Still in two minds over this controversial theory of the origin of human consciousness
Two new books explore the ideas of maverick American psychologist Julian Jaynes from entirely different standpoints
In his landmark 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, the American psychologist Julian Jaynes (1920–1997) theorised that a bicameral, or ‘two-chambered’, mentality was the normal state of the human mind until about 3,000 years ago.
Jaynes’s idea apparently was shaped by the striking insights derived from early studies on ‘split-brain’ patients and the right-brain/left-brain theory developed by Roger W Sperry and his colleagues earlier in the 1970s (Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981).
Independent functionality of the two hemispheres of the brain after the surgical removal of the corpus callosum led to the postulation of the coexistence of two parallel streams of consciousness: the ‘scientist’ and logic in the right brain and the ‘artist’ and intuition in the left brain.
But Jaynes’s idea that cognitive functions were once divided between one part of the brain which appeared to be ‘speaking’ to another listening and obedient part has not been seen of practical importance by mainstream psychologists — although, following Jaynes, many investigators of ancient civilisations have taken the view that our ancestors, prior to about 3,000 years ago, were primarily right-brained, since when we have developed a left-brain bias.
In Jaynes’s controversial theory about the origin of introspectable mentality, he argued that until about 1,000 BCE people possessed a different psychology: a bicameral neurocultural arrangement in which a commanding ‘god’ guided, admonished and commanded a listening ‘mortal’ through hallucinative voices and visions.
It was out of the turmoil of civilisational collapse and chaos that an adaptive self-reflexive consciousness emerged which was better suited to the pressures of larger, more complex socio-political systems: the advent, indeed, of ‘conscious interiority’, which, it must be remembered, was Jaynes’s particular definition of consciousness — a far narrower definition than the somewhat vague catch-all one with which the layman is familiar, embracing cognition, thinking, perception, awareness and introspection.
In The ‘Other’ Psychology of Julian Jaynes: Ancient Languages, Sacred Visions and Forgotten Mentalities (Imprint Academic, UK £14.95 / US $29.90, January 2018), Brian J McVeigh, an anthropologist and a former student of Jaynes’s, offers a verification of his mentor’s ideas on socio-historical shifts in cognition, providing voluminous evidence that, from about 3,500 to 1,000 BCE, the archaeological and historical record reveals features of hallucinatory super-religiosity in every known civilisation — and, in doing so, highlights certain ‘blind spots’ in establishment psychology by providing empirical support for Jaynes’s hypothesis.
As social pressures eroded the god-centered authority of bicamerality, an upgraded psychology of interiorised self-awareness arose during the ‘Late Bronze Age Collapse’, after which came the ‘Axial Age when the great proselytising religions were founded and modern spirituality took root.
A key explanatory component of Jaynes’s theorising was how metaphors constructed a mental landscape populated by ‘I’ and ‘me’ and which replaced a declining worldview dominated by gods, ancestors and spirits. It’s fascinating how McVeigh statistically substantiates how linguo-conceptual changes reflected psychohistorical developments; because supernatural entities functioned in place of our inner selves, vocabularies for psychological terms were strikingly limited in ancient languages.
McVeigh also demonstrates the surprising ubiquity of ‘hearing voices’ in modern times, contending that such hallucinations are bicameral vestiges and that mental imagery — a controllable, semi-hallucinatory experience — is the successor to the divine hallucinations that once bonded societies together. Such ‘bicameral vestiges’ could also account for aspects of schizophrenia and widespread interest in lost gods of ancient civilisations.
Though often described as boldly iconoclastic and far ahead of its time, Jaynes’s thinking actually resonates with a ‘second’ or ‘other’ psychological tradition that explores the cultural-historical evolution of psyche.
And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that conscious interiority has been affected by social and cultural conditions during the past 2,500 years, since the Ancient Greek philosophers, for example. Mental, or psychic, imaging calls us to think beyond ourselves, to help us transcend conscious knowledge to something beyond mere subjectivity — hence the distrust of it by the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in medieval times.
In retrospect, as Colin Wilson pointed out, Jaynes’s real achievement probably was the revelation that our ‘alienated’ consciousness (alienated from nature, that is) developed at a late stage in our evolution — consistent with the findings of split-brain research — with the ability to desynchronise right and left brain activity which, in turn, led to a huge gain in intellectual ability.
Brian J McVeigh received his PhD in anthropology from Princeton University. A specialist in Japan and China, he lived in Asia for 17 years. He is currently researching the impact of Jaynes’s theories and how the books of the Bible reflect a transition in mentality. He is training in mental health counselling at the University at Albany, SUNY.
While McVeigh seeks to justify Jaynes’s ideas, Lawrence Wile, in The Jaynes Legacy: Shining new light through the cracks of the bicameral mind (Imprint Academic, UK £14.95 / US $29.90, January 2018), seeks rather to replace them. Paradoxically, Wile’s book is both contradictory and complementary to McVeigh’s, the two volumes being clear evidence of ongoing Jaynesian controversy.
Wile, a physicist, philosopher and a former psychiatrist, describes Jaynes’s claim that consciousness (as Jaynes defined it) originated about 1,000 BCE as ‘astonishing’ and ‘extravagant’, his theory as a ‘magnificent failure’, and maintains there is no archaeological or literary evidence for it.
But although Jaynes’s theory amounts to an ‘overvalued idea’, says Wile, it nevertheless ‘connotes the possibility of genius’ — for it continues to strike a deep chord in the human psyche: our longing to understand our innermost selves, the origin and nature of human consciousness and the origins of religion and science.
Indeed, Wile pays tribute to Jaynes’s work as being of ‘consummate genius’ because it compels us to re-evaluate the significance of humankind’s earliest traditions and texts that might shine light on the ‘very suspicious totem of evolutionary mythology’ that consciousness has evolved continuously and gradually from worms to man.
Were it not for this, Wile’s book might perhaps have been titled, provocatively, The Jaynes Fallacy; instead, an engaging dissection of Jaynes’s assertions and assessment of his ‘legacy’ acts as a springboard for Wile to set out his own stall.
One unintended result of Jaynes’s legacy is that our misgivings about his ‘preposterous proposition’ that consciousness arose from hallucinating members of ancient civilisations, who were actually non-conscious and merely reacting to their environments, demands that we reassess the foundation of neuroscience: consciousness emerged from the evolution of matter.
Tellingly, Wile adds that perhaps the perennial intuition that consciousness is prior to matter is true.
Another unintended part of Jaynes’s legacy is that his interpretation of the earliest religious texts calls attention to the possibility that the first references to God were not descriptive of hallucinations but of ‘the consciousness of the consciousness behind natural laws and the supersensory perceptions of transcendent realities’.
According to Jaynes, Wile writes, consciousness is ‘a dynamic web of metaphors weaving itself within an introspectable mind-space’ but, for Wile, consciousness is much more than that, both at its present stage of development and potentially.
In the most astonishing and revelatory part of his book, he suggests that the evolution of the relationship between consciousnesses, mass, energy, and space-time radically changed nearly 6,000 years ago during the epigenetic, evolutionary degeneration of a little-known, threadlike structure, a nerve fibre, originating in the pineal gland, and extending down the spinal cord, called Reissner’s fibre — named after the German anatomist Ernst Reissner who, in 1860, observed a translucent thread finer than a human hair in the central canal of a lamprey
Wile claims the earliest Indian, Chinese and Hebrew traditions describe this degenerative process during the origin of religious and mystical experience, grasping introspectively the correspondence between the microcosm of the psycho-spiritual ‘subtle anatomy’ and the macrocosm known respectively as Brahman, Tao and Ein-Sof.
With possible rare exceptions, Reissner’s fibre is no longer present in the adult human brain, becoming atrophied in the womb, but the genetic machinery to produce it exists in humans and thus it could be regenerated, says Wile, to alter consciousness and create a new reality — to provide ‘a tangible touchstone for determining if religion is true’, and reinstate ‘our lost circuit to heaven’.
Lawrence Wile is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. His awards include a first place prize in the John Templeton Foundation competition for his essay ‘Reissner’s Fibre and the Neurobiology of Mysticism’. His ideas about Reissner’s fibre have appeared in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, the Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research, and the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He now leads a multidisciplinary team at Boston University dedicated to the exploration of Reissner’s fibre.