Over the summer, I finally got around to reading Julian Jaynes’s magnum opus, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Although I was already somewhat familiar with Jaynes’s ideas, going to their source provides its own rewards. Jaynes cast his intellectual nets far and wide, synthesizing knowledge from multiple disciplines (history, archeology, textual analysis, psychology, brain science) and drawing on contexts that range from Mesopotamian statuary to modern-day case studies of schizophrenics. He also writes with elegance and precision; his book is a pleasure to read.
His central proposition can be summed up fairly simply: humans in an earlier era (up until around 2,000 B.C.E.) were prone to auditory hallucinations which they took to be the voices of gods, due to a form of mental organization which he terms “the bicameral mind.” Entire societies, he asserts, were organized around these gods and their commands, which were actually heard. As societies became more complex, hallucinated commands from divine entities no longer sufficed as a force for social organization, and the system broke down.
Concurrently, the invention of writing led people to think in a radically different way, bringing about such things as subjective self-awareness, philosophical inquiry, and skepticism. The gods were heard less distinctly and less often, and finally fell silent -- although certain people today still experience auditory hallucinations, sometimes in the form of commands.
The power of Jayne’s thesis lies in its ability to illuminate several puzzling aspects of human behavior. Why do we build homes for our gods and provide them with food and offerings? Because, at one time, they were real presences to us. Why do the characters in The Iliad seem so lacking in introspection, as though they were mere pawns being operated by the warring deities? Because The Iliad predates the emergence of introspection and reflects a bicameral mindset -- unlike the The Odyssey, with its self-aware protagonist. Why, in modern times, do certain people hallucinate voices, endow these voices with absolute authority, and follow their commands -- which can include commands resulting in self-harm or harm to others? Because, according to Jaynes, their brains operate in a way that was once characteristic of humans in general.
A dazzling thesis that has broad explanatory power can, of course, be dead wrong, and it’s possible that Jaynes belongs to the club of ambitious thinkers who have given us brilliant, bad ideas. He is not by any means, however, the only psychologist to have claimed the human mind operates in two basically distinct ways. Notably, Jonathan Evans presented his "dual process theory" in the mid-1970s and it remains influential today.
According to Evans, "there are two distinct cognitive systems underlying reasoning. System 1 is old in evolutionary terms and shared with other animals: it comprises a set of autonomous subsystems that include both innate input modules and domain-specific knowledge acquired by a domain-general learning mechanism.”
“System 2 is evolutionarily recent and distinctively human: it permits abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking, but is constrained by working memory capacity and correlated with measures of general intelligence."
One difference: James believed that bicameralism survives only as a marginal relic, among people deemed irrational or mad (schizophrenics, prophets, poets), whereas dual process theorists regard System 1 as something that is still present and active in the minds of modern people generally. As Evans puts it, the two processes “compete for control of our inferences and actions.” We act rationally some of the time, while at others times we seem to obey commands and instructions.
All said, though, there is enough overlap to suggest compatibility between these two models of human thought and behavior. The question then becomes: what to do about System 1? Do we sublimate it, or channel it into those arenas where it can help rather than harm? (And what are those arenas, exactly?) Do we try and suppress/eradicate it? Alternatively, do we exalt it over reason and introspection? To this latter option, the answer seems a definite no -- it’s been tried before, with cataclysmic results. The rest remains an open question.