types of mental activity. One of them is, “conceptualization” (Hartranft) or “imagination” (Shearer and Desikachar). This type of mental activity is then defined in Sutra 1.9 as “based on linguistic knowledge, not contact with real things” (Hartranft), “thought based by an image conjured by words ...” (Shearer), and “... comprehension of an object based only on words and expressions ...” (Desikachar). ( )
1 vote dougb56586 | Jun 20, 2017 |
Flawed, unfalsifiable, scary. Probably some of this is right, and that's a big deal. ( )
  ZoneSeek | Mar 3, 2017 |
It's stunt theory, pure and simple. A fairly hefty catalogue could be made of Jaynes' reach exceeding his grasp, but you don't go to an Evel Knievel show and complain about reckless driving - you go to gawp at an act of staggering audaciousness. Sure, maybe in this case Jaynes missed the landing ramp and ended up crumpled in a heap, but that doesn't mean everybody didn't have a damn good time. ( )
2 vote mattresslessness | Feb 6, 2014 |
A compelling thesis that left me intrigued if not overwhelmingly convinced. Jaynes certainly provides for an interesting reading of the Iliad. And it definitely makes me want to go back and peruse the Bible, an urge I can't say I've had that often in my life.

One of my favorite things about the book was Jaynes' writing style -- eminently approachable and humble, as if he was freely admitting that he doesn't have that good of a case. I can appreciate that. Of course, when he then proceeded to rely on the evidence he had just discarded as weak, the book got a little difficult to swallow.

I think the most convincing part of his entire theory for me is about the schizophrenics. There really is no good theory for why they behave the way they do, and positing a flexible genetic spectrum where some people (wacked-out schizos) are 100% bicameral and others are 0% provides as good of an explanation as any. I personally like to think that people we label as "crazy" might actually have something interesting to teach or tell us. ( )
  blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
Jaynes argues that consciousness, and self consciousness, are recent cultural developments. His argument has been comprehensively critiqued, debunked and dismissed. It remains, however, a marvellously stimulating book, filled with sharp insights, which will survive many of the well founded, and tedious, objections of his critics. Take and enjoy it as a stimulant to the imagination and as an enjoyable tour of Homeric and other ancient literature. ( )
2 vote LeaderElliott | Sep 26, 2012 |
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O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!
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Men have been conscious of the problem of consciousness almost since consciousness began.
And the feeling of a great uninterrupted stream of rich inner experiences, now slowly gliding through dreamy moods, now tumbling in excited torrents down gorges of precipitous insight, or surging evenly through our nobler days, is what it is on this page, a metaphor for how subjective consciousness seems to subjective consciousness.
For if we ever achieve a language that has the power of expressing everything, then metaphor will no longer be possible. I would not say, in that case, my love is like a red, red rose, for love would have exploded into terms for its thousands of nuances, and applying the correct term would leave the rose metaphorically dead.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618057072, Paperback)

At the heart of this classic, seminal book is Julian Jaynes's still-controversial thesis that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but instead is a learned process that came about only three thousand years ago and is still developing. The implications of this revolutionary scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history and culture, our religion -- and indeed our future.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:14 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

At the heart of this classic, seminal book is Julian Jaynes's still-controversial thesis that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but instead is a learned process that came about only three thousand years ago and is still developing. The implications of this revolutionary scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history and culture, our religion -- and indeed our future. "When Julian Jaynes . . . speculates that until late in the twentieth millennium b.c. men had no consciousness but were automatically obeying the voices of the gods, we are astounded but compelled to follow this remarkable thesis." -- John Updike The New Yorker… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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