Is That You God? It’s Me, The Bicameral Mind


“The chalk knows the table just as the table knows the chalk.  That is why the chalk stops at the table.”

What does it really mean to know something?  What exactly is consciousness?

These questions are at the heart of the Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind.  Jaynes contends that sensing a stimulus and responding appropriately has nothing to do with consciousness.  A table or a piece of chalk can do that much.   Jaynes believes that consciousness is not even necessary for learning —which, depending on how you define learning and how conscious you think a rat or a computer program is– is probably true.

This leads to an even more bizarre mystery:  If consciousness is unnecessary for awareness, learning, and problem solving…  then does consciousness serve any vital purpose at all?  There are those who believe that –not only is consciousness not necessary– it is irrelevant, a “helpless spectator” which can only watch what our body decides to do.  It is only after an action has initiated or occurred that consciousness then attempts to offer reasons and excuses for why we do what we do.

In other words, says Jaynes, we “narratize” events– making ourselves, of course, the main character in the story.  I think Jaynes says “narratize” as opposed to narrate because the connotation with narrating is that there really is a story going on, a plot.  But when humans narratize, we are actually imposing story where there is none.

Says Jaynes:

“Consciousness is constantly fitting things into a story, putting a before and after around any event.  This feature is an analog of our physical selves moving about through a physical world with its spatial succesiveness which becomes the successiveness of Time in Mind-Space.  And this results in the conscious conception of Time which is a spatialized Time in which we locate events and indeed our lives.  It is impossible to be conscious of Time in any other way than as a space.”

We are often very good at “narratization:”  our mouth accepts a date-invitation from a potential sexual partner, and we tell ourselves it is because he has such a nice smile.

Yet, at other times, we are not so good at coming up with justifications for our actions.  Things that we do quicker than we can think, we call “reflex.”  Things that we can’t explain (such as why we men find fatty deposits on the female form attractive) we call “instinct.”

Perhaps, it is argued by some, consciousness is no more than an accidental side-effect that occurs when the nervous system reaches a certain level of complexity.  And judging by the hugely detrimental impact we humans appear to have on the world, this side-effect may indeed by a pernicious one:  Consciousness, the world’s cancer.

And another thing… If consciousness exists, where is it?  I mean, where precisely is it located?

We humans assume that somewhere behind the eyes of the person with whom we are communicating lies the consciousness.  But Jaynes says  that “in reality, consciousness has no location whatever except as we imagine it has.”  Eye-gazing, according to him, is merely a “remnant of our primate past when eye-to-eye contact was concerned in establishing tribal hierarchies.”

I would go even more basic with this:  the eyes (and the face around them) are where we can read the broad-stroke thoughts of others humans– as well as many a creature– so it’s only natural that we would look to the eyes.  I’ve always found it intriguing that a dog, for instance, knows to look at our faces to get a read on us—not at our knees—not even at our hands (which are also highly communicative of intention)—but our faces.

Jaynes believes that before the two hemispheres of our brain fused more tightly together, we really were “of two minds.”  In this “bicameral mind,” there existed an “executive” side and a “follower” side.  According to Jaynes, the executive side of the brain was the home of volition, planning, and initiative— all this thinking-activity being done without any consciousness.  The executive hemisphere would tell the follower hemisphere what to do.  This voice would sometimes be heard by the follower as the voice of a “god.”  Jaynes even goes so far as to say that people would sometimes “see” this being talking to them in the form or “aura” of a friend or god.

I find this idea interesting because I’ve noticed that in cases of people hearing voices, the voices are almost always telling them what to do or think.

My biggest problem with Jaynes is that he insists that all the interactions with a god in ancient tales or histories were in reality cases in which someone was listening to the executive side of their brain talking and believing the voice was a god.

Where I see a leader trying to add legitimacy to his laws –like, say, Hammurabi—by telling his people that God dictated these laws to him and so they therefore must be obeyed, Jaynes sees something different:  he believes Hammurabi really did hear a voice inside his head (issued from his brain’s executive hemisphere) and really did think it was God.  Jaynes may be great with bio-psychology, but he don’t know squat about politics.

Or take Jaynes’ most drawn out example:  Jaynes believes that every time someone in The Iliad hears from a god, he is really listening to the dictates from the god-side of his bicameral mind.

To begin with, I find it difficult to ignore the fact that the people in The Iliad are merely characters in an epic poem.  To ascribe to them theoretically existent neurological conditions seems a bit of a stretch to me.

But let us ignore this objection and talk about the real people living at the time of the Trojan War.   According to Jaynes, the actual warriors fighting at the walls of Troy circa 1200 BC had this split brain condition, and furthermore, they did not possess consciousness but were merely “noble automatons” with “no subjective consciousness—no mind, soul, or will.”

For Jaynes, human beings living a mere 3,000 years ago— human beings building ocean-worthy vessels and living in walled cities– were not yet conscious!  A man in Greece or Ilium, he contends, could absolutely think— was, indeed, a great thinker—but he “had not awareness of his awareness of the world.”

It is interesting that SOMETHING seemed to have happened in the human mind around twenty-five hundred years ago– for not only do we begin to see writing come into its glory (The Iliad, written about 800 BC) but the great philosophers begin appearing in rapid succession:  Lao-Tze, Buddha, Confucius– followed not so long after by Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.

What were we doing before then, and why the sudden burst in deeper thinking?  The answer is obvious:  Alien interbreeding.  But that’s another post.


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