Do Neuroscientists and Bio-anthropologists accept/reject Bicameral Mind?
March 31, 2021 4:17 AM   Subscribe

Ever since learning about Julian Jaynes' 1976 theory of I've been excited by it - but why do people like Oliver Sacks or Sam Harris, who have written extensively about self-consciousness, never mention Jaynes?

I realize I'm a hobbyist out of my element here, so I'm hoping that someone with more knowledge than me can give me an answer.

I love Jaynes' theories of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, but sort of let it be my personal hobbyhorse until Westworld referenced it in Season 2.

I'm hugely skeptical of both evolutionary psychology, and metanarratives, which I agree Jaynes' work is. But as a theory, it's at the very least exciting, possibly plausible and at most kind of mind-bending? Why haven't more people talked about it? Why *don't* more people talk about it?

Did Jaynes have a shady past? Was his theory debunked (The Julian Jaynes Society insists not)? Is he "out of favor" with Psychologists and Neuroscientists, Archaeologists and Philosophers? Why?

Is it that his theory just faded away because it's ultimately unprovable? How would it be any more unprovable than Anything Else that has captured the public imagination, like "Ancient Aliens" or even religious miracles.

I've tried to do some digging but because none of the current pop-Science folks mention Jaynes I'm not having any luck. Any insights from experts out there? Or Thoughts from people that have read Jaynes?
posted by Dressed to Kill to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think on the one hand a broader range of source material in the historical record tends to show how similar and relatable people were in the past, e.g. the complaint tablet to Ea-nasir / "Meet the Worst Businessman of the 18th Century BC," and on the other hand a wealth of anthropological material from modern sources suggests all kinds of interesting yet relatable ways people make connections between metaphysical phenomena and subjectivity, e.g. you might like Dan Everett's Don't Sleep There are Snakes or Edward Schieffelin's "Performance and the Cultural Construction of Reality: A New Guinea Example." Turning stuff like that into a hypothesis about a fundamental change in the nature of consciousness is unwarranted.
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:52 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]

Jaynes' theories are more than a little out of the academic mainstream, so it's not so much that Jaynes himself has been "rejected", more that his work doesn't fit, at all, into the "standard model" of psychology. Therefore it doesn't get mentioned much in mainstream academia. Also, there are some significant evidential issues with it, to say the least.

As for why Jaynes' theories haven't cut through like Ancient Aliens and the like, I doubt there is a definitive, objective answer. My theory would be that whilst working out the seat of consciousness would be academically very interesting, it would also be quite a prosaic answer to one of the "big" questions. People like to believe there is something more - call it mind, or soul - than "just" biology, especially if it only came into being a few thousand years ago as Jaynes postulates. His theory makes the world seem less magical, not more.
posted by underclocked at 4:57 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Turning stuff like that into a hypothesis about a fundamental change in the nature of consciousness is unwarranted.

Totally agreed - but I think Jaynes is trying to answer "why did consciousness evolve" and "why in this way for some species but not others"?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:02 AM on March 31

These days I believe the more mainstream scientific understanding is closer to “literally even insects have some form of consciousness and self-awareness and the supposed uniqueness of human consciousness is a matter of degree rather than kind.”
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:31 AM on March 31 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Have you read Kevin Simler's (four part) essay on this? It's not an authoritative outlook, but I think it does give a sense of how the bicameral mind is this idea that is at once wacky and captivating, and hence no one knows what to do with it. From the opening lines, When it was first published in 1976, no one knew quite what to make of it, including some of our most intelligent critics. Daniel Dennett said, "On the face of it, [the theory] is preposterous," but also, "I take it very seriously." Richard Dawkins' ambivalence was even less reserved; he called it "either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between."
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:23 AM on March 31 [5 favorites]

I think the problem is not that Bicameral Mind is a fringe theory - it is beyond the fringe, so disconnected from other ideas that it is hard to see how to incorporate even the more reasonably parts into the mainstream (whatever that is). Dawkins' (quoted above) is right - it is either a complete breakthrough or totally wrong and most people are betting on the latter.
posted by AndrewStephens at 6:33 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]

IANAN, IANABA, but I think this theory is dangerous because it asserts that people who do not possess a very specific type of language are not conscious, with obvious implications for linguistic-based dehumanization and genocide. It's also an extremely fishy idea.

Not to mention that the theory is apparently very poorly posed, because nobody seems to be able to describe it, and all the responses to the critiques are basically "no you didn't understand what the theory says". If you can't state your theory clearly, do you even have a theory?
posted by heatherlogan at 6:36 AM on March 31 [6 favorites]

I studied ancient history, working toward a PhD, and after I read Jaynes' book I thought, "Holy shit, it suddenly all makes sense!" Because a lot of ancient history doesn't make any sense without additional context. Take, for example, the story of the founding of Mexico City, with their god ordering them around on essentially a wild goose chase, finally settling on the worst possible location (the middle of a lake) to build their city. It's nuts! And there are countless other examples. All of ancient history, basically. Then I loaned the book to a friend who constantly heard voices telling her to do things. She read the book and told me, "Holy shit, it suddenly all makes sense!"

In the final analysis, it's a convenient answer to a lot of questions, but that doesn't make it correct. It's artfully written and a well-formed argument…it's a fun read. I mean, people still read "On the Nature of the Universe" despite Lucretius being wrong about just about everything.

In any case, Jaynes idea is still new-ish. It might still inform future theories. They called the people who conceived of the Big Bang as opposed to steady state crazy for decades. Same with plate tectonics — nutcases! Hell, even washing your hands before surgery and wearing masks during a pandemic were initially ridiculed by the establishment. That people are still talking about it and thinking about it means it's not worthless.
posted by jabah at 6:46 AM on March 31 [4 favorites]


I think Gilbert Ryle (The Concept Of Mind, Plato's Progress) said that the theory is going to turn out to be utter rubbish or complete genius; no middle ground.
posted by thelonius at 6:50 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]

I read the Jaynes book and Carlos Castaneda at the same time(1980s).
They became the bed rock of my understanding of the world.
posted by JohnR at 6:59 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]

Academic neuroscientists and anthropologists either ignore or dismiss Jaynes' ideas because they're not really verifiable. His stuff is speculation rather than science. Personally I find his ideas interesting, but I'm not invested in proving them, so it's more like a thought experiment.

(also in my personal opinion I think Sam Harris is a blowhard and I'll believe the opposite of whatever he says.)
posted by ovvl at 7:24 AM on March 31 [11 favorites]

Best answer: You might check out Daniel Watkins' book Hearing Voices. He talks about the phenomenon (it's in his family) in ways that range beyond medical diagnosis. In some respects it adds to the rich trove of evidence for directive inner voicings that Jaynes assembles.
posted by Morpeth at 7:56 AM on March 31

I'm not even at the level of a hobbyist, but I just read Damasio's Self Comes to Mind, and he mentions Jaynes a couple of times and in the footnotes. For instance:

The development of writing, about five thousand years ago, provides a handful of solid evidence, and by the time of the Homeric poems, which are likely to be less than three thousand years old, autobiographical selves had undoubtedly come to human minds. Still, I sympathize with Julian Jaynes’s claim that something of great import may have happened to the human mind during the relatively brief interval of time between the events narrated in the Iliad and those that make up the Odyssey.

Not sure how helpful this is.
posted by Omnomnom at 9:02 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay promise I won't make any more comments but I'm really curious for more info from

1. Mefites who have read Jaynes, what are your thoughts on his theory?

2. Am I correct in thinking then, that there is currently no sustained book-length rebuttal of Jaynes? That's really interesting to me.

3. I feel as though Jaynes holds up in the framework of what we know (popularly) about the brain: i.e. self-consciousness is an illusion, that the brain has vestiges of bicameral relations (studied through brain damage, strokes and tumors) and self-consciousness is connected with language and especially metaphor. Does anyone know of a rebuttal from this angle? Frankly, most of what we know about consciousness and the brain is what "lights up" under imaging systems and has very little material focus from Pop-psychology and pop-science beyond ideas of neuroplasticity... which again, I feel, doesn't negate Jaynes! It could even support him!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 9:56 AM on March 31

Best answer: I think you can kind of split Jayne's theory into two related theories: one is that self-consciousness is an illusion that developed via a process of cultural evolution through language and metaphor, and the second that it didn't happen until 3000 years ago for some reason. The first theory hasn't been discredited at all and there is a lot of interesting and related work in the Cultural Evolution/Human evolution fields in general. I just read The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution by Joseph Henrich which touches on a lot of these topics, although doesn't specifically assert anything about how consciousness evolved. But the core theory of the book is that for the last 100k years, biological and cultural evolution have been strongly intertwined and actively encouraged each other. Our brains have clearly changed in significant ways.

But the second theory about it happening very recently doesn't match a lot of the evidence from anthropology that cultural evolution theory is based on. There are many isolated tribes that have more or less the same culture that all humans did 10k years ago, and they're certainly conscious. The Secret of Our Success goes through a lot of examples of how people learn from others and create cultures and technology, and that process clearly requires more than a bicameral mind. Learning complicated and detailed things from others and navigating complicated social hierarchies require pretty complex models of how the human brain work, and most things I've read indicate what we call consciousness probably evolved out of that process, but much longer than 3k years ago.
posted by JZig at 12:41 PM on March 31 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The nearest thing to a 'sustained book-length rebuttal' of Jaynes is Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). McGilchrist's argument is almost the opposite of Jaynes's, as it's about the emergence of the bicameral mind.

The philosopher Bernard Williams has a few remarks on Jaynes in Shame and Necessity, his study of Homeric moral psychology. His main target is Bruno Snell, but he also skewers Jaynes for proposing an 'even more extreme' version of the same thesis.

Finally, I know Scott Alexander isn't too popular round here, but I enjoyed his review of Jaynes last year. 'A brilliant book, with only two minor flaws. First, that it purports to explains the origin of consciousness. And second, that it posits a breakdown of the bicameral mind.'
posted by verstegan at 2:18 PM on March 31 [4 favorites]

I liked his book for being thought-provoking, but I don't accept everything that he claims at face-value. I look at his ideas as a departure point for thinking freely about consciousness but not as a definitive word on the subject. So I am looking at his book more philosophically rather than scientifically.

Academics don't bother refuting his ideas because they don't think it's relevant. Jaynes is now on the fringes of the subject and just not part of contemporary research dialogue. There are a few neuroscientists that really hate him, but I think most will more charitably say that it doesn't quite intersect with most modern work.
posted by ovvl at 2:43 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]

I asked George Lakoff, the biggest name in conceptual metaphor theory of mind, about Jaynes's book. He said the first half is solid work, in his opinion, demonstrating that our understanding & perception of consciousness is structured by conceptual metaphors rather than being innate to the human brain. The second half, he said, is unprovable fringe wackiness (or words to that effect).
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 6:35 PM on March 31 [8 favorites]

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