Julian Jaynes' ideas on consciousness

I’ve read “The Origin of Consciousnes in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and was blown away by the audacity of the argument and a lot of the evidence he marshals. However, I notice that “bicameralism” has failed to sweep all before it as a theory of mind. Are any of his ideas taken seriously, whether big or small? On the big end I would put the idea that consciousness came about as a result of a new working relationship between the two hemispheres; on the small, his conention that there is no such thing as hypnosis. And anything in between.

As far as I know, his work is not highly regarded (I heard him speak back in the 1980s at my university - he was a good speaker), but I think it’s an interesting idea even if not true - be a great basis for a science fiction novel (and may have been so used)

I don’t believe anybody (except perhaps the few diehards/crazies that you’ll find anywhere) takes it seriously today. Don’t forget that the book is now 40 years old. Virtually everything we know about the brain, about neurology, about human evolution, about consciousness itself was learned in those 40 years, either totally new information or a total overturning of older thinking. It’s hard to imagine how any theory of brain function could survive that. From my understanding, all his statements about the brain are now considered wrong.

I remember being struck by the book when it came out. I also remember wondering how he possibly could prove any of his arguments about the past since none of them were testable. Nobody has come up with an answer in 40 years.

As I should have remembered, it’s part of the background of Neal Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”

Not really, but it is central to Stephenson’s (deservedly) obscure first book, The Big U.

As far as Jaynes, I think ‘audacity’ is exactly the right word to describe it. The fact that he could construct a however-hundred page book full of closely-argued evidence for a concept that’s clearly ridiculous on any reflection, gets some kind of chutzpah award.

And yes, I did read the book, and yes the concept is ridiculous.

The problem with testing his, ‘hypothesis’ is a bit generous, let’s say ‘idea’, isn’t that we can’t access the past – remember he’s arguing that modern consciousness only arose with writing and literacy, which means after anatomically modern humans. And there’s not really a complete lack of illiterate people one could hire for experiments, even communities where illiteracy is the norm.

The problem is that the idea is so ridiculous that trying to put the idea into a form where it could be tested makes the ridiculousness so apparent that it falls apart. So anyone who tries to test it will either be too unlogical to be able to create a good test, or will realize how silly the whole thing is.

Some of the ideas in Bicameral Mind do appear in Snow Crash. Read the second paragraph of the article.

The first time I read Jayne’s book, I enjoyed it immensely. He was a really fine writer at times. So I read it thru again right away. Uh-oh. Holes started to appear. The holes got bigger. Then it pretty much all fell away.

The big thing for me is that ancient people presumably just had a different view point. E.g., a gust of wind knocks down Ahmed’s tent, so Ahmed must have ticked off a wind god. That was the world view of almost everyone until quite recently. (And it still persists among far too many people. E.g., every time a hurricane hits.) It wouldn’t imply that Ahmed heard a god telling him that the god was ticked off.

Read the same passages from that point of view and you see something very different than Jaynes did.

Plus there was stuff he left out. He talks a lot about variants of consciousness, but barely mentions dreams. There should have been a long chapter about them. Dreams were an important aspect of ancient people’s mental introspection. Studying those would tell you a lot about how their mental world view.

One thing that bugged me was how Jaynes took a passage about some Greek hero seeing a god emerge from the mist to mean that that person actually thought he saw a god. We don’t have a first hand account of the incident. We have a bard’s narrative, passed down thru the centuries and written down long after by a “fully conscious” Classical Greek. Why presume the hero thought he saw god at all, let alone that the tale reflects an older mental view?

Poets write weird stuff to make a story more interesting. It would be like assuming that everyone thought like William Burroughs in the 1950s.

What alternative theories for the evolutionary origin of human consciousness have been tested?

None, because nobody has even been able to define “human consciousness” in any objective way.

I don’t think it’s a very good argument for an idea’s truth to say “It’s about something that nobody can even define, let alone prove to exist.”

See, this is exactly Jaynes’ twisted evil genius: he somehow manages to get people arguing about little details when the whole idea is just ludicrous on its face.

Sigh. Evidently I’m still pissed off at how much time I spent reading the whole damn book. He suckered me in, too, you see.

I’ve always been of two minds about his work.

Being serious, though, it’s bunk. Not even believable when it was current, and our understanding of the brain and human evolution was just a fraction of what we know today.

The book fucking rocks though.

Right or wrong - OK, probably wrong about 98% of the time - it’s still enormously fascinating and enormously entertaining. I loved reading it, and will probably end up re-reading it more than once. It also led me to check out Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational, another fantastic book.

Has anyone read the anthology follow-up to Jaynes’ book, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited? Been on my reading list for ages.

Yeah, I did enjoy reading it even though I was :dubious: most of the time.

I think what lost if for me was when he was talking about how the king started to substitute for the gods, and there were all these idols around with big eyes because that was the god-king keeping an eye on them, and…handwave.

I haven’t read the book in a while, just happened to be thinking about it, but there were some rather persuasive things about it. For example, his notion of consciousness as a map–I don’t know if that’s utter bunkum, but it made sense when I read it. I also enjoyed his treatment of hypnosis, where he argues that it is not a state of mind at all but an unstated social contract between subject and hypnotizer.

And again we see SDMB group-think in action. And when I’ve witnessed such discussions in the past I’ve learned that many commenters had skimmed Jaynes’ book or misremembered it.

One can find much to praise in Jayes’ book even if one doesn’t accept his thesis in the exaggerated way he presents it. He suggests strong links among hypnotism, religious experiences, “demon possessions”, hallucinations, and the bicameral brain. He does document interesting changes in religions at the late Bronze Age and Iron Age. His theory does provide testable predictions in some agreement with facts.

And one thing Jaynes DOES do is give a detailed understanding of what he means by “subjective consciousness.”

Then he tested this detailed understanding to see how it holds up to reality? If not, why not?

Indeed. One wonders why there aren’t large groups of people still operating at the bicameral stage today. I’m not taking about large numbers distributed through society, but entire ethnic groups that weren’t subject to the breakdown process that he claims produced consciousness as we know it today. After all, this breakdown event supposedly happened in historical (or near historical) times. It couldn’t possibly have happened everywhere on earth.

Well, I don’t remember the book well enough to repeat what argument he made, but if consciousness is essentially an adaptive cultural adaptation, it would have spread, and non-bicameral populations would have succumbed or been replaced. That’s not to say he’s correct about bicamerality, but you find some level of tool use among every human population, and tool use is a cultural phenomenon–it doesn’t occur to us to wonder why there’s no human group that doesn’t use tools. So I’m not sure that’s the best counter.

ETA, but that doesn’t account for New World populations though, does it? I suppose it could have arisen separately, like agriculture.

I tried reading that book several times. I can’t say I really grasped any major concepts from it, so I am not in a position to say it’s wonderful or bullshit. But I was intrigued by his discussion, if I remember it correctly, that speculated on what early man made of the so-called voices in his head. We’ve all “heard” versions of the internal dialog. We either replay something someone said, or we imagine a conversation, or we hear ourselves saying something - in our minds. And he wondered what people made of that experience early on, and I believe he suggested that that was one of the bits of “evidence” that people had for the existence of gods. What we now understand as some version of our cognition rehearsing or replaying or reconstructing things we’ve thought or heard, they interpreted as someone, a god, speaking to them. That’s really easy to believe. And I really liked that notion. What it had to do with the bicameral mind, or any current notions of mental activity or capacity, I don’t know, but I thought it was a pretty intriguing proposal, and one that makes a good deal of sense.

So the untestability you were talking about is not significant; all theories on the subject are equally so.

Not everywhere at once, he says. But contact between conscious and bicameral peoples gradually spread the learning of consciousness. Just as, oh, agriculture, writing, smelting, monotheism, whatever, were culturally transmitted, in patchwork fashion, to peoples that hadn’t come up with those on their own.

You can do the test yourself, for yourself, if not for anyone else.