Blog powered by Typepad

« Farewell to the master | Main | »


Hi there,

interesting point, but may I stress that according to Jaynes, bicamerality began to malfunction in big societies, as early as 1800 BC in Egypt, as far as I remember from reading his book. This is exactly the time the Story of Sinuhe was written, according to your own article and as mentioned in many other websites... And a collapsing bicameral society would be a society with conscious people appearing here and there!

Jaynes doesn't say that bicamerality disappeared everywhere on the surface of Earth at the exact same period, he envisions that several events could trigger its collapsing, one of it being a "too big" society to keep working the bicameral way. He mentions the mass-migrations of the second millenium BC as a "starter" for the dawn of consciousness in the region including ancient Egypt, as people from different places, obeing to different gods (then, "voices in the head"), were forced to meet.

So I don't see how the Story of Sinuhe would be in any way a refutation of the bicameral model of society, actually its existence is congruant with it, as a part of its collapsing in this aera.

Furthermore, is the Sinuhe story a singularity in Ancient Egypt "litterature" or is it a rather usual kind of story at the time? It seems it was kind of a unique story for this time period. I'm not in any way a specialist of Ancien Egypt legends ant litterature but I'm not aware of other "conscious-telling" stories from this civilisation.

Last point, we should pay attention to the way(s) the story os Shinuhe has been translated in modern terms and for modern readers. The Ilyad is know to have been translated in many ways, some of them very close to the original text (but really boring to read for us!), some of them far more appealing to us, conscious readers, with an artifical "consious attitude" of its different heros. What about Shinuhe's story and its "conscious" feeling? I would be interested in any source about the story of the translation of this text...

I read somewhere about the events in this story: "When Sinuhe meets Amunenshi, he feigns ignorance of his reasons for leaving Egypt, claiming that it was the act of a god." (does he reallly "feigns" it? Or does he obey his god like any other bicameral mind?).

Isn't the story of Sinuhe the story of the "self realisation to consciousness" of a man who started as a bicameral man? (I mean, a FICTIONAL man, of course, the hero of the story, who may be a composite of several oral stories gathered together to this state of art, as is suspected with Omer, the so-called "writter" of the Ilyad and Odissey).

My two cents :)


"according to Jaynes, bicamerality began to malfunction in big societies, as early as 1800 BC in Egypt"

I agree that the dating of such a transition can only be approximate, and would vary from place to place and from culture to culture, but Jaynes does seem to feel that it occurred later – around 1200 BC. See page 223ff of the text:

Though Jaynes argues that bicamerality begin to malfunction earlier than that in more complex societies, he also thinks that these societies reconstituted themselves along bicameral lines prior to around 1200 BC. He writes on p. 197:

"This breakdown of the bicameral mind in what is called the Intermediate Period [of Egypt] is reminiscent at least of those periodic breakdowns of Mayan civilizations when all authority suddenly collapsed, and the population melted back into tribal living in the jungles. And just as the Maya cities became inhabited again or new ones formed after a period of breakdown, so Egypt after less than a century of breakdown has unified itself at the beginning of the second millennium under a new god-king, beginning what is called the Middle Kingdom. The same breakdown occurred else- where in the Near East from time to time, as in Assur about 1700 B.C., as we shall see in the next chapter."

So it would seem that Jaynes did not believe these sporadic collapses, in themselves, heralded the transition in consciousness.

"Isn't the story of Sinuhe the story of the 'self realisation to consciousness' of a man who started as a bicameral man?"

It doesn't read that way to me. There are only two references to the main character (whom I take to be a real person and not fictional) responding to the voice of a god.

At first there is no report of a god's voice. Upon hearing of the apparent palace coup:

"My heart stopped, my arms crossed, trembling fell through my whole body. I slipped back in starts to seek out a hiding-place, to place myself between the bushes, to remove the way and its farer. I made my way south without thinking of approaching this Residence. I imagined there would be bloodshed, and I denied I could survive it."

Later, however, there is a brief mention of a god when Sinuhe recounts his story to Pharaoh:

"As for this flight made by this servant, it was not planned, it was not in my heart, I did not plot it. I do not know what separated me from my place, it was like a dream. It is as if a Delta-man saw himself in Abu, a marsh-man in the Land of Nubia. I did not fear, I was not persecuted, I heard no accusation. My name was not heard in the mouth of the reporter, and yet my limbs went cold, legs panicked, my heart took hold of me. The god who decreed this flight led me away."

But even here, we see clear signs of reflective consciousness: Sinuhe knows he *could* have plotted it, or made a plan "in his heart." He compares himself in exile to a marsh-man stranded in the desert - an act of empathy impossible for a bicameral mind. It seems as if he is saying that his desertion was prompted by panic, and since the panic did not originate in his conscious mind, it must have been foisted on him by some god.

I would not necessarily call this "feigning," which seems like an unwarranted modern interpretation. He may well have honestly understood his subconscious motives in terms of the inscrutable dictates of the gods. This is a mentality somewhat different from the modern mind, to be sure, but it is not consistent with my reading of Jaynes' theory. A bicameral man would not be able to distinguish between his own intentions and those of his gods.

There is also this reference:

"Whichever god ordained this flight, be at peace, give me back to the Residence. Have mercy on me and let me see the place where my heart resides ... I have appeased the god. May he act so as to bring right the end for one he afflicted. May his heart ail for the one he excluded to live on the hill-land. Today at last he is appeased."

Again, though, there is a clearcut distinction between Sinuhe himself and his god. Sinuhe wants one thing (to live in Egypt) while the god wants another (Sinuhe's exile). I think it would take a great deal of mental gymnastics to square this with Jaynes' theory, unless we set the date of the transition in consciousness much earlier - sometime in the 3rd millennium, perhaps. But if we keep pushing it back and back and back, it becomes progressively less credible, because the literary evidence becomes more and more scanty and difficult to decipher.

"So ... goodbye to all that, or most of it, anyway."

Michael, it's always fun to see your positions evolve. It's a healthy sign, and one of the main reasons I enjoy your blog.

"I would not necessarily call this "feigning," which seems like an unwarranted modern interpretation. He may well have honestly understood his subconscious motives in terms of the inscrutable dictates of the gods."

It strikes me as transitional - where both the modern and bicameral points of view are vying for the upper hand in one person.

Well done to Doubter for finding this source.

I must mention again the anthropological objection, that anthropologists have found no trace of bicameral mind in any recorded, studied hunter-gatherer society,

and this being the main point: these cultures being precisely free of the very specific societal crises which Jaynes says is *essential* for the breakdown of bicameral mind, with bicameral mind being the natural state of mind of humanity prior to these crises according to him.

This is a pretty damning factor, leaving aside dodgy interpretations of 16th century accounts of europeans meeting Indians and meso-American cultures, the fact that no anthropologist has found a trace of bicamerality in any recorded ethnology is a nail in the coffin which cannot be easily explained away unless you are willing to jettison major chunks of Jaynes's own mechanism.

"Michael, it's always fun to see your positions evolve. It's a healthy sign, and one of the main reasons I enjoy your blog."

Ditto. I'm aware of less than a dozen blogs that honestly parse information concerning spirituality and the paranormal, and this is one of the best. Here, we have one of the few portals where the argument isn't about who's right or wrong, it's about what's right, wrong or most likely. The best part is that sometimes the honest answer is "Damifino" - it's not about ego, it's about truth.

This Bicameral Mind series of post's has been an insightful tour de force because Michael's take on Julian Jaynes' theory was convincing, but so was Doubter's. I found myself hoping it would all come to a head, and I'm delighted to see that it did.
Some folks love World Wide Wrestlin', but I love a civil intellectual knock-down, drag-out. That was what this was, and it was informative, useful and fun.

At the end of the day, the most meaningful takeaway for me was looking at the apparent conflict between spirit communication of yesteryear, versus spirit communication today. The most glaring example in Western culture can be found by pitting the Old Testament of the Bible against the New Testament. Why does spiritual advice in ancient times seem so brutal and thuggish, while modern day Spirit is so lovey-dovey?

Apparently there was a simultaneous multicultural shift in consciousness between 800 and 200 BC, and humanity hasn't been the same ever since. Just Google "Axial Age", or at least look at the Wikipedia entry.
I personally think humanity is caught up in a progressing evolution toward a Greater State of Communion with a Higher State of Being, and the speed of its development is accelerating. The evidence can be seen by looking at our relationships with each other over time. As bad as things are now, they were worse 200 years ago, and even worse 200 years before that, and so on. Call it the Holy Spirit, God, the Source, the Light, Allah, humanism or whatever, the progression is hard to deny.

Keep up the good work, folks.

"What primarily changed my opinion was a text that Doubter directed me to"

This is why it's a good thing to have a Doubter in the house.

I don't want to belabor the matter, but it is interesting that strong indications of a relatively modern psychology extend back in surviving Egyptian texts to considerably before the Story of Sinuhe. The Autobiography of Weni, one of the most talented (and long lived) officials of the Old Kingdom, dates to about 400 years before the Story of Sinuhe. His career extended over three reigns in the Sixth Dynasty (Teti, Pepi I and Merenre I), from about 2330 to 2280 BC. It is in logical, narrative form in chronological order, where Weni describes how he started as a lowly palace employee of Teti, served as a successful army general under Pepi I and rose to one of the highest ranks in the land, governor of Upper Egypt under Merenre I. During this latter period he had much to do with the construction of Merenre's pyramid.

I don't see any "bicamerality" in this autobiography - he makes his own way in the world, due to his own abilities and excellences and their recognition by the rulers he worked under, not because he was ordered by voices of gods. Of course he only presented his good side, but that was substantial.

Some excerpts to give the narrative flavor of the text:

(beginning) [The Count, Governor of Upper Egypt, Chamberlain], Warden of Nekhen, Mayor of Nekheb, Sole Companion, honored by Osiris Foremost-of-the-Westerners, Weni [says]: [I was] a filletwearing [youth] under the majesty of King Teti, my office being that of custodian of the storehouse, when I became inspector of [tenants] of the palace - - - - - -- [When I had become] overseer of the robing-room under the majesty of King Pepi, his majesty gave me the rank of companion and inspector of priests of his pyramid town.
When his majesty took action against the Asiatic Sand-dwellers, his majesty made an army of many tens of thousands from all of Upper Egypt....His majesty sent me at the head of this army, there being counts, royal seal-bearers, sole companions of the palace, chieftains and mayors of towns of Upper and Lower Egypt.....I was the one who commanded them - while my rank was that of overseer of '- royal tenants' - because of my rectitude, so that no one attacked his fellow, so that no one seized a loaf or sandals from a traveler, so that no one took a cloth from any town, so that no one took a goat from anyone.
When I was chamberlain of the palace and sandal-bearer, King Mernere, my lord who lives forever, made me Count and Governor of Upper Egypt, from Yebu in the south to Medenyt in the north, because I was worthy in his majesty's heart, because I was rooted in his majesty's heart, because his majesty's heart was filled with me.
I governed Upper Egypt for him in peace, so that no one attacked his fellow. I did every task. I counted everything that is countable for the residence in this Upper Egypt two times, and every service that is countable for the residence in this Upper Egypt two times. I did a perfect job in this Upper Egypt. Never before had the like been done in this Upper Egypt. I acted throughout so that his majesty praised me for it.

His majesty sent me to lbhat to bring the sarcophagus "chest of the living" together with its lid, and the costly august pyramidion for the pyramid "Mernere-appears-in-splendor," my mistress. His majesty sent me to Yebu to bring a granite false-door and its libation stone and granite lintels and to bring granite portals and libation stones for the upper chamber of the pyramid "Mernereappears-in-splendor," my mistress. I traveled north with (them) to the pyramid "Mernere-appears-in-splendor" in six barges and three tow-boats of eight ribs in a single expedition. Never had Yebu and lbhat been done" in a single expedition under any king. Thus everything his majesty commanded was done entirely as his majesty commanded.

(From, the translation used by Lichtheim)

A nice account Doubter.

Weni sounds like some guy (although he clearly wants us to think so!).

It's also interesting in that we can infer some things about wider egyptian society from his account.

Of particular interest is his actions against various vagabonds, thieves and assorted hustlers, and the fact that he is proud for having brought these common law-breaking activities under control.

We can see the usual mix of positive and negative aspects of humanity here; certain universals that never change, despite a different cultural context.

You should read some Ken Wilber. He covers how consciousness evolves very nicely. Both individually and in a larger culture.

I too commend the flexibility that allows one to change his/her position. But I wouldn't throw out Jaynes entirely yet.

The thing is, modern psychology had to evolve *sometime*, and I think the psychology that Jaynes points out in a lot of texts is indeed much different from our own.

I don't actually buy into the hemisphere part of the theory. I think consciousness was (and still is) evolving via genetics and morphic fields and Jaynes points toward some possible but not absolutely proven transitional points.

I think you are misconstruing what Jaynes means by consciousness and by bicamerality. His "bicameral men" were able to think in linear fashion, build the pyramids, create art, etc., etc.; they just weren't self-reflective.

I understand that. I just don't think that Jaynes' "bicameral man" as he defines him could have been capable of these things.

In the first part of his book Jaynes argues that consciousness (in particular the sophisticated self-reflective kind) is not always necessary for a host of the things we automatically consider conscious experience and behavior - learning of skills or solutions, making judgements, simple thinking, speaking, writing, listening, reading, ordinary reasoning and creative reasoning.

I think what he actually demonstrates is that the trained unconscious mind is the necessary substrate of all of these activities. But he does not adequately recognize that for the person to be functional in the world whether it is in the present or in ancient times this "background processing" is and must be directed by the conscious mind. Just because the unconscious mind is necessarily involved in everyday mental activities is no justification for Jaynes' claim that "it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but who were not conscious at all."

This is just not a reasonable extrapolation as far as I am concerned. It is like claiming that since a person can drive a car semiautomatically using his trained unconscious mind while consciously conversing with a passenger, then the conscious mind isn't really needed for him to drive at all- just all the learned automatic responses. It just doesn't follow.

It does seem to be true that most of these things can sometimes be done and experienced at least in part without self-reflective consciousness, that is with no introspection. This would also apply to the ancient past. Unfortunately Jaynes goes much further than that with his "bicameral man". This ancient man was not only without self-reflection or being aware of being aware but it seems to me that as Jaynes describes him he also was without the capability of problem-solving intelligent responses to immediate situations. This would actually make him incapable of building the pyramids, creating sculpure and paintings, etc.

Maybe I am misinterpreting Jaynes, but these quotes seem quite explicit.

The world would happen to him and his action would be an inextricable part of that happening with no consciousness whatever. And now let some brand-new situation occur, an accident up ahead, a blocked road, a flat tire, a stalled engine, and behold, our bicameral man would not do what you and I would do, that is, quickly and efficiently swivel our consciousness over to the matter and narratize out what to do. He would have to wait for his bicameral voice which with the stored-up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him nonconsciously what to do. (Jaynes, p. 85)


During the eras of the bicameral mind, we may suppose that the stress threshold for hallucinations was much, much lower than in either normal people or schizophrenics today. The only stress necessary was that which occurs when a change in behavior is necessary because of some novelty in a situation. Anything that could not be dealt with on the basis of habit, any conflict between work and fatigue, between attack and flight, any choice between whom to obey or what to do, anything that required any decision at all was sufficient to cause an auditory hallucination. (p. 93)

Jaynes seems to be saying that the ancient "bicameral voice" would still effectively deal with the problem with the actions that our rational minds would come up with. I don't think this is tenable. He is giving the subconscious mind a lot more capability than I think it has. It has often been observed that the unconscious mind is more like an idiot savant servant or the "George" that you wrote about.

What was required to accomplish tasks such as overseeing the transportation of limestone blocks from the quarry to the pyramid site, like Merrer did according to his diary? This entails the ability to immediately respond to problems with the men, with the schedule, injuries, accidents with blocks falling off ramps or barges, etc. etc. with the appropriate actions based on knowledge from previous experience, and some basic engineering understanding of the situation. How could the "bicameral man" do this when he is described as mainly operating on "autopilot" and responding to the voices of gods in his head whenever something unexpected happens?

Could writing a diary be done without reflective consciousness or introspection, even though it requires a sense of time and process, the desire to record a succession of events in life? Would the bicameral voices of the gods from the unconscious mind constitute a rational problem-solving entity responding cooly to immediate situations so as to accomplish planned tasks despite challenges? That is what Merrer did during his career based on the papyri.

The Wiki description of "bicamerality" as originated by Jaynes seems to me to be accurate to the first part of the book: "The bicameral mentality would be non-conscious in its inability to reason and articulate about mental contents through meta-reflection, reacting without explicitly realizing and without the meta-reflective ability to give an account of why one did so. The bicameral mind would thus be a "zombie mind" lacking metaconsciousness, autobiographical memory and the capacity for executive "ego functions" such as deliberate mind-wandering and conscious introspection of mental content".

Note that this excludes conscious reasoning to a solution to a problem, just automatic learned responses. Also note that without "autobiographical memory" events and episodes would not be effectively recollected from a person's life as a succession of experiences, events, and objects encountered at particular times and places, combined with general knowledge about the world. This would seem to ensure that the Autobiography of Weni (Sixth Dynasty) that I posted on earlier could not have been written by a "bicameral man", and if Merrer's writings were really a diary, he also wasn't bicameral.

I think those are good points, Doubter, and I agree with them for the most part. It does seem to me that a skill like driving a car requires an advanced consciousness at least during the learning phase – especially since the driver has to learn not merely mechanical techniques but certain principles, such as the rules of the road.

Where Jaynes might take issue with you is in the idea that the bicameral man couldn't really think and solve problems. He believed that such people could think and solve problems, but the thinking and problem-solving took place in the right cerebral hemisphere. The solutions to the problems were then conveyed to the left hemisphere by means of hallucinated voices and visions.

I am by no means sure that this is tenable, but that's what Jaynes proposed. Rather memorably, he said that "consciousness is not necessary for thinking" – by which he meant that self-reflective consciousness is not necessary for thinking and problem-solving.

I'm not sure what the limitations of the unconscious mind may be. On the one hand, I think the autopilot/George idea is probably correct as far as it goes. On the other hand, I've had plenty of experiences where I asked my subconscious mind to solve a problem for me – sometimes a rather difficult problem – and I did get a workable solution, usually within 24 hours. This suggests to me that the subconscious mind does have the ability to do some rather advanced thinking.

A possible way of reconciling this problem-solving ability with the more limited abilities of "George" is to say that George represents one element or agent of the unconscious mind, but not its total potential. George may serve more as an intermediary between the conscious mind and the full potential of the unconscious mind.

In any event, I have not been especially impressed with the response of the Julian Jaynes Society to the challenge posed by the Story of Sinuhe. The response seems to be that the Sinuhe story (and evidently any other ancient text that poses a problem for their theory) simply must have been mistranslated. But why should they assume there has been a mistranslation? Only because they are already assuming that Jaynes' theory is correct.

This reminds me a little bit of the "skeptics" who insist that there must have been (unidentified or purely conjectural) procedural errors in any experiment showing evidence of the paranormal. They assume this because they are already assuming that paranormal phenomena are impossible.

The comments to this entry are closed.