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Jaynes, Julian

Entry updated 20 March 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1920-1997) US academic whose The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) attempts disputatiously but with considerable charm to provide a neuroscientific basis for the radical hypothesis that human consciousness – or perhaps more precisely self-consciousness – developed not in concert with the Evolution of Homo sapiens but only recently: in late pre-historic/early history times. Before about 1000 BCE, he argues, human cognition could be described as governing action in two ways: normal acts are shaped by "habit-schemas" and non-self-reflective memory; but in exceptional moments of crisis and stress, actions are commanded by Linguistic "auditory hallucinations" generated from the right hemisphere of the brain, and heard/perceived as the voice of the god or chieftain or shaman: to genuinely hear, as he suggests more than once, is to obey: obedience-commanding language in this sense being, according to William S Burroughs in his comments on Jaynes, a virus, an alien plague. In the chaotic and demanding centuries after circa 1000 BCE, Jaynes goes on to argue, this stress-activated but ultimately inflexible two-chambered non-conscious system begins to break down, and humans begin to recognize the horse-whisperer voices in their ears as their own thoughts generated internally. This may be a loss of prelapsarian innocence: but we do begin to speak to ourselves. We begin to debate with ourselves. Good and evil are born.

To establish this history, Jaynes necessarily distinguishes learning from consciousness, and in doing so severs a continuity long assumed to exist, intertwiningly, between the two. This refusal to think of consciousness as inherent at some level in all organisms capable of learning undermines certain Religious doctrines regarding the inherent embeddedness of the "soul"; it also serves recent readers of The Origin [for short] as an early-warning system to detect and ward off the teleological presumption, extremely common in modern sf Cinema (see Clichés), that contemporary Computers are crippled through the fact that learning is ultimately meaningless without consciousness; and that until they become conscious they cannot gain true AI status and rule the world. In The Origin civilization and consciousness are not synonyms: consciousness is an accident, not a precondition: a non-conscious Hive-Mind civilization like that depicted in Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006) lies entirely within Jaynes's pattern of speculation, which more extensively underlies parts of its sequel, Echopraxia (2014).

Perhaps the most cunning and charismatic rhetorical stroke in The Origin is the claim that Homer – whom Jaynes takes to be at least two separate authors perhaps a century apart – is of vital interest for their dramatization of the coming to consciousness of Homo sapiens. The Iliad stands as an apotheosis of the bicameral mind operating at its highest pitch, with gods and goddesses (see Gods and Demons) issuing constant commands, and human participants glowing like porcelain as they are depicted impersonally, though in burnished detail: all story, like characters – or, perhaps more precisely, actants – from the Brothers Grimm. The much later Odyssey focuses primarily upon the polytropic Odysseus, the first fictional portrait of a self-conscious human being, a trickster Antihero for whom the gods are interlocutors who are not necessarily obeyed, a confidence-man, a storyteller who knows that stories are made up and is therefore able to lie (a behaviour difficult for the bicameral mind to encompass). He is not only the first unreliable narrator in Western literature, but also its first genuine example of the Mysterious Stranger. It is a stroke of something like genius to conceive of him as the first of us.

The dramatic (even melodramatic) transgressiveness of Jaynes's vision made his fellow researchers uneasy from the first; any neurological basis for his theory was soon understood to be fatally flawed, and his unsustainable claims to investigative rigour generated a sense that the whole of his conceptual world was contaminated by Pseudoscience. In the twenty-first century, however, a continued interest in the insightful glamour of his central understanding of the narrative feel of becoming consciously human (see Psychology) has kept his name alive. It may be assumed that most sf writers who make use of the model of the bicameral mind have been primarily inspired by its conspicuously storyable usefulness, and though they tend to concentrate on the era or moment before consciousness, an inevitable dramatic irony shapes our understanding of any tale whose protagonists hear Jaynesian voices.

The first sf author to register The Origin may have been Philip K Dick, whose correspondence with Jaynes began within months of the book's publication. His use of bicamerality in the Exegesis (written over the decade prior to his death in 1982; fullest published version 2011) confirms that early engagement; as does the relationship between the two protagonists of VALIS (1981) and the eponymous Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Other authors to make unmistakable though usually implicit use of Jaynes include Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, Terence Hawkins, James Patrick Kelly, James Merrill, Robert J Sawyer, Neal Stephenson and Rick Wilber. The Television serial Westworld (2016-current) is clearly indebted to Jaynes, who is cited by name condescendingly, at least once, for his intriguing but outmoded speculations; the last episode of its first season, "The Bicameral Mind", is an extended dramatization of the hypothesis.

Further markers of consanguinity with Jaynes, though not necessarily of any conscious use of his model, may sometimes be found Prehistoric SF and Apes as Human stories; tales dealing with Aliens, Anthropology, First Contact, Forerunners, Secret Masters, Uplift and other fields and motifs may also reveal lineaments of the bicameral. [JC]

Julian Jaynes

born West Newton, Massachusetts: 27 February 1920

died Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: 21 November 1997

works (selected)


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