The Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind proposed a novel and ingenious theory of consciousness, which is making a come-back in the scientific community. His initial reception was marred by a widespread misunderstanding of his concept of consciousness and the absence of neuro-imaging techniques to test some of his more precise hypotheses. These days, because of 1) brain imaging technologies; 2) the conceptual clarification of his overall theory; and 3) the formation of the Julian Jaynes Society, his theory is having a second birth in a truly inter-disciplinary fashion with many researchers thinking through and testing its multitude of implications (Kuijsten).
Definition and Origin
The crux lies in correctly understanding Jaynes’ definition of consciousness. For him consciousness is not to be equated with cognition, language or sense perception. Those acts can be conducted without the kind of consciousness Jaynes is thinking of. It has to do with self-consciousness and the mind’s construction of an inner, introspectable mind space inhabited by an analogue ‘I’ which can project a fictitious ‘me’ into the future in different scenarios using memories and skills for guidance. This projection is not a cold, calculative one, but engenders emotions like anxiety, worry, regret, guilt, nostalgia, excited anticipation and many others which get stirred up when the analogue ‘I’ frets over its ficitious ‘me’. Some would call this type of consciousness, meta-consciousness or the consciousness of being conscious which would be enabled through an act of reflection. But that misses the point that the inner mind space is, as one defender of Jaynes puts it, “a social-linguistic construct learnt in childhood, structured in terms of lexical metaphors and narrative practice” (Williams). It could be seen as a mental copy of the real world, though we are not always conscious of that, because we habitually inhabit the copy by having identified with the analogue I’ and its story. Jaynes wonderfully evokes this sense of consciousness:
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?
Jaynes puts the emergence of this “structure of consciousness”–and this was a surprise to many–between 2,000 and 1,000 BCE (and its rational idealization with the Greeks around 700 BCE), before which mankind was driven by a schizoid-bicameral mind in which verbal, auditory hallucinations originating in the right part of the brain told the left part what to do, especially at ‘decision points’ and moments of stress.
He thinks the bicameral mind came into existence because of the pressure and challenge of people combining in larger groups when agricultural societies evolved into small civilization-like communities. Before that happened their tasks and group behavior was more or less pre-conscious and habitual and because the size of the group was small enough to be monitored by the alpha-male group leader, things just got done. When a certain level of complexity and size set in, new ways of social organizing and communication were needed. The commands of the leader would not reach everybody, therefore the trick was to have his voice ‘deified’ (which would amplify his authority) and ‘internalized’ (which would overcome problems posed by distance and time). Jaynes thinks that people at a certain moment, especially during stress, were commanded by verbal auditory hallucinations which commanded them what to do. Their interpretation was that it was the gods who gave the commands. What bicameral man did was driven by inner voices, deified hierarchies and peer pressure.
And they were not yet self-conscious. They did not yet have an inner, introspectable mind-space with an analog ‘self’ and the capacity to deliberately think out alternative scenarios featuring one’s ‘self’ in an imaginary, hypothetical future. They did not yet have, as Jaynes called it a “secret theater of speechless monologue”. Jaynes sees the bicameral mentality still active in early antiquity with the Homeric heroes impulsively driven by their gods who tell them what to do. This bicameral mentality broke down and gave way to the more functional, rational, deliberative mentality of people having an inner mind-space taking over all the previous functions of the bicameral mind to have some efficient social organization, but then with added advantages of rational planning, codified interactions and self-sustained, self-monitored actions.
The gods were gradually leaving us, as the complaint went, and we were left to our own wits. But religion still was functional by more or less deifying the analog self in the inner mind-space as the ‘soul’. This increased status of the analog self to having a divine origin might have happened because there were evolutionary advantages to the self-esteem it brought, but also, and maybe more importantly, one becomes more susceptible to social engineering through religious organizations. The most important explanation of religion for Jaynes is that most religious behavior is a nostalgic harkening for the certainties which came with the bicameral mind. Most people function better when they are told what to do instead of having to fret and doubt about possible scenarios of self-directed action. Divination, prayer, oracles and later medium-ship and channeling are all attempts to re-activate the bicameral mind. And sometimes with success, both in the sense that the bicameral mind can get activated, and can lead to successful action.
Though I’m not necessarily buying the whole Jaynesian narrative, his explanations of all kinds of psychiatric, religious and spiritual phenomena as regressions back into bicameralism are quite convincing. Specially the idea that schizophrenia and hypnosis are throw backs into the bicameral mind are thoroughly discussed in Jaynes’ book. My fascination is more with his understanding of this constructed ‘inner theater.’ The danger (or maybe initial temporary advantage for group cohesion) is that the mind started to misinterpret the ontological status of this analog ‘I’ and gave it an exalted, idealized position as soul, higher self, Cogito or Transcendental Ego, mostly set within a grand, mythic narrative of fall and redemption like in Christianity and Theosophy. The somewhat received wisdom is that Marx, Darwin and Nietzsche (and I would add Hume, Heidegger, Sartre and some of the Greek, Roman and oriental thinkers) challenged this construct, though we are still in the middle of trying to figure out why and how this all happened.
Sartre here has some intriguing insights to contribute with his careful analysis of the genesis of the ‘I’ and ‘me’ within intentional consciousness by its reflection back upon itself within, and enabled by, the ‘spacious’ or thick now. The product of this reflection, the ego, is then as transcendent (adumbrated; one-sidedly perceived) as any other spatial, physical thing in the world (Sartre). Because of the intriguing overlap between Sartre and Krishnamurti, both their thoughts (and mutual corrections) become again differently meaningful when interpreted within the Jaynesian paradigm.
From J-consciousness to K-consciousness
Maybe the first one to see through and publicly challenge the constructed Jaynes-consciousness and left a record was Siddhartha Gautama. The other one, and here I come back to my revised appreciation of him, was Krishnamurti. He said things like “you are the world” and “the observer is the observed”, which in my view indicated that he had deconstructed the egoic, inner mind-space and was fully back in the world. In this manner one could say he lived the idea that embodied experience is intimately embedded, almost mystically so, within its own environment, its own situated ‘there’ (Thompson; Heidegger). He also criticized the idea of psychological time and spiritual evolution. The analog ‘I’ does indeed have no time of its own in which to change and evolve. It is a fictional entity. We can gain mastery though the acquisition of skills, like carpentry, scientific endeavor, teaching, meditation, etc (Dreyfus; see below). But such accomplishments are only to be attained in the real world, not by transformative initiations of the analog self as depicted in the esoteric tradition. Krishnamurti’s teachings and his rejection of Theosophy become differently meaningful when seen in the light of Jaynes.
So, there is the possibility of enlightenment, but really in the Gautama-Krishnamurti sense, of overcoming the analog, egoic consciousness for something more ‘present’ and perceptive. Nothing esoteric or occult. Maybe in the break-through process older mind-sets might become activated again, providing all kinds of mythic visions, mystical identifications, and distortions of the experience of space and time, but they all happen by accident and might not have an intrinsic value. Krishnamurti had some great visions in his younger years of awakening induced by his theosophical surroundings, but later radically distanced himself from them. It might be hard to differentiate between trans-egoic beings with mythic accretions and those who are to be considered regressions into the best part of the pre-egoic, mythic, bicameral mind. Some persons might be enlightened, but still express bicameral fantasies they might take serious. Readers of the transpersonal psychologist and New Age thinker Ken Wilber might recognize here the problematic of the “pre/trans fallacy” (Wilber).
What I found very helpful to understand these issues is the phenomenology of skill acquisition as developed by the Heidegger scholar Hubert Dreyfus. He differentiated between five stages: novice – advanced – competent – proficient – expert. He makes a strong case that in any skill acquisition you will find these five stages. His favorite example is the learning to drive a car. Actually the whole model found great application in the field of nursing, especially about finding out what makes a really good nurse. The important aspect here for our discussion is the expert level. As the lower levels function with different ways of self-presentation, analysis and deliberation (all aspects of Jaynes-consciousness), the expert level is based on a situational, involved perception of the salient aspects in one’s dynamic environment and thereby enabling ‘smooth’ decisions (Dreyfus). Here it is where one can attain post-egoic peak experiences and ‘flow’ (Maslow; Csikszentmihalyi).
But, if situations become too complex, one can always fall back again in a more analytic state of mind, that is, the Jaynes-consciousness in which you can run alternate scenarios with your analog ‘I’. In this scheme egoic self-consciousness and thinking are seen as necessary components at different stages in skill acquisition and are therefore not inherently bad. Krishnamurti and some New Agers are going overboard in denouncing thought and the ego, creating an alternate ‘other’ to be blamed. Krishnamurti gets into interesting contradictions: he loves to think out loud in front of thousands of people and then denounces all thinking as not only limited but also destructive. And New Agers love to come down on the dualist Descartes and mechanistic Newton and then embrace quantum physics, meanwhile forgetting that modern science and philosophy based on Descartes and Newton provided excellent antidotes to the stifling limitations of scholasticism and Catholicism and provided, of course, the necessary foundations for quantum physics.
In my view enlightenment is a frail state and not necessarily permanent. Some might fall back into egoic ‘scheming’, with which I mean strategic scheming within one’s mind-space, which could be done in a thoughtful, non-egotistic manner and does not imply a moral judgment. I think Krishnamurti did that in certain parts of his life, especially in dealing with the complex, unfortunate triangle with his friend and manager Rajagopal and his wife Rosalind (Sloss; Lutyens). Enlightenment is also not a sufficient state for telling the truth. Errors can still go undetected if not pointed out. Some might think that because Krishnamurti had no ego he could not but tell the truth. Some did think that he deliberately lied on occasions—refuting thereby for them that he was enlightened—and there were also unintended, conceptual errors in his philosophy. Enlightenment, or the skill to live post-egoicly, does not guarantee veracity. It does seem to come with charisma and the ability to strongly motivate and inspire people, who then in their turn idealize their source of inspiration. Such idealization is neither good nor bad morally speaking, but is functional in an evolutionary sense. We are equipped with a natural desire to look for inspiration and guidance for the purpose of group cohesion and individual maturation. And when we find a source, the transmission of inspirational ideas and attitudes will be facilitated if the source is idealized. Doubting and sceptically analyzing the source is then not functional and will often be suppressed.
But, nevertheless, he might have been right that there is no spiritual evolution and that most of Theosophy is utterly false as he made that quite clear in the early 1930s (“Comparison …”). If our inner mind-space is merely a metaphorical analog to the real world with practical advantages, then the analog ‘I’ of that space is a fictional entity which does not have its own time and substantial existence to change and evolve in. The spiritualization of inner mind-space, as most religions do, is just another evolutionary trick to increase the practical advantage of that construction. We will just be more amendable to moral instructions when our ‘soul’ is on the scale and we are anxious to do the right thing. This might have worked for a while, but the challenge now seems to be to find a spirituality and morality beyond such religious constructs. Maybe indeed Krishnamurti’s pathless land of aware living beyond inner mind space and its fictional inhabitants might be the ‘path’.
From the preceding discussion it looks that four different and sequential structures of consciousness can be differentiated. Primitive men acted more or less instinctual and habitual by imitating the habits of their ancestors. When their social organization came under stress the communal mind adapted by going bicameral. This enabled the birth of civilizations and regulated its functioning up to a certain point. Jaynes thinks there was a breakdown of this set-up which necessitated a new adaptation, which was the construction of the ‘inner mind space’ as an analogue to the real world by which people could narratize alternate scenarios by projecting their fictional ‘me’ into the future. And this is the dynamic structure into which we are acculturated by present day society. The fourth structure probably also came about as an innovative adaptation when some rare individuals felt the inadequacy of the conscious mind (in the Jaynesian sense) and by random experimentation broke through the limitations of this structure and entered a more direct, aware and ‘present’ way of being. The path to this lies in experimentation, and not in aiming at an imagined, idealized concept of this state of mind.
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