Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why Does the Bicameral Mind Theory Still Appeal?

In the spring I read Iain McGilchrist’s exceptional book, The Master and His Emissary, about the right brain/left brain divide and its implications throughout the span of Western history. It has helped me reframe some of my theories about human consciousness and gain a somewhat tweaked perspective. I’ll be writing more about that later.

After finishing the book, I then felt I ought to read Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, just to get a contrary perspective. It sounded pretty hokey to me, his theory that in essentially Old Testament times the right brain and left brain were unable to communicate directly with one another, and so any time the right brain communicated it could only be perceived by the left brain as hallucinated voices, coming from outside of oneself and issuing  forth from the gods. According to Jaynes, in that late Bronze Age period we were unconscious beings, possessing no self-awareness, and were only able to act in the world by mindlessly, zombie-like, following the commands of the gods.

Now I’m an avid reader, at times wolfing down two, three, or four books in a single week, but oh my this book was different. It was sheer torture, in the end taking me five or six months to get through it. Any time any other book came along I set this one aside, so ten or twelve other books were thoroughly digested between reading the first and last sentences of this one. Truly a miserable experience. I thought many times about giving up but I felt it was important for me to be able to say I’ve read it. Why? Because I’ve encountered quite a few otherwise intelligent people who absolutely revere this book (which to me has been quite baffling) and I wanted to be able to debate the merits (or demerits) of the book should the topic ever come up again.

Having finished it I think I have it partly figured out. I can see how in its time it must have been earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, and quite revolutionary for people. It seems ridiculous to be saying we need to put something that was written less than forty years ago into its proper historical perspective, but we do. Times were different then. We’ve changed and learned. I suspect that many people read this book once, when it first came out, and were changed by it. They no longer remember the specific details of it (and therefore don’t know how absurd it is in light of what we now know) but instead just carry the positive memory of how they were changed by it, how it helped them escape an old paradigm that had become too small to fit them.

My take on Jaynes is that he wrote this book not so much to develop a new theory of consciousness as to debunk Judeao-Christian mythology. His theory of consciousness was just a convenient way to say, Your gods aren’t real; they’re essentially figments of your imagination. And that needed to be said at that particular historical moment. Those of us who were born into and grew up in the 20th century were confronted with a rather schizoid culture. As children, most of us of European and North American heritage were dutifully dragged off to religious services every week.  We were steeped in fabulous stories presented as Truth—six day creations and virgin births and a god who could speak from a burning bush and part an entire sea. At the same time we went to schools and then colleges that taught the scientific method, that were objective and thoroughly rational. We learned about evolution and DNA and the Big Bang theory. Talk about cognitive dissonance! Two truths, each totally at odds with the other. And no one had ever so effectively tried to reconcile those opposing truths (at least not in the popular culture) before Jaynes. Before Jaynes, many people had never questioned the incongruency of the two worlds they inhabited. Those worlds should have been mutually exclusive—you believe one truth or you believe the other. Instead, people compartmentalized their lives in a very schizoid way. They believed the science at work or school, and they believed the religious mythology at church and in their private lives. Jaynes helped many people realize, Hey, this just doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter much that his theory was pure nonsense, only that it helped a lot of people bring to awareness and acknowledge the cognitive dissonance they had (mostly unconsciously) been struggling with.

1 comment:

  1. I read the book in the late 80's. I don't know if I got through it completely because, as you say, it was rather painful.

    I remember thinking that he sounded like he was full of crap in the later chapters but he did teach me a lot of new information about how the mind works in the early chapters.

    I just came across the book on a dusty old book shelf when the power went out and I read the first two chapters for kicks. Today, knowing what I know now, it is more obvious that he was full of crap right in the beginning. It is all a straw man. I was shocked to revisit his details and find the ridiculous assumption that muscle memory and epiphany are proof that consciousness has no role on basic functions; as if consciousness was not heavily involved in creating the muscle memory or laying out the original intellectual tasks that eventually came to the epiphany.

    It all went downhill from there.