Bicameralism (the philosophy of "two-chamberedness") is a hypothesis in psychology that argues that the human mind once assumed 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. The term was coined by Julian Jaynes, who presented the idea in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, wherein he made the case that a bicameral mentality was the normal and ubiquitous state of the human mind as recently as 3000 years ago. The hypothesis is generally not accepted by mainstream psychologists.
The Origin of Consciousness was financially successful, and has been reprinted several times. Originally published in 1976 (ISBN 0-395-20729-0), it was nominated for the National Book Award in 1978. It has been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, French, and Persian. A new edition, with an afterword that addressed some criticisms and restated the main themes, was published in the US in 1990 and in the UK by Penguin Books in 1993 (ISBN 0-14-017491-5), re-issued in 2000.
The Origin of ConsciousnessEdit
Jaynes uses governmental bicameralism as a metaphor to describe a mental state in which the experiences and memories of the right hemisphere of the brain are transmitted to the left hemisphere via auditory hallucinations. The metaphor is based on the idea of lateralization of brain function although each half of a normal human brain is constantly communicating with the other through the corpus callosum. The metaphor is not meant to imply that the two halves of the bicameral brain were "cut off" from each other but that the bicameral mind was experienced as a different, non-conscious mental schema wherein volition in the face of novel stimuli was mediated through a linguistic control mechanism and experienced as auditory verbal hallucination.
The bicameral mentality would be non-conscious in its inability to reason and articulate about mental contents through meta-reflection, reacting without explicitly realizing and without the meta-reflective ability to give an account of why one did so. The bicameral mind would thus lack metaconsciousness, autobiographical memory and the capacity for executive "ego functions" such as deliberate mind-wandering and conscious introspection of mental content. When bicamerality as a method of social control was no longer adaptive in complex civilizations, this mental model was replaced by the conscious mode of thought which, Jaynes argued, is grounded in the acquisition of metaphorical language learned by exposure to narrative practice.
According to Jaynes, ancient people in the bicameral state of mind would have experienced the world in a manner that has some similarities to that of a schizophrenic. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or "god" giving admonitory advice or commands and obey without question: one would not be at all conscious of one's own thought processes per se. Research into "command hallucinations" that often direct the behavior of those labeled schizophrenic, as well as other voice hearers, supports Jaynes's predictions.
Jaynes built a case for this hypothesis that human brains existed in a bicameral state until as recently as 3000 years ago by citing evidence from many diverse sources including historical literature. He took an interdisciplinary approach, drawing data from many different fields. Jaynes asserted that, until roughly the times written about in Homer's Iliad, humans did not generally have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness as most people experience it today. Rather, the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands believed to be issued by external "gods" — commands which were recorded in ancient myths, legends and historical accounts. This is exemplified not only in the commands given to characters in ancient epics but also the very muses of Greek mythology which "sang" the poems: the ancients literally heard muses as the direct source of their music and poetry.
According to Jaynes, in the Iliad and sections of the Old Testament no mention is made of any kind of cognitive processes such as introspection, and there is no apparent indication that the writers were self-aware. Jaynes suggests, the older portions of the Old Testament (such as the Book of Amos) have few or none of the features of some later books of the Old Testament (such as Ecclesiastes) as well as later works such as Homer's Odyssey, which show indications of a profoundly different kind of mentality — an early form of consciousness.
In ancient times, Jaynes noted, gods were generally much more numerous and much more anthropomorphic than in modern times, and speculates that this was because each bicameral person had their own "god" who reflected their own desires and experiences. He also noted that in ancient societies the corpses of the dead were often treated as though still alive (being seated, dressed and even fed) as a form of ancestor worship, and Jaynes argued that the dead bodies were presumed to be still living and the source of auditory hallucinations. This adaptation to the village communities of 100 individuals or more formed the core of religion. Unlike today's hallucinations, the voices of ancient times were structured by cultural norms to produce a seamlessly functioning society. In Ancient Greek culture there is often mention of the Logos, which is a very similar concept. It was a type of guiding voice that was heard as from a seemingly external source.
Jaynes inferred that these "voices" came from the right brain counterparts of the left brain language centres—specifically, the counterparts to Wernicke's area and Broca's area. These regions are somewhat dormant in the right brains of most modern humans, but Jaynes noted that some studies show that auditory hallucinations correspond to increased activity in these areas of the brain.
Jaynes notes that even in modern times[when?] there is no consensus as to the cause or origins of schizophrenia. Jaynes argues that schizophrenia is a vestige of humanity's earlier bicameral state. Recent evidence shows that many schizophrenics do not just hear random voices but experience "command hallucinations" instructing their behavior or urging them to commit certain acts.[full citation needed] As support for Jaynes's argument, these command hallucinations are little different from the commands from gods which feature prominently in ancient stories. Indirect evidence supporting Jaynes's theory that hallucinations once played an important role in human mentality can be found in the recent book Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination by Daniel Smith.
Breakdown of bicameralismEdit
Jaynes theorized that a shift from bicameralism marked the beginning of introspection and consciousness as we know it today. According to Jaynes, this bicameral mentality began malfunctioning or "breaking down" during the 2nd millennium BCE. He speculates that primitive ancient societies tended to collapse periodically (e.g., Egypt's Intermediate Periods, as well as the periodically vanishing cities of the Mayas) as changes in the environment strained the socio-cultural equilibria sustained by this bicameral mindset. The Bronze age collapse of the 2nd millennium BCE led to mass migrations and created a rash of unexpected situations and stresses which required ancient minds to become more flexible and creative. Self-awareness, or consciousness, was the culturally evolved solution to this problem. This necessity of communicating commonly observed phenomena among individuals who shared no common language or cultural upbringing encouraged those communities to become self-aware to survive in a new environment. Thus consciousness, like bicamerality, emerged as a neurological adaptation to social complexity in a changing world.
Jaynes further argues that divination, prayer, and oracles arose during this breakdown period, in an attempt to summon instructions from the "gods" whose voices could no longer be heard. The consultation of special bicamerally operative individuals, or of divination by casting lots and so forth, was a response to this loss, a transitional era depicted, for example, in the book of 1 Samuel. It was also evidenced in children who could communicate with the gods, but as their neurology was set by language and society they gradually lost that ability. Those who continued prophesying, being bicameral according to Jaynes, could be killed. Leftovers of the bicameral mind today, according to Jaynes, include religion, hypnosis, possession, schizophrenia, and the general sense of need for external authority in decision-making.
Jaynes's hypothesis remains controversial. The primary scientific criticism has been that the conclusions drawn by Jaynes had no basis in neuropsychiatric fact.
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."
According to Jaynes, language is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for consciousness: language existed thousands of years earlier, but consciousness could not have emerged without language. 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.
In a 1987 letter to the American Journal of Psychiatry, H. Steven Moffic questioned why Jaynes's theory was left out of a discussion on auditory hallucinations by Asaad and Shapiro. In response published in the May 1987 issue, the authors replied:
"...Jaynes' hypothesis makes for interesting reading and stimulates much thought in the receptive reader. It does not, however, adequately explain one of the central mysteries of madness: hallucination."
Drs. Asaad and Shapiro's comment, that there is no evidence for involvement of the right temporal lobe in auditory hallucination, was incorrect even at that time. A number of more recent studies provide additional evidence to right hemisphere involvement in auditory hallucinations. Recent neuroimaging studies provide new evidence for Jaynes's neurological model (e.g., auditory hallucinations arising in the right temporal-parietal lobe and being transmitted to the left temporal-parietal lobe). This was pointed out by Dr. Robert Olin in Lancet and Dr. Leo Sher in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, and further discussed in the book Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness.
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:
"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
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."
As an argument against Jaynes' proposed date of the transition from bicameralism to consciousness, one might refer to the Gilgamesh Epic. It is supposedly many centuries older than even the oldest passages of the Old Testament, and yet it describes introspection and other mental processes that, according to Jaynes, were impossible for the bicameral mind. Jaynes himself, noting 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.")
This, however, fails to account for either the generally accepted dating of the "Standard Version" of the epic to the later 2nd millennium BCE or the fact that the introspection so often taken as characteristic of the "Standard Version" seems more thoroughly rooted in the Old Babylonian and Sumerian versions than previously thought, especially as our understanding of the Old Babylonian poem emerges.
Brian J. McVeigh (2007) 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, and sense and perception. McVeigh argues that this distinction is frequently not recognized by those offering critiques of Jaynes' theory.
A "Julian Jaynes Society" was founded by supporters of bicameralism in 1997, shortly after Jaynes' death. The society published a collection of essays on bicameralism in 2007, 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.
Divination is also considerably older than that date and the early writings he claims show bicamerality; the oldest recorded Chinese Writing was on oracle bones, meaning that divination arose at the same time or even earlier than writing, in Chinese Society.[not in citation given]
While he said ancient societies engaged in ancestor worship before this date, non-ancient societies also engaged in it after that date; very advanced societies like the Aztecs and Egyptians mummified rulers (see Pyramids and the philosopher Nezahualcoyotl), the Aztecs all the way up to the meeting with Hernan Cortes.
Julian Jaynes' study is mostly based on the writings and culture of the Mediterranean and Near-Eastern regions, although he occasionally also refers to ancient writings of India and China. It does not explain how such bicameralism could also have been near totally lost at the same time across the whole planet and in the entire human kind. In particular the aborigine culture was completely separated from the rest of the world from 4000 BCE to 1600 CE and appears today to be both historically unchanged but also self-conscious.
In his books Prometheus Rising and Quantum Psychology, transactional psychologist and author Robert Anton Wilson proposes a similar theory, referring to the right cortical hemisphere as "Thinker" and the left cortical hemisphere as "Prover". He summarizes his concept as "Whatever the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves."
VS Ramachandran proposes a similar theory as well, referring to the left cortical hemisphere as an "Apologist", and the right cortical hemisphere as a "Revolutionary".
In his book The Master and His Emissary, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist reviews scientific research into the role of the brain's hemispheres, and cultural evidence, and he 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 Jayne's hypothesis was "the precise inverse of what happened" and that rather than a shift from bicameralism there evolved a separation of the hemispheres.
It is now known that sense of agency is closely connected with lateralization. The left parietal lobe is active when visualizing actions in the first person, while the right parietal lobe is active for actions in the third person. Additionally, Wernicke's area processes the literal meaning of language, while the homologous region in the right hemisphere processes the intent of a speaker. It has been found that people with damage to the right inferior parietal cortex experience alien hand syndrome, as do people who have had a corpus callosotomy. This reverses the relationship between the right and left hemispheres posited by bicameralism: it is the left hemisphere that "speaks" and the right hemisphere that is responsible for self-awareness.
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.
In popular cultureEdit
In literature, the 1992 novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson involves an attempt to return humans to their bicameral, pre-conscious state. It contains some of the illustrations used in Jaynes' book. Stephenson's first novel, The Big U, also contains references to bicameralism as an explanation for cult-like behavior among some of the titular university's students and teachers. The 2005 novel Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks also contains themes of bicameralism. The Rage of Achilles, a 2009 novel by Terence Hawkins, recounts The Iliad in terms of the transition from bicameral to modern consciousness.
The 2016 sci-fi television series Westworld invoked bicameralism as the model for the development of consciousness in its android "hosts", as represented for example in the season 1 finale "The Bicameral Mind". Within the series narrative, the hosts' designer admits that the theory was largely rejected, but working with it was still helpful for designing the hosts' higher cognitive functions.
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- See A.R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, for a through overview of the current understanding of the Gilgamesh Epic's textual history.
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- McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and his Emissary. Yale University Press. p. 262.
I believe he [Jayne] 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.
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