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Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a fascinating book written by Julian Jaynes, and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1976.

Maybe many of you folks have read this book already. And if you haven't, maybe you should (I find Jaynes' writing very accessible). I managed to borrow a copy a little while ago (but it's apparent to me that I am going to have to acquire my own copy to have available at my leisure). I cracked it open Friday night at work, and can't stop. The idea, if you're unfamiliar with the book, is that what we call consciousness (that is, the subjective "I" we imagine behind our eyes and everyone else's) emerged as a result of language (and specifically through the heightened attention, examination, and comparison we are able to achieve through proliferations and permutations of metaphor) and that before the "I" the mind was bicameral.

What Jaynes meant (or seems to have meant [he died in 1997] — I haven't finished the book yet, or managed to fully absorb or understand the chapters I've read) by bicameral is that the mind functioned as two parts — and neither part conscious — the "man" part, based in the left side of the brain and using, as we do, Wernicke's area to communicate through language, which performed everyday tasks such as learning, fulfilling social/civic/ familial obligations, everything that needed to be done on a day-to-day basis, and the "god" part, based in the right side of the brain, which performed organizational and analytical tasks, and which, in times of stress or decision (i.e. novel situations) collated/parsed/synthesized past experience, formed a response, and, using the area equivalent to Wernicke's, coded that response into speech and sent it to the left side of the brain where it was perceived as the voice of the god (or the king, chief, or a parent), this hallucination being auditory, but often accompanied by corresponding visual hallucinations.

Jaynes wasn't just pulling this stuff out of his ass. He develops his thesis slowly and carefully, with great attention to detail (and objections), citing, for example, much research done on, and case histories of epileptics and schizophrenics.

Part of Jaynes' ideas are expressed through a study of the absence of subjectivity and volition in the Iliad — the Iliad as a psychological document is, or seems to me to be, quite central to the book.

I'm sure I'm not doing the book justice. I'm certain I haven't gotten across the absolute (beautiful) strangeness of what he postulates, nor how his discussion of metaphor resonates in me. As I said, Jaynes develops his ideas slowly. This is purposeful, and utterly necessary to understanding even a part of what he is saying. This is not a book to be nibbled at, it is a book each bite of which must be chewed and chewed over and over in the mind to have a hope of capturing its full savour and nutritional value.

To be read and listened to before, after, or in conjunction with Jaynes' book I'd also recommend Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's 2003 Reith Lectures, The Emerging Mind. Ramachandran is the Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego).


Zachariah Wells said...

Obviously, I'll have to read this to get my head around the ideas you're talking about, but at a glance, it seems a scientfically dubious procedure to take a volatile literary text as any kind of reliable pyschological document. Books like the Iliad might portray the ideals of a society (say "absence of subjectivity or volition") without necessarily being reflective of the reality of life as it was lived. The Aeneid, a much less volatile text, was consciously constructed around Roman ideals of "pietas" and duty. It was written by Vergil for the emperor. It seems to me at least as likely that "Homer" composed the Iliad with similar motivations as that the poem documents the psychological ontology of Homeric era Greeks.

I can't remember if Pinker has anything specific to say about Jaynes. Seems to me he does, but my copies of his books aren't handy. Pinker's conception of language as an instinct would seem to belie any notion that it is language that has created subjectivity. The we-are-constructed-by-language theorists get a pretty rough ride from Pinker, and I have to say I find his case more persuasive/realistic than theirs.

Anyway, you've piqued my curiosity now; I'll have to track down Jaynes myself and have a looksee.

Zachariah Wells said...

As a ps.: isn't the Iliad at root about how misguided/irresponsible Achilles' subjective volition is?

John said...

I was sure I was not doing Jaynes or his work justice, and I was correct. (I appear to have slighted his methodology as well, which, as far I can tell, is rigorous.) My excitement led me to mischaracterize the Iliad's role in Jaynes work. I stand by my view of it as integral to the book, though I'll let a quote (in the paragraph below) from Jaynes himself place the Iliad in its proper context of importance to his ideas. When I posted today, I had just finished Book I of ...The Bicameral Mind, The Mind of Man. I am now reading the second section, The Witness of History (in which the archaeological arguments for Jaynes' hypothesis are brought forward and discussed). The third and final section is Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World.

Anyway, as to the Iliad, Jaynes says, in part, near the end of the chapter, The Mind of Iliad, "The evidence for such a mentality as I have just proposed is not meant to rest solely on the Iliad. It is rather that the Iliad suggests the hypothesis that I shall attempt to prove or refute by examining the remains of other civilizations of antiquity."

As to Pinker; I'll have to go back to the Language Instinct once I've finished Bicameral Mind in order to judge whether and how much disagreement there might be. And, of course, I'll have wait until I'm finished and absorbed as much as I can before I can make a final call on whether the book constitutes a theory and, if so, whether it, or a version of it is falsifiable.

Do track the book down, Zach. Jayne speaks for himself much better than I speak for him.

John said...

Oh yeah, in Jaynes' view (as I understand it) The Aeneid and The Iliad would be too quite different animals because of the "conscious" creation of the Aeneid. The Iliad, in Jaynes' reading, was composed orally by minds unlike ours and transmitted orally over several centuries during the period of the change from bicameral mind to ours, before the earliest written version we have was made.

What Jaynes sees in the Iliad is a poem of action rather than introspection, and that almost all action in it is initiated by 'gods' -- damn once again we're getting into my very recent and perhaps not completely accurate reading of the work. If you want, I could scan The Mind of Iliad chapter and email it to you? (Bear in mind that I'm not trying to convince you of anything other than that the book is worth reading).

And speaking of being unconscious, I have a PlayStation 2 game called Gun waiting for me to continue it. So I'm going back to playing it.

John said...

..."two" quite different animals...

Zachariah Wells said...

I'm already intrigued enough to want to read it, no need to email scans. Was just trying to piece some things together. I'm quite sure I've read references to this book in Pinker and/or others in recent months (either that or it came up in conversation at a party or something...), but my library's mostly split between the attic of my house in Halifax and my parents' place, dagnabbit.

What you say about the difference between the two epics is basically what I meant by "volatile" and "less volatile."

Zachariah Wells said...

Another thought: Christopher Logue's very cinematic translations/adaptations of the Iliad certainly interpret it as an action poem, don't they?

John said...

I'm sure both Pinker (which is where I think I first heard of it) and Dawkins refer to the book. And I'm almost certain William H. Calvin mentions it in A Brief History of the Mind.

I did understand what you meant by volatile. What I failed miserably to get across in my reply was that Jaynes' claim for the Iliad being a psychological document is more deeply concerned with 'how' it says the 'what' of what it says than with just what it says — there! I bet that's as clear as the Bonshaw River after a hard spring rain, wha?

John said...

Yeah, Logue! I had wondered when I first read "War Music" and "All Day Permanent Red" whether that film feeling his versions gave me was a result of his back in screenwriting. Now I'm thinking that while his background must certainly contribute to that feeling, it may not necessarily be the whole cause.

I still haven't read Logue's "Homer's Cold Calls." I need to get me a copy of that.

Zachariah Wells said...

Behind myself, have still only read War Music. Yeah, I think there's something intrinsically filmic about the Iliad that draws someone like Logue to it.

Anonymous said...

RE: Jaynes's theory, there's also a new book that was recently published that expands on his ideas:

Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited

John said...

Thanks! I much appreciate the tip.