The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is very stimulating.
That is not to say it is correct or incorrect as a theory of consciousness, but there are enough examples and provocative ideas to make me *think* it might be right. And that's the whole problem. I can't immediately discount it. It keeps creeping back into my consciousness.
Even when reading it with deep suspicions, the very meme of this core idea breaks down the wall between my right and left hemispheres and I no longer have an external agent telling me what I must do. No voices, no riding in my body like I'm not an agent of my own destiny, and not even the god of the right side of my brain giving me instructions!
I jest, kinda. For this is the key to the book. It postulates that humanity was more like a zombie agent in the philosophical parlance than any true consciousness before the advent of writing. That language, itself, was a meme that forced us to develop, and re-develop our cognitions until we became our own agents, doing things by our own decisions.
Before, we were all highly perceptive creatures that always acted without reflection. We went through our lives, followed orders, did what needed to be done, but never thought of ourselves as actors. No "I". Language, as a meme, destroyed that boundary. Brought creativity into motive, the idea of self into all equations.
It explains why a mass of humanity could accomplish the pyramids on either side of the ocean, probably without complaint. There was no self. Death masks and spirits of the dead, gods, oracles, etc., could be heard by anyone and it all came from the "outside". Separate from us, but undeniable, like an edict from high. The theory is that these commands came from the right hemisphere. The creative center of the brain.
It fits. And so much of this book is devoted to the Homeric epics, to poetry, to possession, art, and music. When it became commonplace, the reliance on "gods" diminished. Rapidly. We internalized it, and it was thanks to language.
And it sparks my imagination, too. I think about how many people today want to submerge their consciousnesses again, be it by faith in God, alcohol, drugs, or any number of addictions (including internet!). It feels like a biological callback to the times when we did not have guilt or worry. We just followed outside orders from kings and gods, not caring if we lived or died because there was no "self" at all to care. It's a freedom in the most literal sense of the word. Freedom from self. I think of Buddhism. Or being welcomed in the arms of God in heaven. Of raptures and release.
This is what language freed us from. This is also the story of the Tree of Knowledge. Which happens to come from right after the time we developed this facility, according to Jaynes.
Interesting, no? Why have we come so far, so fast? Our humanity is much older than this timeframe, and yet it is not this chaotic, developed, or fractured. We selected ourselves, either genetically or socially, to increase the likelihood of a greater mix of both the left and right hemispheres of our brains. And here we are.
View all my reviews