Voices of the new gods

The origins of unconsciousness in the breakdown of the modern mind

One who has no god, as he walks along the street, headache envelops him like a garment.” — inscription on stone tablet, approx. 1230 BC, Mesopotamia

One of the strangest theories of the emergence of modern consciousness is Julian Jaynes’s bicameralism, popularised in 1976’s highly controversial yet still influential The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Basing his case on a wide range of archaeological evidence and close studies of numerous ancient writings, including Greek and Egyptian mythology and the Old Testament, Jaynes puts forward the extraordinary hypothesis that many of the aspects of consciousness we take for granted, including speculative thought, metacognition and autobiographical memory, emerged less than 4 000 years ago as a complex neurological adaptation to the sudden increase in social complexity and uncertainty brought about by the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Before this, he argues, our sense of volition was much more limited and experienced as emerging not from ourselves but instead, in similar fashion to the auditory command hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics, dictated to us by an inner voice understood as a god or divine force.

The idea that the same society that produced Homer’s Illiad consisted entirely of individuals whose agency was limited to automatically obeying the hallucinated voices of their gods is both striking and unsettling. However, and even though his research was narrowly Occidental and his presentation of his theory tacitly perpetuates a dubious Eurocentric civilisation narrative, many of Jaynes’s key arguments are supported by current neuroscience. At the very least, when shorn of its Western chauvinism bicameralism offers us a useful way to consider a problem closely related to that of consciousness: meaning.

If we examine how our species has historically produced meaning through the lens of Jaynes’s theory, coupled with a longer and more tenable paleoanthropological view of the emergence of consciousness that traces it all the way back to the grasslands of Africa a hundred or more millenia ago, we can locate a tension that continues to echo in the present moment. On the one hand, if volition took the form of external command before the breakdown of the bicameral mind then meaning — in the broad sense of significance, direction and how-it-all-hangs-together — would probably also have been experienced as imposed from the outside, or as some or other form of divine writ. Once autonomy emerged and we came to experience agency as coming from ourselves, on the other hand, meaning too would likely have begun to be viewed as something we produced, either individually or in groups.

Evolutionary psychologists use the term metaconscious to refer to this volitional, meaning-making kind of mind, and bicameralism is traditionally understood as a one-way street. Once we evolved metaconsciousness it was here to stay. Employing these possibly quite new metacognitive capacities for speculative ends, however, perhaps we can understand the crisis of meaning in the contemporary world as, if not a simple return to bicameralism, then the emergence of some new form of multicameralism that defers agency, autobiographical memory and other ‘ego functions’ across a complex range of external forces.

What is this crisis of meaning? While there are many ways in which life today has become incredibly complex, the proliferation of digital communications technologies and the glut of information that flows through their channels at the speed of light is possibly central, having created a situation of constant overstimulation where there is insufficient time to pause and reflect on the data we are exposed to in order to form coherent perspectives. We read a news item, opinion piece or analysis and seconds later, innumerable other contradictory yet credible-seeming views vie for our attention. This in turn creates a situation we could call heuristic failure. Heuristics are like rules of thumb — they’re strategies we use to solve problems, to understand and navigate our lives. When the world ceases to be predictable and consistent in a way that allows us to develop stable heuristics we can become overwhelmed, experiencing ourselves as adrift, without meaning and even unable to form a coherent collection of long-term memories that tells us a story of who we are and where we’re going.

As we’re not very good at surviving in this state of existential exhaustion, it tends to result in the awakening of a kind of vestigial bicameralism adapted to this new context, triggering a desperate search for safety and meaning that can lead to everything from sectarian political or religious dogma to outright conspiracy theory. While such views can emerge spontaneously, crises of meaning are more often leveraged by malicious actors who recognise how they render individuals highly susceptible to manipulation. If an ideology can be presented as providing existential stability and meaningfulness, it becomes highly desirable even if adoption requires the shutting down of critical faculties. Xenophobia and the appeal to false forms of collective memory and traditional community, the global shift to the right and conservatism, the rise of blunt forms of identity politics, the spread of simplistic conspiratorial narratives across the political spectrum… all of these have at least some basis in the leveraging of heuristic failure and the collapse of meaning compounded by the social fragmentation wrought by late capitalism.

This last point, that society has been deeply eroded by market forces and the technological infrastructures deployed in their service, is well-worn but crucial: if we are not able to develop new forms of collective meaning and memory making that enhance our individual agency then we will remain primed for the external imposition of meaningfulness and history in the service of various social and political agendas that are not in our interests. The more we rely on this the deeper the split in our psychologies will become and eventually, where bicameralism once broke down, a new form of outside agency may become dominant. This will, of course, no longer take the literal form of the hallucinated voices of gods, but submitting to the dictates of political demagogues, manufacturers of fake news, social influencers or even just algorithms trained on our aggregated behaviour to the extent that we incorporate them into the core of our cognitive functioning is no less disturbing and possibly far more insidious, especially when, as is often the case, these voices whisper to us in the language of autonomy, freedom, reason and critical thought.

The mind is still haunted with its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities; and the yearning, the deep and hollowing yearning for divine volition and service is with us still.” — Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind