Week 7 / The Bicameral Mind / Stephany Howard

Siddharth Ramakrishnan’s talk on Thursday got me thinking about our definitions of consciousness and how we apply these notions to ourselves and other species.  Before Thursday I had never heard of the term Umwelt and it has allowed me to articulate for myself some of the ways in which we as humans oversimplify the entire phenomenon of consciousness.  We seem to take our own consciousness (let’s say it’s self awareness for now) for granted, just as we take for granted the apparent lack of awareness in all other species. Ramakrishnan’s description of Cephalopod behavior and his social commentary about monkeys illuminates the ways we underestimate subjectivity in other species—we automatically project our own experiences of our intentionality, deliberation, and social awareness onto other animals.  An Umwelt in concept points to how inappropriate it is for us to make these projections—monkeys exist in an entirely different kind of self-centered world, and it is possible that they have awareness in a way that we cannot articulate in human language.

The talk also got me thinking about this relatively old idea that I heard about only recently of the Bicameral Mind. I decided to look into the theory of Bicameralism in order to consider some of the possibilities for how human consciousness arose—perhaps we once lived with consciousness resembling that of other species (we are animals too after all), perhaps we didn’t always have the refined self-awareness that we clearly take for granted now.

Psychologist Julian Jaynes introduced his idea of Bicameralism in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Jaynes makes the case that “At one time, human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was Consciously aware.”1

He argues that as late as 3000 years ago, humans experienced not the sense of self we have today, but rather something resembling schizophrenia—a segmented awareness created by the conversation between two totally distinct parts of the brain.  Humans in a Bicameral state of awareness supposedly may have experienced auditory hallucinations (produced by the right hemisphere) which the left hemisphere’s language centers described as an external voice, or voice of “god.”  Jaynes uses ancient writings like the Iliad and Old Testament to simultaneously point out the numerous accounts of said “voice of god” speaking to people, as well as an apparent lack of introspection or self-awareness in the authors and characters of these stories.  These early (possibly bicameral) characters differ from later characters in Homer’s Odyssey, which illuminates the possible emergence of an early kind of consciousness in the intervening period between these monumental works–we can supposedly see this drastic change just by reading and comparing the Iliad and Odyssey.

Another clue that humans may have lacked consciousness in ancient civilization shows itself in the countless accounts of dead bodies being treated in ancient society as if they were still alive (that is, dead bodies being seated, dressed, and fed like living humans). We might explain these accounts—according to Jaynes—with humans’ auditory hallucinations of voices (produced in theory by the separate hemispheres of the brain).  The theory also explains why our notions of God have consistently been so anthropomorphic rather than otherworldly or totally supernatural—this seemingly external voice is actually the human brain speaking to itself.

Jaynes proposes that Consciousness arose as this Bicameral mind broke down over time.  This breakdown seems to have happened when “stresses in the second millennium B.C. forced the two halves of the brain to merge into unicamerality. (This was a cultural, rather than a biological, transformation, Jaynes notes.) The stresses might have included natural disasters (the story of the Flood comes to mind), population growth, forced migrations, warfare, trade, and the development of writing. A common denominator among all these is the introduction of complexity and difference, things the bicameral mind deals with only with difficulty. Jaynes suggests, among other things, that traders in contact with other cultures might have been forced to develop a ‘protosubjective consciousness’ to cope with the gods of unfamiliar people.”2

As history progressed and human survival required more complex mental processes, bicamerality ceased to suffice and a unified self became necessary in maneuvering a new social landscape.  Jaynes imagines that at this moment people stopped hearing the “voice of god” (and perhaps prayer arose at this time in order to compensate for the missing connection to this voice). Sumerian peoples apparently described on stone tablets their sensed loss of God in a newly subjective tone. Instead of hallucinating the voice of God, the voice in their heads became incorporated into the rest of the mind, giving rise to self-awareness. I find it a beautiful notion to imagine humans existing at one point with such a simple kind of mental experience and to imagine religion and schizophrenia as potential leftovers from such a simple time, before humans perceived themselves as “I”, separate from their environment.

1 Soza, Shari. “An Owner’s Manual: A Basic Erector Set of the Bicameral Mind”. http://www.snowcrest.net/soza/easyjayn.htm.

2 http://deoxy.org/alephnull/jaynes.htm

Stephany Howard

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