Have you read Julian Jaynes?

“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet is nothing at all – what is it?
And where did it come from?
And why?”

– excerpt from the introduction to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes


Julian Jaynes, a Princeton University psychologist . . . is famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view, for one book only: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, first published in 1976. Critics at the time were uncertain what to make of it. Some thought that Jaynes was deluded or a crank, although others, notably Daniel Dennett, believed he was saying something important.[Source]

Many years ago I ran across Jaynes’ book while I was teaching literature. I found it a stimulating book with a controversial hypothesis about the recent acquisition of consciousness. Later when I was studying philosophy I learned that his thesis was not accepted by philosophers as anything worthy of much study. But we have learned a great deal in the recent decades. Have you read the book?

Back in 1976 when he was a professor of psychology at Princeton, Julian Jaynes published a very controversial theory about the emergence of the human mind. Indeed, even today his theory of the “bicameral mind” remains a controversy.

Rather than just harkening to behavioral psychology or brain biology, Jaynes presents his theory from the perspective of psycho-cultural history.

Going back to the the earliest writings and studying particularly the many early civilizations of the Near East, Jaynes came to the conclusion that most of the people in these archaic cultures were not subjectively conscious as we understand it today. Instead Jaynes presents a theory of the bicameral mind which holds that ancient peoples could not “think” as we do today and were therefore “unconscious,” a result of the domination of the right hemisphere; only catastrophe forced mankind to “learn” consciousness, a product of human history and culture and one that issues from the brain’s left hemisphere. Three forms of human awareness, the bicameral or god-run man; the modern or problem-solving man; and contemporary forms of throwbacks to bicamerality (e.g., religious frenzy, hypnotism, and schizophrenia) are examined in terms of the physiology of the brain and how it applies to human psychology, culture, and history.


Check these out:

  1. Videos
  2. Essay
  3. Julian Jaynes Society
  4. Consciousness Began when the Gods stopped talking – From Nautilius
  5. Essays on Homer

The “bicameral mind” 30 years on: a critical reappraisal of Julian Jaynes’ hypothesishere.

Comments welcome!

3 thoughts on “Have you read Julian Jaynes?

    • There are several articles to read about this in the Julian Jaynes Society site (supporting evidence). The first item is evidence found in old texts like the Iliad, Oddissey and the bible. I find that fascinating, but of course not very strong.


  1. Thanks for the link to the Nautilus article. “Dennett, who has called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind a “marvelous, wacky book,” likes to give Jaynes the benefit of the doubt. “There were a lot of really good ideas lurking among the completely wild junk,” he says. Particularly, he thinks Jaynes’ insistence on a difference between what goes on in the minds of animals and the minds of humans, and the idea that the difference has its origins in language, is deeply compelling.

    “[This] is a view I was on the edge of myself, and Julian kind of pushed me over the top,” Dennett says. “There is such a difference between the consciousness of a chimpanzee and human consciousness that it requires a special explanation, an explanation that heavily invokes the human distinction of natural language,” though that’s far from all of it, he notes. “It’s an eccentric position,” he admits wryly. “I have not managed to sway the mainstream over to this.”


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