The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The startling thesis of this book is that, until the second millennium B.C., human beings had no subjective consciousness, but acted on the basis of hallucinated voices. These voices were attributed to the king or the gods; Jaynes hypothesizes that they originated in the right brain hemisphere. His extensive evidence is literary, archaeological, and neurological, and comprises a compelling 475-page argument. It is proposed that bicamerality — the condition of acting on the command of hallucinated ‘divine’ voices — represents a specific stage in the evolution of human civilization, that in fact the ancient ziggurat-building civilizations of the Middle East (and later the Americas) were ‘bicameral civilizations.’ Such civilizations were rigidly hierarchical, centralized around the ‘god-king’, whose voice was heard by the citizenry to keep them performing their ordained roles in the absence of conscious volition. The central pyramidal structures, then, served as hallucinatory catalysts for such social control.

Of especial value in this book is the discussion of what consciousness is. Jaynes proposes that it is specifically the projection of an analog self, the “I”, into an imagined mental ‘space’. This is what bicameral man lacked: the ability to narratize his existence, to envision himself acting in a remembered past or in a hypothetical future. Jaynes further argues that this inner ‘space’ is a linguistic creation, developed in response to the breakdown of bicamerality following massive social upheaval. I especially enjoyed the analysis of ancient Sumerian, Assyrian, and Greek texts, which reveals an almost complete lack of consciousness-related language. If you find all of this terribly absurd, it is because it is impossible to do such a thesis justice in a space like this. I highly recommend this book — not to ‘convince’, but to stir up the imagination. It is all the best of books can hope for. [Houghton Mifflin]

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