Blog Archives

Is the unconscious the door through which the divine speaks?

Fury_of_Achilles_1737_by_Charles-Antoine_Coypel

From an engaging discussion of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory by writer and philosophy commentator Jules Evans, at his website Philosophy for Life:

I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).

Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.

What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).

To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.

Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.

Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?

MORE: “Gods, Voice-Hearing, and the Bicameral Mind

Image: “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737, by Charles-Antoine Coypel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recommended Reading 36

This week: How entire U.S. towns now rely on food stamps. The regrets of the Iraqi “sledgehammer man,” whose image became famous in Western media when Saddam’s statue fell. The Obama administration’s epic (and hypocritical) focus on secrecy. The demise of Google Reader and what it portends for Net-i-fied life and culture. The sinister rise of an all-pervasive — and unblinkingly embraced — Orwellian Big Brotherism in the age of Big Data, with a focus on Facebook’s “Like” button, Google Glass, and Google’s vision of “a future of frictionless, continuous shopping.” A surge of ghost sightings and spiritual troubles among survivors of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. The rise of the “Little Free Libraries” movement in America and abroad. Read the rest of this entry

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