The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Astounded Mind

From Everything Shii Knows, the only reliable source

This website is an archive. It ran from 2006-2010. Virtually everything on here is outdated or inaccurate.

Julian Jaynes overstepped a little. I don't think that should surprise anyone: his book is a neurological hypothesis without any neurological evidence. As a work of literary and historical analysis, though, he compiles an overwhelming amount of evidence. He hints that there is something greater than successive generations of people learning to "reason". What exactly was there before reason? If we did not emerge from the Miocene primates in suits and ties and conceiving of high philosophy, what was the basic feature of the ancient mind?

Relevance to religion

What interests me especially about Jaynes' theory of communion with the gods is his discussion of the Oracle at Delphi and the dozens of other prophets reported around the Mediterranean. He hypothesizes, without much evidence but with at least more than the "vapors from the earth" theory, that these oracles would go through six stages:

  1. Discovery of an awe-inspiring location that inspired "bicameral" thought in many people.
  2. Institutionalization of prophetic thought, so that only one person would be prophet at a time (perhaps as a result of less frequent prophecies).
  3. Unwillingness of the next generation to prophecy, and development of a formal induction/inducement rite in response.
  4. Difficulty in summoning up prophetic powers, leading to contortions and delusions called "possession".
  5. Further difficulty, leading to the prophetess being sealed off from the general public, and interpreters being installed at the doors. [Delphi: 60 BC]
  6. An "erratic" period when the oracle is no longer able to summon up prophecies at all. [Delphi: 60 AD]

What this seems to indicate to me that the awe, or astonishment, that formerly accompanied a place like Delphi became more and more familiar to the prophetesses that eventually the place appeared boring. This is especially sensible if the later prophetesses were being born in Delphi.

What I think it also might reflect on Jaynes' earlier examples is that before the Greek period, people were constantly astonished: by the bounty of the world, its beauty, and so forth. Recall that this was a time before overpopulation, and before people were tied down to 9-to-5 jobs.

I am of the opinion that astounded people communicated easily with their personal gods. They were not under a "religious delusion" in the modern sense but were in an otherworldly state, compelled to movement by Abraham Heschel's feeling of wonder.

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder almost necessarily declines.

We are descended today from the most boring of that species, by natural selection. If you were constantly astounded, you were susceptible to death by naivete. But if you learned to interpret certain input, such as stomach pain after eating bad food, as a function of natural causes rather than a sign from the gods, you would be bound to leave more descendants. Consciousness turned out to be rather useful for survival of the human species.

When the connection between astonishment and "bicameral" divine hallucinations was broken entirely, the religious feeling was relegated to an aspect of a universal God, who gave additional revelations infrequently (Christianity) or never (Islam). As consciousness developed, it soon became recognized that even this God was just a human conception-- but the original reason for the universe of gods was forgotten, as people became less naive, and astonishment was slowly drained from human experience.

Relevance to psychology

Jaynes on psychology, I would say, is mostly wrong. Schizophrenics cannot be paralleled with the ancient religious feeling; schizophrenia is a quite pitiful disease that produces a failure to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and if everyone in prehistoric times were schizophrenics then we would find a lot more suicides or accidental deaths in ancient graves and stories. Also, this assumes that there had to be some neurological change that evolved all human brains at the same time, which is unlikely.

I think the prophetic stage of human society was social, not neurological. The actual norm that produced the assumption of deities was the imagination. At night when I walk through the forest, awful things seem to be creeping around in the darkness. Rationally, I question my fear, but the influence of my childhood (which involved few nighttime walks) tells me to be wary and scared. It seems that culture has a very tight grip on how we see the mysterious unseen and hear noises in the silence. So, if it seemed normal in ancient times to talk to a severed head, we would invent things that the head said to us. Since many of the earliest human artifacts are religious in nature, astounded Homo sapiens must have emerged from Africa with a cultural agreement on divine messages. Cultures that developed consciousness succeeded evolutionarily, but mourned the loss of their gods.

Jaynes' chapter on hypnosis supports my counterclaim. It is no big secret these days that hypnosis does not really work any more. At my college, a hypnotist came, but the students he hypnotized later admitted they were faking it. But for a time, it really did work-- hypnosis could not force people to do things they didn't consciously know how to do, but it was able to coax people's minds into misinterpreting absurd or dangerous commands, such as Richard Feynman getting burned by an open flame. The neuroscience behind it was not widely understood, so imagination played a huge role in its popularity. Now we know there is no neuroscience behind it--we were fooling ourselves--so it doesn't work on us anymore.

Relevance to music and poetry

Jaynes has an interesting theory about music. He points out that poetry was originally the language of prophecy, and even purely artistic poetry was caused by the Muses. He relates the loss of poetic prophecy to the fifth stage of the Delphic oracle, when the oracle's prophecies came occasionally in prose instead of verse, and had to be rewritten by her servants. On music, I will quote:

I have devised an experiment ... First, think of two topics, anything, personal or general, on which you would like to talk for a couple of paragraphs. Now, imagining you are with a friend, speak out loud on one of the topics. Next, imagining you are with a friend, sing out loud on the other topic. Do each for one full minute, demanding of yourself that you keep going. Compare introspectively. Why is the second so much more difficult?

I further posit that if you really want to get back in touch with the primitive, prophetic mind, you should practice singing a stream of consciousness about what you want to talk about!

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