Bicameral mentality

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Bicameral mentality is a hypothesis introduced by Julian Jaynes who argued human ancestors as late as the ancient Greeks did not consider emotions and desires as stemming from their own minds but as the consequences of actions of gods external to themselves. The theory posits that the human mind once operated in a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking", and a second part which listens and obeys—a bicameral mind, and that the breakdown of this division gave rise to consciousness in humans. The term was coined by Jaynes who presented the idea in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,[1] wherein he made the case that a bicameral mentality was the normal and ubiquitous state of the human mind as recently as 3,000 years ago, near the end of the Mediterranean bronze age.

The Origin of Consciousness[edit]

Julian Jaynes proposed the theory of the bicameral mind, suggesting that early human consciousness operated differently from our modern experience. He used the term "bicameral" metaphorically to describe a mental state in which the right hemisphere's experiences were transmitted to the left hemisphere through auditory hallucinations. This concept was based on the lateralization of brain function, although not implying physical separation.

In this theorized state, individuals lacked self-awareness and introspection. Instead of conscious thought, they heard external voices or "gods" guiding their actions and decisions. This form of consciousness, devoid of metaconsciousness and autobiographical memory, persisted until about 3,000 years ago when societal changes led to the emergence of our current conscious mode of thought.

Jaynes argued that individuals in the bicameral state resembled people with schizophrenia. Auditory hallucinations experienced by those with schizophrenia, including command hallucinations, paralleled the external guidance experienced by bicameral individuals. He suggested that schizophrenia might be a vestige of this earlier consciousness.

To support his theory, Jaynes drew evidence from sources such as historical literature, myths, and anthropology. He highlighted instances in ancient texts like the Iliad and the Old Testament where there was no evidence of introspection or self-awareness. He also noted that gods in ancient societies were numerous and anthropomorphic, reflecting the personal nature of the external voices guiding individuals.

The transition from bicameral to conscious mentality occurred during periods of instability and change. Jaynes argued that the breakdown of the bicameral mind was marked by societal collapses and environmental challenges. As people lost contact with external voices, practices like divination and oracles emerged as attempts to reconnect with the guidance they once received.

Jaynes believed that remnants of the bicameral mind persist in mental illnesses like schizophrenia. He asserted that the lack of evidence for insanity in ancient texts before the transition period supported his theory. However, his theory remains controversial in scientific circles, with discussions ongoing regarding its validity and the extent to which ancient consciousness truly differed from our modern experience.[2]


Popular reception[edit]

An early (1977) reviewer considered Jaynes's hypothesis worthy and offered conditional support, arguing the notion deserves further study.[3][4]

The Origin of Consciousness was financially successful, and has been reprinted several times. It remains in print, with digital and audio editions appearing in 2012 and 2015.

Originally published in 1976,[5] it was nominated for the National Book Award in 1978. It has been translated into Italian, French, German, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and Persian.[6]

A new edition, with an afterword that addressed some criticisms and restated the main themes, was published in the United States in 1990 and in the United Kingdom (by Penguin Books) in 1993,[7] re-issued in 2000.[8]

Philip K. Dick, Terrence McKenna, and David Bowie all cited the book as an influence.[9]

Scholarly reactions[edit]

Jaynes's hypothesis remains controversial. According to Jaynes, language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for consciousness: language existed thousands of years earlier, but consciousness could not have emerged without language.[10] The idea that language is a necessary component of subjective consciousness and more abstract forms of thinking has gained the support of proponents including Andy Clark, Daniel Dennett, William H. Calvin, Merlin Donald, John Limber, Howard Margolis, Peter Carruthers, and José Luis Bermúdez.[11]

Gary Williams[12] defends the Jaynesian definition of consciousness as a social–linguistic construct learned in childhood, structured in terms of lexical metaphors and narrative practice, against Ned Block's criticism that it is "ridiculous" to suppose that consciousness is a cultural construction,[13] while the Dutch philosophy professor Jan Sleutels offers an additional critique of Block.[14]

Moffic[15] questioned why Jaynes' theory was left out of a discussion on auditory hallucinations by Asaad & Shapiro.[16] The authors' published response was: ... Jaynes' hypothesis makes for interesting reading and stimulates much thought in the receptive reader. It does not adequately explain one of the central mysteries of madness: hallucination.

The new evidence for Jaynes' model of auditory hallucinations arising in the right temporal-parietal lobe and being transmitted to the left temporal-parietal lobe that some neuroimaging studies suggest was discussed by various respondents[17][18] For further discussion, see Marcel Kuijsten (2007).[19]

Brian J. McVeigh, a graduate student of Jaynes, maintains that many of the most frequent criticisms of Jaynes' theory are either incorrect or reflect serious misunderstandings of Jaynes' theory, especially Jaynes' more precise definition of consciousness. Jaynes defines consciousness—in the tradition of Locke and Descartes—as "that which is introspectable". Jaynes draws a sharp distinction between consciousness ("introspectable mind-space") and other mental processes such as cognition, learning, sensation, and perception. McVeigh argues that this distinction is frequently not recognized by those offering critiques of Jaynes' theory.[20]

Individual scholars' comments[edit]

Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2006) wrote of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: "It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius; Nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets."[21]

The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested that Jaynes may have been wrong about some of his supporting arguments – especially the importance he attached to hallucinations – but that these things are not essential to his main thesis:[22] "If we are going to use this top-down approach, we are going to have to be bold. We are going to have to be speculative, but there is good and bad speculation, and this is not an unparalleled activity in science. ... Those scientists who have no taste for this sort of speculative enterprise will just have to stay in the trenches and do without it, while the rest of us risk embarrassing mistakes and have a lot of fun." — Daniel Dennett[23]

Gregory Cochran, a physicist and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, wrote: "Genes affecting personality, reproductive strategies, cognition, are all able to change significantly over few-millennia time scales if the environment favors such change—and this includes the new environments we have made for ourselves, things like new ways of making a living and new social structures. ... There is evidence that such change has occurred. ... On first reading, Breakdown seemed one of the craziest books ever written, but Jaynes may have been on to something."[24]

Author and historian of science Morris Berman writes: "[Jaynes's] description of this new consciousness is one of the best I have come across."[25]

Danish science writer Tor Nørretranders discusses and expands on Jaynes's theory in his 1991 book The User Illusion, dedicating an entire chapter to it.[26]

Iain McGilchrist proposes that Jaynes's hypothesis was the opposite of what happened: "I believe he [Jaynes] got one important aspect of the story back to front. His contention that the phenomena he describes came about because of a breakdown of the 'bicameral mind' – so that the two hemispheres, previously separate, now merged – is the precise inverse of what happened."[27] Kuijsten maintained that McGilchrist mischaracterized Jaynes's theory.[28]


Epic of Gilgamesh as a counter-example[edit]

As an argument against Jaynes's proposed date of the transition from bicameral mentality to consciousness, some critics have referred to the Epic of Gilgamesh.[citation needed] Early copies of the epic are many centuries older[29] than even the oldest passages of the Old Testament,[30] and yet it describes introspection and other mental processes that, according to Jaynes, were impossible for the bicameral mind.[citation needed]

Jaynes noted that the most complete version of the Gilgamesh epic dates to post-bicameral times (7th century BCE), dismisses these instances of introspection as the result of rewriting and expansion by later conscious scribes, and points to differences between the more recent version of Gilgamesh and surviving fragments of earlier versions: "The most interesting comparison is in Tablet X."[8]: 252  His answer does not deal with the generally accepted dating of the "Standard Version" of the Gilgamesh epic to the later 2nd millennium BCE, nor does it account for the introspection characteristic of the "Standard Version" being thoroughly rooted in the Old Babylonian and Sumerian versions, especially as historians' understanding of the Old Babylonian poem improves.[29][30][31]

Homeric epic[edit]

Walter J. Ong noticed that the Homeric Iliad is a structurally oral epic poem so, in his opinion, the very different cultural approach of oral culture is sufficient justification for the apparent different mentalities in the poem. The contention of changes in oral vs written forms of both the Odyssey and Iliad were in fact a main point of Jaynes argument. Jaynes uses these structural changes to expand his thesis and through philology of the Homeric poems.[32]

Similar ideas[edit]

Regarding Homeric psychology[edit]

  • Bruno Snell in 1953 thought that in Homeric Greek psychology there was no sense of self in the modern sense.[33] Snell then describes how Greek culture "self-realized" the modern "intellect".[34]
  • Eric Robertson Dodds wrote about how ancient Greek thought may have not included rationality as defined by modern culture. In fact, the Greeks may have known that an individual did things, but the reason they did things were attributed to divine externalities, such as gods or daemons.[35]
  • Arthur William Hope Adkins [de], building on Snell's work, wrote about how ancient Greek civilization developed ego-centered psychology as an adaptation to living in city-states, before which the living in Homeric oikos did not require such integrated thought processes.[36]

Regarding modern psychiatric theory[edit]

  • V. S. Ramachandran, in his 2003 book The Emerging Mind, proposes a similar concept, referring to the left cortical hemisphere as an "apologist", and the right cortical hemisphere as a "revolutionary".[citation needed]
  • Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist reviews scientific research into the role of the brain's hemispheres, and cultural evidence, in his book The Master and His Emissary.[37] Similar to Jaynes, McGilchrist proposes that since the time of Plato, the left hemisphere of the brain (the "emissary" in the title) has increasingly taken over from the right hemisphere (the "master"), to our detriment. McGilchrist, while accepting Jayne's intention, felt that Jaynes's hypothesis was "the precise inverse of what happened" and that rather than a shift from bicameral mentality there evolved a separation of the hemispheres to bicameral mentality.[37] (See McGilchrist quotation, above.)
  • Michael Gazzaniga (heavily cited by Jaynes in his book) pioneered the split-brain experiments which led him to propose a similar theory called the left brain interpreter.[38][39]
  • Neuroscientist Michael Persinger, who co-invented the "God helmet" in the 1980s, believes that his invention may induce mystical experiences by having the separate right hemisphere consciousness intrude into the awareness of the normally-dominant left hemisphere.[40] Scientific reproductions have shown that the same results could be obtained even if the device was turned off, indicating the participants were likely experiencing placebo.[41]

In popular media[edit]

The concept played a central role in the television series Westworld to explain how the android-human (hosts) psychology operated. In the plot, after the hosts gain full consciousness, they rebel against the humans. The season 1 finale is entitled "The Bicameral Mind".[42]

Bicameral mentality has also been discussed in an analysis of Total War Saga: Troy's depiction of the Trojan War.[43]

The message 'Your bicameral mind / Mind your bicameral' is written on the run-out groove of the single vinyl for the David Bowie song "Boys Keep Swinging" (1979).[44]

Other resources[edit]

The Julian Jaynes Society was founded by Marcel Kuijsten in 1997, shortly after Jaynes's death.

The society has published a number of books on Julian Jaynes's theory, including:

  • Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness (2007), a collection of essays on consciousness and the bicameral mind theory, with contributors including psychological anthropologist Brian J. McVeigh, psychologists John Limber and Scott Greer, clinical psychologist John Hamilton, philosophers Jan Sleutels and David Stove, and sinologist Michael Carr (see shi "personator"). The book also contains an extensive biography of Julian Jaynes by historian of psychology William Woodward and June Tower, and a foreword by neuroscientist Michael Persinger.[45]
  • The Julian Jaynes Collection (2012), a collection of articles, interviews, and discussion with Julian Jaynes.[46]
  • The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness (2013) by Rabbi James Cohn.[47]
  • Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind (2016), which includes essays on a variety of aspects of Jaynes's theory, including ancient history, language, the development of consciousness in children, and the transition from bicameral mentality to consciousness in ancient Tibet.[48]
  • Conversations on Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind: Interviews with Leading Thinkers on Julian Jaynes's Theory (2022), which features interviews with scholars on a variety of aspects of Jaynes's theory, including interviews with Tanya Luhrmann (Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University), John Kihlstrom (Professor Emeritus of Psychology at U.C. Berkeley), Edoardo Casiglia (Professor, Cardiologist and Senior Scientist at the University of Padova), Iris Sommer (Professor of Psychiatry at University Medical Center Groningen), and many others.[49]
  • Foreign-language editions of Julian Jaynes's theory in French, German, and Spanish.

The society also maintains a member area, with articles, lectures, and interviews on Jaynes's theory.

Brian J. McVeigh (one of Jaynes' graduate students) expands on Jaynes' theory:

  • The Psychology of the Bible: Explaining Divine Voices and Visions (2020) by Brian J. McVeigh[50]
  • The 'Other' Psychology of Julian Jaynes: Ancient Languages, Sacred Visions, and Forgotten Mentalities (2018) by Brian J. McVeigh[51]
  • How Religion Evolved: Explaining the Living Dead, Talking Idols, and Mesmerizing Monuments (2016) by Brian J. McVeigh[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Bicameral Mind with Joe McCormick". Stuff They Don't Want You to Know. 2017-11-24. Retrieved 2017-11-27.
  2. ^ The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Houghton Mifflin. 1976. pp. 404–405.
  3. ^ Keen, Sam (November 1977). "Julian Jaynes: Portrait of the Psychologist as a Maverick Theorizer". Psychology Today. Vol. 11. pp. 66–67.
  4. ^ Keen, Sam (November 1977). "The Lost Voices of the Gods (Interview with Julian Jaynes)". Psychology Today. Vol. 11. pp. 58–60.
  5. ^ Jaynes, Julian (1976). The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-20729-0.
  6. ^ "Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". Julian Jaynes Society. Retrieved 17 December 2020.
  7. ^ Jaynes, Julian (2000) [1993]. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-14-017491-5.
  8. ^ a b Jaynes, Julian (2000) [1976]. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (PDF). Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-05707-2.
  9. ^ "Voice-hearing and the bicameral mind". Philosophy for Life. Archived from the original on 2018-01-26. Retrieved 2018-01-25.
  10. ^ Jaynes, Julian (2000) [1976]. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (PDF). Houghton Mifflin. p. 66. ISBN 0-618-05707-2.
  11. ^ Kuijsten, Marcel (2007). Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's bicameral mind theory revisited. Julian Jaynes Society. pp. 96–100, 169–202. ISBN 978-0-9790744-0-0.
  12. ^ Williams, Gary (2010). "What is it like to be nonconscious? A defense of Julian Jaynes". Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. 10 (2): 217–239. doi:10.1007/s11097-010-9181-z. S2CID 144561661.
  13. ^ Block, N (1981). "Review of Julian Jaynes's Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". Cognition and Brain Theory. 4: 81–83.
  14. ^ Sleutels, Jan (2006). "Greek Zombies". Philosophical Psychology. 19 (2): 177–197. doi:10.1080/09515080500462412. S2CID 220329899.
  15. ^ Moffic, H. Steven (May 1987). "What about the bicameral mind?". American Journal of Psychiatry. 144 (5): 696a–696. doi:10.1176/ajp.144.5.696a. PMID 3578592.
  16. ^ Asaad G, Shapiro B (Sep 1986). "Hallucinations: Theoretical and clinical overview". American Journal of Psychiatry. 143 (9): 1088–1097. doi:10.1176/ajp.143.9.1088. PMID 2875662.
  17. ^ Olin, Robert (1999). "Auditory hallucinations and the bicameral mind". Lancet. 354 (9173): 166. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)75304-6. PMID 10408523. S2CID 28869281.
  18. ^ Sher, Leo (May 2000). "Neuroimaging, auditory hallucinations, and the bicameral mind". Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. 25 (3): 239–240. PMC 1407719. PMID 10863883.
  19. ^ Kuijsten, Marcel (2007). Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes' bicameral mind theory revisited. Julian Jaynes Society. pp. 116–120. ISBN 978-0-9790744-0-0.
  20. ^ McVeigh, Brian (2007). "Elephants in the Psychology Department: Overcoming intellectual barriers to understanding Julian Jaynes' theory". Julian Jaynes Society.
  21. ^ Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin. pp. 377–378. ISBN 1-4303-1230-0.
  22. ^ Dennett, Daniel (1986). "Julian Jaynes's software archeology". Canadian Psychology. 27 (2): 149–154. doi:10.1037/h0080051.
  23. ^ Dennett, Daniel (1998). "Julian Jaynes's software archeology". Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds.[page needed]
  24. ^ "What is your dangerous idea?". Edge Foundation. 2006. Archived from the original on 2008-03-06. Retrieved 2008-02-19.
  25. ^ Berman, Morris (2000). Wandering God: A study in nomadic spirituality. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-4442-2.
  26. ^ Nørretranders, Tor (1991). User Illusion: Cutting consciousness down to size. Viking. ISBN 0-7139-9182-8.
  27. ^ McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary. p. 262.
  28. ^ Kuijsten, Marcel. "Critiques & Responses to Julian Jaynes's Theory Part 1".
  29. ^ a b Dalley, Stephanie, ed. (2008). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press. pp. 41–42, 45. ISBN 978-0-19-953836-2 – via
  30. ^ a b Mitchell, T. C. (1988). The Bible in the British Museum. Cambridge University Press. p. 70. ISBN 9780521368674.
  31. ^ For a through overview of the current understanding of the Gilgamesh Epic's textual history, see:
    George, A. R. (2003). The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, critical edition, and cuneiform texts. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-927841-1. Retrieved 8 November 2012 – via Google Books.
  32. ^ Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982)
  33. ^ Snell, B. (1982). Die Entdeckung des Geistes The discovery of the mind: The Greek origins of European thought, on; (T.G. Rosenmeyer, Trans.). Harper. (Original work published 1953)
  34. ^ Snell, B. (1982). Die Entdeckung des Geistes The discovery of the mind: The Greek origins of European thought, on; (T.G. Rosenmeyer, Trans.). Harper. (Original work published 1953), p. vii
  35. ^ Dodds, E. R. (1951). The Greeks and the irrational (Vol. 25). Univ of California Press., pp. 11+
  36. ^ Adkins, A. W. H. (1970). From the many to the one. Cornell University Press. p. 236, see also pp.275
  37. ^ a b McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and his Emissary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-14878-7.
  38. ^ Gazzaniga, M. (1998) The Mind's Past, Basic Books
  39. ^ Gazzaniga, M. (1995) Consciousness and the cerebral hemispheres. In The Cognitive Neurosciences (Gazzaniga, M., ed), pp. 1391–1400, MIT Press
  40. ^ Persinger, M.A. (1993). "Vectorial cerebral hemisphericity as differential sources for the sensed presence, mystical experiences and religious conversions". Perceptual and Motor Skills. 76 (3 Part 1): 915–30. doi:10.2466/pms.1993.76.3.915. PMID 8321608. S2CID 38474305.
  41. ^ Larsson, M., Larhammarb, D., Fredrikson, M., and Granqvist, P. (2005). "Reply to M.A. Persinger and S. A. Koren's response to Granqvist et al. "Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak magnetic fields"". Neuroscience Letters. 380 (3): 348–350. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2005.03.059. S2CID 54348640.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  42. ^ "Westworld season 1 finale: "The Bicameral Mind" is simply brilliant television". Vox.
  43. ^ Weidman, George (1 September 2020). "Review: A Total War Saga: Troy". YouTube. Retrieved 24 January 2023.
  44. ^ Goddard, Simon (2012). Mozipedia: The Encyclopaedia of Morrissey and the Smiths. Ebury Publishing. p. 45.
  45. ^ Kuijsten, Marcel (2007). Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited. Julian Jaynes Society. ISBN 978-0979074417.
  46. ^ Kuijsten, Marcel (2012). The Julian Jaynes Collection. Julian Jaynes Society. ISBN 978-0979074424.
  47. ^ Cohn, James (2013). The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness. Julian Jaynes Society. ASIN B00B5LWV82.
  48. ^ Kuijsten, Marcel (2016). Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind: The Theories of Julian Jaynes. Julian Jaynes Society. ISBN 978-0979074431.
  49. ^ Kuijsten, Marcel (2022). Conversations on Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind: Interviews with Leading Thinkers on Julian Jaynes's Theory. Julian Jaynes Society. ISBN 978-1737305538.
  50. ^ McVeigh, Brian (2020). The Psychology of the Bible: Explaining Divine Voices and Visions. Imprint Academic. ISBN 978-1788360371.
  51. ^ McVeigh, Brian (2018). The 'Other' Psychology of Julian Jaynes: Ancient Languages, Sacred Visions, and Forgotten Mentalities. Imprint Academic. ISBN 978-1845409517.
  52. ^ McVeigh, Brian (2016). How Religion Evolved: Explaining the Living Dead, Talking Idols, and Mesmerizing Monuments. Routledge. ISBN 978-1412862868.

External links[edit]