Mind & Body

The "Bicameral Mind" Theory Says the Ancient Greeks Lacked Consciousness

There is a lot of fuzziness around the idea of consciousness. How would you even begin to describe it? Everything that you experience is steeped in it, so you can't quite put language to it. Who knows? Maybe it doesn't even exist. Or maybe it does exist, but it was only invented in the last 3,000 years or so. Meet Julian Jaynes and his idea of the bicameral mind.

Divine Inspiration

Think about consciousness for long enough, and you'll drive yourself to distraction. To psychologist Julian Jaynes, the question of consciousness was big enough to last a lifetime. But unlike philosophers promoting panpsychism or other answers for the hard problem of consciousness, Jaynes was never particularly concerned with the mechanics of how consciousness arises from non-conscious physical material. In some ways, the question that drove him was even bigger: What is consciousness, and how does human consciousness differ from that of other living things?

His answer? Consciousness is much smaller, much rarer, and much younger than we tend to think. Forget about wondering if a dog, cat, or earthworm has consciousness — Jaynes hypothesized that even the ancient Greeks failed to achieve it. "Now, hold on," you might be saying. "Ancient Greeks wrote some of the most enduring literature of all time — 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' were written by non-conscious creatures?" To which Jaynes would reply, "Of course not. A conscious mind wrote The Odyssey." An analysis of these two texts inspired the foundation of Jaynes' metaphysical beliefs — the bicameral mind.

The bicameral mind (which may sound familiar to "Westworld" fans) is essentially a consciousness split in half. One half takes care of execution: When it receives the message that the body is hungry, it seeks and consumes food; when it gets the message that it has been wronged and insulted, it seeks vengeance. The other half is the one that sends those messages. Back before we had developed any sort of introspection, those messages would have hit the brain like the word of the gods. After all, where else could it have come from? The breakdown of the bicameral mind happens when that executive half starts really asking that question and finding the answer is "nowhere." In other words, Jaynes says, consciousness didn't arise until we stopped attributing our inner monologue to the gods.

Related Video: How Science Tests Consciousness

It's All Greek to Me

So how do the Iliad and the Odyssey fit into this? Simple. The Iliad was "written" (really, passed on orally) long before the bicameral mind began examining itself. The Odyssey, its sequel, reflects that growth. In the Iliad, says Jaynes, the reader sees the protagonists defined by their inactivity — until a god comes in to tell them what to do. They seem to lack motivations and need an outside force to spur them to action. By contrast, the characters of the Odyssey make their own decisions for their own reasons. Nobody told Odysseus that he had to listen to the sirens singing — he lashed himself to the mast out of pure curiosity.

There's another difference between the books that Jaynes called attention to — word choice. In the Iliad, many words we today associate with consciousness are used in a very different way. The Greek word psyche, which would later come to mean "soul" or "conscious mind," was used in the Iliad to signify more concrete things: the air in one's lungs, for example, or the blood in one's veins. Thumos, which later would mean something like "emotional center," seems to refer only to the quality of being in motion, and it's something that might be granted by a god like Apollo. In other words, it's almost as if people back then saw themselves as merely physical vessels for the will of the gods. True consciousness didn't arise until we began to take credit for our own thoughts and motivations.

Two Sides to Every Story

Here's the thing about bicameralism. As popular as it was (and believe it or not, Jaynes' book "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" was wildly popular with the 1970s public), the idea has a lot of major flaws. While many philosophers before and since Jaynes have embraced the idea that there is a sort of "focused" consciousness and a "background" consciousness (the one that takes action and the one that informs that action, in Jaynes' model), his concept of consciousness as a cultural development instead of a biological one doesn't jibe with most modern beliefs about neuroscience and psychology.

There's also the simple fact that it seems to set up a hierarchy of consciousness that puts people who believe that divine forces influence their life towards the bottom and people with more atheistic beliefs in the "more conscious" space above them. It could even be read in much more harmful ways, positioning even some modern societies into a lesser realm of consciousness. And it's not at all difficult to imagine the kinds of racist beliefs that could be propagated in such a hierarchical conception of consciousness. Still, even Daniel Dennett — the "no such thing as consciousness" guy — finds something pretty kind to say (along with a boulder-sized grain of salt). "There were a lot of really good ideas lurking among the completely wild junk," he told Nautilus. That's a fair point — but sometimes, the completely wild junk is where all of the fun stuff is.

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There's a lot more to this idea than a few hundred words can cover. Check out Julian Jaynes' book yourself, or see how his successor Marcel Kuijsten from the Julian Jaynes Society is carrying on the theory in "Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 23, 2018

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