Jim Good'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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's review
Dec 17, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: history, non-fiction, religion, science, sociology

Few books are more ambitious in scope than this. The thesis is interesting enough, but becomes mind blowing when taken in the context of the time scale Jaynes proposes. In summary his thesis is:

 Consciousness is an outgrowth of language and the structure of the human mind (being bicameral)
 The bicameral mind is an evolutionary structure facilitating hallucinogenic voices that became early man’s gods, and allowed for the building of relatively large communities;
 Written history shows that in the first millennium BC that consciousness was born as the communities became too large to be maintained through the bicameral mind and the gods began to “die”;
 Remnants of the bicameral mind are evident today in hypnotism, schizophrenia, and religion

The book starts by asking the seemingly simple question of what is consciousness and defines it as the ability to think about an conceptual “I” with related memories and an ability to think forward into a more abstract future. Jaynes then takes the definition so offered and notes that language is a necessary tool for the establishment of an inner monologue. An interesting concept and one I have thought about before. How would the brain function without language in which to organize an inner monologue? An interesting concept that I would have liked to hear more on, but Jaynes asks that the reader just accept that the condition is unconscious man living in the moment and guided by right brain hallucinogenic voices that give directions as from the gods.

The most amazing assertion is that the “breakdown” into consciousness occurred after the invention of writing and is therefore evident. He uses the Iliad to illustrate the point. While I will tackle the Iliad again sometime in the future and certainly will do so with a different ear, I won’t be able to undertake the learning of early Greek conjugation to counter his arguments. In this I would be interested in reading further evidence outside the Greek culture as well as linguists take on Jaynes’s interpretations.

The book does everything I’d ask of a book. It asks fundamental questions about the nature of man, challenges my base assumptions and existing paradigms of thought, and provides well reasoned (if not entirely provable) theories that tie together the strings of evidence. The only missing piece is a thorough discussion of what the future holds. Limited to eight paragraphs at the end of the book it is unsatisfying, but that may because Jaynes thought he would write more at a later time.
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