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Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a fascinating book written by Julian Jaynes, and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1976.

Maybe many of you folks have read this book already. And if you haven't, maybe you should (I find Jaynes' writing very accessible). I managed to borrow a copy a little while ago (but it's apparent to me that I am going to have to acquire my own copy to have available at my leisure). I cracked it open Friday night at work, and can't stop. The idea, if you're unfamiliar with the book, is that what we call consciousness (that is, the subjective "I" we imagine behind our eyes and everyone else's) emerged as a result of language (and specifically through the heightened attention, examination, and comparison we are able to achieve through proliferations and permutations of metaphor) and that before the "I" the mind was bicameral.

What Jaynes meant (or seems to have meant [he died in 1997] — I haven't finished the book yet, or managed to fully absorb or understand the chapters I've read) by bicameral is that the mind functioned as two parts — and neither part conscious — the "man" part, based in the left side of the brain and using, as we do, Wernicke's area to communicate through language, which performed everyday tasks such as learning, fulfilling social/civic/ familial obligations, everything that needed to be done on a day-to-day basis, and the "god" part, based in the right side of the brain, which performed organizational and analytical tasks, and which, in times of stress or decision (i.e. novel situations) collated/parsed/synthesized past experience, formed a response, and, using the area equivalent to Wernicke's, coded that response into speech and sent it to the left side of the brain where it was perceived as the voice of the god (or the king, chief, or a parent), this hallucination being auditory, but often accompanied by corresponding visual hallucinations.

Jaynes wasn't just pulling this stuff out of his ass. He develops his thesis slowly and carefully, with great attention to detail (and objections), citing, for example, much research done on, and case histories of epileptics and schizophrenics.

Part of Jaynes' ideas are expressed through a study of the absence of subjectivity and volition in the Iliad — the Iliad as a psychological document is, or seems to me to be, quite central to the book.

I'm sure I'm not doing the book justice. I'm certain I haven't gotten across the absolute (beautiful) strangeness of what he postulates, nor how his discussion of metaphor resonates in me. As I said, Jaynes develops his ideas slowly. This is purposeful, and utterly necessary to understanding even a part of what he is saying. This is not a book to be nibbled at, it is a book each bite of which must be chewed and chewed over and over in the mind to have a hope of capturing its full savour and nutritional value.

To be read and listened to before, after, or in conjunction with Jaynes' book I'd also recommend Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's 2003 Reith Lectures, The Emerging Mind. Ramachandran is the Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego).