Consciousness began when the gods stopped speaking

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Julian Jaynes presented his (in)famous theory of consciousness in his 1970 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:

The book sets its sights high from the very first words.  “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes begins. “A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries.”

To explore the origins of this inner country, Jaynes first presents a masterful precis of what consciousness is not. It is not an innate property of matter. It is not merely the process of learning. It is not, strangely enough, required for a number of rather complex processes. Conscious focus is required to learn to put together puzzles or execute a tennis serve or even play the piano. But after a skill is mastered, it recedes below the horizon into the fuzzy world of the unconscious. Thinking about it makes it harder to do. As Jaynes saw it, a great deal of what is happening to you right now does not seem to be part of your consciousness until your attention is drawn to it. Could you feel the chair pressing against your back a moment ago? Or do you only feel it now, now that you have asked yourself that question?

Consciousness, Jaynes tells readers, in a passage that can be seen as a challenge to future students of philosophy and cognitive science, “is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” His illustration of his point is quite wonderful. “It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

Perhaps most striking to Jaynes, though, is that knowledge and even creative epiphanies appear to us without our control. You can tell which water glass is the heavier of a pair without any conscious thought — you just know, once you pick them up. And in the case of problem-solving, creative or otherwise, we give our minds the information we need to work through, but we are helpless to force an answer. Instead it comes to us later, in the shower or on a walk. Jaynes told a neighbor that his theory finally gelled while he was watching ice moving on the St. John River. Something that we are not aware of does the work.

The picture Jaynes paints is that consciousness is only a very thin rime of ice atop a sea of habit, instinct, or some other process that is capable of taking care of much more than we tend to give it credit for. “If our reasonings have been correct,” he writes, “it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but were not conscious at all.”

Jaynes believes that language needed to exist before what he has defined as consciousness was possible. So he decides to read early texts, including The Iliad and The Odyssey, to look for signs of people who aren’t capable of introspection — people who are all sea, no rime. And he believes he sees that in The Iliad. He writes that the characters in The Iliad do not look inward, and they take no independent initiative. They only do what is suggested by the gods. When something needs to happen, a god appears and speaks. Without these voices, the heroes would stand frozen on the beaches of Troy, like puppets.

Speech was already known to be localized in the left hemisphere, instead of spread out over both hemispheres. Jaynes suggests that the right hemisphere’s lack of language capacity is because it used to be used for something else — specifically, it was the source of admonitory messages funneled to the speech centers on the left side of the brain. These manifested themselves as hallucinations that helped guide humans through situations that required complex responses — decisions of statecraft, for instance, or whether to go on a risky journey.

The combination of instinct and voices — that is, the bicameral mind — would have allowed humans to manage for quite some time, as long as their societies were rigidly hierarchical, Jaynes writes. But about 3,000 years ago, stress from overpopulation, natural disasters, and wars overwhelmed the voices’ rather limited capabilities. At that point, in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, bits and pieces of the conscious mind would have come to awareness, as the voices mostly died away. That led to a more flexible, though more existentially daunting, way of coping with the decisions of everyday life — one better suited to the chaos that ensued when the gods went silent. By The Odyssey, the characters are capable of something like interior thought, he says. The modern mind, with its internal narrative and longing for direction from a higher power, appear.


  1. Ross says:

    Jaynes…never fails to please….

  2. Graham says:

    As ever, the thesis strikes me as insane, unless substantiated by some evidence of biological or biochemical change sufficient to have that much impact on the workings of the brain. I’m not familiar enough with Jayne’s thesis to know if he did argue for that, so there it is.

    Apart from that, I’m struck in this passage by how much stuff I always thought of as part of consciousness that he removes in order to redefine and consequently downgrade it.

  3. Andreas Agas says:

    Graham, Jaynes specifically addresses the biological evidence, citing among other things, individuals with damaged left or right hemispheres of the brain and how they then experienced the world. He also addresses disorders like schizophrenia.

    Jill Bolte Taylor recounts her experience of having a stroke and what she learned about consciousness from it in her TED Talk. It fits very nicely with Jaynes’ thesis.

    That said, brains may have great plasticity and capacity to adapt than Jaynes imagined, but I found his thoughts and ideas among the most interesting things I have ever read.

  4. Graham says:


    Thanks for this. I have heard/read a few things over the years along those lines as regards contemporary experience with brain injury or schizophrenia, or perhaps comparable conditions. I don’t aim to make any particular points on the nature of consciousness, the existence of consciousness, or the experience of split identity or of hearing seemingly disparate ones.

    Only two things continue to strike me with regard to the larger thesis Jaynes has offered. One is again that many of the things he suggests humans have done without consciousness suggest to me that my definition of consciousness is too broad, since he is explicitly citing things like reasoning and problem solving as possible without consciousness. I have to consider that with care exactly because to me it sounds like taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide using lungs without “respiration”.

    The other point is only that his thesis would seem to require the entire human race going through significant brain altering evolution, in what amounts to a very short historical time or almost all at once.

    It’s that second issue that always most struck me. Not that I have the slightest problem with ongoing human evolution in historical time, but that’s huge, fast, and comprehensive. Or so it seems to me.

  5. Boo says:

    Gaikokumaniakku, the two below points are not because I necessarily disagree with you, but playing devil’s advocate.

    (1) “since he is explicitly citing things like reasoning and problem solving as possible without consciousness”
    How about the example of a bower bird or peacock. Clearly both animals are not conscious in the way we think about it. Both are explicitly, bird brained. But, both a peahen and female bower bird make mating choices dependent on, as far as I can tell, some level of appreciation of beauty. The pea hen is easy, but the female bower bird is making a decision about the nest building ability of the male bower bird. We have examples of octopus cities, and of fishes making little nest things. And as far as we can tell, this is instinct, and not consciousness.

    (2) “entire human race going through significant brain altering evolution”
    Would it have too? If we say that innovation in cultural practises (memes evolving) are what was the trigger, would this necessarily need an corresponding biological evolution event? Sure this is a leap, but we do not completely understand epigenetic triggers, maybe certain kinds of meme evolution can trigger this? A simple (and inaccurate) example could be, we live in a multi cultural world, so mixed race relationships are more common. I can see children born of mixed race couples having epigenetic triggers tripped, leading to some effect. This could have a in-aggregate appearance of super-quick biological evolution, but could have epigenetic roots as opposed to normal genetic roots right.

    P.S. I have not read the source material, so please politely ignore if i’ve missed the point.

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