Every so often a book emerges from the fringes of the academy proposing a radical change in our understanding of the world. These books explode into public consciousness and often disappear like a passing fad. But occasionally some work lingers in the back of our minds, it makes an impression that we can’t shake.
Such a book was Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Although dismissed by many, there remain a number of scholars who still write of it with admiration and, indeed, there exists a Julian Jaynes Society, dedicated to the study of his works.
Jaynes claimed Vygotsky as his greatest influence and like Vygotsky he felt that the origins of human consciousness were rooted in social history. Jaynes claimed that consciousness was of relatively recent origin and that ancient peoples lacked consciousness.
The most common objection to Jaynes is the apparent absurdity of the idea that ancient people were not conscious. How could pre-modern people possibly not be conscious? If dogs and other animals are conscious how could whole civilizations be populated by unconscious people?
Jaynes’s answer is startling, he accepts that animals are not conscious. He agrees that human intellectual life “is different from anything else we know of in the universe. That is a fact. It is as if all life evolved to a certain point, and then in ourselves turned at a right angle and simply exploded in a different direction.”
Note how this contradicts the general tendency of modern cognitive ethology to regard animals as conscious. Jaynes had a low opinion of animals that did not reflect well on him. While Darwin presented evidence for continuity between the human and animal mind, Jaynes held that the chasm between humans and animals was “awesome.” Jaynes thought Darwin was naïve. In a curious piece of reasoning Jaynes rejected a hypothesis that the reticular activation system (RAS) of the brain might be implicated in consciousness, merely because humans share the RAS with other animals. This hypothesis may well be false, but what is of interest here is the faulty reasoning Jaynes used to reject it. Because his baseline assumption was that animals are not conscious, he believed consciousness could not rest on any feature we share with our nonhuman relatives.
Most people understand consciousness to be the individual’s sense of awareness, sentience, that ability to have experience. The fact that is like something to be a person (or a bat, as philosopher Thomas Nagel noted). As David Chalmers has pointed out, understanding the mechanisms of consciousness, indeed, how such a thing is even possible, is a deeply hard problem, to date unsolved. From this vantage point, Jaynes’ contention that ancient people were not conscious seems absurd. Most people agree that animals have consciousness. Jaynes even acknowledges that animals have emotional lives “marvelously similar” to ours. But how is it possible to have an emotional life without consciousness?
A careful reading of Jaynes shows that he meant something else altogether. For him consciousness might be better described as the modern volitional self. That sense that we have free will and are acting in the world with agency. It is precisely this sense of agency that he claimed was lacking in the writings of ancient authors. What we find in ancient works, such as the Iliad, is that people take actions upon the instructions of the gods. These mandates were often spoken, and individuals saw themselves as carrying on divine instructions. Jaynes noted that the ancients heard the voices of the gods and he likened the phenomenon to the audio hallucinations experienced by people with schizophrenia. Note for example, that Eve does not make a decision to eat the fruit of the tree, but instead, is instructed (”beguiled”) to do so by the serpent. This story is from the J text of the of the Pentateuch, believe to be its most ancient source.
Jaynes pointed to a poverty of language about internal mental states in the Iliad. We learn of Achilles’ actions but not of his mind. The world is controlled by the gods.
Jaynes called this ancient state of being - “bicameralism,” upon the idea that the distribution of language functions across the brain’s right and left hemispheres was implicated in the hearing of divine voices, that is audio hallucinations.
We cannot directly interrogate our ancestors, we cannot have them fill out psychological inventories, nor can we take psycho-physiological measurements. We do, however, have some of the words that they wrote. By examining ancient texts we can make inferences about the authors. Comparing, for example, the Iliad with the Odyssey, many scholars have noted the much greater emphasis on introspection in the Odyssey. While the heroes of the Iliad, act under the tutelage of the gods, the Odysseus of the Odyssey is shown to be introspective, even experiencing regret.
Diuk and colleagues attempted to quantify this shift using a computational technique for identifying themes in text called latent semantic analysis. Sure enough, looking at both Greek and biblical texts, they found a rise in introspective language over time.
For example, when they compared the Tanakh (the Hebrew Testament), with the Christian Testament and Augustine’s Confessions. In accordance with the hypothesis of rising introspection, the older Tanakh showed the least introspection, while the most recent text, the Confessions, showed the most.
Similarly, when they examined Greek texts, they discovered, again consistent with Jaynes’ hypothesis, an increase in introspective themes during the Greek golden age.
“In a sense, we have become our own gods” - Jaynes
Jaynes postulated a specific set of anatomical and functional foundations for bicameralism. He pointed to a region of the brain’s left hemisphere, Wernicke's area, involved in both written and spoken language. He hypothesized that there is a matching region in the right hemisphere and that these two symmetric structures communicate through a bundle of neurons called the anterior commissure. According to Jaynes, the right hemisphere is the source of auditory hallucinations, the voice of the gods. While the left hemisphere hears the voices and follows their instructions.
While interesting, Jaynes central thesis does not rest upon his neurobiological speculation. What is central is the argument that ancient people experienced a consciousness radically different from our own.
Indeed, Jaynes proposed that our ancestors perceived the world in ways that psychologists would now describe as schizotypal. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder where an individual loses connection with objective reality. Schizophrenia is not a “split personality.” That is a common misunderstanding. Rather, people with schizophrenia experience delusions and hallucinations.
We have a tendency to view mental disorders as discrete states, either you are schizophrenic or you are normal. But in reality many disorders are simply extreme versions of conditions we all have. Schizotypy refers to schizophrenic like traits short of full blown schizophrenia. Many people walk among us, hold down jobs and raise families, yet still experience some of the symptoms of schizophrenia. These people may experience audio hallucinations or have strange delusive beliefs. There are a number of questionnaires used by psychologists to gauge a persons level of schizotypy. Typically these questionnaires consist of lists of schizophrenic symptoms from sources such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Respondents are asked if they have experienced any of these symptoms. It turns out that many people exhibit as least some of degree of schizophrenic like traits.
There is interesting research on schizotypy. People who score higher on measures of schizotypy also are more likely to have beliefs in the paranormal or conspiracy theories. On the other hand, creative people tend to have higher schizotypy scores.
Thus, the notion that large segments of the population could experience hallucinations of speaking gods, is not that far fetched. If society was organized to normalize and legitimate these experiences then these hallucinations might play an important role and determine what constitutes normal consciousness.
Along a similar line, there has also been a shift in the role that dreams play in society. In ancient times dreams were thought to be of such great importance they, if Biblical accounts can be believed, could sway the policy of a Pharaoh. It seems that for our ancestors the hard distinction we now make between dreams and the waking state was less certain. Today, dreams are mostly seen as a personal or ephemeral concern.
The shift from the ancient to the modern mind seems to have occurred too rapidly to be explained by a genetic mechanism. However, as we have seen, the work of Vygotsky and Luria suggests that shifts in social structure can produce changes in mentalities. It seems we have moved from a society that prioritized and incentivized schizotypal thinking to one where schizotypy is more marginalized. Schizotypal thinking did not go away but it became a more private affair, not something that received social sanction.
Jaynes was not alone in seeing some kind of fundamental shift in human consciousness at the dawn of history. We have already discussed Norenzayan’s hypothesis of the big gods. Norenzayan, Jaynes,Henri Frankfort, Bruno Snell, Karl Jaspers, and Hajime Nakamura all found evidence of an ancient disjuncture in human awareness. These thinkers were not in complete agreement on the details and the data are still too fragmentary to resolve the differences between them. But a review of their work strengthens the fundamental contention that there has been substantial cognitive change since antiquity.
Archaeologist Henri Frankfort argued that ancient thought was mythopoeic. While modern scientific thought tries to resolve the disparities between individual perspectives through a process of repeated observation and experimentation, mythopoeic thought put anecdotal experience at the center. The ancients experienced the external world not as inanimate but as alive with conflicting supernatural forces. Humans were dependent on these forces and their survival dependent on aiding the beneficent forces and placating those hostile to well being.
One important consequence of mythopoeic thought was that there was “no sharp distinction between dreams, hallucinations, and ordinary vision.” The boundary between dreams and everyday reality was more porous.
Thus, we might gain some access to the ancient mind by examining our dreams. We are clearly conscious in our dreams (a fact that serves as additional evidence against Jaynes’ idiosyncratic use of the word “consciousness”), but most of us do not have the same sense of volition that we have in our waking state. In dreams we are swept along through a tide of uncontrollable events. This may be how our ancestors experienced their waking states.
There is one important exception to this and that is the experience of lucid dreamers, individuals who are able to assert control over actions and responses in the dream state. Lucid dreamers have accomplished in their dream states what modern people have accomplished in their waking state - the sense of volition. This is a startling possibility, for it implies that our sense of free will is a historically determined construction, one that our ancient ancestors did not posses.
In 1947 philosopher Karl Jaspers published his book, The Origin and Goal of History. Although the idea had already been proposed by the Scottish folklorist John Stuart-Glennie, Jasper, apparently unaware of Stuart-Glennie’s writings, noticed a profound change in the character of human thought during the period between 800 to 200 B.C.E. He called this epoch “the axial age.” Axial because it was a turning point, a hinge of history, as some have called it.
Zoroastrianism in Persia, the Hebrew prophets, Greek philosophy, Vedanta and Buddhism in India, and Taoism and Confucianism in China, all have their origins in the axial period. Jasper suggested that this clustering was not accidental and it ushered in a “breakthrough” in human consciousness.
He specifically claimed that, in thought, people of the axial period were closer to the modern mind than to the mentality of those who came before. He wrote: “We are infinitely closer to the Chinese and the Indians than to the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The grandeur of the Egyptian and Babylonian world is unique. But that which is familiar to us only starts with the new age of the break-through.”
It is hard not to notice the influence of Hegel on Jaspers. One point of departure for Jaspers was his break with the Hegel’s Eurocentrism. The axial age was not a phenomenon distinct to Europe, indeed Europe was on the periphery of the axial age developments. Nor did Christianity represent the pinnacle of historical development, other traditions represented axial breakthroughs that must be seen as co-equal with Christianity. Other writers have extended the axial age to include Mexico
What is the evidence for the axial age? The Seshat Global History Data-bank, has given researchers the opportunity to test Jasper’s axial age hypothesis.
The Seshat Data-bank includes historical and archaeological information from societies across the world for the period between 4,000 BCE to 1,900 CE. Mullins and colleagues examined the data looking for evidence of axial transformation. They noted that the evidence presented by Jaspers was largely anecdotal, and often focused on specific individuals, such as Buddha or Confucius. It is also not clear why other figures, such as the Pharaoh Akhenaten were not considered axial.
Instead of trying to shoehorn the transformation claimed by Jaspers into a specific historical period, Mullins and co-authors looked for “axiality” independent of any time period.
Their results did point to a reality of axiality, but not confined to the narrow time period proposed by Jaspers, nor confined to the few geographic areas encompassed in Jaspers’ original formulation. For example, they found evidence of axiality in Egypt prior to Jaspers’ dates and in Cambodia after the end of the period suggested by Jaspers.
Thus, while Jasper’s time frame was probably too narrow, there is evidence for something like the shift he proposed.
“The Olympian gods were laid low by philosophy” - Snell
How then should we characterize the modern mind? First of all it is volitional, it has a sense of agency that the ancients seemed to have lacked. We think of ourselves as the authors of our actions, we have a strong sense of free will.
Second, modern people are philosophical in the sense that they act in accordance with some system of truth. The modern mind is a philosophical mind.
In his book, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, Classics scholar Bruno Snell made an argument similar to Jaynes. Snell tells us “the Iliad and the Odyssey, which stand as the source of the Greek tradition, speak to us with a strong emotional appeal; and as a result we are quick to forget how radically the experience of Homer differs from our own.” Along the same lines, he wrote “there is no denying that the great heroes of the Homeric poems are drawn in firm outline; and yet the reactions of an Achilles, however grand and significant, are not explicitly presented in their volitional or form as character.”
Snell notes a difference in language between ancient and moderns, and claims “the stranger the other tongue, and the further we are removed from its thoughts.”
Snell finds in the writings of Homer the same concreteness of thought that Luria found among the illiterate peasants of the U.S.S.R. He particularly notes the poverty of Homer’s language for describing the mind.
Like Jaynes, Snell notes the dependence of the Homeric heroes on instructions from the gods, “Homer does not know genuine personal decisions; even where a hero is shown pondering two alternatives the intervention of the gods plays the key role.” The Homeric Greeks understood their internal lives “as the intervention of a god.”
But later Greek thought takes a radical turn. According to Snell, “by about 600 B.C. these efforts had developed into a search for uniform principles whereby men hoped to eliminate the obscurities and uncertainties which best their various fields of vision.” It is this “search for uniform principles” that forms the basis for the modern mind. It is the beginning of the great dialectical struggle between different schools of truth that characterizes our world even today.
Among the Greeks we see, in the difference between Alcmaeon and Parmenides, the great debate that came to dominate Western intellectual life.
Alcmaeon was a physician and a follower of Pythagoras, while Parmenides was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. According to Snell. “Alcmaeon advances - inductively, we would say - from the perception of the senses, from human knowledge, to the invisible; Parmenides receives a divine instruction to put aside as illusion all sense experience and the process of becoming which the sense apprehend.”
Thus, the modern mind brings with it a struggle between two ways of knowing, empirical versus intuitive, or, perhaps, materialist versus spiritual.
Perhaps the most expansive student of the shift to the modern mind was Hajimae Nakamura, who examined the transition from mythic culture to philosophy across both Western and Eastern cultures.
Nakamura’s book Parallel Developments asserted that “in different areas of the world similar problems, even if not similar concepts, emerged at certain stages of cultural development.” and “the history of ideas in each cultural area has undergone a similar development with respect to intellectual problems.”
Nakamura endorsed a stage theory for the history of ideas: “I would rather not specify how many stages one ought to admit, though I firmly believe that there have been some stages.”
Nakamura began his exploration with the Vedic India. He chose this as his starting point both because it was in his area of expertise, but also because it provided one of the longest unbroken sequences of documentary records. At each stage of development he makes comparisons of the Indian data with information from other cultures, including Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese.
Like the other thinkers we have been discussing Narkamura notes a disjunction in human thought sometime between 800 and 500 BCE. He tied this shift to the rise of urban culture and trade. These social changes led to a decline in the power and prestige of the priesthood, an increase in the influence of money and the merchant class.
These societies, while sufficiently wealthy to support intellectual work, also experienced widespread uncertainty and unrest. All this gave rise to a new consciousness. According to Nakamura “a need was felt for new principles or criteria by means of which one could relate oneself meaningfully to the new world that was coming into existence.”
With the axial shift we see a decline in the importance of sacrifice. Sacrifice to the gods was common in the pre-axial world and sacrificial offerings could include material possessions, animals, or people. We see this in ancient texts like the Vedas and in the Iliad.
But with the new consciousness, sacrifice is questioned and de-emphasized. This fact suggests that the shift to the modern mind involved both cognitive and ethical change.
The intellectual ferment that accompanies this period leads not to one new view of the world, but to competing interpretations of both reality and ethics. Sorokin writes, “some of the cultures and their mentality may not develop this ethical mentality up to the level of the integrated ethicophilosophical systems. Others more integrated cultures develop it. In the former cultures, the division of the actions, relationships, objects, and events into right and wrong exists, but it is not welded into a consistent ethical system, with its principles, hierarchy of values, and their ‘justification.’ For such a step a high degree of analytic thought and a considerable degree of ethical controversy are necessary. These conditions may not be present in many simpler societies.”
According to Nakamara, we see this tension between competing world views in India with different Upanishadic schools, the pre-Socratics in Greece, and the period of the “hundred schools” in China. The rise of philosophy allows the development of heterodoxies. The clash of these world views is a cause of historical change, as human actors follow the dictates of a particular truth system.
The clash of ideas is also an effect of the struggle between different human groups such as, nations, classes, castes, and religions. As Marx pointed out social conditions and positions can sometimes dictate the adoption of particular world views.
These systems of truth and ethics are not stable, and their interaction sets up the dialectic that will dominate culture from the axial period to the present. Sometimes there is bitter hostility between them, at other points, there are attempts at synthesis. To date, these tensions have not been resolved. This dialectical process, still underway, remains a motive force for history. A study of this dialectic will help us understand how human altruism, while expanded beyond narrow kinship groups, is often still limited to bounded groups of nations, co-religionists, or ideological cliques.
Although flawed, the most detailed analysis of this dialectic can be found in the work of Pitirim Sorokin.