The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

Jaynes’ book atop books by a few authors who were influenced by his theory.

Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that just about everyone reads sooner or later. Jaynes is an example of the rare author who could write a scientific treatise that was both ground-breaking and readily readable by the general public. His book was published in 1976 and presented what has to be the most controversial theory ever in the fields of consciousness and religion. Despite the theory seeming completely outlandish at first glance, the book presents testable predictions all along the way. Many modern researchers believe Jaynes’ theory to be partially or completely wrong but there’s no question it has pushed research toward a better understanding of consciousness and religion. Daniel Dennett, who notes Jaynes was probably wrong at least about some particulars like the importance of hallucinations, still thinks his main thesis could be correct. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins commented that Jaynes theory is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former but I’m hedging my bets.” In addition to scientists, Jaynes’ theory also inspired two generations of science fiction authors from Philip K. Dick to Neal Stephenson (who based parts of Snow Crash on Jaynes’ theory). David Bowie acknowledges being influenced by this book during his work with Brian Eno on Low and has included the book on his list of 100 Must Read Books.

Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist interested in the origins of consciousness, which he defined roughly as what a modern cognitive scientist or philosopher would call meta-cognition – the awareness of our own thoughts or the ability to think about our own thoughts. In his early research, he specialized in animal ethology (the study of animal’s behavior, communications, and emotions). He began to focus on understanding how consciousness evolved in early humans and studied historical texts and anthropological evidence for clues. This led to his now famous theory that humans initially developed a bicameral mind and that modern consciousness was the result of a breakdown of the two parts.

Bicameral in this case is a metaphor, the word normally describes a type of government consisting of two independent houses. Jaynes came to believe that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, the human brain lacked both consciousness and the strong lateral connection via the corpus callosum that it has today. The two halves of the brain operated more independently but were able to communicate via verbal hallucinations. Humans at this time would have already evolved basic linguistic capabilities, but without the complex metaphors and self-referential aspects of modern language. People behaved in what we would describe today as a ‘zombie-like” way. They would have lacked the ability to reflect on or guide their own thoughts. In times of extreme stress or facing novel situations, the right side of their brain would communicate advice or commands to the left via auditory hallucinations that the person experienced as “hearing a voice”.

As today, humans tended to build up models in their mind of people who are important in their social interactions, parents, tribal leaders, and the like. Jaynes believed the models existed in the part of the mind generating the hallucinations and that the voices often came to be perceived as originating from these people, even if they were not present; even if they were dead. Without the ability to introspect, people simply accepted the voices at face value and assumed they represented some kind of external reality. This predictably gave rise to the earliest religious beliefs: ancestor worship, divinity of kings, belief in an afterlife. It also served as an important social organizing structure that allowed early community groups to form.

This process worked well until about the 2000 BC, when civilizations were going through a periodic collapse. At this time, the growing population was leading to more frequent interactions between disparate groups of humans, resulting in a failure of the bicameral hallucination mechanism as a method of social coordination. If everyone in your group hears the same voices in their head, things work fine. If three or four groups suddenly start living together and everyone is hearing different voices in their heads telling them conflicting things, civilization doesn’t function smoothly anymore.

The result was a gradual breakdown in the bicameral structure of the brain due to the changed environment which gave a huge advantage to individuals whose brains had more direct communication between the two sides via the corpus callosum. This allowed metaphoric language and consciousness to co-evolve, gradually leading to humans who could think about their own thoughts and had the words to describe it. This would also be the origin of the idea of free will, at least in the modern sense. Prior to this time a person did what their brain directed but without any awareness or insight into the process. So, effectively, modern consciousness is a by-product of cultural and linguistic evolution.

The bicameral breakdown leads to the gradual decline of the right brain area that generated verbal hallucinations. Everyone remembered a time when people could hear the “gods” but only a few remain who can still hear their voices. Those people are sometimes elevated to the positions of priest, shamans, oracles or they are seen as insane, eventually classed as schizophrenics.

The whole thing sounds fantastically crazy at first, right? Jaynes says as much throughout the book. But, like any good scientist, he has worked out a series of testable predictions based on the theory in a variety of fields ranging from history to human physiology. Modern researchers have continued to test his theories and, so far, many of his predictions have been dead on. For example, he predicted the existence of an area in the right hemisphere of the brain capable of generating linguistic, auditory hallucinations that is now vestigial and usually dormant. We now know the right hemisphere contains a vestigial area that corresponds to the Broca/Wernicke area in the left brain. This is the part of the left hemisphere responsible for the production of language. He further predicted this vestigial area would be active in schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations. Today, with fMRI scanning and other modern techniques, this has been confirmed too. And the hallucinations these patients experience are often in the form of authority figures (parents, leaders, gods) admonishing or commanding them.

Jaynes did an extensive survey of early literature starting with the earliest known writings and progressing through later more well-known documents like Homer and the early writings of the Bible. He analyzes to what extent the authors or the subjects seem to be self-aware and notes a gradual progression through history of both self-awareness and evolution of language to describe self-awareness. The writers of the biblical Old Testament or the Odyssey, for example, show no evidence at all of being self aware, in contrast to authors of the New Testament or later Greek writings. This is complicated by works that have been re-written and changed by later authors, like some books of the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh. In these cases, he tries to tease apart what’s original and what was added later.

He suggests that traces of bicameralism might still be found not just in schizophrenia but in many aspects of modern religion (e.g. those occasional people who still hear voices or experience “possession”) or even in the common childhood experience of having invisible friends (some children experience actual auditory hallucinations of their imaginary friends speaking to them).

Some modern researchers discount the need for the physical changes in the corpus callosum and believe the linguistic evolution of metaphor alone may be enough to bear out the changes Jaynes’ theory describes. There is now a huge body of literature surrounding the Bicameral Mind theory; lengthy articles defending or attacking aspects of it. There are also now several variant theories. Lain McGilchrist has proposed not a breakdown in a bicameral mind but a separation and reversal in the two hemispheres of the brain. Michael Gazzaniga, a pyschobiologist has done extensive experimental work in the area of hemisphere specialization and has proposed a theory similar to Jaynes’.

Jaynes is an engaging and interesting author and, whether his theory eventually proves to be crazy or profound, you’ll find the book a great read. If you have any interest in philosophy, religion, consciousness, cognition, evolution, anthropology, literature, history, or any of a dozen other topics, you’ll love the book. It makes you think about things you would never have imagined otherwise.

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, describes itself as “All-new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury”. I’ve been a fan of Bradbury’s fiction most of my life. Friends from my high school days may remember me sitting under the bleachers during Pep Rallies reading “R is for Rocket” or wandering the hallways with a copy of “Fahrenheit 451”. I most liked his early work; stories like Frost and Fire or The City. They blended conventional science fiction with Bradbury’s unique style which approached magical realism. I felt his later writing lost a lot by abandoning the science fiction aspect and focusing exclusively on the magical realism. In any case, I heard about this book and imagined it might contain Bradbury-like stories that recaptured the feel of his early work. Alas, this is not the case.

For the most part, the stories in the book aren’t really at all like Bradbury stories. At least, I’d never confuse any of them with the real thing. Most had supernatural or horror themes and lacked the connection to science fiction. They’re simply from authors who were, in one way or another, inspired by Bradbury. They’re not bad stories. Some are enjoyable and may appeal to Bradbury fans, if only to find out how other writers were inspired by him.

There were a few exceptions, however; stories that are intended to provoke memories of Bradbury or his stories in one way or another. The best of these, at least for me, was Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon. This story made the book worthwhile for me and was a real celebration of Bradbury in multiple ways. First, it was a story I could imagine Bradbury writing; second, it combined science fiction with a Bradburyesque magical realism, and lastly, Bradbury’s writing actually plays a part in the story’s plot. It’s the story of a woman living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; the result of climate change and global war. There’s little plant or animal life left, and little hope for the future. The woman’s only joy in life is a trunk full of old books that she reads to herself. During a visit to a trading post in a nearby town, she’s given a useless machine from the dead past. The combination of a Ray Bradbury book and a machine designed for insomniacs leads to a new hope for a dying world.

If you can pick up the book inexpensively, it’s worth it just for that one story. Or perhaps you’ll enjoy the other stories more than I did. Authors include Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, and others.

Road Trip to the Future

Ed Emshmiller cover art from the 1962 edition of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Planet Savers”

Susan and I make the drive to work together at least three days a week. Lately we’ve been listening to audio books for fun. We started out with the 1973 BBC radio dramatization of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It’s available at no-cost (not free as in free-speech, however, it’s still under a proprietary license). The audio has not held up well and we found some parts of it wholly unintelligible. Fortunately, having read it a few times, I knew it so well I could fill in the missing bits for Susan from memory.

From there we moved on to a more modern audio book, Graphic Audio’s full scale dramatization of Texas author Elizabeth Moon’s series, Vatta’s War. It’s a series of five books with a total audio running time of 57 hours, so it kept us entertained for a quite a while. The series is hard science fiction and all the more enjoyable because Elizabeth Moon has a military background and has put a good deal of thought into the strategies which might evolve when managing large space battles with the limits of light speed communications. How, for example, do you deal with multi-minute light lag that would affect not only communications but sensor data? Once a space battle is started, how do you keep track of the expanding spheres of debris that create navigational hazards as dangerous as enemy weapons?

Also, bonus points for being the first science fiction book I can recall with mention of a Shiner Bock beer. The audio quality of the Graphic Audio production was excellent and it’s a complex production with multiple actors voicing the characters as well as sound effects and music. I highly recommend either the audiobook or printed versions of the Vatta’s War series.

Our most recent audio book is a LibriVox production of The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s first Darkover novel, which seems to have passed into the public domain already despite being published in 1958. This audio book is truly free (both as in “free beer” and as in “free speech”). It’s a reasonably high quality production but more primitive than the Graphic Audio productions. It’s just a simple recording of someone reading the book.

If anyone else has an audio book recommendation, comments are welcome.

Common as Air

Benjamin Franklin open sourced an array of Leyden jars and named it a "battery"

One of many inventions Benjamin Franklin open sourced, an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”

Having just received several new books as Christmas gifts, I’m reminded that books I’ve already finished are growing into a pile and crying out for reviews in my blog. There’s never enough time to review them all but one that I’ve been intending to write about all year is Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership by Lewis Hyde. It’s a wonderfully written book about the history of the commons and property rights.

As a software developer who releases my work under the GNU GPL, a free software license, I’ve been on the receiving end of many a rant on these subjects. My contributions to a freely accessible cultural commons of creatives works, I’m told, is communism and will lead to the eventual downfall of the one true system of property ownership as expressed by God in modern copyright and patent law. I don’t take such rants seriously anymore but when I found a book offering an in depth look at how our modern laws came to be and what the founding fathers actually said about these things; well, I could hardly pass it up!

Hyde starts out with a brief survey of ideas on property rights from cultures all over the world. He then looks at the origins of modern western thought. It turns out, of course, that the founding fathers believed quite strongly that free access to ideas was critical to democratic self-governance and free enterprise. This comes as no surprise to those in the free software and open source communities, who have rediscovered many of the same principles, including the importance of creating a “commonwealth of knowledge”.

Hyde’s story crosses paths with the free software community once or twice along the way. It also crosses paths with the supreme court, Donald Rumsfeld, John Adams, Sonny Bono, John Locke, Noah Webster, and a host of other familiar people. It’s the story of how we slowly traded the long term benefits of a commonwealth of knowledge for the enticing profits promised by “intellectual property”. The story makes great reading as history even if you’re not terribly interested in property rights. You’ll read dozens of interesting historical anecdotes you may not have heard before. For example, there’s the story of Benjamin Franklin’s founding of what sounds like the first hackerspace. He and other interested amateurs in Philadelphia put some money together, got some space, and started doing weird things with electricity. They created a crowd-sourced procedure for collecting and dispersing information about electrical experiments and open sourced the results, like an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”. No doubt my right-wing friends would consider Franklin a liberal hippy with communist leanings. A modern “intellectual property” lawyer would consider him a “pirate”; indeed, Hyde titled the chapter “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”.

Once Hyde gets to the end of the history, he ponders what can be done to protect what’s left of the commons and even restore it for future generations. He offers three examples of real-world attempts at fixing the problem. The most familiar and successful of the examples is Richard Stallman and the GNU General Public License. The software commons created by Stallman and the GPL is responsible for at least some of the software running on nearly every computing device in the world today from the largest supercomputer to the phone or tablet on which you’re reading this blog. Hyde notes also the example of folk singer Pete Seeger, who worked with other folk singers to protect a piece of music called “We Shall Overcome” using the earliest known example of the “claim and release” idea later used in the GPL for software and, more specifically, in the Creative Commons licenses for art and musical works. It worked as a method of freeing information in a system that forces everything to be “owned”. The final example is the attempt at keeping scientific information free that was made through a formal declaration by the scientists working on the Human Genome Project.

What all three of Hyde’s examples have in common is that they were devised not by the government but by individuals working on their own or in groups to protect the freedom of ideas FROM the system enforced by the government. There are vast amounts of money and effort focused on the government by business to create more and stricter “intellectual property” laws (because they are very, very profitable for the few companies that hold the “property”). His examples give us some hope that, even if we the people can’t match the financial and lobbying resources of the corporate world, we can still outsmart them and protect the freedom of our ideas.

The Tomorrow People

The Tomorrow People

The Tomorrow People

The Tomorrow People by Judith Merril is another obscure science fiction book that I picked up at an estate sale. The book was first published in 1960. I read the third edition published by Pyramid Books in 1968 with a Gray Morrow cover painting of a silver-suited astronaut standing on a planet’s surface with a rocket ship and an unlikely assortment of large moons in the background. The front cover blurb reads “He came back from Mars – with a secret too terrible to remember” while the back cover offers this summary in super-sized type: “There was something on Mars that killed people”. The front cover also offers two endorsements. One from Analog’s long-time book review columnist, P. Schuyler Miller; a single quoted word, “Superior”. The other endorsement is from well-known science fiction author (and Merril’s ex-husband) Frederik Pohl, who is quoted as saying the novel is “important and fresh”. If they reprint the book again, they can add my one word review: “Meh…” – Steve Rainwater.

Damon Knight’s 1967 review sums it up well when he says, “parts of this book are relatively painless to read”. He also notes that the story contains an “unaccountable sprinkling of 1960 jive talk” and seems to be written from what he describes as the 1960s “woman’s-magazine viewpoint”.

It’s not a terrible book and it actually became slightly interesting towards the end. The story purports to be about the mystery of astronaut Johnny Wendt, the only surviving human from the first expedition to Mars, a man who has lost his memory and doesn’t know why he survived. The story is actually about Lisa Trovi, the woman who has made it her job to take care of Johnny, and their endless relationship problems. Johnny gets drunk, Johnny acts like a jerk, Johnny won’t cooperate with the scientists and politicians who need help putting together a second expedition to Mars, Johnny wanders off and feels sorry for himself, Johnny gets into fights, Johnny becomes unnecessarily jealous of Lisa.

Lisa has to pick up the pieces every time Johnny screws something up. About 75% of the novel is Johnny and Lisa sorting out their problems and is fairly boring stuff. The remaining 25% of the novel deals with scientist Phil Kutler who, with Lisa’s assistance, has to find out what happened on Mars. This leads to an eventual trip for the two of them to a lunar base where they study a vat of growing gray goo that came back from Mars with Johnny. The scientists keep pumping in their best guess at nutrients and the gray goo keeps bubbling and growing. Lisa is immediately fascinated by the goo and soon begins spending all her time sitting and staring at it.

Readers with even the slightest familiarity with science fiction will solve the mystery long before Lisa and Phil grok what’s going on. The gray goo is a piece of the single Martian biological consciousness and it has developed a psionic bond with Lisa because of some peculiar quirk about her brain. Using her brain as a conduit it begins reaching out to other minds on the moonbase. As the link grows stronger Lisa finally realizes what’s happening and makes conscious first contact with the Martian goo-brain. We get a brief but moderately amusing snippet of Martian-brain-speak. Here’s a sample:

“I-all, ready now, knowing from last time, from Earth-other-brothers who came in first great ship, knowing ahead this time: air, water vapor – without these the Earth-bodies cannot survive; old memories stirring, from before me-all, once on a time when the I-we who lived before me-all were discrete bodies alive in a fluid of water-air; back, distant-far back before the drying and thinning of atmosphere…”

You get the idea, the Martian goo had tried to communicate with the first astronauts without understanding they were discrete beings and things went all wrong. It was just a big misunderstanding and everyone wants to be friends now. If all the annoying Johnny/Lisa soap-opera sections could be excised, I think this would make a pretty good short story. If you like old science fiction and happen across the book, you might enjoy it. But I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to find it.

Judith Merril is probably better known by modern science fiction fans by her pseudonym Cyril Judd, used for short stories co-authored with C. M. Kornbluth. She’s also known for introducing Canadian broadcasts of Doctor Who from 1978 to 1981. Her short (five minutes or so) introductions usually included an interesting contemplation of the theme of the episode about to be shown. She also gained brief notariety outside the science fiction world when, in the 1970s, she dressed up as a witch, travelled to Ottawa and cast a hex on the Canadian Parliment for allowing tests of American cruise missiles over Canada.



Susan and I are both fans of Neal Stephenson and his books are favorites when it comes to reading aloud. We read Cryptonomicon and the entire Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) aloud. Nearly everything Stephenson writes has the quality of being so intensely interesting that you feel compelled to keep reading. When reading one of his books to myself, I usually want to read the entire book at one siting, staying up all night in the process. That’s one of the reasons we now read them aloud, it forces us to stop because my voice usually gives out after a few chapters. And the result is that we can enjoy the book over a several weeks, with lots of interim discussion and speculation about where we think the story is going.

One of the things that make Stephenson books so fascinating is that he combines interests in a wide range of topics from history to philosophy to the latest trends in technology. Anathem is no exception and is perhaps his best book to date. The book originated in sketches made by Stephenson when collaborators on the Millennium Clock project were trying to imagine what a clock designed to last 10,000 years would look like. Stephenson thought about the sketches a few years later and they became the basis for the clock and Concent scheme described in Anathem.

The story takes place on an Earth-like planet where society is organized a bit differently than our own. Scientists and philosophers live apart from the rest of society in closed convents called Concents. The separation is due to the alleged troubles that such people caused in the distant past by constantly introducing dangerous ideas and technologies to the “saecular” world. Technology, the physical manifestation of science and philosophy, is forbidden within the Concents. The fraas and suurs within the Concent can contemplate their ideas and think all they want but they are not allowed to build or use any technology more advanced than woodworking or stone masonry. As part of this grand experiment of dividing the thinkers from the rest of society, Concents are further subdivided into a series of concentric walls. Each successive inner circle stays closed to the outside world for a longer amount of time. Fraas and suurs from one circle may choose to move further inward over time. At the outermost level, the Concent opens its doors to the saecular world once every year. The next level opens once ever 10 years, the next every 100, and the last every 1,000. These openings of the Concent to the saecular world are called Aperts. Fraas and suurs in the innermost circle may have lived their entire life in the Concent. In the saecular world outside, cities come and go, governments change, entire civilizations rise and fall. Within the wall of the Concent, life continues on unchanged except for constant learning.

The story opens in the Concent of Saunt Edhar as the young Fraa Erasmas, known as Razz to his friends, is preparing for his first Apert in a decade. He and his friends are looking forward to seeing how the world has changed in the ten years since they were presented to the Concent as children to be trained in the ways of math and science.

It becomes evident rather quickly that this will be no ordinary Apert. The saecular governments are stirred up about some incredible event, so strange and dangerous that they may have to put aside the rules separating those who live within the Concent and draw upon their vast, theoretical knowledge to save the world from destruction.

Erasmus and friends are launched upon an unexpected journey into the saecular world and must shoulder responsibilities and face threats beyond any they’ve been prepared to deal with. They are joined by higher level Mathics including a Thousander who has spent so much time in the ethereal world of theoretical physics, it’s unclear whether he’s still entirely human or if he may have learned the secrets of feared and possibly mythical early Mathics known as The Incantors.

Along the way, the story delves into the many worlds interpretation of quantuum mechanics, the metaphysics of Platonism, Penrose tiling, the relationship of religion and science, and many other fascinating and esoteric topics. All this is couched in a story-line of almost constant action that includes martial arts, political intrigue, space combat, and some old fashioned romance.

Describing much more of the plot would likely give away something you’d enjoy discovering for yourself. Unlike some Stephenson books, like those of the Baroque Cycle where things slow down from time to time and Stephenson spends half a chapter describing the skyline of historic England, Anathem kicks into high gear in chapter one and never lets up. It’s action, crazy ideas, romance, surprises, and humor all the way through. To learn a little more, you can read some further plot descriptions, check out a glossary of terms, and even listen to some music composed based on the book’s description of Mathic arts over at the official Anathem website.