Julian Jaynes: Gods and voices

Last week, I proposed 25 research topics for neurotheology . The underlying theme was to find phenomena somehow related to religion—for instance, speaking in tongues occurs in explicitly religious contexts, while some schizophrenics display quasi-religious behavior—and then inquire as to the neural bases of those phenomena.

There is a single researcher who has addressed many more of these topics than any other: Julian Jaynes (picture; Wikipedia entry).

Jaynes was a psychology professor most noted for his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, where he laid out his astonshing thesis that consciousness is of recent origin (three millennia ago), and replaced internal voices as the basic means of human self-control. These internal voices were what were referred to as gods, and, he claims, the predecessors of the variety of gods people worship today.

Of course, many people think Jaynes is simply a crackpot; see this Salon article by Mark Wallace for an example. But these critics really need to come up with better attacks. For instance, Wallace says that “Jaynes displays a hallmark trait of the crackpot authority in drawing from widely disparate disciplines to back up a hypothesis that would never even occur to most scientists.” That’s supposed to be bad?

The illustrious Daniel Dennett, for one, is a Jaynes fan, and in his article about Jaynes reprinted in Brainchildren ) he provides a highly succinct summary of Jaynes’ hypothesis: that the human brain has gotten a “software upgrade” in recent millennia, while suggesting that many of the details of Jaynes’ theory—even the supposed centerpiece involving auditory hallucinations—are optional.

It is not at all surprising that Jaynes covers nearly half of the issues in my list of 22 research topics for neurotheology: mental illness, brain pathology, hallucinogens, polytheism, hypnosis, music, genetics, speaking in tongues, and at least one I omitted, poetry. Not surprising because Jaynes, in a way, is the original neurotheologist par excellence. In spite of its title, his book is not really about consicousness; indeed, Jaynes spends the entire first chapter making the point that consciousness, appropriately defined, is basically just a tool we humans use to do some things more effectively, but is hardly at the core of our experience.

Instead of consciousness, what the book is really about is God, or god, or gods, how they functioned before the advent of consciousness as we know it today (as verbalized messages from the right brain to the left), and how their vestiges constitute what we think of as religion today. In other words, “Breakdown” is really the “Bible”, so to speak, of neurotheology.

Love Jaynes or hate him, his theory remains, after 30 years, indisputably the single most comprehensive, wide-ranging, imaginative hypothesis available.

Reading this book, I had the uncanny feeling that perhaps our country is slipping back into bicamerality—by which I don’t mean having two houses of Congress, but rather Jaynes’ pre-conscious state. After all, we now have a President who said he was “told” by “God”—a voice, in other words—to invade Iraq, and a country which responded by electing him to another term.

8 Responses to “Julian Jaynes: Gods and voices”

  1. Osame Kinouchi Says:

    Bob, you have proposed 22, not 25 research themes!

    I am making a link to your blog from mine, since neurotheology is a common theme.


  2. Osame Kinouchi Says:

    Ok, poetry is a 23.
    I noticed that several religious leaders (and also philosopher like Nietzsche) seems to be bipolar. Do you know academic studies about bipolar personality and religion predisposition?

  3. xiaoding Says:

    “Reading this book, I had the uncanny feeling that perhaps our country is slipping back into bicamerality—by which I don’t mean having two houses of Congress, but rather Jaynes’ pre-conscious state. After all, we now have a President who said he was “toldâ€? by “Godâ€?—a voice, in other words—to invade Iraq, and a country which responded by electing him to another term.”

    Oh dear, just could not resist, could you? Got to poke the prez to impress all your friends.

    Your comment elucidates a common problem in the study of religion, by those in science…to wit, someone who clearly has not a clue about religion, not one whit of understanding of what it means to individuals and societys, trying to “explain” it. Your comment makes it seem, at least to me, that you hope by explaining it, that it will then go away. As in it is something not to be desired, or wanted, like a bad cold.

    But yet, we now see, that the culture that has forgotten it’s religion, rejected it, as some sort of primitive vestige, being invaded by another that has not forgotten, indeed, glorifies it’s religious basis. And it’s wining…it seems rejection of religion equals cultrual death, or suicide. Which is quite obvious to those who have an understanding of relgion. You don’t even have to be actually religious to see this.

    Seen in this light, the presidents comments, and this nations response to those comments, are a source of strength, and great power. A beacon of light, even. But like I said, those in academe have no eyes to see.

    By the way…a software upgrade? EVERYBODY, instantaneously? Over the entire globe? Now who beleives in miracles!

  4. sara Says:

    wo wo wo…

    what do you mean “is invaded by an other that has not forgotten, and it’s winning”?? are you referring to the new islamic fight on the west, or the war on terror of the christian right in america?? how can you say anyone is winning? what kind of unfunded statements are these?? and who are you to say “it is quite obvious” and even speak in the name of those who are none religious? you may see the secularisation of society as suicide, others may see it as the only chance to stop meaning-less religious wars and the long-needed liberation from the “matrix” that religion has put us in too long now…

  5. DavidD Says:

    I ran into someone recently who was telling me of “The Bicameral Mind” and it sounded more and more familiar. Then I realized how I knew this. Michael Persinger explains his “results” of supposedly recreating “every spiritual experience” with magnetic stimulation this way. Reputible researchers can’t reproduce his results. A recent report from Uppsala, Sweden even put in print their suspicions that Persinger is simply getting spontaneous experiences from mystically minded subjects.

    It amazes me how some see pure speculation as Jaynes does as meaningful in any way. It’s no more scientific than Chariots of the Gods or Scientology. It’s just a story. Try making a predication from this. If visions of God are really about a block between the two cerebral hemispheres, where the other self-image is seen as God, shouldn’t that mean that God is never seen or heard straight in front of us, but off to one side? That’s hard to study, but casual experience doesn’t suggest this is the case. If this were true, shouldn’t those who have had surgery to split the corpus callosum have trouble this way? They don’t.

    One doesn’t have to get this exotic to try to discredit religion with pseudoscientific fantasy. For years, many have tried to attribute all of Paul’s spiritual experiences to epilepsy. Yet while neurons in seizure might produce bright lights, moving fortification lines or even a scary face, no seizure has been documented getting anywhere near Jesus Christ speaking to someone about the error of his ways. One can have more complicated symptoms in a post-ictal state, but even there no has this kind of sensory experience just from seizures. Yet some people will say whatever they want about this.

    I haven’t seen much that’s reliable in the study of spiritual experiences since William James. The greatest result of neuroimaging of meditation or prayer to me, apart from the minimal findings that some make too much of, is that the brain of someone in those states is pretty much the same as anyone else. It may very well be that if there were a PET scan on the road to Damascus, one could have found that Paul’s brain while seeing Jesus was like seeing anything else, apart from some signs of being generally excited.

    The desire to trivialize religion is neither going away nor anywhere reaching fulfillment through science. Whoever wants to reject religion can reject it. Science does a good job of showing that people thousands of years ago didn’t understand how the natural world works, and so rightfully discredits religion somewhat. But to expect science to prove religion is nothing is fantasy. If you look at any approach to do that, you find poor experimenters and crackpot theories. What a waste.

    By the way, regarding Osame’s question, “religious mania” is a term some use for bipolar patients who have only religious experiences with their manias. They do form a distinct minority of bipolar patients, but seem to respond to the same medicines. No one has ever seen that much different about them, though at the extreme, where someone just “goes into the Spirit” for a day, no one would call that bipolar disorder. It may be more about religious people having bipolar disorder than about bipolar disorder being some window to God. Someone has to have the mood disorder as well as religious experience to call them bipolar. It’s tricky calling someone like Nietsche bipolar. He had some organic brain disease as I recall – that can easily look bipolar, but not be. Even without another disease, any arrogant egomaniac in history can be called bipolar by someone. That’s far from a firm diagnosis. I’m a neurologist. I see patients with spells, even if they wind up to have purely psychiatric problems.

  6. Jim Says:

    Just reading a follow-up to Jaynes’s work that was just released, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, edited by Marcel Kuijsten.

    Incidently Michael Persinger (mentioned above) wrote the Foreword.

    I recommend it for anyone interested in Jaynes’s work or neurotheology in general.

  7. Ettsem Says:

    I read Jaynes’s opus about 10 years ago. His ideas have stuck with me. I can’t prove or disprove them, but when pondering neurotheology or neuropsychology I do consider them.

    One of the most common questions asked of creative people is: “Where do you get your ideas from?” The answer is often along the lines of “I don’t know” or “It just comes to me”. So I find it interesting that the ancient Greeks attributed creativity to “The Muses”, which were demigods.

    On a similar tack, much eastern thought makes a distinction between conscious thought and “no mind” thought, which appears to come “from nothing”. But does “from nothing” mean literally that, or does it mean that we cannot observe the process?

    I am able to observe my own intellect doing its thing, but I can never figure out where my best ideas come from. Does that mean they’re beamed into my brain by external intelligences? I’m guessing that’s not so, since no matter how surprising I find my ideas, they’re still recognizably “mine”. For example, I sometimes write poems that startles me with their originality, yet they never incorporate anything I couldn’t know.

    I wonder if the reason why creativity appears to come “from nothing” is because our limited conscious can only track a serial process such as the “7-bits, give or take a few” of “short-term memory”. I don’t expect my intellect to track something massively parallel, yet when I see the far-flung connections made by my creativity, it does appear that a lot of connections are being made far faster than I can “think”.

    Jaynes wrote his book long before the advent of personal computers. To the best of my recollection he never compared intellect to a serial process and inspiration to a parallel process. If he was alive today, perhaps he’d have made that comparison.

  8. Kazuyoshi Says:

    well but are not philosophy and snicece based largely (if not completely) on theory? and how many dimensions can our limited minds grasp anyway?he may be right in one dimension, this one we sense most immediately and feel we know best, according to certain principles that have come to be accepted truths in the larger majority of social and academic circles but what happens when you throw spirituality into the mix? metaphysics? miracle? ever the most basic inexplicables of how life functions the human brain, the orchestrations of coincidence, why earth is what it is? there is so much room for mystery and layers of meaning, and i reckon there are far more kinds of consciousness than what of us knows the word to mean in life, in art, and in life as art and art as life. i reckon opposites and contradictions sewn together comprise a much larger quilt.so as a complete un bona fide anything, i say carry on as well! the world needs your comparisons. it needs the life you unveil in tables.

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