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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 4 September 2017

"The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind" by Julian Jaynes

Jayners wrote this book in 1976 when he was professor of psychology at Princeton University and so, on the face of it, not a nutter. His thesis is, on the face of it, nutty. He believes that consciousness evolved in human minds somewhere between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey when all around the world people began to mourn that they had lost their gods, the voices they had heard commanding them to do things in their heads. These voices were the voices of gods. In other words, “before the second Millennium BC, everyone was schizophrenic.” (p 405)

The bicameral mind itself evolved: Archaeological evidence suggest early human tribe size like gorillas of about 30. "And it is the problem of this limitation of group size which the gods may have come into evolutionary history to solve." (p 129) Social control was effected by individuals hallucinating the voices of gods and kings. "The bicameral mind is a form of social control and it is that form of social control which allowed mankind to move from small hunter-gatherer groups to large agricultural communities. The bicameral mind with its controlling gods was evolved as a final stage of the evolution of language." (p 126)

What was that like? He presumes that the Iliad describes humans well: "the gods were organizations of the central nervous system ... The god is a part of the man, and quite consistent with this conception is the fact the gods never step outside of natural laws. ... The Greek god never steps forth in thunder, never begets awe or fear in the hero, and is as far from the outrageously pompous god of Job as it is possible to be." (p 74)

But then a further evolution took place. Language had ushered in bicamerality, now writing ushered it out again.  The world (middle east) became anarchic and a socially useful control that ran small city states was no longer an evolutionary asset; consciousness had to evolve. The change factors were:
  • writing weakens auditory brain
  • control using hallucinations is inherently fragile
  • The massive social upheaval throughout the ancient world consequent on the eruption of Thera making it more difficult for social control to be via hallucinated gods
  • Social mixing causing people to observe differences in others and thus to hypothesise internality
  • epic poetry introducing narrative
  • deceit becoming socially useful
  • natural selection
The major gods became invisible. "We have the beginning of hybrid human-animal beings as the intermediaries and messengers between the banished gods and their forlorn followers. Such messengers were always part bird and part human ..." (p 230). The epic of Gilgamesh has later interpolations: a "barmaid" (late interpolation, c650 BC) in Gilgamesh story speaks to her heart. (p 252) Gilgamesh has sadness in his heart (p 253). "God Utnapishtim, the Distant ... is looking into the distance and speaking words to his heart, asking it questions and coming to his own conclusions." (p 253) "The literature on the loss of gods is an unquestionable change in the history of Mesopotamia, unlike anything that preceded it. It is indeed the birth of modern religious attitudes and we can discover ourselves in the very psalm-like yearnings for religious certainty" (p 253) 

He notes the change in the character of God within the Old Testament: “He walks in his garden at the cool of the day, talking to his recent creation.Adam. He is present and visible at the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, shuts the door of Noah's Ark with his own hand, speaks with Abraham at Sechem, Bethel, and Hebron, and scuffles all night with Jacob like a hoodlum.” (p 301) “There is no question of virtue or of justice. So He-Who-Is prefers Abel to Cain, slays Er, the first-born of Judah, having taken a dislike to him, first tells Abraham to beget a son, and then later orders him to kill the son even as criminal psychotics might be directed today.” (p 304)

He notes that words that are key in the Iliad change as we move to the Odyssey:
  • thumos: activity, movement, agitation (perhaps caused by adrenaline) (p 262)
  • phrenes: lungs, breathing (p 263)
  • kradie: later kardia, cardiac, heart (p 265); "originally, I suggest, it simply meant quivering, coming from the verb kroteo, to beat." (p 266)
  • etor: belly, guts (p 267)
  • ker: trembling, perhaps from kradie, perhaps from cheir, hand (p 268)
  • noos: "from noeo = to see, is perception itself" (p 269) "The coming of consciousness can in a certain vague sense be construed as a shift from an auditory mind to a visual mind". (p 269)
  • mermerizo: divided into two parts, in two minds (p 259)
  • psyche: from "psychein = to breathe", life
From Iliad to Odyssey these terms increase except for thumos which decreases. (p 274) "The Odyssey shows an increased spatialization of time ... there is also an increased ratio of abstract terms to concrete" (p 276)

And oracles which were once everyday now become specialized. He sees six stages in the development of oracles: (pp 329 - 330)
  • Place
  • Prophet
  • Trained prophet
  • Possessed prophet
  • Interpreted possessed prophet
  • Erratic
Nowadays he sees the vestiges of bicamerality in those with Tourette's syndrome, in schizophrenics and in religious group ceremonies like Voodoo and the glossolalia experienced in certain charismatic churches.
  • Hallucinations are dependent on the teachings and expectations of childhood” (p 410)
  • The memoirs of Schreiber a German suffering from schizophrenia mention that “as he slowly recuperated, the tempo of speech of his gods slowed down and then degenerated into an indistinct hissing.” (p 416)
  • The patient in trying to keep some control over his behaviour repeats over and over to himself ‘I am’ or ‘I am the one present in everything’ ... another patient may use only single words like ‘strength’ or ‘life’ to try to anchor himself against the dissolution of his consciousness.” (p 420)
I didn't find it convincing. Clearly there were profound social and cultural changes at these times and the nature of godness changed (and has changed again more recently) but these are surely much easier to explain as cultural changes. We all (?) hear voices in our heads and some interpret this as voices from outside their heads. Perhaps that interpretation was more common among pre-literate people. Perhaps, also, hallucinations were more common in ancient times: the ancient Greeks were always watering their strong wines, perhaps before modern methods of food production it was quite common to ingest psychoactive substances with your bread and your beer. It just seems a step too far to postulate that bicamerality evolved into human brain architecture and then evolved out again in favour of consciousness.

One of the troubles with this thesis is his use of language. For example: "The function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener." (p 73) The use of "most certainly" suggest to my bullshit detection faculty that he is using rhetoric to bolster a weak argument. If the argument is strong enough, don't add superfluous qualifiers.

He also makes claims that are just plain wrong. "The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history." (p 76) But of course it is imaginative creative literature. It is historical fiction. It is like saying the Shakespeare's Richard III is not drama but biography. Furthermore, the analysis of words used in the Iliad which Jaynes undertakes later is a type of literary criticism. 

But a fascinating read and there were lots of side snippets some of which I have recorded below.

By products:
  • If you continually mistype 'the' as 'hte' you should practise typing 'hte': "the mistake drops away - a phenomenon called negative practice" (p 34)
  • "Poems are rafts clutched at by men drowning in inadequate minds." (p 256)
  • Time is “spread out in a spatial succession ... The before and after of time on metaphored into a spatial succession.” (p 280)
  • When I am melting I have no hands, I go into a doorway in order not to be trampled on. Everything is flying away from me. In the doorway I can gather together the pieces of my body.” (p 425 )
  • The word psyche originally meant life and only later came to mean soul. (p 291) “So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. ... So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins it's huge haunted career through history.” (p 291)
  • The word for vagrants in Akkad, the language of Babylon, is khabiru, and so these desert refugees are referred to on cuneiform tablets. And khabiru, softened in the desert air, becomes Hebrew.” (p 294)
  • "You cannot, absolutely cannot think of time except by spatializing it. Consciousness is always a spatialization in which the diachronic is turned into the synchronic, in which what has happened in time is excerpted and seen in side-by-sideness." (p 60)
  • "the most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors". (p 48) He gives huge numbers of examples that use the human body such as the head of the household, the face of a clock, the brow of a hill, the teeth of a comb, the lip of a crater, the arm of a chair, the leg of a table ... (p 49) 
  • All the tablets from Hammurabi "are apparently incised in wet clay by the same hand" (p 198): H himself?

Cuneiform poetry: (p 225)

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment
My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

September 2017; 446 pages

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