The Bicameralism Hypothesis

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In the field of psychology, there is a theory called bicameralism which was coined by author and psychologist Julian Jaynes in 1976. It is often referred to as the “philosophy of two-chamberedness” and is not widely accepted in the scientific community. Although Jaynes’ hypothesis remains controversial, it hasn’t been immediately dismissed as evidenced by numerous remarks made by well-known peers, which will be discussed later on in this article.


But, what exactly is bicameralism?

To answer this, we must dive into The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind which was authored by Jaynes himself.

His theory begins by exploring the thinking processes of ancient humans, dating back to 2,000 BCE. Supposedly a “shift” occurred during this time which affected the concepts of both introspection and consciousness as we know them today. Jaynes pondered that the “bicameral mind state” started to “malfunction,” resulting in the collapse of the Bronze Age. He said a collapse such as this was common throughout the history of ancient societies, like what had occurred in Egypt and Mesoamerica.

To explain the inner-workings of bicameralism, Jaynes translated the definition of “governmental bicameralism” into a sort of metaphor for easier comprehension. He explained how experiences and memories of the brain’s right hemisphere were transmitted to its left hemisphere through auditory, and/or even visual, hallucinations.

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This idea conflicts with modern neurological studies, as they have concluded brain activity is achieved through the process of corpus callosum. That said, Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism may still lend credence to the concept that ancient human beings who lived thousands of years ago actually possessed different types of inner-brain functionality and communication methods compared to the humans that exist today.

It would be hard-pressed for any expert in the field to conclude with certainty that these primitive peoples’ thought processes operated identically to modern-day people without any way (i.e. examining a physical specimen of an ancient brain) of conducting a direct “hands-on” scientific study of the subject. Obviously, the remains discovered of humans from time long past primarily consist of scattered bones, such as skulls or femurs. One must also take into consideration that psychiatric medications, like SSRIs and benzodiazepines, did not exist back then; though, evidence does show primitive people used more natural means to alter their mind states.


A different take on the world

One interesting concept sprouting from the hypothesis of bicameralism is how ancient people in this particular state of mind would have perceived their environment much differently than we know it today (excluding cityscapes, modern transportation, etc).

Wikipedia states:

“Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or ‘god’ giving admonitory advice or commands and obey without question: one would not be at all conscious of one’s own thought processes per se.”

The article continues by explaining how Jaynes thought humans did not generally have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness until the time of Greek poet Homer (see: The Iliad and The Odyssey).

“Rather, the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands believed to be issued by external ‘gods’—commands which were recorded in ancient myths, legends and historical accounts. This is exemplified not only in the commands given to characters in ancient epics but also the very muses of Greek mythology which ‘sang’ the poems: the ancients literally heard muses as the direct source of their music and poetry.”

This is interesting as it builds upon other theories that have long sought after the answer to the question of the origin of religion and perhaps even inspiration for extraordinary accomplishments, such as various forms of art.


The critics and supporters of bicameralism

Scientific criticism of the theory as it relates to psychology has oftentimes been harsh. Some experts, such as Steven H. Moffic, have said the conclusions drawn by Jaynes had no basis in neuropsychiatric fact.

Others, like Ethologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Author Richard Dawkins, have commented:

“It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.”

Scholar Brian J. McVeigh explains that many of those who vehemently disagree with Jaynes’ theory have seriously misunderstood or failed to reflect upon its various factors, such as Jaynes’ more precise definition of consciousness.

While the concept of bicameralism might appear complicated at first glance, upon researching and attempting to truly understand it, the theory becomes increasingly more interesting (and perhaps, even, convincing).

Read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Main image credit: NocturnalReflections


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