Quickie Post — Julian Jaynes and the Development – and Regression — of Consciousness

Betel nut plantation, Taiwan

A tip of the hat to friend, Ugo Bardi! And Benjamin Steele, one of my frequent commenters, who were after me to read this book.

I’ve just finished Julian Jayne’s masterwork, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. As I usually do, I listened to the book on Audible, which makes pulling quotes impossible. But the advantage (I do this while I’m riding my bike) is that I am also able to think concurrently, which I simply can’t do while I’m reading.

The book was published in 1976, and as any text that delves into the neuroscience, Jaynes’ insights were severely proscribed by the neuroscience of his time, as well as the fact that he didn’t have access to any thoughts on evolved empathy.

Jaynes writes primarily about personal development in a collective framework — he did not have the concepts available to him that I have. But the work is stunning in the context of what he does describe — a traversal of human development from Survival bands, up through the Legalistic/Absolutistic societies of the Axial Age. Jaynes was (I believe) the first to really nail down the premise that ancient people, quite literally, didn’t think like us — something I’ve written about extensively in the context of memetic development. His basic premise is that humans started off with environmentally-based, stimulus-developed consciousness, then evolved into the bicameral/split mind, not unlike modern-day schizophrenia, where the gods did most of the talking on the right side in the directing of actions. And then we evolved out of this some 500 years BCE into our more modern forms of thought, where the gods went into remission once again. Twilight of the Idols indeed.

I think part of the reason that Jaynes held this premise (he’s passed away, so we can’t have that discussion) is that Jaynes fundamentally was a sound academic, and as such, wrote from a more empirical viewpoint, consisting of fragmented archaeological evidence and epic poems, to support his hypothesis. He has an extensive litany of facts, strung together, that the more sedate might not like. I particularly liked his descriptions of eyes on statuary as part of their control mechanism. Anyone writing about immediate mirroring behavior or emotional empathy cannot discount the effect of a good stare when it comes to control. So it is no surprise that ancient people made their gods with eyes that mattered.

Jaynes makes much ado, like most, on the effect of language on the ability to generate independent agency. If you want to know yourself, you have be able to have a dialog with yourself. And that path of self-empathy prepares the mind for the higher projective functions of rational empathy. I’ve put up the empathy pyramid below as a refresher for those that need it.

Empathy Pyramid

For what it’s worth, I think language matters. But even placed in Jaynes’ framework, the larger evolutions in dualistic thought came after 0 CE, in particular the Zen Buddhists — it cannot be said with words, it cannot be said without words. It is also noteworthy that we still have a planet populated by people who cannot deal with ambiguity. So maybe Jaynes has a statistical point.

Where Jaynes and I part ways is in the idea that modern man fundamentally thinks differently than primitive man. Yes, I do agree with Jaynes’ premise that it was an evolution in that hardware/software combination that led to the gods and their authority. But Jaynes basically implies that we forfeited that system and kinda/sorta went back to the more data-driven consciousness of Survival v-Meme man. It’s that “went back” thing that I don’t like. We evolved new modes of being data-driven because we trained our brains with empathy, manifested with caring about others, how they might feel, and what they might do, on a larger scale, both temporally and spatially.

And here’s the thing — we never have core-dumped the old systems. So in times like the present, where we are in profound regression of our larger identities (what, for example, does it mean to be an American now?) those old systems, just like Cthulhu, are sitting in our neural depths, waiting to be retrieved. Not surprisingly, they’re obsessed with pederasty (look at QAnon) or extreme, unpredictable violence (look at the Left) in the U.S. Certainly there is some evidence-based thinking, actually on both sides, and I am NOT minimizing rational triggers — we clearly have a problem with police violence and African-Americans in this country. Or Epstein’s island. But the voice of reason is not the loudest voice playing in people’s minds. These things are not scaled statistically in the least in the arguments. The gods didn’t weight things with probabilities. Either you cut out someone’s heart, or the sun didn’t come up.

Considering the depth of the writing in the book, as well as the afterword, Jaynes obviously observed these thoughts around him. I’m betting he was chicken to point his learned finger, because the examples available to him regarding contemporary times were no less front-and-center than they are now. Might be a great example to push back with when people start talking about how full professors can talk about everything. Jaynes was a prof at Princeton — but he didn’t really generalize much of the work in the book into a modern context until his updated Afterword in 1990.

Should you read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? Maybe. I think we need more people thinking about the larger issue of social and societal coordination, especially as we see wave after wave of panic regarding COVID. Jaynes very clearly maps out how the lower v-Memes, with special attention to the Tribal/Authoritarian transition works, and how people can quite literally dump their feelings of compassion for folks that don’t agree with them — especially if they feel an existential threat. We place far too much faith on the idea that humans can’t kill other humans in modern times because of feelings. Yet example after example in recent history shows that this behavior exists. For those not quite ready to drink the empathy, DeepOS Kool-aid, yet want a scholarly, surface description of the current video game we seem to be playing, it might be time to sit down with a copy. Or an Audible recording — and come to terms with what is still ingrained in us from past development.

Postscript: There are also some fascinating questions yet to be answered as well as far as role of diet in facilitating these transitions between v-Memes. Are our brains what we eat? How did that system feed back in the construction of huge temples? That’s for another piece. But certainly interesting in the context of our current metabolic health right not.

4 thoughts on “Quickie Post — Julian Jaynes and the Development – and Regression — of Consciousness

  1. “Where Jaynes and I part ways is in the idea that modern man fundamentally thinks differently than primitive man.”

    It depends on what one thinks is or is not a fundamental difference. The main difference seems to be is authorization perceived as coming from voices and visions outside or inside the head. Archaic authorization and self-authorization share elements and are built on the same foundation, but they are experienced quite differently.

    “But Jaynes basically implies that we forfeited that system and kinda/sorta went back to the more data-driven consciousness of Survival v-Meme man. It’s that “went back” thing that I don’t like.”

    It’s not clear what you’re referring to here. It’s been a while since I read and listened to his book. Some details are hazy, but I don’t recall him arguing that human mentality went back. In fact, his general bicameral paradigm continues to operate, as he pointed out. Still, interiority remains a radical rupture.

    “Should you read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? Maybe.”

    I have mixed feelings about recommending this book. Not everyone will benefit from reading a scholarly text almost a half century old. Instead, I might suggest checking out more recent Jaynesan scholarship.
    https://www.julianjaynes.org/resources/books/top-books-on-julian-jaynes-theory/

    “There are also some fascinating questions yet to be answered as well as far as role of diet in facilitating these transitions between v-Memes. Are our brains what we eat?”

    Diet is one of our common interests. There are a few posts of mine where I’ve touched upon the relationship between Jaynes’ work and nutrition studies, such as the following:
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/01/30/the-agricultural-mind/

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  2. I’d love to see you write more in detail about empathy in relation to this kind of thing. It’s not only Julian Jaynes’ theory. Others before him (e.g., E. R. Dodds) and many others following him have written about the mentalities of the ancient world and preliterate societies. There is a ton of anthropological scholarship on the mentalities of oral cultures, animism, etc with a looser, more extended, and more communal identity.

    There are also those like Marshall McLuhan who have theorized along similar lines of dramatic changes within the human psyche. This also relates to Karl Jasper’s theory of the Axial Age, which is essentially the period during which a new civilization formed after the Bronze Age collapse. But even limiting ourselves to Jaynes, there have been many who have considered empathy:

    https://www.julianjaynes.org/jjsforum/viewtopic.php?t=31

    In story form, there have been explorations of consciousness and empathy. HBO’s Westworld delves into Jaynes’ theory in what it might mean for empathy and freewill. The collection of essays, Westworld and Philosophy, covers some of this territory. One of the greatest writers on empathy as part of the human condition was Philip K. Dick. The adaptation of his work into Blade Runner is all about that, what exactly makes us human.

    Also, about empathy, have you read or written about Iain McGilchrist? His theory is a slightly different take on the brain hemispheres. He writes much about empathy and such.

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      1. I appreciate the books by both Jaynes and McGilchrist. But they are alternate theories in explaining the role of brain hemispheres. Some Jaynesian scholars and thinkers appreciate McGilchrist’s additional perspective. Others think he got key things wrong.

        https://www.julianjaynes.org/about/about-jaynes-theory/critiques-and-responses-part-1/
        https://www.facebook.com/groups/the.origin.of.consciousness/permalink/3579905838754686
        https://www.facebook.com/groups/the.origin.of.consciousness/permalink/3401706959907909

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