Kingpin543's Reviews > The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral... by Julian Jaynes
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Apr 03, 12

Read in April, 2012

This is an outstanding work! The author is or was a professor of psychology, and while his premise fits within that subject it also threatens to force the re-writing of all our texts on ancient history and anthropology as well.

Basically he argues that humans have had truly conscious minds only since about 1000 BCE, and that before that time we were dominated by voices coming from the right side of our brains -- voices we interpreted as coming from gods or God. In short that all humans were more or less schizophrenic. He doesn't use Freud's term, but I take it that these voices in our head were somewhat like Freud's concept of the superego -- a conscience that made decisions for us whenever we came under the stress of making a decision outside of our day-to-day habits.

First you must understand that he defines "consciousness" more narrowly than some do, as the capacity to imagine alternatives, to reminisce (that is, intentionally call up memories), and to self-criticize.

He thinks that human consciousness is a product of language, but that it did not reach its current form with the beginning of language. As evidence he examines some of the oldest writings still extant, namely the Iliad and some of the early Hebrew prophets, to show how they indicate an entirely different kind of mind -- what he calls a bicameral mind, one in which the left brain, which controls the speaking voice and the dominant hand, occasionally received orders/commands from the right brain, which is better able to handle complex problems.

As this arrangement broke down -- he thinks due to natural disasters and/or overpopulation -- increasingly conscious humans sought to re-establish contact with the lost "gods" by turning to a few people who could still hear the voices in their heads, often by use of hallucinogenics of some kind -- the prophets, sybils, priest and oracles. But eventually even these people lost contact, leaving us with various established religions as relics of the old order and a longing for certainty and decisiveness in an uncertain world.

Along the way he explores the relationship of poets to the Muses, the nature of hypnotism, and the modern syndrome called Schizophrenia.

This book was first published in 1976 and I first read it in 1985, but I have just finished a newer edition which includes an Afterword written in 1990. I may have to read it several more times to fully understand all that it has to tell us. I have barely scratched the surface in this review.

The author's style is very readable, and every page (469 of them, not counting the index, etc.) is filled with highly interesting insights and ideas.


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