Estonians and the Bicameral Mind

People here in Estonia often seem to be almost on autopilot. But are they really and, if they are, why is this so? A few thoughts…

This is just a wee hypothesis of mine which is open to testing and falsification, so view it in that light.

A question I often ask myself is: why are people here in Estonia so hugely, radically, extremely different from where I come from, and presumably by extension other ‘western’ (and even non-western) countries.

In this I’m not referring to the usual tropes about not smiling or keeping a distance; I’ve seen plenty of Estonians do the former and not do the latter, but rather, exactly why whatever the social norms here are just seem to be so incredibly uniform and ubiquitous.

My theory is that Estonians are bicameral. Bicameral here has nothing to do with the legislature (which is unicameral in Estonia anyway) but with the mind. With particular reference to the theories of Julian Jaynes, an American psychologist whose work nevertheless affected the spheres of philosophy (Daniel Dennett is a proponent), addiction therapy and, presumably, anthropology, let me explain what I understand it to mean.

Life before humans ‘popped a mind’

Whereas we have consciousness (in fact the very pronoun ‘we’, or more to the point ‘I’, suggest that), ancient humans were not, not to the same degree or in the same way. Jaynes posits that even three thousand years ago, and certainly prior to the invention of writing about five or so thousand years ago, human beings had a bicameral or twin-chambered mind, where one half of the mind told the other ‘operating’ half what to do. Nothing new here you may think, is this not simply the difference between the conscious and subconscious? But the key is in the word ‘told’. The idea is that this literally happened, in other words the ‘orders’ were given as a voice, a real, audible voice indistinguishable from the voice of another human speaking or shouting within earshot of you.

This voice may have begun with prehistoric homo sapiens sapiens (or even our putative hominid ancestors) and simply ‘said’ things like ‘follow the sun, there is food there’. Prehistoric man or woman literally had to obey the orders, he or she had no choice. It is easy to see why — a simple matter of survival.

Later on, when the first civilizations emerged around the world, for instance in the fertile crescent, with the establishment of ‘city’ states, agriculture, writing, population growth etc., this voice didn’t up sticks and leave, though it seemed to have become less and less a feature of everyday life.

Some of the most famous examples of the lingering bicameral voice come in the much-maligned Old Testamant (of the Bible), with the God of the Jews literally speaking to (and sometimes appearing in human or other form to) biblical protagonists.

Picking an example almost at random, the book of 1 Samuel, one of the history books which records the supposed narrative of the Jewish people and their guidance from God — via various prophets — after their entry into their promised land and prior to attack and enslavement by large (presumably equally bicameral) powers such as the Assyrians and Babylonians.

In the story, the eponymous hero gets woken up from his sleep by a voice which he supposes to be his human master, Eli. This happens two or three times before Eli (who was not actually calling Samuel) twigs that it must be no less than God who was doing the calling, and that Samuel ought to go and hear what he has to say.

Sometimes the bicameral voice can even appear as, er, a bush. Source: wikipedia

Anyway, a common theme in the Old Testament is of this ‘voice’ often disappearing off the radar altogether, with the Jewish people crying out in mournful desperation to hear from it again and again. We can see the same process at work in virtually all cultures, many of which had a pantheon of ‘gods’ and so potentially many voices to listen out for, with icons, totems etc. used as a way of trying to tune in, often under the qualified guidance of a prophet or a priest. Even today, Roman Catholic priests supposedly are able to act as an intermediary between this voice(s) and the layperson.

Modern day implications of the bicameral voice

In due course and at some point, humans became ‘conscious’, were able to look objectively at themselves and not be blown around by the wind of the bicameral voice, then, though the latter has never completely disappeared — readers may have spotted the obvious parallel with schizophrenia, but ‘alcoholism’ and drug addictions, not to mention harmful behaviours such as compulsive gambling or viewing of pornography, can even be viewed as nothing more than a voice telling you to do something which ‘you’ do not want to do.

It’s something which the advertising industry has known for a long time of course.

Happily, that realization can be enough to spark immediate recovery from such behaviours; we need no more be beholden to the voice. Hell, this can even be applied to the most mundane aspects of life — such as laziness. If, like me, you have difficulty keeping trucking on straight when people you find sexually attractive hove into view, you need only recognize that this is simply the same bicameral voice telling you to… well, telling you to procreate with someone fertile and with a superficially impressive gene set in the interests of replicating your own DNA, quite frankly. The tendency for many men seemingly to harass women online via social media has opened up a new dimension here, but it is still the same old, same old.

The Estonian bicameral voice…

But what does this have to do with Estonia? Isn’t this the most atheistic country in Europe, and possibly the world? Well, Jaynes’ theory is one of psychology, not theology and does not on its own say anything about the existence or otherwise of a God or gods. It could probably be used by both ‘sides’ in the existence of God debate, although it seems on the surface to favour the case for atheism — Dennett is a noted atheist philosopher — and is a neat way of explaining, well, the writing of the Old Testament noted above (not the mention the New Testament, the Qur’an, and more).

So it sits well with a seemingly non-religious country. In my view, Estonians are pretty much told via a voice in their head to do (or not do) certain things, behave in certain ways — with no possibility of disobeying the ‘orders’. Indeed once one does so, one ceases to be Estonian.

This can be seen in the (to my eyes) monotonous procession of dark coloured, shiny German cars, the spotlessly turned-out women (and men), the joyless way even those in privileged positions in society seem to go about their business. The continual consensus, the agreed day-to-day narrative, the somewhat different criteria on what constitutes an acceptable (particularly male) partner, the lack of dissent, the not-visibly-lusting, despite what I said above (I’m not Estonian of course)… Don’t worry if these things seems negative, there are a lot of equally positive aspects such as the high level of most areas of education, the awesome grasp of foreign languages, the dynamism and willingness to take risks in business…and of course the singing in unison, which also have the bicameral voice to thank for.

Okay, I live in Tallinn, so I can’t be sure that hasn’t slanted my view somewhat, but in any case even those ‘lower down’ the social order (actually I think this bicameral voice is something of a leveller) are just as answerable to the bicameral Estonian voice. A friend recently told me that a presumed alcoholic , at least someone who was incoherent, falling-down drunk and who he, the friend, had to help open his, the drunk’s, front door and get up the stairs to bed, nevertheless lived, possibly alone, in an immaculately ordered apartment. That would NEVER happen where I come from!

This is how slobs live in the real world. Source: Daily Telegraph

This is evidenced by this little video encouraging people to vote, the guy (actually a famous rapper here) who presumably can barely be arsed to get out of bed and open the internet nonetheless lives in a suitably-appointed place with all the mod cons. Silk pyjamas my arse.

So the Estonian bicameral voice doesn’t tell you to go and speak with ‘god’ but it sure as hell dictates all apsects of life here — including the ‘we are the least religious country’ meme, repeated with, ironically, and almost religious zeal.

And the purpose is?…

Naturally Estonia doesn’t exist in this way in a vacuum; I would think that all of the CEE countries exhibit the same phenomena. I’ve lived in the other two Baltic States and they certainly do (even more than Estonia). People simply aren’t free to do what they want due to the tyranny of the bicameral voice, leading to a falling silent in the face of shiny idols like expensive cars, the respect of brute force over truth, the distrust of and disdain for those outside one’s own tribe etc…

What is the purpose of this posited Estonian (or Latvian, or Lithuanian, or Russian etc.) ‘voice’. I think I’ve pretty much answered the question already — survival. Just as someone who rebels against the bicameral Estonian voice is no longer Estonian, without the bicameral voice there wouldn’t have been an Estonian nation. So the two things are inseparable.

We can also posit a physiological link in that this survival drive is linked with that part of the brain (the amygdala) which does just that and is not part of consciousness. Most of us who work, for instane, receive a command around about midday or so to go out and forage for food, and we’re often in a pretty miserable state when we don’t get the chance to do that (hence why these stick insect girls are often in a foul mood).

So you’re trying to say Estonians live in the stone age?

Some readers might be forgiven for saying ‘what, so you mean we Estonians are some kind of backward, bicameral people stuck in an earlier stage of development than you oh-so-clever westerners?’, and I can especially visualize a younger Estonian lady (the ‘high priestesses’ of the Estonian bicameral voice, no less) leveling such a criticism as that’s happened to me and others before, but that’s to miss the point. ALL cultures, nations, whatever, are at different stages at different times, and I’m hardly stating that we don’t have bicameral voices in our own societies too. And as I said it can sometimes bring obvious benefits — it’s probably a given that Estonia has a much better degree of, say, WiFi coverage than Britain, am I to get offended by someone pointing that out? Of course not.

This approach also presupposes some sort of end point ideal towards which societies ought to be moving in a linear fashion, with some societies further along the line than others, but I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as that.

The emergence and subsequent receding of the bicameral voice in history happened at a glacial rate of slowness (and presumably it can reemerge where needed); it continues to linger perhaps when it is no longer practical. On the other hand, we’re continually reminded of Estonia’s insecure geo-political location, so just as the ancient (and modern) Jews were in a precarious geo-political situation and had their own bicameral voice, so too can it serve its purpose here.

I also have to leave open the possibility that, even if my surface-level observations are sound, Estonians may be fully conscious of the whats and whys of the etiquette here and may even dislike some aspects of it.

In Britain, being a fairly pluralistic society, there are probably several sets of bicameral voices — for instance the one that pertains to those Brits whose antecedents came from the Indian sub-continent (no wait, they have millions of gods!), or the differing bicameral voice experienced by nationalists or republicans in Northern Ireland, versus the unionist/loyalist one.

As an outsider I might be able to see things here somewhat objectively (ie. consciously) but at the same time, the longer I stay here, the more I’m going to be subject to the same bicameral voice myself. In other words, I have been getting ‘Estonianized’; one quick look at visting Brits in Tallinn reminds me of that. This doesn’t mean I am becoming Estonian — that could never happen, but more in the way that the Russian speaking population has evolved here. They will never be true Estonians, but they are certainly Estonianized Russians.

I noted at the beginning that this was a hypothesis and was certainly open to falsification and argued rebuttal; it is also, I would argue, a part of the human condition and an ever present.