About three thousand years ago the divine voices shut up.
Until then, says Julian Jaynes, humans habitually heard messages from the gods. However, those communications merely were being transmitted from one side of the brain to the other and were mistakenly construed as coming from an outside source.
Religion as we know it arose as a reaction to the silence. After the breakdown of the bicameral mind, people became consciously aware of the interior mental space that previously was the province of the gods. A replacement was needed. Jaynes says:
This breakdown resulted in many practices we would now call religious which were efforts to return to the lost voices of the gods, e.g., prayer, religious worship, and particularly the many types of divination I have described, which are new ways of making decisions by supposedly returning to the directions of gods by simple analogy.Jaynes’ book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” isn’t the easiest reading—as you can surmise from the wonderfully elusive title. My dentist is a big fan of the book. He talked me into buying it during a one-sided dental chair conversation in which my end of the dialogue was necessarily guttural.
I’d started reading Origin but had given it up as being too mystifying for even my mystiferious mind until my previous post about our inner ventriloquists impelled me to pull it from the bookshelf again.
Now I was more motivated to dig into it, as I thought it might shed some light on the voices that I hear in my own head. Which, I know, come from me. But it didn’t seem to be much of a stretch to imagine what it would be like to sense that the thoughts that I speak to myself were coming from an external source.
This, Jaynes argues semi-convincingly, still occurs with schizophrenics. And also with normal people from time to time. I remember being awakened from a nap by a “Brian!” that sure sounded like it came from someone standing by the bed. Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist who died in 1997, gives many other examples of what he calls vestiges of the bicameral mind in the modern world.
Could be. His theory is controversial. It continues to be promulgated through the Julian Jaynes Society. They have links to many articles related to the theory by Jaynes and others (which only are available to society members, however).
What I like most about the book is how it reminds us that what we’re aware of is a small fraction of our mental landscape. (When Jaynes speaks of “consciousness” he usually seems to be referring to what I’d call “self-awareness.”)
Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it.
The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.
Absolutely. My afternoon started with two frustrating phone calls to IBM/Lenovo tech support. The new ThinkPad that I’d gotten to replace my wife’s out-of-date Emachines laptop wouldn’t display the correct resolution (1280 X 800) no matter what I did.
During my first all-too-conscious call I was instructed step by step in how to download and install proper video card and BIOS software that, for some inexplicable reason, was missing from the ThinkPad. Holding the phone in one hand, typing with one finger of the other, doing my best to not screw up the computer more than it was already—I was uncomfortably self-aware.
After engaging in additional recommended unsuccessful efforts to get the screen to look like it should, via a follow-up call I succeeded in getting IBM to send a technician out tomorrow morning to either fix the damn computer or give me a new one (my purchase of an extended service contract now looks like a wise decision).
I then was eager to embrace an alternative aspect of reality.
Cleaning the gutters. We’ve had a dry Oregon fall but several inches of rain are forecast over the coming week. I strapped on my Stihl backpack blower, clambered up a ladder, and proceeded to blow out half a year’s worth of oak leaves, pine needles, and other debris.
This involved getting as close as I could to the edge of the roof and directing the tip of the blower tube along the open gutter. It was fun. A lot more fun, at least, than talking to tech support. Even when I got to the two-story parts of our house.
Charlie, the voice that ventriloquismistically speaks inside my head much of the time, was pleasingly silent. My attention was focused on not falling off the roof and getting the gutters squeaky clean. Charlie was nowhere to be found. Nor, in a sense, was I.
I was simply doing what I was doing, not thinking “this is what I need to do” while I was doing it. That would have been duplicative. And distracting. Occasionally I caught myself ruminating about something or other. Like, how later I might write on this blog about not ruminating while cleaning the gutters.
Oops! That’s what I was just doing, I’d say to myself. Charlie was down, but not out.
Jaynes reminds us that those voices we hear inside our heads—who are us—aren’t necessary much (or most) of the time. They’re doppelgangers, extraneous hangers on. Just as the religious voices outside of our heads are. Which, if Jaynes’ theory holds water, are the same as the inner voices.
Here’s how Jaynes describes the condition of the ancients prior to the breakdown of the bicameral mind:
In driving a car, I am not sitting like a back-seat driver directing myself, but rather find myself committed and engaged with little consciousness. In fact my consciousness will usually be involved in something else, in a conversation with you if you happen to be my passenger, or in thinking about the origin of consciousness perhaps.
My hand, foot, and head behavior, however, are almost in a different world. In touching something, I am touched; in turning my head, the world turns to me; in seeing, I am related to a world I immediately obey in the sense of driving on the road and not on the sidewalk.
And I am not conscious of any of this. And certainly not logical about it. I am caught up, unconsciously enthralled, if you will, in a total interacting reciprocity of stimulation that may be constantly threatening or comforting, appealing or repelling, responding to the changes in traffic and particular aspects of it with trepidation or confidence, trust or distrust, while my consciousness is still off on other topics.
Now simply subtract that consciousness and you have what a bicameral man would be like. The world would happen to him and his action would be an inextricable part of that happening with no consciousness whatever.
And now let some brand-new situation occur, an accident up ahead, a blocked road, a flat tire, a stalled engine, and behold, our bicameral man would not do what you or I would do, that is, quickly and efficiently swivel our consciousness over to the matter and narratize out what to do.
He would have to wait for his bicameral voice which with the stored-up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him nonconsciously what to do.
Interesting. The bicameral man sounds a lot like Lao Tzu’s Taoist sage.
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done.