Julian Jaynes Revisited

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Acknowledgement: This article first appeared in The Philosopher's Magazine

Who was Jaynes?

Julian Jaynes, a Princeton University psychologist who died recently at the age of 77, is famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view, for one book only: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, first published in 1976. Critics at the time were uncertain what to make of it. Some thought that Jaynes was deluded or a crank, although others, notably Daniel Dennett, believed he was saying something important.

What did Jaynes believe?

Jaynes's central idea is that our modern type of consciousness is a recent development; indeed, that it began no more than 3,000 years ago. In earlier times human mentality was characterized by auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations, in which people heard the voices of the gods speaking to them and telling them what to do. Only when this process became internalized and recognized as coming from within the percipients' own minds did truly modern consciousness begin.

The minds of 'preconscious' humans were split in two (the 'bicameral mind'), probably as a result of a dissociation between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Jaynes finds evidence of this in Homer's Iliad, in which the characters continually receive orders and advice from various deities. This, he claims, is no mere literary trope but is an accurate description of how people really experienced the world at the time. In support of this view he cites the eminent classicist E.R. Dodds, whose book The Greeks and the Irrational provides him with plenty of evidence for his thesis.

Consciousness in remote antiquity

The heroes of The Iliad do not have the kind of interior monologue that characterizes our own consciousness today. Instead, their decisions, plans, and initiatives are developed at an unconscious level and then are 'announced' to them, sometimes by the hallucinated figure of a friend or a god, sometimes by a voice alone. The Iliad, Jaynes believes, stands at a watershed between two different types of human mentality and affords us an insight into an older mode of being. Once we have begun to see history in this way, we find the same process at work in the art and literature of other ancient civilizations: for instance, those of Mesopotamia and of the Hebrews (in the Old Testament).

Jaynes suggests that vestiges of the premodern kind of mentality are to be found even today. Artistic inspiration and poetry are in this sense atavistic. If Jaynes were writing now he would no doubt point to such modern enthusiasms as the vogues for speaking with tongues, channelling, or communicating with angels as further manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Evaluating Jaynes

Whether one agrees with Jaynes or not, there is no denying that his book is eminently readable; he writes elegantly and clearly. The first two chapters provide a brilliant summary of the problem of consciousness and the attempts that have been made to solve it. Throughout the book Jaynes displays an impressive grasp of the historical aspects of his subject as well as of the state of neurophysiological science as it existed at the time he was writing. He was a polymath, and his book is correspondingly rich in facts and ideas.

Naturally, much more is known about the brain today than was known a quarter of a century ago, and even then it was possible for specialists to object to this or that statement in the book. However, this does not detract from its real significance, which is that it raises a fundamental question: was there really a radical shift in consciousness at some time in the past, or did consciousness simply develop, more or less smoothly, from its origins in our anthropoid forebears?

Others with similar ideas

Hitherto Jaynes has been almost unique in suggesting that consciousness might be a very recent development, but he is no longer entirely isolated; others seem to be coming to similar conclusions. One such is the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, although he approaches the subject from a different angle. In an article entitled 'Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind' (in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, 199, vol. 6, pp. 116-143), Humphrey draws attention to the striking similarities in style and technique that exist between the cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic and the drawings of an autistic girl called Nadia.

Nicholas Humphrey on Nadia's drawings

Nadia lacked language almost completely, yet starting in her third year she produced a series of remarkable drawings, mainly of horses and other animals, that were technically far superior to those of normal children. The subjects are shown in motion, using perspective and foreshortening, and often in three-quarter profile. Nadia was, of course, quite untutored as an artist; as she grew older and began to acquire some language the quantity and quality of her drawings fell off to some extent although not completely.

There have been other autistic children who have shown unusual drawing ability, though probably none has been as remarkable as Nadia. There are also cases in which artists suffered brain damage leading to dementia yet their art became freer and more original (see Mell JC, Howard SM, Miller BL, Art and the brain: the influence of frontotemporal dementia on an accomplished artist. Neurology 2003;60:1707-10).

There are numerous similarities both in content and in technique between Nadia's drawings and those of the cave artists. Both, for example, are mainly concerned with animals, which are depicted with impressive naturalism and realism, generally in activity rather than at rest. Both also show certain idiosyncrasies, such as a tendency for figures to be drawn haphazardly on top of one another. Both, again, show chimeras - features from different kinds of animals combined into one figure. Humphrey concedes that these resemblances may mean nothing, but what if they do mean something?

Many people who have commented on Nadia's astonishing drawings have concluded that there was a link between her artistic skill and her inability to speak. Humphrey, too, favours this view, and he wonders whether it tells us something about the mentality of the cave painters. It is often assumed that the extraordinary skill evinced by these unknown artists indicates that they had essentially modern minds and full use of language; in other words, they were very similar to ourselves. But the case of Nadia shows that this is not necessarily true. If Nadia could draw in spite of lacking language, so could they.

Perhaps, however, Nadia's case tells us something even more surprising. It may mean that someone with a modern mind and full linguistic ability cannot draw in this spontaneous way at all; perhaps the possession of language is an actual barrier to that kind of art.

Did the palaeolithic cave artists have fully modern minds and consciousness?

It is certainly a remarkable fact that there was a long time gap between the cave paintings and the re-emergence of art in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and moreover the art of these civilizations is quite different from what preceded it. The new art is rigid, non-naturalistic, lacking perspective. When naturalistic painting and the use of perspective were rediscovered, in the Italian Renaissance, these skills were no longer spontaneous but required long training and practice for mastery. This suggests that the cave artists were functioning in a different way from us today, and that something happened between their time and our own. Was this 'something' the development of modern language?

Even if the cave artists did lack language, it is conceivable that they were exceptional within their society and that other members of that society were fully competent linguistically. This is one possible interpretation of the facts, but Humphrey prefers the view that language was still fairly primitive at the time the cave paintings were made. He suggests that speech in the Palaeolithic may have been used largely for talking about social relations and lacked names for animals. In that case we would expect to find many drawings of animals, because the ability to make these would not be inhibited by language, but few or none of humans. And this is what we do find: animals are depicted plentifully and vividly but humans are either absent or appear only symbolically, as stick figures.

Although Humphrey does not mention Jaynes, the resemblance in their ideas is evident. Both postulate that modern consciousness arose much more recently than most people have supposed, and, for both, language too is a relatively recent acquisition. Humphrey places the shift in consciousness as having occurred between about 11,000 and 5,000 years ago, which is a little earlier than the date proposed by Jaynes, but the difference is not great.

Damasio on Jaynes

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is another recent writer whose ideas recall those of Jaynes; in fact, he explicitly refers to Jaynes in his book on the way human consciousness has arisen (The Feeling of What Happens). Indeed, he seems to think that the evolution of consciousness may have extended into even later times than Jaynes suggests, for he maintains that Plato and Aristotle did not have a concept of consciousness in the way that we do today. The preoccupation with what we call consciousness is new, he believes, perhaps only three and a half centuries old, and has only come really to the fore in the twentieth century. Still another writer who cites Jaynes approvingly is Christopher Wills in The Runaway Brain.

Dennett on Jaynes

In 1986 Dennett suggested that Jaynes was wrong about quite a few of his supporting arguments, especially the importance he attached to hallucinations, but that these things are not essential to his main thesis, which may well be right. And he maintains that if this thesis is recast using the computer metaphor it makes a lot of sense. The hardware of the human brain may perhaps be the same today as it was thousands of years ago, but there must have been a change in the organization of our information-processing system for us to be the way we are today.

Dawkins on Jaynes

In his new book The God Delusion (2006) Richard Dawkins writes as follows:
[Jayne's book] is as strange as its title suggests. It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets.

Jaynes is, I believe, an unjustly neglected writer, whose time may now have come. It may well be that he gave us an indispensable clue to understanding how and when the modern human mind developed.

Suggested reading.

  • Julian Jaynes, `The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
  • Nicholas Humphrey, Cave Art, Autism, and the Human Mind, in Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 6, 1999, pp. 116-143, with comments by others including Dennett, and a reply by Humphrey.
  • Daniel C. Dennett, Julian Jaynes's Software Archeology, reprinted in Brainchildren, 1998, pp. 121-130.

Jaynes's book is reviewed on my Book Reviews page.