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General News    H4'ed 3/28/22

A Seminal Journey into the Cognitive Unknown

Message Herbert Calhoun
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Book review of: The Origin of Consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind by Julius Jaynes

A Seminal Journey into the Cognitive Unknown

If ever a book could be called the catalyst for moving to higher ground and to a better understanding of the origins and operations of consciousness, Princeton Professor, Julius Jaynes' book is it.

Written in 1976, here, in clear non-scientific language that ranges over a very wide area, from psychology, to neurology, and to archaeology and back, he takes us on a journey across antiquity (mostly through the Fertile Crescent), answering many previously unanswered (and some thought at the time) unanswerable questions about the origins of consciousness.

Among them were: What is consciousness? How and when did it originate? What role did the architecture of the brain play in the development of language and abstract thinking? Why did religion develop independently at about the same time across the globe?

Based on the best available evidence at the time, and greatly summarized here, the author showed how it was very likely that man's ability to speak and think abstractly probably evolved roughly three and a half millennia ago with evolutionary changes in brain architecture: specifically, with the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

What he discovered, was that, prior to this breakdown, humans did not think in the same way they did afterwards. In fact, before the breakdown, both halves of the bilaterally connected brain had speaking roles. Afterwards, only the left half spoke.

" But there remained a problem: the phantom evolutionary echo from the now missing right half could still be heard. As the shadow voice of the missing right half continued to speak, the left half had no choice but to listen.

For at least two millennia, voices in the head ruled as an ill-defined cognitive order, one where the voices commingled in the culture with hallucinations, superstitions, seeing angels and demons, voices and images of god, as well as of other inner-directed authoritarian rulers.

And, as well can be imagined, during this pre-medieval cognitive disorder, the voices in the head ruled and were used as much for good as for evil.

By the time Homer had completed the Odyssey, a whole cultural psychology had developed around "hearing these unmistakable voices of the gods" in one's own head.

But this was not all.

Jayne's argues that consciousness itself involved a spatialization of events across time, such that we in fact can mentally revisit our memories; that we can produce self-images with which we can then identify as "I"; that we learned to create metaphors built up on previous concepts and meanings, and to use them to create and weave into narratives and stories; too, that we learned how to use "mind pictures" to look ahead connecting the past to the present and the future; we also learned to classify and identify events around us as abstracted mental pictures, as the moving picture screen, the Cartesian theater in our heads.

Moreover, Archaeologists of Dr Jaynes' era, were then discovering that abstract thinking and religions had sprung up across the globe all around this same time.

The bicameral breakdown, somehow, inadvertently had heralded in a silent cognitive revolution that no one, beyond Dr Jaynes' book, seemed to have fully acknowledged.

As the echoes from "the right-brain voices in the head revolution" ebbed away, so too did the meanings of the voices.

Abstract thinking remained, as did the regime of divine authority that the voices had ushered-in.

This lingering part of the old cognitive order, gave religions great influence well into the Middle Ages and beyond. Some say even into the present era.

As the world moved on to a new cognitive order, from religious absolutism into Western enlightenment, the brain continued to change. This time an abstract reason-based cognitive order came to the fore and still holds sway.

Dr. Jaynes brought brilliant insights and thinking to bear on his thesis that language, abstract thinking, and consciousness all seemed to have developed in tandem with changes in brain structure: that is, with the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Today, a great many aspects of that thesis survives.

And while some of his hypotheses have been confirmed, others have been debunked and trashed, relegating Jaynes groupies to the fringes. Yet, it must be said, in his defense, that, at the time he began this perilous journey (in the mid 1960s), it was a brave and precarious dive into the unknown. Count me in as a Jaynes' groupie.

Even though the modern cognitive revolution has overtaken his research, his was a groundbreaking stab into the darkness that, arguably, at the very least, nudged contemporary theorists ever so slightly in the right direction.

One can quibble with some of his inferences, with some of his methods, even with his bolder claims. But, after nearly half a century, no one can quibble about Dr. Jayne's courage as an innovative researcher.

Whether you agree with his theories or not, anyone interested in seeing how serious research is done cannot afford NOT to read this book. Ten stars

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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