Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Bicameral Mind -- Julian Jaynes (1976)

Here is an interesting review of psychologist Julian Jaynes' "bizarre and reckless masterpiece" The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). The main idea is this:
"Jaynes began inspecting the world’s earliest literature for the first signs of human consciousness. “I started off like in a detective story,” he told a reporter for the Princeton radio station. As he moved backward through the centuries, he saw that consciousness, as he had defined it, disappeared somewhere between the Odyssey and the Iliad. Odysseus is a modern hero, introspective and deceptive. In the Iliad, the writing of which scholars date some three hundred years earlier, the characters are passive and mentally inert. They have no concept of a private mental space. The word “psyche” referred only to actual substances in the body, breath, and blood, which leave the warrior’s body as soon as he dies. The gods, emerging from mists or clouds or the sea, handle the warrior’s decisions. When Achilles accuses Agamemnon of stealing his mistress, Agamemnon insists he had no agency. “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus,” he explains. “So what could I do? Gods always have their way.”
Critics have interpreted the meddling presence of the god as poetic devices, but Jaynes accused translators of imputing a modern mentality to people with subjectivities foreign to us. “The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination,’” he wrote. “They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere.” Jaynes drew on research with patients with severed corpora callossa, the band of fibers that separates the two hemispheres of the brain, which showed that the two chambers can function independently, without conscious awareness of information processed in the other half. Jaynes proposed that the Trojan War was fought by men with a kind of split brain, a “bicameral mind.” In moments of stress, the left hemisphere, “slave-like,” perceived hallucinated voices in the right hemisphere—the god hemisphere—as direct commands.""
I am not sure how certain scholars are about a "300 year" gap between the writing down of the Iliad and the Odyssey. (I am partial to the idea that the Odyssey was written by Homer's granddaughter.) Nevertheless, Jaynes' book seems to have a boldness and originality sorely lacking in contemporary psychology. There is very little published in the field today that could be called "startling".

But the main reason that I plan to read this book, and the reason for this post, is the statement that Jaynes "wanted to revive the 'disappearing idea that a psychologist enters his profession almost like a religious order, making himself a part of his own subject matter, and baring his soul.'"

I wonder how many psychologists today even understand what Jaynes meant by comparing entering the profession of psychology to taking holy orders? How many felt a calling to the profession? For how many is being a psychologist just a job like any other?

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