The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

From Academic Kids

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) is a controversial work of popular psychology by Julian Jaynes in which he proposes that consciousness emerged relatively recently in human history.



Jaynes asserts that until the times written about in Homer's Iliad, humans did not have the "interior monologue" that is characteristic of consciousness as most people experience it today. Instead, he argues that something like schizophrenia was the typical human mental state as recently as 3000 years ago.

Jaynes describes this state as a bicameral mind by analogy with bicameral legislatures and parliaments. Jaynes argues that preconscious humans effectively had a "split brain" which allowed one part of the brain to appear to be "speaking" to another part that listened and obeyed, and that commands that at some point were believed to be issued by "gods"--so often recorded in ancient myths, legends and historical accounts--were in fact emmanating from individuals' own minds. Specifically, he hypothesises that these commands were being issued by a now usually dormant area in the right hemisphere of the brain that corresponds to the location of Wernicke's area in the left which is believed to be involved in understanding speech. He says, with neurosurgery, these commands can be recreated with electrical stimulation of the area.

Jaynes builds a case for this theory by citing evidence from many diverse sources including historical literature. For example, he asserts that, in The Iliad and sections of the Old Testament in The Bible that no mention is made of any kind of cognitive processes such as introspection and that there is no apparent indication that the writers were self-aware. He asserts that some later books of the Old Testament (such as Ecclesiastes) as well as later works such as The Odyssey show indications of a profoundly different kind of mentality which he believes is indicative of consciousness.

According to Jaynes, this bicameral mentality began malfunctioning or "breaking down." He speculates that was due to increased societal complexity making more education a matter of necessity; resulting in the dominance of the conscious hemisphere. The mind began exercising conscious thought almost exclusively, for the first time, to enable the continued survival and success of the species or the individual. Jaynes further argues that divination arose during this breakdown period, in an attempt to summon commands that had previously been interpreted as emanating from "gods." His hypothesis is bolstered by a period of time in this transition where children who had contact with the "gods" were prized by their community, but as their education progressed they lost their abilities.

The book was financially successful, and has been reprinted several times.

The book was originally published in 1976 (ISBN 0395207290) and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1978. It has since been reissued (ISBN 0618057072).

A new edition, with an afterword that addressed some criticisms and restated the main themes, was published in the US in 1990. This version was published in the UK by Penguin Books in 1993 (ISBN 0140174915).


Jaynes's hypothesis found little acceptance among mainstream academics. His proposal generated great controversy when first published, and provided impetus for many other scientists and philosophers to investigate the matters it discussed in detail in order to attempt to refute its arguments.

Some authorities, however, consider Jaynes's hypothesis worthy, and offered conditional support, arguing the notion deserves further study.

Similar ideas

Friedrich Nietzsche's explanations of human ethics and moral consciousness in Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals posit a similar developmental path. The first humans followed a "noble" ethic, but their consciousness was shallow and limited at best. When the Judeo-Christian tradition turned the will in on itself, as Nietzsche claims, the human soul became complex and intelligent, although it lost the "noble" ethic, which was replaced by an ethic of "resentiment."

Although their ideas are similar, there is no evidence that Jaynes was influenced by Nietzsche.


It has also been great fodder for cyberpunk authors; Neal Stephenson's first several books (The Big U, Zodiac, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age) involve the bicameral mind theory, as does Bruce Sterling's Distraction. The book has been highly influential in a neo-objectivist philosophy called Neo-Tech.

Some scholars believe that Jaynes' theory describes a real event, but dates it wrong. One theory about pre-historic cave paintings, for example, is that they offer us a window into a time when consciousness was emerging, perhaps through the breakdown of bicameralism.

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