Julian Jaynes

05 May 1997 15:16

An ex-behaviorist psychologist, now best known for writing The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). The first part of this book considers, with no little insight, just what consciousness is, and as importantly what it isn't; this is highly regarded by many people of intelligence, such as Daniel Dennett.

The rest of the book is devoted to the rather bizarre theory that, prior to about 1000 B.C., consciousness did not exist, but rather everyone went around in a ``bicameral'' condition, hallucinating the voices of the gods and their parents out of one of their cerebral hemispheres, which gave orders to the other. Bicamerality is supposed to have broken down and been supperseded by consciousness as we know it during the stresses of the late Bronze Age, leaving behind as remnants things like poetry and fortune-telling. (Much of Jaynes's book is devoted to analyzing the heroes in Homer, though, curiously, he does not take their athletic feats as seriously as their visions, and he seems totally unacquainted with how epic poetry gets composed.) This is totally e.t., and I don't think anyone with their head screwed on tight takes it at all seriously. Indeed, the only person I know who believes it also buys into the paranoid fantasies of Lyndon LaRouche. (I hasten to add that such a connection would probably horrify Jaynes, who seems humane and, off this subject, very level-headed.)

The bicameral hypothesis seems to lack all historical and biological plausibility, but I think it makes an excellent premise for science fiction, and one of the better current authors, Neal Stephenson, has used it in two books --- his first novel, The Big U, where, under the influence of campus architecture, undergraduates revert to bicamerality, hallucinating messages from fans and flashing neon signs, and again in Snow Crash,but explaining the connection there would be too much of a spoiler. I'm still waiting for bicameral aliens, though.