Monday, March 02, 2009

julian jaynes revisited

Anthony Campbell | Jaynes's central idea is that our modern type of consciousness is a recent development; indeed, that it began no more than 3,000 years ago. In earlier times human mentality was characterized by auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations, in which people heard the voices of the gods speaking to them and telling them what to do. Only when this process became internalized and recognized as coming from within the percipients' own minds did truly modern consciousness begin.

The minds of 'preconscious' humans were split in two (the 'bicameral mind'), probably as a result of a dissociation between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Jaynes finds evidence of this in Homer's Iliad, in which the characters continually receive orders and advice from various deities. This, he claims, is no mere literary trope but is an accurate description of how people really experienced the world at the time. In support of this view he cites the eminent classicist E.R. Dodds, whose book The Greeks and the Irrational provides him with plenty of evidence for his thesis.

The heroes of The Iliad do not have the kind of interior monologue that characterizes our own consciousness today. Instead, their decisions, plans, and initiatives are developed at an unconscious level and then are 'announced' to them, sometimes by the hallucinated figure of a friend or a god, sometimes by a voice alone. The Iliad, Jaynes believes, stands at a watershed between two different types of human mentality and affords us an insight into an older mode of being. Once we have begun to see history in this way, we find the same process at work in the art and literature of other ancient civilizations: for instance, those of Mesopotamia and of the Hebrews (in the Old Testament).

Jaynes suggests that vestiges of the premodern kind of mentality are to be found even today. Artistic inspiration and poetry are in this sense atavistic. If Jaynes were writing now he would no doubt point to such modern enthusiasms as the vogues for speaking with tongues, channelling, or communicating with angels as further manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Whether one agrees with Jaynes or not, there is no denying that his book is eminently readable; he writes elegantly and clearly. The first two chapters provide a brilliant summary of the problem of consciousness and the attempts that have been made to solve it. Throughout the book Jaynes displays an impressive grasp of the historical aspects of his subject as well as of the state of neurophysiological science as it existed at the time he was writing. He was a polymath, and his book is correspondingly rich in facts and ideas.