The Origin of Consciousness

Julian Jaynes, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Marcel Kuijsten, ed., Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited. Henderson, NV: Julian Jaynes Society, 2008.

Marcel Kuijsten, ed., The Julian Jaynes Collection. Henderson, NV: Julian Jaynes Society, 2012.


Julian Jaynes was an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1940s when he began to think deeply about the epistemological paradox that would dominate his life, the problem of consciousness, when suddenly, from no where, he heard a distinct, authoritative voice shout at him:

“Include the knower in the known!” (86)

It was the answer to his paradox. This moment of hallucinated epiphany was what the Ancient Greeks called divine inspiration, the whisperings of the poetic music, divination, or prophecy.  It would lead Jaynes down a multidisciplinary rabbit hole, tumbling through archaeology, cognitive science, psychology, art history, anthropology, and poetry, culminating in his masterpiece: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).  His most stunning insight: consciousness as we know it today only began to come into existence around 1,300 B.C.  Before then, individuals did not think of themselves as individuals; people did not have a sense of ego, or “I” or “me” or self, but rather, behaved along lines analogous to the modern day schizophrenic, whose actions are guided by internal voices. In short, Jaynes proposes that before 1300 B.C., humankind was entirely schizophrenic, responding to the directives of internal stimuli, without a sense of self or volition.

Here’s one way to put it: you know that voice in your head? That voice that you hear in your head when you read this sentence?  It sounds like you, sure.  You talk with it all the time, yet somehow, paradoxically, it is you.  Jaynes’ point is that you didn’t always know that the voice in your head was yours.  In fact, up until around the birth of writing, you not only didn’t have a concept of you, you were something like an automaton, responding to directions and directives of a voice in your head that you didn’t know was yours.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But don’t stop yet, it gets weirder, and by weirder, I mean more interesting!

Here is another way to to put it. Think of this sort of the bicameral experience in a Cartesian sense: rather than having a thought which you imagine yourself as the originator of, thoughts just happen.  It’s not cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am,” but rather, thoughts are happening.  They seem to come from elsewhere (where exactly is culturally defined). So the Ancient Egyptians might imagine the voices of command come from their ka, directly into the head of the pharaoh, like so:


“The god Khnum forming the future king with the right hand and the king’s ka with the left on a potter’s wheel. Note that the ka points with its lefthand to its mouth, indicating its verbal function.” (192)

Jaynes call this bicameralism, a product of the many-consciousnesses theory of mind. Bicameralism is his evolutionary theory of mind, his answer to “this consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all–what is it?”

 Consciousness is a  much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a  flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining on it.  The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when it actually does not. (23)

Let’s start with some things this theory explains:

  1. It explains why schizophrenia is ubiquitous — around 1.1% of the population worldwide, or 51 million people spread pretty evenly across all cultures. This is a carryover from the breakdown of the bicameral mind.
  2. It explains why so many “regular” folk occasionally hear voices.
  3. It explains why schizophrenics so often experience “command” hallucinations, and a looser sense of ego.
  4. It explains why children go through an “imaginary friend” phase — it is a developmental phase, part of growing a sense of ego, or self consciousness.
  5. It explains why so many Ancient societies presumed the literal existence and daily interference of gods, with whom they regularly talked.
  6. It explains the origins of gods, visions, prophets, divine intervention, and early animist religions.

His theory is based around two ideas which I find very sound: 1) “early civilizations had a profoundly different mentality from our own” (201); and 2) language precedes identity and consciousness.  First you have words for things.  Only later do you have a word for yourself.

Now for his evidence.  To a certain extent, Jaynes just takes the Ancients at their word. Take the Iliad, as his primary example.  “There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad” (69) Jaynes tells us. “The Trojan War was 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.” (75). Take the following scene which I have randomly (p.71) selected from the Iliad:

Athene, standing behind the son of Peleus, tugged at his golden hair, so that only he could see her, no one else. Achilles, turning in surprise, knew Pallas Athene at once, so terrible were her flashing eyes. He spoke out, with winged words, saying: ‘Why are you here, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus? Is it to witness Agamemnon’s arrogance? I tell you and believe that this son of Atreus’ will pay soon with his life for his insolent acts.’ The goddess, bright-eyed Athene, replied: ‘I came from the heavens to quell your anger, if you’ll but listen: I was sent by the goddess, white-armed Hera, who in her heart loves and cares for you both alike. Come, end this quarrel, and sheathe your sword. Taunt him with words of prophecy; for I say, and it shall come to pass, that three times as many glorious gifts shall be yours one day for this insult. Restrain yourself, now, and obey.’ (Bk I:188-222)

Jaynes would say that, in this scene, nothing is metaphor.  When Homer says “Athene…tugged at [Achilles’] golden hair,” what he means is no more or no less than that: Achilles perceived a God (incidentally, near his ear), not a metaphor, not a poetic device, not a symbol, but directly perceived a God who told him what to do.  Jaynes eschews the argument that the gods are literary devices: “To say the gods are an artistic apparatus is the same kind of thing as to say that Joan of Arc told the Inquisition about her voices merely to make it all vivid to those who were about to condemn her” (79). No metaphor.

Achilles makes no decisions, has no thoughts, has no conception of self, he is a body who hallucinates and performs the actions of authoritative voices he hears in his head.  He has absolutely zero agency; he is a pawn to the forces of the gods.  It’s a little bit like Inside Out (2015). Jaynes goes on to note that there are no words in the Iliad for thinking, feeling, imagining, ruminating, etc.  No one ever thinks “I’ll go do X or Y,” it is always impersonal, for example, Diomedes says Achilles will fight “when the thumos in his chest tells him and a god rouses him.” (Jaynes, 69; Iliad 9:702f).

To obey, Jaynes points out, etymologically comes from ob + audire, “to hear while facing someone.” Words of thinking, reflecting, perceiving — words we would expect a person with modern consciousness to possess — do not exist in the Iliad. Jaynes goes through all the important ones:

Psyche, which later means soul or conscious mind, is in most instances life-substance, such as blood or breath…The thumos, which later comes to mean something like emotional soul, is simply motion or agitation. When a man stops moving, the thumos leaves his limbs…A word of somewhat similar use is phrem, which is always localized anatomically as the midriff, or sensations in the midriff, and is used in the plural…Nous in later Greek, come to mean conscious mind.  It comes from the word noeein, to see. Its proper translation in the Iliad would e osmething like perception or recognition or field of vision. Another important word, which perhaps come s form the doubling of the word meros (part), is mermera, meaning in two parts. This was made into a verb by adding the ending –izo, the common suffix which can turn a noun into a verb, thus resulting in mermerizien, to be put into two parts [read as: bicameral] about something. Mermerizein sis thus wrongly translated as to ponder, to think, to be of divided mind, to be troubled about, to try to decide. But essentially it means to be in conflict about two actions, not two thoughts.” (69-70)

In the later epic tradition, Vergil (who, to be clear, possessed a conscious sense of self), put the epistemic problem of motivation (that is, “what moves you?”) into my favorite line in all of Latin poetry:

Dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt,
Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido?
(Aeneid IX: 184-85)

Do the gods not give this fire to our hearts,
O Euryalus,or does each man’s mad passion become to him a god?

Nisus and Euryalus are capable of self reflection on a conscious level which Jaynes would say is impossible for the Greeks and Trojans of the Iliad.  But they are able to ask this fundamental question precisely because they are written by Vergil, long after the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

Bicameralism explains the massive number of votive statues in ancient societies.  They were there because people simply thought that’s where the voices were coming from.  Bicameralism explains preservation / mummification burial practices: the dead still spoke, they still gave advice, they are “living dead.”  Bicameralism explains animist religions, which believe in the possession of all beings, humans, rabbits, trees, streams, with a spirit which one could converse with.  Bicameralism explains why the planet used to be full of prophets–where did all the prophets go? Bicameralism explains the lack of individuality expressed in ancient art, with exceptions being made for bicameral leaders, who often were seen as literal gods themselves. Bicameralism explains how the Elohim (Powerful Ones, emphasis on the plurality) became the monotheistic “God” Elohim.  Bicameralism explains why Adam and Eve are so paradoxically predestined by the foreknowledge of God, yet also seem to have a choice to disobey.  The stuff of mytho-religious folklore isn’t history in the sense that it tells us what actually happened, but it does tell us what people thought happened, or perceived to be happening–the reality, the perception, the consciousness of the world was, as Jaynes argues, “profoundly different from our own.”

If we imagine Jaynes’ theory as correct to the extent that it cannot be proven, doesn’t it shed some light on contemporary behavior?  Not only schizophrenia, but other mental illnesses which seem to be the result of other consciousnesses overriding one’s own logical, verbal conscious; alcoholism, for example, or obsessive compulsive behaviors.  She couldn’t help it. He wasn’t in his right mind.  That persona cannot be held accountable for their actions.

When did bicameralism end?  Here Jaynes takes a number of leaps of faith.  I think Jaynes would say that to a certain extent, bicameralism still exists, as in the examples in the preceding paragraph.  But the clear evidence of it, he’d say, is in our oldest writings, which reveal that style and mentality so foreign to our contemporary mentalities.  Bicameralism works well enough with small groups, one leader speaks to the most important god, while the rest of the group follows his voices.  But once communities got too large, then we have evidence of the most ancient writings using writing to establish in writing the laws which normally would have been pronounced by the bicameral leader.  Hammurabi hallucinates the judgments of Marduk (199), those 282 directives that order bicameral Mesopotamian society.  Writing means a stabilization, or a ‘check’ on what the Gods can and cannot command.  Suddenly the steles becomes just as much gods as the King himself. As the old Sumerian proverb goes, “Act quickly, make your god happy” (204). Jaynes argues in Chapter 3, “The Causes of Consciousness” that consciousness comes about when the gods / bicameral Kings failed to maintain order. These failures, eruptions, migrations, conquests, inspired a transition from writing as a mere inventory-keeping law-listing tool to a narrativizing tool. Thus our epics are full of gods.  Jaynes argues that the evolutionary development of deceit caused the breakdown of the bicameral mind, that the ability to do one thing and be of another mind was a tremendously important evolutionary advantgage.  Those who could not resist the commandments of their gods to smite whatever strangers interfered with them, were more likely to die. “And again we may appeal to the principle of Baldwinian evolution as we did in our discussion of language. Consciousness must be learned by each new generation, and those biologically most able to learn it would be those most likely to survive.” (221)  Monotheism, read in this light, can be seen as an explicit move against bicameralism — proscriptions against Marduk and whoever are both a belief in the ‘one true god’ (as surely as the belief in Marduk is) as well as selection against those who still listen to their own gods.  So we get Zechariah 13: 3-4 (and numerous other biblical stories):

And if anyone still prophesies, their father and mother, to whom they were born, will say to them, ‘You must die, because you have told lies in the LORD’s name.’ Then their own parents will stab the one who prophesies.

These are the endings of bicameralism, which, again, still exists today in vestiges, and died out worldwide over the course of approximately three thousand years. (221)

Most people have never had a disassociative experience, an experience of temporary loss of identity — it can be horrifying and enlightening to forget briefly that there is an I behind those thoughts that are happening.  But talk to a shaman, talk to someone who has experience with peyote, ayahuasca, salvia, and Jaynes sounds like he might very well have hallucinated a reasonable explanation to what it was like to transition from a simpler (is that the word?) to a more autonomous self. Unprovable but plausible.  It’s an evolutionary theory of mind that explains how we became our own gods.




6 replies »

  1. I read this decades ago and all I remembered (I thought) was about the importance of reading and writing in civilizations shift from the bicameral mind. But given the lack of a bicameral mind in Australia or the Americas, and the alleged end of this phase for ALL of mankind suddenly around 1300 BC – makes the idea seem preposterous to me.


  2. A brilliant summary of Jaynes’s book. I only read it recently and I have been absolutely blown away by it! Stunned, fascinated, awed by it. It could easily be one of the most important books of modern times, but it’s this ‘could’ which leaves it on the fringes of pop philosophy and genuine canon philosophy. Do you think he is right?? I would love to read a Lacanian close analysis of this book, because I think the main flaw is the lack of psychoanalysis. But WOW!


  3. Have you seen Brian McVeigh’s newest book of Jaynesian scholarship? It’s simply titled “The Psychology of the Bible”. Also in “Westworld and Philosophy”, there are two essays that discuss Jaynes’ theory.


    • I haven’t! I don’t actually subscribe to Jaynesean theories-of-mind. I just find that sort of Campbellian all-encompassing hubris to be untenable, even if it is fascinating (I love a good late-tenure book–the sort of I’m-going-to-die-so-here-is-my-theory-of-life-the-universe-and-everything book). That said, I’ll check McVeigh out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t see it as merely being about a single theory. Jaynes himself was basing his own theory on the work of philologists, anthropologists, etc who had long before noted differences in other societies, including evidence from the ancient world. He was particularly influenced by the anthropological school of cultural studies and social constructivism that was established by Franz Boas.

        Related theories, some having influenced Jaynes, can be found in the scholarship of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, E.R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Carl Jung, etc. And more recently there is Iain McGilchrist, James Kugel, Brian McVeigh, Marcel Kuijsten, Jan Sleutels, Michael Carr, Rabbi James Cohn, Bill Rowe, Judith Weissman, Tor Norretranders, etc. All of these scholars have different focuses of concern and different explanations, but they all agree that something fundamentally changed in the human psyche and culture, as related to both language and technology.

        There are also those like Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist who studies voice-hearing, who were inspired by Jaynes but don’t write about ancient mentalities. Basically, it’s an interest in the aspects of the human psyche that have been ignored because they don’t fit into our modern society. In a different kind of way, other scholars like Karl Jaspers, in his Axial Age theory, considered that same general historical period to be pivotal. Clearly, something radically changed and, one way or another, it set the stage for all that followed.


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