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.

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



A lot of people fantasize about having a double that can go around and do shit for them while they do far more awesome stuff. Who wouldn’t want that? I could go sleep or grab a bite to eat instead of typing these posts out. Actually, I kinda like typing these out, so maybe I have a double somewhere doing back-breaking labor while I’m doing this.

My bad.

But doppelgängers aren’t a purposeful double that you can control and ask nicely to do things you don’t want to do. (And if he or she is your exact double, why would he or she want to do it either?) Nor is it about cloning someone for some hot twin/threesome action.

Ladies, your dream boats have arrived.

The actual idea behind a doppelgänger is pretty damn terrifying. According to Germanic lore, your doppelgänger is basically built specifically for evil. His or her job is to go around and do stuff that gets you in trouble, that bastard. In addition, having one seen by a relative or friend is a bad omen. Even worse, seeing your own means you’re probably gonna die. Your doppelgänger is completely independent from you, and presumably you don’t even know he or she exists until you actually see it, and then it’s too late, because you’re pretty well fucked by that point.

Percy Bysse Shelley saw his own several times immediately before his death, and also right before Mary Shelley miscarried their child. Percy Shelley was a bit of a fanciful guy, to be sure, but he wasn’t the only one who saw “himself”- one of his maids also saw what appeared to be Shelley walking into a part of the yard where the only exit was over a 20 foot wall. Then, he approached again from the very same direction as before. And on top of all that, he wasn’t even around in the first place, so neither one was the real him. Apparently he was cool enough to have two doppelgängers.

“We’re available for parties, too.”

Other famous people who’ve seen their own doppelgänger (or that of a relative) include Abraham Lincoln, John Donne, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s story is particularly interesting. He claimed to have been riding on horseback down a dirt road when he saw himself riding the opposite way, toward… uh, himself. He noted his other self wearing a gray coat with gold trim. 8 years later, he was riding down the same path in the opposite direction and suddenly realized that he was wearing the same gray and gold coat his other had been wearing 8 years earlier. Historical celebrities are not alone, however, as even into modern days, it’s not difficult to find someone who has sworn they saw someone they knew, only to find out later that they were all the way on the other side of town, or something along those lines.

I make no claims as to the nature or whereabouts of O.J. Simpson’s doppelgänger.

All this is different, however, from the Norse vardøger, which is said to be a ghostly image that precedes you. So, say you go to a buddy’s house and he says, “Weren’t you just here?” Vardøger. If you’re sitting at home, eating Doritos and watching re-runs of Miami Vice and your buddy calls you up and asks, “Hey, were you just at the at the adult toy emporium with an arm-load of marital aids?” Doppelgänger. (Warning: Do not use your doppelgänger to get out of shit you did. It never works. Trust me.)

By the way, it’s alt + 0228 if you must know.

And what do our party-pooping friends, the scientists, have to say about this? Well, Swiss scientists performed lab tests on a 22 year old epileptic woman, finding that when certain parts of the brain (the left temporo-parietal junction if you’re nasty) were stimulated with a minor electric shock… wait a second, didn’t I do this before? Oh fuck, that damn vardøger!

No, wait, nevermind. It’s just the same experiment that I mentioned in the post about the Third Man Phenomenon. Yeah, that’s right. Scientists think that the Third Man Phenomenon and doppelgängers are due to the exact same mental switch, except without the whole mental stress and isolation thing. Oh, and also the fact that the doppelgänger is usually a living person the individual knows. In fact, they also believe that the mental switch can be used to explain ghost sightings as well.

Scientists: Trying to ruin everyone’s fun since the Renaissance.

And even still, rumors have begun spreading that airport face-scanning machines, intended to catch terrorists and other criminals before they can board planes, have captured images of people who live on entirely different continents, aren’t related, and have never met, yet look exactly the same. A popular urban legend making the rounds claims that one airport screener was shocked to see his own face pop up in a scan, and that upon further inspection, found 10 other men in the FBI database who looked exactly like him.

Some other legends also make similar claims, saying that the shared criminal database of mugshots the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies use has a secret sub-database (called Doppelgänger, of course) of people who look identical to each other, even down to the scars on their faces, but have no actual known connection. Further, it’s said that some of the images in this database are of people who lived and died decades ago, but appear to have duplicates alive and well today.

On a barely-related and less creepy note, The Fall of Troy’s Doppelgänger is fantastic.

Wikipedia (The only infallible source of information, ever)