issue 21 :: March 2012

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Science: Julian Jaynes

The Julian Jaynes Collection edited by Marcel Kuijsten BOOK (Julian Jaynes Society)

Collecting numerous scientific articles by and interviews with Julian Jaynes, the majority centering on Jaynes’ still controversial Bicameral Mind theory of consciousness, this book probably will not convince any who are still skeptical after reading Jaynes’ only book-length work, the 1977 Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This is disappointing, considering how effective the Julian Jaynes Society’s first book, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, was in furthering Jaynes’ ideas through a collection of papers across disciplines by other authors.

Origin of Consciousness presented a novel, wide-ranging four part theory. One: a strict working definition of the messy word consciousness, and many people I think dismiss Jaynes’ work purely on differing definitions of “consciousness;” Two: a theory of what came before modern consciousness, what Jaynes called the Bicameral Mind, which operated through audio hallucinations from one brain hemisphere to the other; Three: a historical timeline of when and how the Bicameral Mind gave way to our consciousness, which Jaynes dates to only three thousand years ago; and Four: a physical model of what areas of the brain are responsible for the Bicameral Mind and consciousness. It remains a complex and wide-ranging theory, but Jaynes’ writing is clear and persuasive. In his book and in the writings collected here, Jaynes calls for further research, into schizophrenia (which he sees as a throwback to the Bicameral Mind), child development, hypnosis, and historical records of other cultures including burial customs, oracles and other aspects of human activity.
The Julian Jaynes Collection saves the researcher or interested reader time in tracking down these papers and essays, but most of the papers and interviews cover the same ground as Jaynes’ 1977 book, giving only a frustrating tantalizing hint at what Jaynes’ second planned and unfinished book would have been. The most interesting, to me, paper concerned Agamemnon’s dream in the Iliad, how this dream mirrors the structure of the Bicameral Mind and how it differs from our dreams. In Bicameral dreams, and Jaynes admits there are not that many dreams from this time period to analyze, the dreamer is never anywhere other than his sleeping area, and the dream is always a direct message from a god/angel. Jacob’s “ladder” dream from the Jewish Bible fits in here as well. Compare this with our dreams, which can take place anywhere within the limits of our imagination, just as our consciousness can be projected throughout those same limits.
The interviews, usually an excellent method in sussing out someone’s ideas, suffer from a lack of skeptical insight, the interviewers being for the most being very sympathetic to Jaynes’ ideas. I felt much of the interviews merely rehashed points already nicely argued in Jaynes’ book. I can imagine Jaynes’ avoiding situations overtly hostile to his ideas, but a clash of ideas can point out the strengths and weaknesses of a theory. I wanted Jaynes to answer more challenging questions.
Editor Marcel Kuijsten, director of the Julian Jaynes Society, brings up an excellent point in his introduction which answers a question I had in my mind since I read the Origins of Consciousness in college. If consciousness is a culturally learned process based on language, can we look at someone who did not acquire language until a late age and ask them about their mode of thinking before, someone perhaps like Helen Keller? Kuijsten includes a quote from Keller’s autobiography about her lack of consciousness, an introspective “I,” during the time before she learned to speak. She wrote she had neither will nor intellect, “my inner life, then was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith... When I learned the meaning of ’I’ and ’me’ and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.” Keller’s quote is a perfect summary of Jaynes’ definition of consciousness, from someone who can remember lacking consciousness. It is perplexing why Jaynes didn’t think of including this quote in his book.
The collection is filled out by biographies and personal reminiscences on Jaynes, and a bewildering history of science article by Jaynes concerning the mystery of motion in fifteenth century European science. Of which I read the first few pages and then skipped. I really do not want to know much on this particular topic. The collection mostly rehashes information in Jaynes’ marvelous book. The Jaynes Society’s first book, focusing on recent research, is a necessary read. This: I don’t feel I learned much new.
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