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on 5 October 2001
Sadly neglected now, this path-finding study of consciousness uses the latest mapping of the brain (from car crash victims, etc.) to speculate on how self-conscious individuals emerged from tribal group-think. Perhaps the most astonishing fact deployed by Jaynes is that the brain has a back-up speech centre that can be used for re-learning to speak after the active centre has been destroyed. What is this second speech centre for? Why is it mute? Did it once serve a group-think purpose, such a voice-of-divine-monarch-in-head? Jaynes has a long look at the earliest evidence, drawn from so-called Homer's Iliad. This section should be obligatory reading for all students of literature and history. Possibly, it will be one day, when humans have evolved a little further. Jaynes delves into anthropology, psychology, ontology and pathology to produce a theory of the mind that, once studied and considered, is never forgotten. This book is a penetrating contribution to the great, probably uncrackable, mystery of how language came to be. Regrettably, few people ever give it much thought. Until they do, this stimulating work will remain marginal. It deserves to be read and discussed by students everywhere.
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on 3 September 2011
That this was Jaynes' only book is one of the sadnesses of 20th century thought. His was a rare synthesis of ideas drawn from literature, archeaology, neuroscience, psychology and other area. For many his idea that consciousness in the sense we perceive ourselves and our roles in society today is a relatively recent creation is just too radical but the evidence he rallies in support of his argument is broad and compelling. The concept of 'bicameralism' and the carry over of its working into what we might think of as schizophrenic voices is an attractive one. If nothing else it will give the reader a great deal to think about and some delight in the elegance of the argument.
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This is more than that mad bloke who thought that our ancestors moved moving around like giant ants. That's the first bit, but, to my mind anyway, you can ignore the disturbing thoughts about our ancestors being unconscious and instead appreciate a fine introduction to psychology and philosophy. I know some reviewers say that this book `is dated', like everything had to be published today, but trust me, it isn't dated. Is Shakespeare dated? I don't bring up the bard lightly, because Julian Jaynes shows off his writing skills; the boy can write!

You see, I made the unfunny `mad bloke' joke above because this is the label attached to Julian Jaynes, but it is grossly unfair. Dan Dennett agreed with Jaynes' hypothesis and Richard Dawkins mention Jaynes in his God Delusion because they know that Jaynes was on to something. The only reason that this book is ignored is not because of an academic conspiracy or the Christian lobby; oh no, the book is ignored because we all want those ancient Egyptians to be Charlton Heston. You will never wrap your head around what Jaynes is saying from secondary sources that just lampoon the man; the best chance of wrapping your head around this is to read the book yourself.

People never mention Jaynes' impressive grasp of the English language and how picturesque his prose was. The Origin was a labour of love, and the meticulous prose is truly impressive and leaves a strong image in the readers mind, indeed, I reckon his book deserves the stamp of literature, rather than academia. Maybe this is why the book is so hated by the solipsistic luminaries of the universities. Jaynes also had an impressive grasp of philosophy, even going so far as to correct the mighty Russell and his chapter on the philosophy of language is extremely well put, and is mile better than Witgenstein's dry wordings. So it's also a sound introduction to psychology, philosophy and mythology; methinks!
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From a tightly constrained definition of human consciousness, Jaynes offers a wealth of archeological and historical evidence to build his thesis. A novel idea even now, Jaynes proposed that until about 3 000 years ago, the human mind was sharply divided - a "bicameral mind." One part dealt with the normal daily occupations of survival and reproduction. The other part was a conduit for communications with the gods. Jaynes portrays the brain's structure and how it might generate "hallucinatory" voices and images that were construed as supernatural. Not until the civilization of Greece was well advanced did the consciousness we're familiar with arise and partially replace these hallucinatory visions. The pivot point, in Jaynes' view, is the distinction between the Iliad and Odyssey.
According to Jaynes, these two epic poems are qualitatively distinct, with the Iliad expressing the voice of the gods, but the Odyssey shifting to the voice of men. He makes bold assertions, "there is no general consciousness in the Iliad" - presuming the reader has accepted his definition of "consciousness." He dissects the poem in demonstrating it presents only the voices of the gods. By the conclusion of his analysis you may be convinced that if there really is such a thing as "genetic determinism" it certainly resided in the brain of humans who went through life without a single "conscious" expression. The brain created and imparted signals that could only be discerned as "divine." "Will" was absent. "Creativity" is missing from this analysis, although his sections on poetry and music make compelling reading. All was not lost for human beings, however. Conscious today, Jaynes finds in Homer's next poem the sign the evidence of its emergence. In the Odyssey, the humans take over the job of expressing their own destinies, leading to the expansion of consciousness through the remainder of history.
To accept this thesis, one must accept the idea that such human feats as irrigation systems in the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations, the Egyptian pyramids and even navigating the Mediterranean Sea were driven by hallucinations - "gods" imparted the means of these accomplishments. Jaynes urges this notion forcefully, citing examples in other societies such as the Aztecs or Incas of the Western Hemisphere [He ignores Asian societies utterly]. Even poetry and song, according to Jaynes, were actually the "voices" of hallucinations produced by the bicameral mind. The evolution to the "subjective" mind was rapid and clearly consequential, but Jaynes is unable to provide the mechanism of the transition.
Jaynes' proposal still generates discussion and assessment. Since tracing the evolution of the bicameral mind is inherently impossible, his proposal can never be verified. This book did, however, generate many studies. For that reason alone, this book remains a valuable contribution to cognitive studies. Whatever its shortcomings - the "reading in" of historical evidence, the over-precise time frame, the narrow European view, the bizarre speculations, don't invalidate the proposal of how the human mind evolved. No-one studying the mind and its development can afford to overlook Jaynes' contribution. [stephen a. haines, Ottawa, Canada]
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on 15 April 2012
Anyone with any interest in cognitive neuroscience,consciousness studies or ancient history,can't avoid coming into contact with this authors intriguing theory sooner or later.
In a nutshell the theory states that the development of language facilitated more efficient neural inter-hemispherical communications,allowing mankind to form more sizable communities when these hallucinated thoughts where synchronised in the form of a familiar collective authority.Eventually these hallucinated thoughts diminished leaving subjective consciousness in the wake,as well as mass confusion and a need for a guiding authority,out of which much of human religion and culture was spawned.
The main bone of contention is of course the ambiguity of the historical evidence.But the fact remains that 30 years after being published,Jaynes is still being quoted and referred to by a multitude of serious authors and scientists,so the theory must hold water to some extent.
I'm still undecided about the writing style,it seems to be clear enough but quite often paragraphs will require some serious attention which interrupts the flow.The author also introduces some of his own words to explain the workings of the subjective mind which I found to be forgetful in light of more recent neuroscience literature containing more lucid explanations of the same processes.On the whole though it contains more than enough interest to override any problems one may have with the text.
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on 7 December 2013
The Fall is the name usually given to the fate that befell Adam and Eve after they broke his commandment and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet after this so-called fall The Lord God said: Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil....
So, the serpent was proved right since he had said to the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
What sort of life had God planned for man if he did not want him to know good and evil?? Presumably it was a lesser animal-type existence, since after their transgression they became as gods.
This myth, for myth it is, is full of symbolism, and like all great myths refers to an actual event, or series of events, which forms part of the history of mankind. What the bible story of the Fall refers to is not then concerned with an afternoon adventure in a beautiful garden, but with a revolutionary event within the human mind. Far from being a fall from grace involving the loss of privileges, it was in fact a great mental leap: the birth of consciousness, or self-awareness. The mental state of man before the fall was therefore a pre-conscious state, not involving self-awareness, criticism, good or evil, right or wrong.
Is it possible for man to lead a life in such a mental state?? I believe so.
According to Julian Jaynes in his book 'The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind' this was the normal state of mind up to a few thousand years ago, about the time of the spread of writing.
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on 6 March 2001
It is a terrible shame that this extraordinary book is so little known. The theory that consciousness as we know it is a modern development, that is, from the last few thousand years, seems bizarre to say the least. But, piece by piece the author draws you through the evidence, and if he is even partially right, this is one of the most important books ever written. Do not be put off by the weighty title, it is not a difficult book to read.
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on 6 May 2009
What an exhilarating experience. This extraordinary book is improbable in a number of ways:

* improbable that a book with such a leaden (but totally descriptive!) title would ever have appealed to the mass market;
* improbable that such a "heavy" subject could be delivered in such light, graceful and playful prose;
* improbable that, seeing as it asserts a novel and revolutionary scientific hypothesis, this book was distributed and published outside the usual academic channels;
* improbable that a single individual, apparently working more or less alone, authored such an imaginative, dazzling and, to be frank, brilliant, multi-discipline synthesis (I counted anthropology, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and classics among the unrelated disciplines Jaynes writes insightfully on); and
* improbable that, without the imprimatur of serious academic support (as I understand it Jaynes never had tenure, though he was friends with W. V. O. Quine, which doubtless stands for something), this book was even taken seriously, let alone proved as resistant to serious academic challenge (philosopher Ned Block had a half-hearted go, and there was a well publicised review by Daniel Dennett ("Julian Jaynes' Software Archaeology" - available online) but its critique was of emphasis rather than substance, and was otherwise largely complimentary. Other than that, Richard Dawkins (whose non-zoological opinions I have little time for) has spent a lazy couple of sides outlining the theory, only to feebly remark that the book "is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius ..." and while he suspects the former, can't muster the intellectual energy to decide so is "hedging his bets").

But there's one way it isn't improbable, and that's the most remarkable of all: its credibility. The thesis at first blush seems outlandish, yet in Jaynes capable hands it explains deftly and plausibly a number of cultural artefacts of antiquity, including religion itself, that traditional anthropology has been quite unable to sensibly account for, such as that our religious forebears, on their own account spoke with burning bushes, followed fiery pillars, buried their dead with food, gold and even wives, worshipped idols and thought they had daily interaction with gods. Traditional views tend to shrug shoulders and mark these phenomena down as "just some of the crazy stuff they used to do in the olden days" (exhibit a, by none other than Dick Dawkins: "all religious people are deluded") or worse, contrived some far less plausible explanations for them.

Jaynes takes these behavioural artefacts seriously, which seems only fair seeing as the ancients obviously did (not for the hell of it do you build 500 foot pyramids) and proposes a theory for why. Not just that they were (and are) deluded, but that their cognitive architecture was arranged that they heard voices, more or less exactly as schizophrenics do today. Not as a disease of the mind, but as an evolutionary strategy. On the stronger form of Jaynes' bicameral theory, human beings *were not conscious* before about 500A.D.

That is, to say the least, controversial. Jaynes states it upfront, at which point it seems nothing short of outrageous, then patiently, elegantly and compellingly sets out his case. His exegesis is always a pleasure to read, and truly enlightening at times (his discussion of the difference between "consciousness" and "perception" is fascinating - essentially it makes the point that a lot less of our cognitive experience is conscious than we generally apprehend (when Bertrand Russell exemplified consciousness in the the proposition "I see a table" Jaynes suggests "Russell was not conscious of a table, but of the argument he was writing about" - namely that he saw a table.) Jaynes routes consciousness, in the more prescriptive sense he uses it, in the origin of language, and in particular the metaphor. Again, a controversial view, but by no means inconsistent with the sort of outlook you might find in Wittgenstein, for example.

So is Jaynes right? In my view the wrong question to ask, of Jaynes, or any theory. A better question is whether it is helpful in describing our world, and I certainly think it is (you can never have too many tools in the toolbox).

Jaynes' particular elucidation of the bicameral mind may or may not be right, but dispositionally questions he ask seem to be ones in need of an answer, and the anthropological evidence for a need for clear direction and certainty in an uncertain world which was provided through a actual dialogue with apprehended gods (rather than the weak and decidedly figurative religious experiences humans tend to experience these days) seems well answered by the hallucinatory model, and the explanation of consciousness's origin in the failure of the hallucinatory model to deal with the encroaching size and complexity of civilisation in the millennium before Christ seems oddly plausible. Consciousness, then, emerged like one of Steve Gould's spandrels from an existing cognitive architecture which had developed contemplating something quite different. I dare say Dickie Dawkins wouldn't like that idea too much, either.

And for the essentialists, it gets worse: hard core reductionists will shudder at the thought wherein Jaynes turns his attention to vestiges of the bicameral world in the modern day. Religion, you'll not be surprised to hear, is proposed as just such a vestige - the striving of mankind for certainty in the absence of compelling voices instructing how to act - but so is science. Jaynes is typically eloquent as he closes his book:

"For what is the nature of this blessing of certainty that science so devoutly demands in its very Jacob-like wrestling with nature? Why should we demand that the universe make itself clear to us? Why should we care?

"... Science, then, for all its pomp and factness, is not unlike some of the more easily disparaged outbreaks of pseudoreligions. In this period of transition from its religious basis, science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause."

As are almost all the verbal constructions in this 450 page tome, that is beautifully put.

Olly Buxton
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on 8 March 2010
A dizzying tour through history, psychology, poetry and philosophy. This is a book that is crammed with thought, it's at a far remove from the costive acidity of much recent Western philosophy. It isn't that Jaynes was producing a pack of all trumps marked 'the answers', but his quest for those answers , not whether or not he finds them, sets the mind buzzing: speculative philosophy at its best.
A used paperback in acceptable condition and promptly despatched.
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on 22 February 2014
I read the above book in parts. I found it very wordy and hard to get through but I still managed to glean some of his interesting theories from it. It's a book to read when it's raining outside and when there is peace to study, with a dictionary nearby for some of his long words. (I thought I was good at understanding long words). It's a good book if you want food for thought. It's written in a very positive way as well.
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