The Origin of Consciousness and Other Mind-Bending Subjects

Every now and then I encounter a book that is particularly challenging. Yesterday, for instance, I finished reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I probably first heard reference to this book through the science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. But its title has popped up a number of times over the years and I finally decided to give it a go.

The main premise of Jaynes’s argument is that (1) consciousness, as we know it today, did not emerge until about 1000 B.C., and (2) that consciousness emerged as a result of language. I found both the premise and the book one of the more challenging reads I’ve encountered in recent memory. Even so, I found the book fascinating. (Decades ago, I had the same reaction to David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus.)

Jaynes uses, as much of his evidence, references to the language in literature as it evolved over time, with particular focus on The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as the early books of the Bible. He interweaves this evidence with modern brain and psychological experiments. Where I was particularly challenged was in his discussion of things like metafiers, paraphors, and parafiers, and how they relate to the way we think. Try as I might, I couldn’t get these concepts clear in my head.

It got me thinking about the limits of my own understanding. In college, for instance, I found that I had a weakness for economics. At least, I took a required course on macro-economics, and although I attended the lectures, read the text book, and did the assigned homework, I found the subject impenetrable. I came away with a poor grade that reflected my lack of understanding, as to opposed to my lack of effort. I encountered similar blocks with higher math, like integral calculus.

Still, I’ve often turned to books when I can’t understand something, and with few exceptions, it usually helps. Jaynes’s book, while fascinating, is one of those exceptions where I am left feeling more confused (although more intrigued) than before I read it. I have started to re-read Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden as a kind of palliative to this effect. I remember finding that to be an excellent book on the evolution of human intelligence when I first read it in the mid-1990s. But human intelligence is different from human consciousness. I can’t tell if the failure is on my, for a simple inability to follow Jaynes’s arguments, or on Janyes for being unclear.

I suppose it shouldn’t bother me. I read so much that there are bound to be things about which I read that I simply can’t understand. But reading is my primary method of continuing education, and when I can’t understand something, I feel as I did when back in the macro-economics class, working away at the homework, reading the text, and taking in the lectures–and getting nowhere.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

3 thoughts on “The Origin of Consciousness and Other Mind-Bending Subjects

  1. Sounds like an interesting book, though the core argument seems to be deeply flawed. Language has been around for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, as has abstract thought. So if consciousnesses is tied to language and abstract thought, 1000BC has to be a very short date.

  2. JM, I probably didn’t explain his theory well (as I said, this book was a challenge for me). But I don’t think he argued that consciousness as we know if came after language, but it wasn’t until language was richly developed that consciousness emerged. He points to the language (original Greek meanings) in words in the Iliad vs. the Odyssey. In the former there are no terms that we might associate with elements of consciousness (“feel from the heart”) whereas such terms do emerge in the Odyssey. I think his argument is that you can’t have consciousness (in the modern sense) with the words to describe consciousness (self, thought, perception, memory, etc.) and that these words did not emerge in vocabularies until around 1,000 B.C. Prior to this, he argues for a bicameral mind, in which what we consider consciousness today was more like the voices of the gods (burning bush, etc.) emerging from one hemisphere of the brain not completely meshed with the other, as what is often seen in schizophrenia.

  3. I understand your frustration with regards to not knowing whether you’ve not understood because of your own abilities or because the writing wasn’t clear. What I can tell you is that usually in philosophy we are encouraged to read a text more than once in order to truly understand it and to be able to properly engage with it. Philosophy is a conversation, between the writer and his context (other lines of thoughts that have influenced their argument), between the reader and the writer, between the reader and their context. It could be that you are lacking some context of Jaynes or that some of your context is influencing your understanding of their argument. And it could well be the writing, philosophers are sadly both known for the best and THE WORST writing ever. What I’m saying is: don’t be too hard on yourself.

    The book sounds very interesting and is yet another book that I must add to the ongoing list I get from this blog. Thank you!

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