Are you conscious right now?
Right now, as you read this sentence, are you conscious? Do you know how you're sitting, how you're holding this newspaper, how fast you're reading these words? No, you were not conscious just then. Not until after you read the above questions and thought about them for a second did you actually realize that you were sitting with your legs crossed, or with the paper folded in half. No, you were not conscious until that moment, and you are probably not conscious right now as you drift, back into the flow of this article.
Is it possible that you were not conscious while you read the above paragraph? Julian Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist and author of The Crisis of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, would probably say you were not.
Jaynes says people are only conscious a small percentage of their waking hours. Being conscious is not merely the opposite of being unconscious--as Jaynes says many people wrongly believe. Instead, he asserts that people are conscious only when they think introspectively and become aware of themselves as part of an external environment. Not only can they function successfully without being conscious, Jaynes notes, but human beings have actually lacked consciousness for most of the time they have trod upon the earth.
While most anthropologists generally agree that the brain of homo sapiens today is essentially the same as that of the primitive beings who first mastered fire around 100,000 B.C., Jaynes claims mankind did not become conscious until the second millenium B.C. If humans were not conscious until then, what were they like? How did they function?
"Man behaved pretty much like chimps" until around 10,000 B.C., Jaynes said last week in an interview in Boston. The minds of these prehistoric creatures could solve simple problems and think crudely, much like rats performing in a maze, but they lacked the ability to reflect on the past, ponder the present, or imagine the future. Language developed in the eons between 100,000 and 10,000 B.C., but Jaynes insists that this ability--while important for the development of consciousness in the future--emerged independently. Just as somnambulists and people under hypnosis can speak perfectly intelligible English without the slightest awareness of the world around them, Jaynes says primitive man communicated verbally without being conscious.
Before developing the capacity to reflect consciously upon and solve complex problems, humans coped with stressfuluituations by obeying the dictates of hallucinatory voices they heard within their minds. Through evolution, the brain made room for these voices and became bicameral, using the left hemisphere for speech and the right hemisphere to produce inner commands.
The ability to hear such commands became almost universal among humans by 10,000 B.C., but they hardly considered the voices commonplace. "Bicameral man heard the voices of gods," Jaynes explained, touching on he most remarkable aspect of his theory: the notion that man eventually perceived these inner voices emanating from a divine source.
Jaynes finds supporting evidence in the surviving remnants of almost every major world religion and civilization. Direct interaction between gods and men appears in the artwork, literature and religious traditions of most ancient cultures. "Early civilizations were all theocracies with God at the top," Jaynes says, adding that "when they talk about the 'word of god,' they actually heard him in their hallucinations." Jaynes points out that the statuary of many pagan religions depicts idols with mouths agape, as if the gods were speaking to the people.
However, Jaynes notes that idols produced in later periods consistently portray mute gods, a fact that conveniently fits into his theory of mind evolution. As the bicameral mind broke down and humans gained consciousness, he argues, they heard the voices in their mind with less frequency. Between the second and first millenium B.C., man eventually lost his "contact with the gods" and gained contact with himself. But a few bicameral individuals remained, people later depicted in the Bible and other books as having conversed with God.
Jaynes draws from the Old Testament for evidence of the breakdown of bicameralism. He says early characters like Abraham lacked consciousness; they heard the word of God and they obeyed. Later sections of the Old Testament reveal men as more instrospective, however. While Jacob merely accepted his dreams at face value, his son Joseph interpreted them. "Moses is on the verge of being a conscious man," Jaynes says. The Hebrew law-giver "still hears the voice of God, but he only sees a burning bush, and Dueteronomy says he is the last to see God face-to-face. From that time on man doesn't see God or hear his voice," Jaynes adds.
He sees the remainder of the Bible, and in fact the history of all modern religion, as the account of man's struggle to regain the lost voice.
"Man is liberated by consciousness," Jaynes says, but the resulting loss of some god as a constant companion and adviser creates new dilemmas that modern man must face. "Without the gods to tell us what to do, problems of ethics and of identity" abound, Jaynes says. "Man hungers to get back the lost voices," and in modern society these primordial yearnings persist in churchgoing and the desire to serve God."
Modern society also exhibits remnants of man's earlier bicameralism that are more concrete than the search for God, Jaynes says. Many schizophrenic patients have auditory hallucinations that Jaynes says exemplify the bicameral mind. But these voices are detrimental to modern man because the patients have partially--though unsuccessfully-"learned consciousness."
Jaynes says all people are taught consciousness in their early childhood, but maintains that parents could as easily train children to become bicameral. Parents "could bring up children now to have a bicameral mind; if they encouraged hallucinations, the child would pick it up," he says. Instead parents encourage children "to think."
Jaynes says young children exhibit potential bicameralism when they conjure up imaginary playmates. At campus lectures, Jaynes says he often asks how many people in his audience had invisible playmates when they were young. "Usually around two-thirds say they did and most recall that they could hear the voices of these playmates." Jaynes says.
At one lecture at a college in the Southwest Jaynes encountered a young female whose eerie story he hauntingly recounts:
At the end of the class one girl lagged behind. She told me that as a child her parents were often absent from home and she had been brought up in the care of her elderly grandmother, who was schizophrenic and who hallucinated all the time. The girl herself, living in this environment, started having several imaginary playmates with whom she would converse. When her parents discovered this they took her from her grandmother and managed to 'train the voices away.' But the girl told me that now, whenever she is in any stressful situation, her imaginary playmates come back to her and talk to her, and they've all grown up and are the same age as her.
Jaynes was born in Newton, Massachusetts, 55 years ago. A soft-spoken but articulate man, he has devoted most of his adult life to scholarly pursuits, but has not led the conventional life of an academic. He attended Harvard for one year as an undergraduate but left because of financial pressures. He received a diploma from McGill University in Montreal instead. As a graduate student at yale, Jaynes turned down his Ph.D. in psychology for what he calls "political reasons." He says there was, and still is, "much too much emphasis on things like degrees, and too little emphasis on intellectual life to which universities should be devoted."
Without a doctorate, Jaynes nevertheless managed to obtain a position on the Princeton faculty, where after 15 years he still holds the post of lecturer in psychology.
Although he lacks a prestigious title, Jaynes seems well-respected by his fellow psychologists. John F. Kihlstrom, assistant professor of Psychology, last week called Jaynes "an important early figure in psychobiology" who has "never seen the need for a Ph.D. but who made it on his own regardless of the appropriate academic credentials." Kihlstrom added that "most in the field respect Jaynes, but much in the book will prove initially hard to swallow."
Jaynes realizes that some of his theories may prove "hard to swallow." He also fears that some people will associate the book with imaginative commercial ventures like Erichvon Daniken's Chariots of the Gods rather than seeing it as a serious scholarly work. To prevent such offhand dismissal of his theory, Jaynes asked his publisher for complete control over the book's format. He chose the type style, designed the cover, and insisted on the rather ponderous title and thorough footnoting. He says the book's present appearance clearly shows he is "not trying to sell books but to contribute to knowledge." "Books are much too important to leave to publishers," he adds with a grin.
Jaynes probably will not surrender his future books to the commercial instincts of a publishing house either, but with the success Origin is enjoying thus far his publisher would not mind. The book is already into a third printing and Houghton-Mifflin cannot keep up with orders for it, a solid indication that the tongue-twisting, technical-sounding title has not deterred many purchasers. Jaynes says he intends to follow his present work with a book on memory, then one proposing a new theory about dreams, and finally one on the consciousness of children. He adds that all of them will build on the theories in the current book.
Jaynes realizes, though, that he may be building on a weak foundation. "The book is like a tree, and I'm going out on a limb in many places, there are so many ends where testing could be done," he says.
Kihlstrom agrees that the book "tries to make a lot of connections," but may attempt to tie too many disparate ideas together. He says that although much of Jaynes's theory is "speculative," it is also "very provocative," providing "lots of grist for the theoretical mill, whether or not one buys the whole package."
Clearly Jaynes has bought, or sold himself, on the whole package. He believes that some parts of his theory--the idea of bicameralism, his view of consciousness--could stand alone even if the notion that ancient civilizations heard inner voices were refuted. But Jaynes still thinks many of the differences between ancient and modern man are convincingly explained by his entire theory of the brain's evolution and the breakdown of bicameralism.
"I don't think anyone has looked at the ancient world in this way, but when you do it fits into a pattern and you can see it," Jaynes says. "Look at the change in human nature, the change in man's relationship to God" between ancient and modern times, he adds. Everything may seem much more complicated, more uncertain today. But then, he concludes, "men were not good or evil then. It was the voice of God."