The Bicameral Mind

Note: I was structurally changing the blog a bit. Nothing seems to be broken, but who really knows anything. Apologies in advance.



The speculative thesis which I shall try to explain in this chapter- and it is very speculative- is simply an obvious corollary from what has gone before. The bicameral mind is a form of social control and it is that form of social control which allowed mankind to move from small hunter-gatherer groups to large agricultural communities. The bicameral mind with its controlling gods was evolved as a final stage of the evolution of language. And in this development lies the origin of civilization. 

This is the rest of my summary on Book One (of Three) of Origins of Consciousness. Here continues Jaynes’ case for Gods talking to ancient men and consciousness (as he defines it) being a new phenomenon. After this, I’m going to switch tracks for a little while.


The Brain (briefly)

Most parts of the brain are generally bilaterally symmetrical (redundancy is great for robustness)- with the exception of the higher, more recent layers. In fact, although both hemispheres of the brain are independently capable of understanding language, only the left hemisphere (generally) houses the common language centers (Wernicke’s areaBroca’s area, etc.) Further, Jaynes contends that stimulation to these areas on the right shadowing the left’s language centers can create (in some) verbal hallucinations (although as a caveat, stimulating other places also may create this effect). Jaynes argues that these higher, non-symmetric layers of the brain are highly plastic, and thus the environment can allow for a wild variety of plausible structural configurations.

Psychotic minds are also used as an example of a kind of mind possibly closer to the minds of antiquity. People who hear voices in their heads feel a closeness and a compulsion by those voices. These voices may feel realer than anything else. As Jaynes is concerned, these voices may have been common in the human population not terribly long ago. Perhaps this kind of mind was stimulated in parts of the brain now dormant or re-purposed in the holistic, relational “right brain” and instructed back to the ancient man’s awareness through verbal communication back to the “left brain” when stressed.


The Iliad

Now, as I’ve said before, Kevin Simler at Melting Asphalt is currently covering Jaynes much more elegantly than my notes here. His series isn’t done yet, but at this point we’ve hit an overlap. I’ll instead quote his take on the Iliad:

[…] Most translators assume that the ancient Greeks had the same mentality that we have today, with roughly the same concepts for introspecting and expressing mental concepts. But Jaynes says we can’t take this for granted, and I think he’s right. So what happens when we abandon that assumption?

[…] As he sees it, the Greeks only developed a modern mentality around 600 B.C. Before that time, e.g. in the Iliad (~1200 to ~900 B.C.), they had very different mental concepts. The earlier Greeks may have used the same words as the later Greeks, but the earlier meanings were much more literal.

The Iliad, as seen by Jaynes, portrays a folk-theory-of-mind that’s fragmented into a variety of different cognitive ‘organs’ and localized in different parts of the body.

Ancient Greek “Organs”, paraphrased from Melting Asphalt:

The phren (or plural, phrenes), which referred originally to the lungs or the breath. What cognitive process took place ‘in’ the phrenes? A: Being surprised by something, or having a surprise realization. […] Greeks might have considered surprise to take place ‘in’ the breath.

The noos (or nous), referring originally to sight or the eyes. ‘Seeing things’ obviously makes sense as a function of the noos, but by metaphorical extension, so does perception (a kind of abstract ‘seeing’), and perhaps memory and imagination as well. We still speak of an organ like this, on occasion, as “the mind’s eye.” But although the Greek’s noos was localized in the head, it was not a general-purpose cognitive organ. Very important functions like judgment and decision-making, for example, can’t take place in the noos, even metaphorically, just as today your mind’s eye can’t ‘decide’ to do something.

The thumos, localized sometimes in the chest, which was a decision-making organ (of sorts) capable of initiating action, especially on the basis of emotions. Gods would sometimes “cast strength” in a person’s thumos, which would rouse him to action. Often a warrior would consult his thumos to see if he was ready to fight.

The psyche, the word that would later come to mean ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ as we think of it today, and from which we derive “psychology,” the study of mind. But in the Iliad, psyche referred not to a cognitive structure at all, but rather to a “life substance” akin to blood or breath. A warrior, for example, bleeds his psyche out onto the ground.

What these examples illustrate is that, during the Iliadic period, all the Greek words for mental concepts had concrete meanings, and most were associated with specific parts of the body. But by the time of Socrates in ~500 B.C., many of them (phrennoos, and psyche in particular) had coalesced in meaning, so that they all came to refer to the modern concept of the ‘soul’ or ‘mind.’ Thus did the Greeks slowly and gradually develop their notion of a Unified Private Headspace, a notion that’s still with us to this day, part of Western civilization’s classical inheritance.


[…] According to Jaynes, the ancient Greeks had no word for ‘body.’

Yes, the more modern Greeks had soma, which we still use today, e.g., when referring to ‘somatic’ cell lines or ‘psychosomatic’ illnesses. But in the Iliad, soma referred only to a dead body, that is, to a corpse. Of course the Iliadic Greeks had words for all the different parts of the body, but no word to refer to the entire thing.

This is very illuminating. Without the notion of a single unified ‘mind’, there’s simply no demand in the language for a word that refers to the body. A man simply was his body. It would be redundant to say that Achilles’ body was tired. Achilles and his body are synonymous, and he is tired — period, end of story. I don’t need to say “My body is covered in paint,” when I could simply say, “I’m covered in paint.”

It’s the same way we almost never talk about the ‘bodies’ of our pets. It sounds strange to say, “Fido’s body is tired,” because we don’t typically think about a dog as having a mind separate from and independent of its body. Fido is just one big, continuous, organic process.


Language and Civilization

Jaynes doesn’t seem to think that sophisticated human language is that old. Climate change may have acted as a selective pressure on language development. Each new wave of words create new perceptions and attentions, resulting in new communication and cultural shifts that ought to show up in the archaeological record.

Communication among primates is mostly postural/visual, but newer, darker climates forced a shift into auditory signaling among early humans as well. “Speech” first began as “the final sounds of intentional calls differentiating on the basis of intensity.” Higher intensity sounds would indicate a nearer (immediate) threat, for example, but lower intensity sounds might indicate far-ness. Higher-intensity and low-intensity vowel-sounds are early modifiers, modifiers without nouns. This age ends around 40,000 BCE, when the age of retouched tools/weapons began.

It wasn’t until after the evolution of modifiers to the calling system that modifiers could be applied to other, less intense communication. Colder climates and increased need to hunt drove the need for communication of hand-axe specialty. “Sharper” and other commands (modifiers of some call signifying action) could have come into being. Tools exploded from 40,000 to 25,000 BCE.

Animal drawings came into existence from 25,000 to 15,000 BCE, in an age where nouns were invented: animals early on, and later nouns for things: pottery, pendants, etc proliferated as we had words to describe and command and teach how to do them.

Verbal hallucinations may have become “a side effect of language comprehension which evolved by natural selection as a method of behavior control.” Without being able to narratize the situation after being issued a command by his chief, early man instead imposes self-control through a hallucinatory auditory loop re-issuing the command. “Instinctive”, common behavior needs no language, but new, complex learned activities do require a cognitive innovation to maintain (temporal priming).

Around 10,000 to 8,000 BCE, proper names first occurred, during a global warming, where populations were more stable (and increasingly sedentary), and more people needed to be interacted with than ever before. Giving a person a name also molds the idea of a mental recreation of that person in her absence. Ceremonial graves become common (although they existed before, on occasion). Further, the hallucination is considered a social interaction now.

The Natufian culture, Jaynes argues, were not conscious- they were still signal-bound, stimulus-response creatures without an ability to narratize. Hallucinatory voices, whether perceived to be the leader’s or the person’s own, were capable of creative problem solving. Stress-inducing events may trigger these hallucinations: death of loved ones, for instance. Double-burials might follow the death and then the voice-death (perhaps, anyway). The death of the local leader, whose voice kept the social group together, was a social force that afflicted everyone involved. Dead kings might still act as living gods.

Over at Ribbonfarm, Simler starts to touch upon Book Two of Origins in the excellent post “Projected Presence“:

How could a basalt statue, or a small wooden figurine, command such power and attention that it would come to be worshipped? What kind of human would “bow down” to such an artifact, or attempt to “serve” it? And how could the practice become so common, in the early-historic Levant, as to require a special injunction against it — in no less privileged a location than the Ten Commandments?

In his mind-rending epic The Origin of Consciousness, Julian Jaynes offers an answer to all of these questions. It’s an answer that’s hard to take seriously, but worth examining — if for no other purpose than to expand our hypothesis-space.

According to Jaynes, idols were worshipped in the early Biblical period because they werehallucinogens, i.e., triggers for inducing hallucinations of the gods they represented. When a worshipper concentrated on an idol, his god would often literally appear before him — sometimes in visual form, but more often as an auditory hallucination. Moreover, if we take the theory in full, these hallucinations were the means by which the right hemisphere of the brain communicated to the left hemisphere.

Certainly, this is crazy. And my intention is not to argue that it’s true. Instead, I merely wish to point out, following Daniel Dennett, that it’s a theory worth taking seriously. It’s a legitimate explanation, put forward in earnest by a serious scholar, in full light of the archaeological record. And the fact that it’s not dismissible out-of-hand tells us something important: that the mentality of early-historic humans was profoundly different from ours — inscrutable and perhaps unknowable.


But that’s it for me on this, for a bit.