Review of “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”

Teachers College Record 80.3 (Feb. 1979): 602-604

Professor Julian Jaynes, a teacher of psychology at Princeton University, has given us a theory of the development of consciousness and (to employ one of the many neologisms, some of them useful, with which he sprinkles his book) of the psychohistory of mankind in terms of a varying relation between the two hemispheres of the brain. “The right hemisphere, perhaps like the gods, sees parts as having a meaning; it looks at wholes. While the left or dominant hemisphere, like the man side of the bicameral mind, looks at parts themselves.” The psycho-history of mankind, he says, can be understood only as an age-long progress, or transition, from the dominance of the right hemisphere, through a “bicameral mind” period when the two hemispheres were both about equally effective, into the dominance of the left hemisphere, which largely prevails today and which may end either in the total atrophy of the right hemisphere or, better, in the reestablishment of a proper balance between them.

His insistence that our mistake up to now has been to distinguish too sharply, or perhaps to distinguish at all, between the physical and the psychic does give rise to a good many difficulties, and one could spend a lot of time on them. One wonders, for example, what exactly the preposition “in” and the verb “to be” signify in a system that proclaims on one page: “There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another,” and on another that the development of religious concepts was “going on in the right hemisphere”; on one page that “consciousness is not necessarily located in the brain,” on another that mind and memory were formerly “still in the voices of those organizations of the right temporal lobe that are called gods”; and on yet another that “the gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of anyone. They were man’s volition.”

But obstinate questionings of that sort, if pursued further, would leave no time to give an idea of the actual substance of the book. Bicameral men “did not imagine, they experienced.” If, as is assumed, they experienced the right hemispheres of their brains, together with such other parts of their physical organisms as had become “aptic structures,” they did not experience these as structures and hemispheres, they experienced them as gods, Muses, divine Voices, and the like. Consequently it is only by examining these latter that we can get at their neural substrates. “We can only know in the nervous system what we have known in behavior first.” Moreover these phenomena of consciousness were themselves causal. The genetic theory must be abandoned, and natural selection was not nearly as determinant as is generally supposed; even in individuals “the early developmental history . . . can make a great difference in how the brain is organised”; and a fortiori for mankind as a whole. Nor are they to be regarded as subjective; for the mind of primitive man had no subjectivity, and it is a common error to project our own subjectivity back into him. In short, Professor Jaynes’s approach to the past history of mankind has to be, and is, not cerebroarchaeological and cerebrohistorical (I made those two), but psycho-archaeological and psychohistorical.

It is in fact an extensive, well-documented, and competently indexed account of the evolution of human consciousness, out of a primitive condition that must, it seems, be designated “mental” – though it was neither experience nor consciousness – through the stage of mere consciousness and on into the detached self-consciousness of modern humanity. And as such it has indeed shining qualities and contains very much of interest, whether the author is discussing Egyptian mythology or the egoless psychology of Homer’s heroes, or considering the relation between “topic” and “song” in the development of Greek accents, or presenting the Old Testament as a majestic and wonderful record of “the birth-pangs of our subjective consciousness.” All these riches, and much more, the judicious reader will discover for himself. A reviewer may be pardoned for raising the perhaps irritating question: Then why all this stress on the not-very-relevant physical brain? If the division of labor between its two hemispheres in any particular epoch is likely to have been organized by cultural and aesthetic activity, and is in any case only inferable from cultural and aesthetic phenomena, to what exactly is it the master key?

Our age is characterized by a variety of generalizing theories, each of which is applied to everything in the universe except itself, and each of which would fall to the ground if it were so applied since it at once becomes apparent that it has been busy sawing off the only possible branch on which it could have been sitting. The “strident rationalism” of the eighteenth century, Marxism, behaviorism, psychoanalysis—Professor Jaynes avoids and criticizes them all. They all result from the breakdown of the bicameral mind. He undermines them both historically and analytically.

In a section on language, and much concerned with metaphors and models, he even insists that science itself, that all theories in fact, including his own, can really be interpreted only as metaphor. All theories, that is, with one exception. The privileged exception is the received theory of evolution in its earlier stages, and this makes the title of the book a little misleading. For, however radically we may have to revise our ideas of the development of consciousness, its ultimate origin, as preconscious “mind,” stands just where it did before the revolution. Consciousness, together with all those limboish “things that in the physical-behavioral world do not have a spatial quality,” did in fact “emerge” somehow or other from a purely material universe. That theory is the literal and historical truth, not just an interesting product of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. To doubt it is not only (horresco referens) “metaphysical”; it is “ontological nonsense.” Therefore although, when Hesiod describes how the Muses “breathed into me a divine voice,” and so forth, “this should be believed literally as someone’s experience . . .,” and although the Muses and their like were neither objectified concepts nor figments of the imagination, they were, they must have been, “hallucinations” (a word that recurs more persistently than any other throughout the book); and “hallucinations must have some innate structure in the nervous system underlying them.”

I personally should not much like the job of distinguishing ontologically between a figment and a hallucination; or alternatively between hallucination, as Jaynes chooses to extend the term, and perception. Why could not the Muses, and so forth, equally well have been things – not less, but certainly not more metaphorically – “outside” the physical-behavioral world that do not have a spatial quality? Perhaps because that might mean beginning to take seriously people like Rudolf Steiner. And yet so slight a readjustment would have made the whole book so much clearer, leaving its convincing central narrative stripped athletically bare of all the uneasy hairsplittings. It seems strange that one who has no difficulty in attributing practically the whole of modern consciousness, including its science, to the “dualism” that, since Descartes, has been “one of the great spurious (my italics) quandaries of modern psychology” should stop precisely at that point. Surely it must be staring him in the face that our whole scientistic and popular picture of a quondam mindless universe is the product of that very dualism as it culminated in the still more spurious uniformitarianism of Lyell and Darwin.

Owen Barfield