Julian Jaynes: How Old Is The Self?


                                                By Frank S. Robinson


Richard Dawkins called it Òeither complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius.Ó[1] I first encountered it discussed in a 2001 article in an ancient coin magazine, and found it so outrageous I had to reply. Since then IÕve seen the theory cited quite widely and taken seriously. So I finally decided to read the book itself – Julian JaynesÕs The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.


Jaynes (1920-77) was a psychology professor. His 1976 book holds that consciousness as we know it emerged only a mere 3,000 years ago. ThatÕs right: the builders of the pyramids were not conscious. They didnÕt understand that their thoughts were their own, but considered them voices of gods. Jaynes calls this a ÒbicameralÓ mind, with the voices coming from the right brain hemisphere, as hallucinations. The change to modern consciousness occurred around 1000 BC, occasioned by societal and geopolitical upheavals, making bicameralism no longer good enough for people to get by with.


Jaynes recognized that this theory is, well, surprising; he even labeled it Òpreposterous.Ó But his book is so strongly argued that many have been persuaded, so itÕs worth examining.


He starts by discussing what consciousness is and, in various ways, tries to delimit the concept, relegating vast realms of our mental activity to unconscious processes unavailable to introspection. For example, look at the series X O X O X O . . . what comes next? Did you think your way to answering ÒXÓ? Jaynes says no; you simply ÒsawÓ the answer, and if you try to explain how, youÕre just making up a story for what you guess must have happened.


All this is aimed at making plausible the existence of creatures behaving much as we do, but without being conscious. By consciousness Jaynes doesnÕt mean mere sentience, but rather a sense of self, that thereÕs a Òme in there, running the show. That, again, is what he says people lacked until around 1000 BC. But itÕs hardly a revelation that a lot of our mental functioning is more or less unconscious; it has to be; you wouldnÕt be able to walk if you had to think out each muscle movement. We can even perform complex tasks, like driving, in a zoned-out state without conscious attentiveness. Yet we do consciously think about some things. And most important, we donÕt merely think, we think about our thoughts. ThatÕs what the self does, and this differs from all the unconscious functioning Jaynes discusses, and which a computer could do, without a self. Could earlier humans have done it too?


Understanding the sense of self remains, of course, a deep problem. David Hume said no amount of introspection could enable him to catch hold of it. But the trouble was that he was using the self to look for the self. (Jaynes recognizes this difficulty; he makes the analogy of using a flashlight to look for darkness.) However, it does appear fairly certain that the self is not a particularized or localized brain module, but rather an emergent property of the system as a whole. It doesnÕt arise in computers because their system complexity is still actually orders of magnitude below ours. Jaynes is nevertheless arguing that you could have our level of complex mental functioning without the emergent property of self. Yet thatÕs contradicted by the evidence of our own example, wherein the complexity does produce a self.


Now, you might say a single example is weak evidence. However, itÕs actually seven billion examples. Complexity of mental functioning obviously varies greatly among humans; many donÕt read philosophy magazines, but even those people have a sense of self – virtually every single one, some of them dumb as boards. This is powerful evidence that mental complexity above a certain level must induce consciousness, and rebuts JaynesÕs thesis that earlier people could have had one without the other.


Jaynes devotes much attention to The Iliad, composed during the supposed transition time. In this epic poem about the Trojan War, he says, characters are never portrayed with inner lives or deciding anything, but instead always manipulated by gods. The war, Jaynes declares, Òwas directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did.Ó


Whenever the ancients talk about gods speaking, as in The Iliad, Jaynes takes this to mean they actually heard voices – hallucinated them. He uses that very word literally and repeatedly, invoking as models the hallucinated voices heard by schizophrenics and other mentally ill people. These he sees as a throwback to, or vestige of, the bicameral mind. People before 1000 BC were all schizophrenic, all the time, hearing voices continually. Jaynes similarly explains the bicameral mind as resembling the hypnotized mind, with our susceptibility to hypnosis being another alleged vestige of bicameralism.


A lot of what Jaynes marshals as evidence for a fundamental change in mental function is really just cultural evolution. In assessing his interpretations of all things ancient, we must remember (as he seemingly does not) that civilization was a new invention, and ÒRome wasnÕt built in a day.Ó It took time to develop the panoply of behaviors, adaptations and practices weÕre familiar with; but that doesnÕt mean the early and necessarily primitive stages signified a consciousness fundamentally different. If civilization were stripped from you and you had to reinvent it from scratch, how fast would you get up to speed?


Thus The Iliad was written the way it was because that was the convention of the time for how tales were told. Literature had to evolve a lot before arriving at Proust. The very idea of portraying a characterÕs inner life is actually an advanced literary technique whose absence in the earliest works would be entirely expected.


But even on its own terms, JaynesÕs take on The Iliad seems wrong. He stresses how Achilles vacillated over killing Agamemnon until the Goddess Athena told him to. But what was this vacillation if not the working of his own mind? Was Achilles vacillating because a god told him to vacillate? Further, Jaynes says the vacillating is depicted physiologically – Ògut churning,Ó etc. – rather than mentally. But I think the Greeks understood such imagery as conveying something ultimately mental. I donÕt see Achilles portrayed as lacking a self.


A perhaps better example: Jaynes makes much of how early cuneiform messages were written as though addressed to the clay tablet itself, asking it to pass the message along to the recipient. Only later (Òpost-bicameralÓ) were letters addressed directly to recipients. But surely this was a mere change of cultural convention. Written language had only just been invented; letter writing too had to be invented, as a concept, and it evolved. The early concept was perfectly logical, and understandable to us. My mother treats phone messages as equivalent to letters and thus signs off, ÒLove, Mom.Ó ThatÕs not common practice, but it too is perfectly logical, and doesnÕt show she lacks a self!


As to schizophrenia and the like, normal human consciousness is a phenomenon of such subtle complexity that itÕs a wonder we can sustain it so stably through life, and easy to envision how it can be disrupted or go on the fritz, akin to a computer program getting corrupted. That doesnÕt tell us the program evolved from a state of primordial corruptedness. Schizophrenia and hypnosis are both special mental states considerably removed from normal functioning. While itÕs true that normal minds can hold delusions (as in religious beliefs), mass pervasive hallucination simply is not part of human experience. Likewise, though many believe God in some way directs their lives, thatÕs a far cry from being the veritable puppets of gods that Jaynesian bicamerals would have considered themselves. And while some people can be hypnotized, itÕs absurd to hypothesize an entire population going about in that manner, outside of a zombie film.


If human consciousness were a product of intelligent design, perhaps we could expect it to be more robust and impervious to the kinds of malfunctions at issue. But thatÕs not how evolution works. It develops new adaptations by modifying what already exists, and thatÕs often the kind of inelegant solution computer nerds call a kludge. Like our eyes: actually quite suboptimal compared to what an intelligently designed visual system would be. So too our consciousness, and hence itÕs vulnerable to glitches like schizophrenia. But that hardly implies we evolved from a race of schizophrenics.


Bizarrely, Jaynes speculates that schizophrenia itself is an evolutionary adaptation, conferring certain alleged advantages on sufferers. But surely, from a survival and reproductive standpoint, itÕs more advantageous to see the real world rather than a hallucinated one.


Moreover, Jaynes is wrong to talk in terms of Òhallucinations.Ó His ancients Òhearing voicesÓ were hearing their own thoughts, which were real, and thatÕs different from hallucinating nonexistent voices coming from outside (even though, obviously, they also originate within the personÕs mind). Possibly one could imagine believing a Òvoices of godsÓ notion concerning inner voices that arrive suddenly, out of the blue, after a lifetime of silence (as with the hallucinated voices of schizophrenics). But in contrast normal people become aware of their own thoughts in early childhood, at least as soon as they learn language. And, from such an early age, when we talk to ourselves, we know who is doing the talking, and do not ascribe the interior chatter to Òthe gods.Ó Certainly humans would have been capable of such minimal mental sophistication long before 1000 BC. Jaynesian bicameralism would have had to start with a childÕs earliest thinking. That would bespeak a rather severe form of mental disorder for which there is no present-day parallel.


But even if Jaynes were right about all the hallucinating he postulates, he fails to explain why that would have been inconsistent with consciousness as we know it. While he does put much weight on deficits in the sense of self that schizophrenics often report, they donÕt lack it entirely; even hallucinators are conscious and introspective to a considerable degree. JaynesÕs hypothesis, however, has hallucination substituting for a sense of self.


How non-material thoughts translate into physical actions has also preoccupied philosophers. But when you decide to raise your arm, thereÕs at least a physical interconnection between your brain neurons and the nervous system transmitting signals to muscles. Notice that JaynesÕs bicameral model lacks that interconnection between the god voices, supposedly directing action, and the muscles carrying it out. ThereÕd have to be an intermediary – brain neurons that hear the god voice and decide to obey it, transmitting the command to the muscles. But whatÕs really the difference between a god voice instantiating action, via a decision to obey it, and a thought doing essentially the same thing? Either way, thereÕs a decision. And who is the decider? It still has to be a self, even if a self thatÕs heeding god voices. Jaynes thus ultimately fails to banish the self after all. In his model, youÕd still have had one, only you didnÕt know it. ThatÕs even more implausible than the idea of not having it at all. I think people would have been smart enough to figure it out pretty fast.


ÒTheory of mindÓ refers to your inferring that because Joe behaves somewhat like you, he must be experiencing something like your own sense of self. Jaynes actually holds that this has it backwards, as regards the origin of consciousness: when Joe first began to be conscious, youÕd look at him and infer that if heÕs got it, then you must have it too. You didnÕt know you had a self till you saw it in others. But whoÕs in there, to make such a deduction, if not your self?


Jaynes seems to say that bicameral minds, with hallucinations of god talk, actually emerged at the beginnings of civilization (around 10,000 years ago), as a form of social control as communities became larger than tribal bands, with the god voices evolving from the actual voices of kings, and then of dead kings (who merged into gods). This begs the question of what sort of mental life preceded bicameralism, and on this Jaynes is remarkably silent. If people had selves before bicameralism, is it reasonable to suppose theyÕd give up those selves and their understanding that their inner voices were their own? And if so then obviously Jaynes canÕt claim a later origin for introspective consciousness. One is left to infer that before civilization, people were not even bicameral, with consciousness even more impoverished than that.


Yet archaeological evidence shows that even pre-agriculture and pre-civilization, humans led quite sophisticated lives with plenty of technology and artisanship. Language goes back tens of thousands of years, and itÕs hard to imagine the people who developed and used it didnÕt know when they were talking to themselves. WeÕve found jewelry 80,000 years old, and itÕs hard to understand such adornment if wearers had no sense of self.


The absurdity becomes further evident when Jaynes discusses the breakdown of the bicameral mind – when the voices of gods went away. He describes people as then searching about for alternative sources for godly instruction – divination, oracles, casting lots, horoscopes, etc. (In fact, he thinks this search for our lost god voices remains a key to the human psyche to the present day.) But who were these people – inside their heads? Robots denied instructions donÕt agonize about what to do. If people did, they couldnÕt have been consciousless automatons. Wondering what to do is something a self does.


Importantly, Jaynes is also conspicuously silent about any human communities outside the Near East and Mediterranean areas (apart from a throw-away speculation that the Spaniards so easily rolled the Incas because the latter were still non-conscious bicamerals). But as for how the Chinese, black Africans, and many other peoples, became conscious, Jaynes has no answer. Certainly his arguments invoking social upheavals 3000 years ago would have no applicability in those other regions with very different histories.


And even his discussion of historical upheavals in his own region of concern is cursory. He does cite some particulars, like the volcanic explosion of Thera (Santorini). Yes, that must have been devastating. Likewise wars and invasions. But life in ancient times was pervasively tumultuous, difficult, and much more violent than we are accustomed to. Jaynes fails to make a case that there was something so uniquely unsettling about the times around 1000 BC that it wrenched human minds into a whole new functionality.


Jaynes asserts that introspective consciousness is something we learned at that juncture; thus it was not even biologically evolved. HeÕs probably forced into this position because itÕs implausible that biological evolution could have happened so fast (even with a Òpunctuated equilibriumÓ scenario). But it makes far more sense to see our consciousness as a biological adaptation occurring far earlier.


Again, while Jaynes theorizes that it was triggered by a spate of unusual stresses 3000 years ago, it was always a terrible struggle for early humans to stay alive. Creatures either evolve traits to cope with their environments or die out. Intelligence and consciousness are useful adaptations, evolved to at least some degree in many creatures; a sense of self helps because it makes the animal care what happens to it, and act accordingly. Homo Sapiens is simply the most extreme example of these adaptations. It seems likely that we evolved our especially big and introspective brains to facilitate the complex social cooperation that figured so large in survival for our early forbears.


The environmental pressures propelling this uniquely extreme fluke of evolution must have been correspondingly extreme, for us creatures bereft of other assets. In other words, we got our minds to cope with a terribly hostile, danger-filled, stressful environment – long, long before 1000 BC. ItÕs ludicrous to think life was a breeze till then.


Perhaps most insufferable of all is JaynesÕs suggestion that a human sense of morality could not have predated the first millennium BC, with Òthe true beginning of personal responsibility.Ó HeÕs off by a factor of hundreds. There is ample evidence that an instinct for morality, justice, and even altruism is deeply wired into us by evolution, an adaptation responsive to the environment faced by our earliest ancestors, where it would have been advantageous for group survival. Indeed, a rudimentary moral sense is even found in non-human animals.


Anyone who studies deeply the earliest civilizations must come to realize that far more unites us with them than differentiates us. These ancestors of ours, only a few hundred generations past, who first figured out how to plant and harvest crops, who domesticated animals, built villages and then cities, created writing and literature and music and art, invented government and law, launched great projects of architecture, exploration, trade and conquest, and laid the foundations of science and mathematics, could not possibly have done all this with minds that functioned in the primitive – in fact, downright silly – manner Jaynes postulates. His theory offensively belittles those people and their stupendous achievements. All our subsequent accomplishments build upon theirs; they themselves did not have the benefit of following such trailblazers, they had to build from scratch.


ItÕs inconceivable that Òthey knew not what they did.Ó One might even say preposterous.


Frank S. Robinson is the author of five books, including The Case for Rational Optimism. He blogs at rationaloptimist.wordpress.com






[1] In The God Delusion.