Julian Jaynes and the dawn of consciousness
Published recently at n+1, a wonderful and compact introduction to the life and thought of Julian Jaynes:
Jaynes published only one book, in 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which tells the story of how mankind learned to think. Critics described it as a bizarre and reckless masterpiece — the American Journal of Psychiatry called Jaynes “as startling as Freud in the Interpretation of Dreams.” Drawing on evidence from neurology, archaeology, art history, theology, and Greek poetry, Jaynes captured the experience of modern consciousness—“a whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can” — as sensitively and tragically as any great novelist.
. . . . Critics have interpreted the meddling presence of the god [in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey] as poetic devices, but Jaynes accused translators of imputing a modern mentality to people with subjectivities foreign to us. “The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination,’” he wrote. “They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere.” Jaynes drew on research with patients with severed corpora callossa, the band of fibers that separates the two hemispheres of the brain, which showed that the two chambers can function independently, without conscious awareness of information processed in the other half. Jaynes proposed that the Trojan War was fought by men with a kind of split brain, a “bicameral mind.” In moments of stress, the left hemisphere, “slave-like,” perceived hallucinated voices in the right hemisphere — the god hemisphere — as direct commands.
. . . . Jaynes didn’t live to see the computer become the dominant metaphor for consciousness, but he was one of the first to recognize that the brain was capable of a radical kind of plasticity. “There is no such thing as a complete consciousness,” he writes. “All about us lie the remnants of our recent bicameral past.” He attributes one of the most mysterious mental phenomena — the sense that ideas come to us unbidden, from some external location — to the fact that our brains were once inhabited by gods. Artists in particular tend to describe their work in bicameral terms. They seem to be bragging when they describe writing as a form of listening: they hear a voice, almost audible, and then take dictation. It happens in moments of inspiration, late at night, when the writer is all alone.
. . . . In 1988, when Life asked Jaynes and several other thinkers to comment on the meaning of life, he responded that he had no answer. “Words have meaning, not life or persons or the universe itself,” he said. “Our search for certainty rests in our attempts at understanding the history of all individual selves and all civilizations. Beyond that, there is only awe.”
More: “There Is Only Awe“