The God That Is Our Brain: Bicameralism and Theology

One of the great unanswered questions of science is why belief in gods is so ubiquitous in human societies past and present. Why is our species naturally inclined towards believing in the reality of the spiritworld? And the experience of this spiritworld is not just an abstract theoretical “belief” based on some “intentional stance”, but rather, an essential component of many peoples’ fundamental reality-map i.e. how the cosmos is meaningfully parsed. Where do spirits and gods come from? What is the neurological substrate for these experiential realities? Many theorists would like to answer these questions without invoking any notion of altered states of consciousness.  But as archeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce rightly point out in their book Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods, “Complex human consciousness is not an ‘optional’ extra that archeologists can ignore. The assumption that all human behavior can be accounted for on rational, ecological or adaptive grounds is unwarranted: extracting the means of daily material life from the environment is not always an entirely ‘rational’ matter’.”

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am a big fan of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, especially when it comes to explaining religious phenomena. Accordingly, I was shocked to find that Lewis-Williams and Pearce failed to cite Jaynes despite their book being focused on how hallucinatory and altered states of consciousness played a large role in spurning the development of complex Neolithic civilization. This is, of course, a Jaynesian thesis. But I take this in stride. The fact that the impeccable research of  Lewis-Williams and Pearce independently comes to strikingly similar conclusions as Jaynes is strong evidence that bicameralism is more or less true, or at least highly corroborated.

For those who don’t know, bicameralism says that before the development of modern consciousness there was a preconscious mentality wherein voluntary will was underwritten by a totally different neural control mechanism. Instead of going “offline” and narratizing alternatives to behavior through conscious, articulate reasoning, the bicameral mind was unconsciously controlled by internal voices. As Jaynes puts it, “volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” We see evidence of this ancient control structure in modern schizophrenic command hallucinations wherein the person is assaulted by admonitory voices who issue condemnatory judgments and behavioral commands. The difference between an ancient voice-hearer and a modern one is that the modern person has developed a voluntary consciousness which can resist the hallucinated instructions and think more or less independently (until the power of the voices becomes overwhelming and they finally give in and obey). In ancient man, there was no option of disobedience. Our original relationship of gods was that of unremitting obedience. It wasn’t until we ate from the Tree of Knowledge that our original union with the gods was split.

Why were these gods so powerful? Why did they appear to humans as all-knowing and all-wise? Because the gods were housed in the vast network that constitutes the unconscious mind. The cognitive unconscious was completely in charge. Until recently, modern humans were under the delusion that consciousness constitutes the entire mental economy. Now we know however that consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg. Compared to the virtual serial machine that is our consciousness, the cognitive unconscious is automatic, fast, and emotional. It can synthetically process huge amounts of context-sensitive information without breaking a sweat. Accordingly, the gods were experienced as all-powerful precisely because in comparison with the pitiful resources available to the “human” complex, the god-complex was infinitely more wise. The gods within us were able to look at the totality of the situation and process action-oriented meaning in relation to a larger context. This generates the experiential component of omniscience when “experiencing God”.

Moreover, bicameral theory is poised to naturalize the mystical experience of  God and the feeling of oneness, unity, and the breakdown of subject/object thinking. In the metastable flux that is mystical union, the autobiographical self – our narrative mind – drops out and we are thrown into the other-referential networks of allocentric processing which more or less resonate to the “whatness” of reality. In neurological terms, we can speculate that the dorsal-parietal self-referential networks of body ownership phase out and the ventral-temporal networks of whatness amplify. This ventral stream is associated with other-referential processing and object-recognition. Moreover, the temporal lobe system is capable of parsing context out of messy variables, synthesizing oodles of information into a unified whole which can be then transferred to other areas of the brain in terms of action-commands.

What’s interesting about the temporal lobes is that the left temporal lobe is the seat of language whereas the corresponding areas in the right temporal lobe don’t seem to be as highly specialized.But Jaynes thought that the corresponding right temporal areas did have an important function, otherwise it would be devoted to making the critical skill of language bilaterally redundant (as with all other important brain functions). What then is the function of the right temporal cortex? Jaynes hypothesized that “The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods”. Indeed, this god-language is the source of the auditory hallucinations which once guided our ancestors in times of stress and crutch decision making and still guide/judge/order people today who suffer from florid schizophrenic symptoms.

It was these gods that commanded the kings and god-stewards to build great monuments. And the kings became gods themselves after death, with their subjects hallucinating their voices in terms of commands e.g. the command to build a magnificent burial tomb, to mummify, bathe, feed, and give gifts for sustenance in the after-life. Indeed, in the following relief we can see the god Shirruma guiding King Tudhaliya’s hand:

Bicameralism understands this relief to depict a story of hallucinatory self-regulation. And look at this scene:


The Egyptian god Khnum is forming the future king with his right hand along with his spirit-twin, the Ka, with his left hand. The Ka was a spiritual double that was born with every man and survived his death. For Jaynes, the Ka is representative of the bicameral, linguistically grounded god-function. The verbal function of the Ka is suggested by how it is pointing to its mouth in the above picture. The Ka essentially functioned as an ancient form of conscience. It guided the man through commands and suggestions experienced as auditory verbal hallucinations. Vestigial evidence of this function can be seen in the ubiquity of imaginary companions in children today and the surprisingly high prevalence of auditory verbal hallucination in both psychotics and nonpsychotics.

Moreover, when the neural power of the bicameral voices began to fade as bureaucracy and written language took over as the dominant method of social-control (e.g. Hammurabi’s code), the gods were no longer able to provide immediate guidance. New means of contacting the subliminal gods was needed. The flight of the gods necessitated the development of prayer, shamanic trance rituals, idol worship, divination, sortilege (casting lots), oracles, and the list goes on. Almost all modern religious phenomena can be explained within the context of bicameral theory. I am aware of no other theory can provides a comprehensive explanatory framework for understanding both the origin and development of religion and the vestigial traits of our theocratic ancestry in the form of schizophrenic verbal hallucinations and modern religious phenomena.



Filed under Psychology

8 responses to “The God That Is Our Brain: Bicameralism and Theology

  1. Very good to see Jaynes’ theory being discussed in posts with a Heideggerian perspective (though I note, no overt appeal to Heidegger here). I don’t know whether bicameralism will ultimately win out as a theory; but I’ve no doubt that something happened in human consciousness at about the time he points to. I’ve posted a bit about this with regards to the decline of what Levy-Bruhl called participation mystique. Obviously participation and hearing the voices of gods are not the same thing, but I believe they are related–if one hears voices from trees or water-springs or mountains, one is bound to feel a very different sort of relationship with them–they are a Thou, not an It. My suspicion is that as this experience faded, some thinkers realized it, and did what they could to keep the channels open–wanting to maintain some sort of acknowledgment of the validity of that experience of encounter, even as they also acknowledged that the springs had not “really” talked. (Some things Plato says make me wonder if he did not even guess some of the causes for the fading, the same causes Jaynes guesses at.) Out of this dual impulse arose philosophy.

  2. John Townsend

    I wonder if this is what Socrates meant by his “Daemons”?

    Anyway, interesting stuff. Reports from subjects ingesting N,N-dimethyltryptamine suggest that a good percentage experience different god-like beings (their form or ‘body’ being mostly just vague figural outlines of ‘energy’ on a background of more energy) whether they be beneficent or wrathful. Listening to a radio interview with Alex Gray, he said: In the Book of the Dead, it is wisely suggested that those in the altered states be open to either form (beautiful or terrifying) as a learning experience, as both having something to teach the observer. This is probably one’s best hope to prevent utter panic in case of the latter, terrifying/wrathful god-experience.

    These people also report ‘flying through’ a technicolor space of pure geometic patterns (made of love, as it were). Except they no longer have any sense of their body. This goes with what you said above. And we wonder how Plato/Socrates ever came up with the ‘realm of the forms’ characterized by so many perfect geometrical shapes (one has to wonder if he ever saw the ‘form of the bed’ though…).

  3. Gary Williams

    Hey John. Thanks for the comment. In regards to Socrates, I am convinced that his Daemon was simply a vestigial bicameral experience (namely, having a personal “demigod” to guide you and give you advice in stressful situations). Check out this book if you are interested (the first chapter deals with Socrates’ daemon IIRC):

    As for “flying through” a technicolor space, you should check out the second chapter (I think) of Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods. They develop a multistage continuum theory of altered states of consciousness based on both neuropsychological data and ethnology of shamanic experience. Over and over, we find that altered states of consciousness first start with a “technicolor space of pure geometric patterns” (behind closed eyelids or staring at a patterned object, probably a projection of hypnagogic and “entoptic” neurology), which are usually centered around a “nub” or “vortex”, which is understood as a portal to a transcosmological realm, which you eventually fly through in order to gain “divine” wisdom from the higher beings who live in the transcosmological realm.

    You make an interesting connection with DMT studies that I hadn’t really explicitly thought of before. Julian Jaynes’ hypothesis of the “god complex” in the right hemisphere seems like a good candidate for the god-entities experienced on DMT trips. This could also be reconciled with Hofstadter’s loop theory, which theorizes that whole personalities can be preserved within someone’s mind as an autonomous “looping construct”. This echoes Jaynes’ hypothesis that these hallucinations first begin in evolutionary time as a side-effect of language developing as a means for hierarchical social control, with admonitory command hallucinations being grounded by the experiencing of always being verbally guided by commands.

  4. John Townsend

    Interesting stuff. Looks like they are doing some of the main DMT med. research at LSU. — on the ‘projects’ page they mention working w/ Ethan McIlHenny @ the School of Veterinary Medicine, Louisiana State University doing liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry assays. Maybe you could volunteer heheh

  5. Himangsu Sekhar Pal


    [EDIT: I noticed this long comment has been copied and pasted all over the internet on similar blogs. If you are going to make a comment on this blog, it must be original content.]

  6. Robin

    I read “Inside the Neolithic Mind” and “The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art” after having a dramatic upswing in hypnagogic experiences, auditory hallucinations, sleep paralysis etc., and trying to discover an explanation that didn’t involve some sort of pathology. Anyone who has experienced hypnagogia knows that it can be so profound and overwhelming it can feel like the voice of god. I stumbled across Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, and it seemed like an obvious fit to me. I’m undecided as to whether there is any value to the experiences, or if they are just a part of human experience repressed or buried by most…. I’m thankful I stumbled across your blog, and will continue reading.

    • Gary Williams

      Dear Robin,

      I’m glad to hear that you were able to fit Jaynes’ theory into your own experiences. As for the question of whether there is any value to these kinds of experiences, I think the answer is “it depends”. Even if the experiences do result from a “repressed” human experience buried deep in your neurological inheritance, there is no reason why you couldn’t gather meaning and insight from such experiences in a way that would positively affect your life. On the flip side, you might not gain any meaning or insight from the experience. But you could still *make sense* of the experiences in terms of a theory like Jaynes’ and then provide meaning for the experience, perhaps by realizing the connection between our history as a species and your current experience, which could be an insightful thing to think about. This would provide meaning insofar as you can now situate the experiences with some kind of sensible framework (that the experiences are simply leftovers from our bicameral past). And of course, bicamerality can interact with modern consciousness in all sorts of ways, possibly giving rise to all sorts of new meaningful experiences that can’t be had just in virtue of a pure bicameral experience.

      Hope that helps answer your question.

  7. Robin

    I agree… it does depend, and whether or not the experiences are meaningful is probably completely up to me and my interpretations. I believe that the messages are meaningful, much in the same way some of my vivid dreams end up being extremely meaningful in shaping my life. My experience with hypnagogia has gone from terror to uneasy acceptable to fascination. I also stumbled across a book discussing the parallels between an addiction recovery program (Rational Recovery) and Jaynes’ bicameral theory. It was thrilling to make the connections. I don’t want to keep filling up your blog, but would love to continue to discuss this if you have the time/inclination. Thanks again.

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