The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

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Houghton Mifflin, 2000 - Philosophy - 491 pages
2 Reviews
What is human consciousness, where did it come from, and how does it determine who we are and how we live in the world? At the heart of this book is the theory that human consciousness did not develop over time--that, in fact, ancient peoples from mesopotamia to Peru did not "think" as we do and therefore were not conscious. Drawing on laboratory studies of the brain and clos examination of archaeological evidence, the author concludes that consciousness is not a product of evolution but of catastrophic events in our own history, events that occurred as recently as three thousand years ago.

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In summary, Jaynes presents evidence for the existence of a modality of thinking which he labels "bicameral", which he hypothesizes was the immediate precursor to the modern notion of consciousness, and that this process was only completed around the same time as the earliest written records. Indeed, a significant amount of the evidence depends on philological examinations of early Greek literature.
Spoiler alert: He doesn't quite pull it off. The notion of "bicameralism" itself is only half-baked. It is a misapplication of the well-established fact of bilateral asymmetry in the mammalian brain. Unfortunately he was not aware that this is nothing unique to the human brain. Had he taken a little more time to flesh it out and submit it to peer review, the sort of mentality he describes could have been a very useful analytical tool in the explanation of the forms of religious practice, but his premature promotion of it as a theory of mind has left his ideas largely neglected.
What makes this book significant is that it represents one of the earliest attempts to establish a theory of mind within the discipline of psychology according to scientific methodology and falsifiable theory, in the Popperian sense. In the attempt, he frequently tries to hold his hypotheses to the same standards as a postulated theory, and this unfortunately often comes across as if "bicameralism" is QED.
In the process of developing the main thesis, however, he quite soundly develops a number of supporting theses that remain valid today. This includes an excellent discussion of consciousness that remains the working definition for those who approach the inquiry from a neurological perspective.
The second edition includes an afterword that really should be read first. It offers a very good outline of the main themes, includes some points that connect his arguments better, and hints at the editorial decisions that caused the writing to seem so uneven.
It is a valuable book to read for the methodologies he proposes, despite its being out-of-date and flawed.
 

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Jaynes relies on many different branches of science in an attempt to prove his theories. Like any big event in a person's life, my thoughts bring me back to things I have read in this work quite often. Many will say that Jaynes' theories are unproven and therefore, somehow, not relevant. I like to think that people who say this, or choose to dismiss Jaynes based on this premise make themselves irrelevant and should be ignored. We have built our modern-day existence on theories, and a person who will dismiss a genius work like this one with the broad brush of it just being theoretical, live on a flat earth, where electricity, magnetism and gravity are magic. Rob M. 

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About the author (2000)

Julian Jaynes (1923-1997) achieved an almost cult-like reputation for this controversial book, which was his only published work.

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