Bicameral Mind Theory

There’s this old stereotype that comes up when someone does something crazy, like shit off a tall building and then that shit reaches terminal velocity and kills someone. “The voices in my head told me to do it.” But normal people don’t have voices in their head, so obviously those people are insane, right? We label it schizophrenia, usually, which also encompasses a broad spectrum of other symptoms. But what if I told you that, once upon a time, it’s possible that that was the normal way of seeing the world?


Pictured: Someone who doesn’t know what schizophrenia is.

That’s the theory promoted by Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. You see, Jaynes believes that, once upon a time (about 3,000 years ago) we all had voices in our heads. How is that possible? According to Jaynes’ theory, ancient people had no self-awareness because their left brain and right brain didn’t communicate in the same manner that our modern brain does. (Presumably. Unless you’re one of the jackasses who keep e-mailing me about my Glenn Beck jokes.) Instead of internalizing our thought process, our brains took that data and fed it to the right brain’s equivalent of the language centers found in the left brain.

So what does this part of the brain do today? Pretty much jack shit (It’s considered vestigial in modern humans), but it’s very active in people who experience audible hallucinations, e.g., schizophrenics like our terminal velocity shit-murderer up there. People who experience these kinds of vivid audio hallucinations often claim that they hear voices commanding them to do things, which they are powerless to avoid.


“To Jodie Foster? While she’s asleep? That’s fucked up. But I’ll totally do it.”

Therefore, Jaynes concludes that schizophrenia sufferers may just have a brain that, for whatever reason, includes a vestige of human’s earlier state. It’s sort of like how some humans can use the now-unnecessary auricular muscles to wiggle their ears a little, but most people cannot. Since the origins of schizophrenia are still unknown, Jaynes and his supporters see this as a very good possibility.

However, that’s not all the interesting stuff about this theory. Jaynes also had a theory on what people with bicameral minds might have been like all those years ago. Using writings from that time, he came to believe that people with bicameral minds, who were not capable of self-awareness and likely to experience audible hallucinations, probably interpreted those hallucinations as gods, long-dead ancestors, or other entities.


“Of course it would be a great idea to stone the guy who stole your cow.”

Because the owner of a bicameral mind wouldn’t actually be aware of his or her conscious thoughts, he would take his mind parroting those thoughts back at him as someone else telling him what to do. And what writings did Julian Jaynes use to reach this conclusion? Two works you may have heard of, the first being The Iliad, the Greek epic, and the second being the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, both written about 3,000 years ago.

In Jaynes’ research, he found that the writers of these two works showed little concept of self-awareness and, of course, tended to have a lot of interjections from the dude(s) upstairs, or claimed they were written by God or the Gods themselves. Several classical Greek works referred to the Muses and said that the writers themselves were not responsible for the text, but were instead copying the Muses verbatim.


“And then Luke’s like, ‘That’s not true, that’s impossible!’”

“Hang on a second,” you say. “Even more recent texts have references to the Muses. Couldn’t that be an artistic flourish?” Well, that is very possible. Bicameral mind subscribers believe that more recent works were simply paying homage to what came before them. So, while the people who wrote the Old Testament really did hear voices in their heads, the people who wrote subsequent works may have just gone along with it, as a traditional thing. This is even present in contemporary literary theory. Each new work is written on the shoulders of all of that which came before it, so to speak. T.S. Eliot referred to it as “The Mind of Europe,” a kind of collective unconscious thread in the history of written work. It’s typically referred to as the literary canon.


Pun goes here.

Jaynes compared the Old Testament to the New Testament and found distinct differences in the writing styles. Notably, there were fewer passages that were supposed to be the direct word of God, the writers seemed to be more self-aware, and people were far less likely to hear voices. He then made the same comparisons between The Iliad and The Odyssey. “But wait a fucking second again. The Iliad and The Odyssey were written by the same guy!” Not quite. Contemporary historians feel it’s pretty likely that Homer never existed, and the two poems probably came about hundreds of years apart, with The Iliad appearing around 1,000 BC and The Odyssey coming in around 600-400 BC (after bicameralism would have begun dying out.)

Jaynes also looked at ancient civilizations’ tendencies toward ancestor worship, pointing to this as further evidence for his theory. To a person with a bicameral mind, the voices he hears could be his own ancestors.


“What’s that grandpa? Even more feathers?”

And once again, our old friend, the temporo-parietal junction has come out to play. The same experiment I’ve described previously, where an epileptic woman was given small electrical shocks to a specific part of her brain which resulted in her hallucinating a presence in the room, has been linked with bicameral theories. Of course, you know what that means: Scientists have proposed that bicameralism, if it exists, could be yet another explanation for thousands of years of ghost sightings.


If only this were a hallucination.

Sources:
Wikipedia (The voices in my head tell me to vandalize articles.)

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