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Academic Studies of Human Consciousness

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Consciousness Concepts of Julian Jaynes

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I can sum up what I have said so far as three major ideas about the origin of consciousness.

The first concerns the nature of consciousness itself and that it arises from the power of language to make metaphors and analogies.

The second idea is the hypothesis of the bicameral mind, an early type of mentality.  I think the evidence for its existence is unmistakable.  Apart from this idea, there is a problem of explaining the origin of gods, the origin of religious practices in the back corridors of time that is so apparent with a psychological study of history.  The bicameral mind offers a possibility to tie it all together and to provide a rationale for it.

The third idea is that consciousness followed the bicameral mind.  I have placed the date somewhere between 1400 B.C. and 600 B.C.  This is a long period and that date may have to be adjusted.  But I believe this to be a good approximation.

(Julian Jaynes, Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind, Journal of Canadian Psychology, April 1986)

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Dr. Julian Jaynes

Julian Jaynes (1920-1997) was born in West Newton, Massachusetts.  As an undergraduate, he attended McGill University and subsequently went to Yale where he received his Master's and Ph. D. degrees.  From 1966-1990 he was a lecturer in psychology at Princeton University.  He was a very popular teacher and was frequently invited to lecture at other universities.  Unfortunately, due to his unusual ideas pertaining to consciousness, he was denied tenure at Princeton and never rose above the rank of university lecturer.

Although he wrote many research papers and did creditable work in animal behavior, Jaynes was best known for one book, entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (first published in 1976).  The book was a best selling work of popular science, and was a nominee for the National Book Award in 1978.  However, academics heavily criticized Jaynes for writing a book which they felt pandered to lay readers; also, they asserted that he had not submitted his book for proper peer review prior to being published.

In the 1970's, the most popular new concept involving the human brain was associated with so-called split-brain research; everybody was talking about right hemisphere dominant and left hemisphere dominant type people.  Jaynes made full use of this current fad in psychological thinking in preparing his book.

I first read the book in 1978 and found it very interesting and full of original ideas, but overall, I had trouble with his main proposition.  This central proposition was that our modern type of consciousness is a recent development; Jaynes speculated that it began no more than about 3,000 years ago - just after the time of the Trojan War!

Jaynes argued that, 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. The minds of these "preconscious" humans were divided into two halves, i.e., into a bicameral mind, probably as a result of very poor communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  Only when this division began to breakdown and the two hemispheres began to effectively communicate with each other, did truly modern human consciousness begin.

Jaynes finds evidence of this in Homer's Iliad, in which the characters continually receive orders and advice from the various gods. Jaynes claimed that this characteristic was no mere literary device but was an accurate description of how people really experienced the world at that time.

According to Jaynes, the heroes of The Iliad did not have the kind of interior monologue that characterizes our own consciousness today.  Instead, their decisions, plans, and initiatives were developed at an unconscious level and then were "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 the temporal threshold between these two different types of human mentality and provides an insight into the older mode of consciousness. Jaynes finds the same process at work in the art and literature of other ancient civilizations, e.g., those of Mesopotamia and Judea (in the Old Testament).

Jaynes suggests that examples of this pre-modern kind of mentality may be found even today. Some religious leaders, artists and poets seem to receive their inspiration in this atavistic manner. More importantly, schizophrenics appear to possess this kind of consciousness.

Jaynes is an excellent writer and his book is quite understandable, even for lay people. The first two chapters provide a good summary of the problem of consciousness and the previous attempts that have been made to solve it. Jaynes displays impressive knowledge of the historical and philological aspects of his subject, as well as knowledge of the state of brain science during the time he was writing.  Much more is known about the brain today than was known 30 years ago, however, this does not detract from the significance of his book.  The fundamental question the book attempts to answer is how did our modern state of consciousness evolve?  Did the consciousness of homo sapiens develop in a slow continuous manner, over a long period of time? Or, was there a radical and sudden change in the nature of human consciousness at some point in time in the fairly recent past?

Heretofore, Jaynes has been almost unique in suggesting that human consciousness might be a very recent development, but he is no longer entirely alone; other consciousness researchers, including three that are discussed elsewhere in this web site, seem to have arrived at similar conclusions.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett, in an article written in 1986 for the journal Canadian Psychology entitled Julian Jaynes's Software Archeology, suggested that Jaynes was wrong about quite a few of his supporting arguments, especially the importance he attached to hallucinations, but that these things were not essential to his main thesis, which may well be right. Dennett asserts that if Jaynes's argument is recast, using the modern computational 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 much more recent changes in the software of our data processing system for us to have become the way we are today. Dennett concludes his article by stating:

Jaynes' idea is that for us to be the way we are now, there has to have been a revolution -- almost certainly not an organic revolution, but a software revolution -- in the organization of our information processing system, and that has to come after language.  That, I think, is an absolutely wonderful idea, and if Jaynes is completely wrong in the details, that is a darn shame, but something like what he proposes has to be right; and we can start looking around for better modules to put in the place of the modules that he has already given us.

The psychologist Nicholas Humphrey (born 1943), in his 1999 article entitled Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind (Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 6, Pages 116-143), asserts that modern consciousness and language arose much more recently than most people have supposed.  Humphrey places the shift in consciousness as having occurred between about 11,000 and 5,000 years ago, which is earlier than the date proposed by Jaynes, but the difference is not great. Humphrey does not reference Jaynes, but the resemblance in their ideas is evident.

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is another recent researcher whose ideas are consistent with those of Jaynes. He explicitly refers to Jaynes in his 1999 book entitled The Feeling of What Happens, at chapter 6, pages 187-188:

Consciousness, according to the language dependency hypothesis, follows language mastery and thus cannot occur in organisms that lack that mastery.  When Julian Jaynes presents his engaging thesis about the evolution of consciousness, he is referring to consciousness post- language, not to core consciousness as I described it.  When thinkers as diverse as Daniel Dennett, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela speak about consciousness, they usually refer to consciousness as a post-language phenomenon.  They are speaking, as I see it, about the higher reaches of extended consciousness as it occurs now, at this stage in biological evolution.  I have no problem with their proposals, but I wish to make clear that, in my proposal, extended consciousness rides on top of the foundational core consciousness which we and other species have long had and continue to have.

Damasio believes that the current status of what he calls "extended consciousness" may have developed at an even later time than the Trojan War era; he maintains that Plato and Aristotle did not have a concept of consciousness in the same way that we do today.  Damasio believes that our preoccupation with consciousness is new, perhaps only three and a half centuries old, "and has only come to the forefront late in the twentieth century."

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