The Authority of the Bicameral Mind

Recounted by Julian Jaynes,

One sunny afternoon not long ago, a man was lying back in a deck chair on the beach at Coney Island. Suddenly, he heard a voice so loud and clear that he looked about at his companions, certain that they too must have heard the voice. When they acted as if nothing had happened, he began to feel strange and moved his chair away from them. And then

…suddenly, clearer, deeper, and even louder than before, the deep voice came at me again, right in my ear this time, and getting me tight and shivery inside “Larry Jayson, I told you before you weren’t any good. Why are you sitting here making believe you are as good as anyone else when you’re not? Whom are you fooling?”

The deep voice was so loud and so clear, everyone must have heard it. He got up and walked slowly away, down the stairs of the boardwalk to the stretch of sand below. He waited to see if the voice came back. It did, its words pounding in this time, not the way you hear any words, but deeper,

….as though all parts of me had become ears, with my fingers hearing the words, and my legs, and my head too. “You’re no good,” the voice said slowly, in the same deep tones. “You’ve never been any good or use on earth. There is the ocean. You might as well drown yourself. Just walk in, and keep walking.” As soon as the voice was through, I knew by its cold command, I had to obey it.

The patient walking the pounded sands of Coney Island heard his pounding voice as clearly as Achilles heard Thetis along the misted shores of the Aegean. And even as Agamemmon “had to obey” the “cold command” of Zeus, or Paul the command of Jesus before Damascus, so Mr. Jayson waded into the Atlantic Ocean to drown. Against the will of his voices, he was saved by lifeguards and brought to Bellevue Hospital, where he recovered to write of this bicameral experience.

Who in the history of literature does Mr. Jayson’s hallucinated voice remind you of? The booming, fatherly voice, the absolute moral judgement, the “You should fear and obey me” attitude? Atheists and skeptics often ridicule religious people for being weak-minded in light of rational evidence that gods and demigods do not “really” exist. But clearly, Mr. Jayson did not have a choice in obeying his god. It was not a matter of choosing to believe; it was simply about giving in to the command of the dominant authority. Giving in to authority and letting the patriarchal male dominate through admonitory verbal judgement is fundamental to human behavior. It’s how social relations were governed for hundreds of thousands of years (and to this day remains a powerful tool for mass social control as indicated by hypnotism, meteoric dictators, and religious sermons).

Is it any surprise then that the phenomenon of religion is pervasive enough to warrant speculation about “god genes”? It was the internalization of admonitory judgement through schizoid hallucinatory control mechanisms that catalyzed the unique human phenomenon of ancestor worship. As the ancestors became surrounded in myth and lore, they were internally constructed and experienced as the first gods and demigods. The god complex, grounded by the right hemisphere’s synthetic problem solving skills, dictated commands in time of stress and crutch decision making. It was our alliance with the gods that made our amazingly rapid cultural evolution possible. But as society grew more complex, the social control mechanism of bicamerality grew weak in comparison with the control mechanisms of written language (Hammurabi’s code, the Torah, etc.), bureaucracy, and the priest class. As the gods’ power and influence faded, humans resorted to sortilege, divination, prayer, and oracles to get in contact with what was once so direct: the will of the gods.

And as great civilizations crumbled under their own weight and scattered in response to cataclysmic events, a new self-control mechanism was selected for on the basis of a fundamentally plastic neocortex: consciousness. Linguistic constructs such as the “I/Me/Mine” complex allowed for the generation of a psychological distance between our physical behavior and the autobiographical self or “narrative center” that holds our folk psychological stories in place. The psychological space catalyzed the development of what’s now called “working memory”, “executive function”, “thought-control”, “introspection”, “short term memory”, etc. It was this ability for metacognitive control that gave rise to self-regulating concept-schemas like individual responsibility, agency, freewill, and having a “soul” or “mind”.

Right now Micah Allen and I are co-writing a article on google wave for Frontier‘s special topic issue on consciousness and neuroplasticity. Here is our extended abstract:

Recent research has demonstrated that throughout development the brain exhibits a natural ability to change in response to experience at both structural and functional levels. This plasticity is expressed through both the formation of new neurons (e.g. Maguire et al 2001) and the redeployment of functional connectivity (e.g. Torrerio, 2010). Although plasticity is also found in lower animals, research suggests that it is prefrontal connectivity between regions that differentiates humans from apes (Schoenemann, 2005). Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, particularly the default mode network (DMN), retains this plasticity well into early adulthood (Gogtay et al, 2004; Raichle, 2001). Social-cognitive functions then, are not stable in preadolescence, and we argue that it is this unstable connectivity that enables the development and utilization of narrative consciousness.

Accordingly, we argue that the high-level cognitive operations typical of human behavior crucially depend upon our ability to evaluate and synthesize experience through narrative scaffolds. Such narrative practice depends upon the plasticity of social cognitive brain mechanisms and can be seen as a recently evolved capacity dependent on tool use (Tylen et al, 2009) and language (Jaynes, 1976). We suggest that it is precisely these culture-centric functional connectivity mechanisms that underlie conscious human narratizing within an “interiorized” workspace or “global theater” (Baars, 1997). Moreover, it has become apparent that exposure to narrative practice in childhood has a special impact on cognitive development (Hutto, 2008). We will argue that these findings provide support for the narrative or social-constructivist approach to consciousness (Jaynes, 1976; Dennett, 1986, 1991). It is our view that a proper consideration of the brain’s phylogenetic and ontogenetic plasticity alleviates any skeptical worries (Block, 1995) about the conceptual coherence or empirical plausibility of consciousness as a social construct.

To further support our argument we review recent evidence that demonstrates highly plastic brains learn to narratize in childhood from exposure to discourse with others. This protoemphathetic interactivity (Gallagher, 2005; Protevi, 2009) can be seen as the nonconscious cognitive scaffolding upon which the special attitude of self-reflection is constructed, giving rise to consciously sensible (i.e. introspectable) qualities. Furthermore, we will argue that recent research on cognitive scaffolding (Clark, 2003, 2008), internal speech (Morin, 2005), narrative practice (Menary, 2008), and childhood development (Reddy, 2009; Blakemore, 2009) provides ample support for the claim that consciousness proper is a social-linguistic construction learnt in childhood. Last, we review the role of plasticity in default brain networks for narrative and minimal consciousness.


1 Comment

Filed under Consciousness, Phenomenology, Psychology, Theology

One response to “The Authority of the Bicameral Mind

  1. Thanks for this. My grandfather was working on Jaynes before he died. My bro. has schizophrenia and hears voices regularly. We are both very interested in Buddhism. You are quite right I think that hardcore atheists tend to berate people who hear voices or talk about hearing voices.

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