Julian Jaynes, a Princeton University psychologist who died recently at
the age of 77, is famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view,
for one book only: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the
Bicameral Mind, first published in 1976. Critics at the time were
uncertain what to make of it. Some thought that Jaynes was deluded or a
crank, although others, notably Daniel Dennett, believed he was saying
What did Jaynes believe?
Jaynes's central idea is that our modern type of consciousness is a
recent development; indeed, that it began no more than 3,000 years ago.
In earlier times human mentality was characterized by auditory and
sometimes visual hallucinations, in which people heard the voices of
the gods speaking to them and telling them what to do. Only when this
process became internalized and recognized as coming from within the
percipients' own minds did truly modern consciousness begin.
The minds of 'preconscious' humans were split in two (the 'bicameral
mind'), probably as a result of a dissociation between the left and
right hemispheres of the brain. Jaynes finds evidence of this in Homer's
Iliad, in which the characters continually receive orders and
advice from various deities. This, he claims, is no mere literary trope
but is an accurate description of how people really experienced the
world at the time. In support of this view he cites the eminent
classicist E.R. Dodds, whose book The Greeks and the
Irrational provides him with plenty of evidence for his
Consciousness in remote antiquity
The heroes of The Iliad do not have the kind of interior
monologue that characterizes our own consciousness today. Instead, their
decisions, plans, and initiatives are developed at an unconscious level
and then are 'announced' to them, sometimes by the hallucinated figure
of a friend or a god, sometimes by a voice alone. The Iliad, Jaynes
believes, stands at a watershed between two different types of human
mentality and affords us an insight into an older mode of being. Once
we have begun to see history in this way, we find the same process at
work in the art and literature of other ancient civilizations: for
instance, those of Mesopotamia and of the Hebrews (in the Old
Jaynes suggests that vestiges of the premodern kind of mentality are to
be found even today. Artistic inspiration and poetry are in this sense
atavistic. If Jaynes were writing now he would no doubt point to such
modern enthusiasms as the vogues for speaking with tongues, channelling,
or communicating with angels as further manifestations of the same
Whether one agrees with Jaynes or not, there is no denying that his book
is eminently readable; he writes elegantly and clearly. The first two
chapters provide a brilliant summary of the problem of consciousness and
the attempts that have been made to solve it. Throughout the book Jaynes
displays an impressive grasp of the historical aspects of his subject as
well as of the state of neurophysiological science as it existed at the
time he was writing. He was a polymath, and his book is correspondingly
rich in facts and ideas.
Naturally, much more is known about the brain today than was known a
quarter of a century ago, and even then it was possible for specialists
to object to this or that statement in the book. However, this does not
detract from its real significance, which is that it raises a
fundamental question: was there really a radical shift in consciousness
at some time in the past, or did consciousness simply develop, more or
less smoothly, from its origins in our anthropoid forebears?
Others with similar ideas
Hitherto Jaynes has been almost unique in suggesting that consciousness
might be a very recent development, but he is no longer entirely
isolated; others seem to be coming to similar conclusions. One such is
the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, although he approaches the subject
from a different angle. In an article entitled 'Cave Art, Autism, and
the Evolution of the Human Mind' (in the Journal of Consciousness
Studies, 1999, vol. 6, pp. 116-143), Humphrey draws attention to the
striking similarities in style and technique that exist between the cave
paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic and the drawings of an autistic girl
Nicholas Humphrey on Nadia's drawings
Nadia lacked language almost completely, yet starting in her third year
she produced a series of remarkable drawings, mainly of horses and other
animals, that were technically far superior to those of normal children.
The subjects are shown in motion, using perspective and foreshortening,
and often in three-quarter profile. Nadia was, of course, quite
untutored as an artist; as she grew older and began to acquire some
language the quantity and quality of her drawings fell off to some
extent although not completely.
There have been other autistic children who have shown unusual drawing
ability, though probably none has been as remarkable as Nadia. There are
also cases in which artists suffered brain damage leading to dementia
yet their art became freer and more original (see Mell JC, Howard SM,
Miller BL, Art and the brain: the influence of frontotemporal dementia
on an accomplished artist. Neurology 2003;60:1707-10).
There are numerous similarities both in content and in technique between
Nadia's drawings and those of the cave artists. Both, for example, are
mainly concerned with animals, which are depicted with impressive
naturalism and realism, generally in activity rather than at rest. Both
also show certain idiosyncrasies, such as a tendency for figures to be
drawn haphazardly on top of one another. Both, again, show chimeras -
features from different kinds of animals combined into one figure.
Humphrey concedes that these resemblances may mean nothing, but what if
they do mean something?
Many people who have commented on Nadia's astonishing drawings have
concluded that there was a link between her artistic skill and her
inability to speak. Humphrey, too, favours this view, and he wonders
whether it tells us something about the mentality of the cave painters.
It is often assumed that the extraordinary skill evinced by these
unknown artists indicates that they had essentially modern minds and
full use of language; in other words, they were very similar to
ourselves. But the case of Nadia shows that this is not necessarily
true. If Nadia could draw in spite of lacking language, so could they.
Perhaps, however, Nadia's case tells us something even more surprising.
It may mean that someone with a modern mind and full linguistic ability
cannot draw in this spontaneous way at all; perhaps the possession of
language is an actual barrier to that kind of art.
Did the palaeolithic cave artists have fully modern minds and
It is certainly a remarkable fact that there was a long time gap between
the cave paintings and the re-emergence of art in Egypt and Mesopotamia,
and moreover the art of these civilizations is quite different from
what preceded it. The new art is rigid, non-naturalistic, lacking
perspective. When naturalistic painting and the use of perspective were
rediscovered, in the Italian Renaissance, these skills were no longer
spontaneous but required long training and practice for mastery. This
suggests that the cave artists were functioning in a different way from
us today, and that something happened between their time and our own.
Was this 'something' the development of modern language?
Even if the cave artists did lack language, it is conceivable that they
were exceptional within their society and that other members of that
society were fully competent linguistically. This is one possible
interpretation of the facts, but Humphrey prefers the view that language
was still fairly primitive at the time the cave paintings were made. He
suggests that speech in the Palaeolithic may have been used largely for
talking about social relations and lacked names for animals. In that
case we would expect to find many drawings of animals, because the
ability to make these would not be inhibited by language, but few or
none of humans. And this is what we do find: animals are depicted
plentifully and vividly but humans are either absent or appear only
symbolically, as stick figures.
Although Humphrey does not mention Jaynes, the resemblance in their
ideas is evident. Both postulate that modern consciousness arose much
more recently than most people have supposed, and, for both, language
too is a relatively recent acquisition. Humphrey places the shift in
consciousness as having occurred between about 11,000 and 5,000 years
ago, which is a little earlier than the date proposed by Jaynes, but the
difference is not great.
Damasio on Jaynes
The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is another recent writer whose ideas
recall those of Jaynes; in fact, he explicitly refers to Jaynes in his
book on the way human consciousness has arisen (The Feeling of What Happens).
Indeed, he seems to think that the evolution of consciousness may have
extended into even later times than Jaynes suggests, for he maintains
that Plato and Aristotle did not have a concept of consciousness in the
way that we do today. The preoccupation with what we call consciousness
is new, he believes, perhaps only three and a half centuries old, and
has only come really to the fore in the twentieth century.
Still another writer who cites Jaynes approvingly is Christopher
Wills in The Runaway
Dennett on Jaynes
In 1986 Dennett suggested that Jaynes was wrong about quite a few of his
supporting arguments, especially the importance he attached to
hallucinations, but that these things are not essential to his main
thesis, which may well be right. And he maintains that if this thesis is
recast using the computer metaphor it makes a lot of sense. The hardware
of the human brain may perhaps be the same today as it was thousands of
years ago, but there must have been a change in the organization of our
information-processing system for us to be the way we are today.
Dawkins on Jaynes
In his new book The God Delusion (2006) Richard Dawkins writes
[Jayne's book] is as strange as its title suggests. It is one of those
books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius,
nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets.
Jaynes is, I believe, an unjustly neglected writer, whose time may now
have come. It may well be that he gave us an indispensable clue to
understanding how and when the modern human mind developed.
Julian Jaynes, `The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the
Nicholas Humphrey, Cave Art, Autism, and the Human Mind, in Journal of
Consciousness Studies, vol. 6, 1999, pp. 116-143, with comments by
others including Dennett, and a reply by Humphrey.
Daniel C. Dennett, Julian Jaynes's Software Archeology, reprinted in
Brainchildren, 1998, pp. 121-130.
Jaynes's book is reviewed on my Book Reviews