Reviewed in Canada 🇨🇦 on December 21, 2003
First of all the book was copyrighted in 1976 and apparently first published in 1982. That is eons ago in the science of cognition and brain imaging. So I would like to know how the past 2 and a half decades have affected the theories in this book.
I also note that the author taught at Princeton University (he died in 1997), so his theories ought to have received a hearing. But apparently the follow-up book he intended was never published, and he was considered somewhat of a maverick, if not quite a crackpot. This website offers some perspective: [...]
His theory, in simplest terms, is that until about 3000 years ago, all of humankind basically heard voices. The voices were actually coming from the other side of the brain, but because the two hemispheres were not in communication the way they are now for most of us, the voices seemed to be coming from outside. The seemed, in fact, to be coming from God or the gods.
So far, so good. That is certainly imaginable to most of us, because we know that schizophrenics and some others still hear voices in apparently this manner today.
But he also posits that many sophisticated civilizations were created by men and women who were all directed by these godlike voices. What is not very clearly explained (a serious gap in his theory) is how all the voices in these "bicameral civilizations," as he calls them, worked in harmony. But his theory is that ancient Greece, Babylon, Assyria, Egpyt, and less ancient but similar Mayan and Incan kingdoms were all built by people who were not "conscious" in our modern sense.
When one hears voices, whether then or now, the voices tend to be commanding and directive, and the need to obey them compelling. Free will is not possible. And so the people who built the pyramids were not self-aware as we are, did not feel self-pity, did not make plans, but simply obeyed the voices, which somehow were in agreement that the thing must be done.
Again, when he mentions that hypnosis may be triggering a reversion to a similar kind of consciousness, in which a voice, somehow channeled through the sub-conscious rather than the reasoning part of the brain, has an unusual compelling quality to it, and enables a person to do things that in their conscious analytic mind they are unable to do, we feel that we do have a glimmer that such a state of being is possible.
Of course, he connects these ideas to schizophrenia, seeing that as a throw-back to an earlier kind of mind-state, though now socially unacceptable and also unacceptable to its victim, who retains a remembrance of what it was to have control of his or her own mind.
He also sees prophets as remnants of the older mind, still able to hear the voices after most people had lost the ability. And he sees idol worship and modern religious behavior as both signs of a longing for the lost certainty and simplicity of a world in which decisions didn't have to be made, and all were of one accord as to what the gods wanted done.
I don't see much evidence for the pastoral simplicity which he thinks the bicameral mind lived in. But I do think that it is possible that not only ancient people but even many modern people have mind-experiences that are very different from our individualistic, introspective, self-determined ideas. In fact, I think relatively few human beings question and ponder and change belief systems as we might. The feeling of being adrift in a world that we can't understand, struggling with questions about everything, is far from universal, I think.
It is pertinent that he calls the shift from bicameral (two houses) to modern consciousness a "breakdown." He sees the shift as happening in response to crises and threats in the environment, but he doesn't present it as necessarily positive, and certainly not as pleasant to those living in its shadow. He sees the cries of the Jews and many other people for God to "rend the heavens and come down," to "not forsake them," as cried from people who no longer hear the "voices" that seemed to be the gods, and who desperately miss them.
In view of individuals such as Mother Teresa, who at one point had a clear inner sense of being directed by God (not necessarily actual auditory voices) and then lost that sense of presence and had to walk blindly thereafter (or silently would be a better metaphor), perhaps we would agree that the experience of the gods or God going silent not only happened at large in human history but is often recapitulated in individuals' personal history as well.
If Jaynes is on to something (and I think he is, though I think he may have pushed his "theory of everything" too far and lost scientific credibility), his theory does help us understand why there is a widespread belief that in Biblical times, God interacted with people in a very different way than He does now. The Bible, and other holy books as well, are remnants of a time when human beings own inner sense of right and wrong, clean and unclean, enemy and neighbor, were experienced as coming from outside of them, from disembodied voices that commanded great power. As the mind (or brain) developed, this split healed (or this mind broke down?) and this knowing become a still small voice in many people, and in others a resounding silence.
The question remains: should we take the reductionist view, and look at all religious ideas as merely misunderstandings based on schizophrenic-like delusions and hallucinations? Or should we take the view that God, who in times past spoke to us in fire and plague and audible voices (and later in dreams and visions) has now become one with humanity and speaks to us in the silence of our own hearts?
A fascinating book, raising as many questions as it answers, but well worth the reading.