The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Paperback | August 15, 2000

byJulian Jaynes

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At the heart of this classic, seminal book is Julian Jaynes''s still-controversial thesis that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but instead is a learned process that came about only three thousand years ago and is still developing. The implications of this revolutionary scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history and culture, our religion - and indeed our future.

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At the heart of this classic, seminal book is Julian Jaynes's still-controversial thesis that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but instead is a learned process that came about only three thousand years ago and is still developing. The implications of this revolutionary scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history and culture, o...

Julian Jaynes (1923-1997) achieved an almost cult-like reputation for this controversial book, which was his only published work.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:512 pages, 9 × 6 × 1.25 inPublished:August 15, 2000Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0618057072

ISBN - 13:9780618057078

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Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very thought-provoking book. Jaynes' central thesis is that consciousness (which he defines in a very specific and unique way) is a relatively recent development in human evolution - perhaps as recent as 2-3 thousand years ago. Before humanity developed consciousness, social order was maintained, and individual decision-making was accomplished by what he calls "the bicameral mind". This was a way of thinking, in which the "mind" was separated into 2 independently functioning parts: a "God" part and a "man" part (since Jaynes uses the gendered pronoun, for the sake of simplicity, so will I). The "man" part of the mind was located in the right hemisphere, and was responsible for perception and the execution of routine tasks. (Think of it as the "Zen" mind, which is simply engaged in the world without questioning or reflecting in it.) In situations where reflection, and critical thought were required - i.e., novel situations, requiring a decision of some kind, the "man" mind received, and automatically acted upon, the instructions that it received from the "God" part if the mind, which was located in the left hemisphere, and was responsible for problem-solving / decision-making / judgement. I must point out that this is a VERY brief summary of a very broad-ranging and detailed book. As such, I have had to overlook many important details and distinctions, so please do not judge the book solely on what I have said about it. If there are aspects that seem illogical, or questions that remain, I highly suggest you read the book. You may not agree with Jaynes' ideas, but I'm sure you'll agree that they are among the most original and thought-provoking notions regarding human consciousness that have been published to date.
Date published: 2011-03-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Two persons in one head... Under normal circumstances I would not have read this book. But, I have this rule - if a particular author appears on my radar from two independent sources and happens to be related to my current studies, I read the book regardless of my immediate inclinations. Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind just happened to be one of those books caught in a coincidental web of associations. First, I came across his name in Richard Dawkins The God Delusion. Dawkins maintains that Jaynes is either a lunatic or, just maybe, lucky enough to have happened across the most startling and adroit explanation of religion yet. The second referral came from Laura Miller’s scathing critique of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Diary published in Salon.com. The terrible tale and aftermath is available through the Chapters-Indigo group “Reading Chuck Palahniuk” archives. So, with two independent mentions of this book I ordered it and jumped right in. After reading through the entire book rather carefully, I’m decidedly in the “he’s a lunatic” camp, albeit a lunatic who also happens to be an elegant and articulate writer. To put his thesis simply: Jaynes argues that the origin of all religion lays in the bicameral mind and a fundamental split between the left and right brain. In effect, religion is nothing more than a hallucination, the actual perception of voices that provide instructions and guidance. This left right brain split is evidenced in the flat architecture of the ancient near east and the unselfconscious writings of the period (circa 3000 BCE and earlier). The past 5000 years testify to the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the origin of consciousness, the ability of the subject to tell as story about themselves. People who are religious today simply suffer from longing – they miss the voices they used to hear long ago. If only it were so simple. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto, Confucianism, Christianity… all just variations on the same theme: the remaining vestiges of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Jaynes situates this radical ahistoricism as an evolutionary development – natural selection at work. The ancient peoples were conquered by those who developed consciousness (how else, according to Jaynes, can you explain the Spanish decimation of the Aztec empire with a handful of soldiers). If Jaynes is correct then his theory will have overturned and exposed as fraudulent pretty much all the collective findings of anthropology, ethnography, psychology, religious studies, and sociology. In other words: neuroscience and natural selection explains everything and the human and social sciences explain nothing. I exaggerate, but only just. There are numerous problems with Jaynes approach. It is grossly ahistorical. But, most importantly, Jaynes’s theory of the bicameral mind can’t explain why the hallucinated voices were interpreted the way they were. His methodology excludes the possibility of this kind of explanation. How do we explain the evolution of gender norms within ancient religious traditions? Why were these voices interpreted to be supernatural beings? These are elementary questions that cannot be addressed within his framework yet can readily be addressed coherently and thoughtfully from several different disciplines. If we look to studies in the field of anthropology, for example, there are compelling reasons why religions took the shape that they did. Complex relations between language, symbols, rituals, myths, and economy all play into religious patterns. Agrarian societies often have myths and stories about supernatural powers related to the seasons. Cities with kings and queens often have myths and stories about the power of an individual deity in contrast to an amorphous supernatural force. No doubt Jaynes book is dated. It was written in 1976 but reissued with a new introduction in 1990. Although he finds his basic hypothesis persuasive, I think it is safe to say that huge sections of his argument are no longer considered plausible, even by his most sympathetic followers. That being said, his understanding of consciousness is compelling. Consciousness has to do with the internal divisions within the self: the ability to place oneself in a story, to see oneself from a third person perspective, to narrate and change the narration of ones own history. This ability reflects the diverse capacities of the mind to take up contradictory perspectives: first, second, and third person. Exploring this aspect of Jaynes work will take us in a productive direction but only insofar as the human and natural sciences work collectively to explain behaviour without insular and unnecessary exclusion.
Date published: 2009-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intestinal fortitude Upon discovering the book, I was enthralled with the notion of the bicameral mind. My whole life I've been unable to express the concept of the human mind as the sole "god" on earth. Through study and personal thought Jaynes was able to accuratally identify the beginning when people became individuals. I believe the missing link theory can be put to rest as solved. After review, it became apparent Jaynes anthropologic and very subjective ideas were not created in a society full of drones. Julian Jaynes shared the knowledge of facts which took great pains to comprehend, gather and summize. This text written by the hand of science will forever be inscribed into the depths of my cerebrum. Understanding the truth of this book will allow any by-ped to soar above the infinitesimally weaker seagull and glide with the omnipitance of a none assimallated falcon.
Date published: 2000-09-02