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."