In 1976 Julian Jaynes (from hereon JJ) published a book that caused a short-lived sensation, it made an impressive round through academic circles to finally disappear to a somewhat lonely place with a small crowd of stound admirers (The JJ Society). The book carried the fantastic title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Now I know this is not the kind of title that makes everyone exclaim “Aah…, my home turf!” To soften the impact let me quote some incentive from the back cover; “When JJ… speculates that until late in the second millennium B.C. men had no consciousness but were automatically obeying the voices of gods, we are astounded but compelled to follow this remarkable thesis through all the corroborative evidence…” – John Updike in The New Yorker. Right, now I hope you digested the first part of the title; The origin of Consciousness. Though as the comment in The New Yorker makes clear JJ has a special take on consciousness because he permissively let his pre-conscious men be aware of voices. He situates his origin at the moment when Ulysses stops hearing the whispers of his dear Goddess Athena and he finds himself at the mercy of his own intellectual resources. And that brings us to the second part of the title; The bicameral mind. In the seventies, the perspective on brain functioning was dominated by the dichotomous view of the left and right brain hemispheres and the strict anatomical localization of functions. With this neuroanatomical support, JJ builds his thesis around the idea of hallucination of voices, originating in the right hemisphere were heard and obeyed by the left hemisphere, hence the bicameral mind. The book is a pleasure to read and still thought-provoking when we leave the somewhat old-fashioned brain physiology aside. The largest part of the book is an impressive collection of events surrounding the phenomenon of hearing voices. The general consensus in the book is that the breakdown consists of the realization that these voices from the past were generated internally and not externally. It is also very clear that the author makes an effort to convince the reader of the existence of these voices. He argues that we can still experience these hallucinations in the present but now only under provocation, like in hypnosis, or under pathological circumstances like schizophrenia.
How different are the present days? By the much-discussed antics of US politics, our attention is brought to the Evangelicals. The reborn sensation and communication with Jesus are reported as authentic experiences and many politicians openly share their experiences. Since we talk about a large percentage of US inhabitants, evangelicals would make up around ten percent of the population, can we still agree that voices are only heard in pathological circumstances? And even not long ago in the permissive New Age, did we not witness countless regressions into voices and countless rebirths?
I think we have to conclude that we live in the happy times of brain plasticity, but that nevertheless, the bicameral mind of JJ has never disappeared. What changed was that for a long time, hearing voices was seen as pathology and hence our language and culture did suppress our attention to this phenomenon. Once our culture and language open the gates for voices again, they will be heard. We know this feedback between language and brain mechanism to be described for color awareness. The absence of a word for a certain color makes us less aware of that color and vice versa.
What we need now is to educate people about this strange capacity of our brain to create voices, to educate about the strong emotional imperative it entails, how it is experienced as truly authentic, and how inhibition and shyness disappear and the tendency to spread the voice is awakened. We have to learn how to make peace with this common trait, how to understand it and embed it within calmness and surround it with contextual knowledge in order to bring it back to the normal range of things we poor mortals have to deal with in the absence of Gods.
Julian Jaynes, The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Houghton Mifflin Company U.S. 1982
Illustration: The god Khnum forming the future king with the right hand and the king’s ka with the left on the potter’s wheel. The ka points with its left hand to the mouth indicating the verbal function. ca. 1500 B.C. (JJ)
Banner: Herbert Draper (1863–1920), Detail from Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909. Ferens Art Gallery.