California Literary Review

Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness

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September 4th, 2008 at 9:43 am

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The Count of Concord by Nicholas Delbanco
Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited
Edited by Marcel Kuijsten
Julian Jaynes Society, 448 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Some Long-Awaited Insight Regarding Julian Jaynes’s Work

When Julian Jaynes released his ground breaking (earth shaking?) book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in 1976, schools in related fields, psychologists, and laymen were at first stunned. This soon gave way to wild acceptance of Jaynes’s theories, rabid scorn, intense ridicule, head-scratching consternation and eventually a wave of research directed towards examining, proving or disproving the ideas in his book.

Based on laboratory studies at the time of the human brain and a close reading of archaeological evidence, Jaynes, a psychologist who taught at Princeton up until his death in 1997, showed how ancient peoples from Mesopotamia to Peru could not “think” as we do today, and were therefore not conscious. Unable to introspect or contemplate metaphor-driven scenarios, they experienced auditory hallucinations — voices of gods actually heard as the Old Testament or the Iliad — which, emanating from the brain’s right hemisphere, told an individual what to do in circumstances of novelty or stress. This ancient mentality is called the bicameral mind.

Jaynes claimed that only catastrophe and cataclysm forced mankind to learn consciousness, and that occurred only 3,000 years ago. Not a product of animal evolution, but of human history and culture, consciousness, according to Jaynes, is ultimately grounded in the physiology of the brain’s right and left hemispheres. He examines three forms of human awareness – the bicameral or god-run man; the modern or problem solving man; and contemporary forms of throwbacks to bicamerality: hypnotism, schizophrenia, poetic and religious frenzy to name a few.

Reading his book brought to life, fleshed out, several latent thoughts and ideas I’d held and worked over for years. The delightful advantage in reading The Origin of Consciousness was that Jaynes’s words expanded and explained my embryonic (and I’m being generous here) assumptions.

Thirty years later Marcel Kuijsten, Founder and Executive Director of the Julian Jaynes Society, has assembled Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, which includes essays by Jaynes, an in-depth biography, and the discussion and analysis of Jaynes’s theory from a variety of perspectives such as clinical psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology, linguistics, and ancient history.. This is not a book a reader can jump into without reading the original effort by Jaynes and hope to truly gain anything from the endeavor. Perhaps the book could serve as an introduction to Origins, but this is probably a stretch.

Some questions posed and answered by Jaynes include: Why are gods and idols ubiquitous throughout the ancient world? What is the relationship of consciousness and language? How is it that oracles came to influence entire nations such as Greece? If consciousness arose far back in human evolution, how can it so easily be altered in hypnosis and “possession”? Is modern schizophrenia a vestige of an earlier mentality? The essays contained in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness examine Jaynes’s assumptions and conclusions from a variety of viewpoints.

Chapter titles range from: “The Ghost of a Flea: Visions of William Blake,” “Verbal Hallucinations and Preconscious Mentality,” and “The Meaning of King Tut,” all by Jaynes; “Auditory Hallucinations in Nonverbal Quadriplegics;” “The Oracles and Their Cessation: A Tribute to Julian Jaynes;” and “Greek Zombies: On the Alleged Absurdity of Substantially Unconscious Greek Minds.”

Part I was particularly welcome. Titled “Julian Jaynes: His Life and Thought” it was co-written by June F. Tower who, along with her husband Walter, was a neighbor and friend of Jaynes, and William R. Woodward who took his master’s in psychology with Jaynes at Princeton in 1967-1969. His Ph.D. comes from Yale in history of science and medicine. This section fills in many gaps in Jaynes’s life and gives a clear narrative pointing out how he came to do the research and write his unique book; and also offers some clues into his somewhat reclusive, mysterious life that includes many hints at other works expanding on his book that were never published — with only notes and partially completed manuscripts discovered after Jaynes’s death.

Most of the book’s selections added to and clarified my understanding of the original work, though a couple of sections are too technical, too caught up in nearly arcane educational jargon for my pedestrian tastes. Among these are “The Self as Interiorized Social Relations – Applying a Jaynesian Approach to Problems of Agency and Volition” and “The Shi ‘Corpse/Personator’ Ceremony in Early China.” While these chapters were clearly well thought out and presented, they reminded me of some political science courses I once took that were more interested in equations (like the ever-popular chi square) than in human fundamentals. To see if others felt the same way I checked reader comments at Amazon and found this representative example:

“The technical essays aren’t all necessarily accessible to everyone who’s read and understood Origin, though many are.”

On the other hand, this taken from the forward by Dr. Michael A. Persinger, Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience, Biomolecular Sciences Program, Laurentian University takes a more positive approach. “In this book Marcel Kuijsten and his colleagues have integrated a quintessential collection of original thoughts concerning Jaynes’s concepts as well as some of Jaynes’s original essays. I have rarely read a manuscript that so eloquently and elegantly examines a complex and pervasive phenomenon. The contributors of this volume have integrated the concepts of psychology, anthropology, archaeology, theology, philosophy, the history of science, and modern neuroscience with such clarity it should be considered an essential text for any student of human experience.

Anyone who has read Jaynes’s book should read Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness for a greater appreciation of the work. Whether one agrees in whole or part, it is a testament to Jaynes’s research and work that this collection of essays in Reflections either agrees with him in total or does not find a great deal to dispute concerning his theories. In the thirty years since Origin was released a great deal of research has in the main proven the man to be remarkably prescient.

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