John Paul Thornton

CEO/ Founder, Thornton Consulting, LLC

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Has anyone here done any research into Julian Jaynes' theory on the origin of consciousness?

I am slowly reading through Dr Jaynes' book 'The Origin of Consciousness
in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind' and the theory of the evolution of human consciousness he presents is most intriguing. Has anyone else here read his work, and if so, what was your take on it?

His books site:

  • Oct 31 2013: It's been a long time (about 25 years) since I read the book, but my distillation is this: We are physiologically predisposed to believe in God.

    Now, for non-Christians or non Westerners, you might substitute the phrase "power greater than ourselves" for "God" with no loss of meaning. For atheists, (most notably, the Objectivists) I'm afraid you'll have to deal with the physiology. If it is true that this is how we are built, then it is real. It would be a falsity to ignore it. If it is not true, you'll have to explain the physiology otherwise.

    For me, it provides one of the most powerful reasons for having faith I've ever encountered.

    Romans 1:19 "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made..."

    The reference here, directly, is to the perception of things credited by us as having been made by God. As I see it, this perception is made possible by the neurological developments referenced in Jaynes's work.

    So, nearly 2000 years after Paul wrote this, we're presented with both a theory and physical evidence that support it.

    For me, that seals the deal. There remains much to be done in reducing his evidence to the level of scientifically-acceptable proof, but if you believe, you have a friend in Jaynes. If you don't, you have a lot of work to do finding sufficient evidence for refutation.

    We ignore our own nature at our peril, and so must accept it as wholeheartedly as it is instilled within us.
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      Oct 31 2013: Are you arguing, or is the book, that if people are physiologically predisposed to believe something, what they are predisposed to believe must actually be true in the sense that the word "true" is normally used?
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    Nov 3 2013: excellent synopsis, kirk. thank you.
  • Nov 3 2013: Belief is not evidence. The fact alone that we may be predisposed to believe something is not evidence of its existence. It is only when taken in the context of other facts, particularly those which are otherwise random or unexplainable that the theory gains meaning. All by itself, Jaynes's theorized brain development simply explains our belief in a willful consciousness greater than our own. That is not evidence of such a thing. But, when references are made, such as the one in Romans where is is specifically mentioned that the "invisible" qualities of God, "namely, his eternal power and divine nature" i.e. his ability to be perceived and responded to beyond a finite human lifetime and a pure, incorruptible nature centuries before we have any theories or research into the topic, and what he has found comes up a match with Scripture, well, Scripture starts to acquire a credibility that may not have been otherwise extended to it.

    I think Jaynes is very much a careful researcher, and he seems reluctant to attribute much to his work beyond a reasonable explanation of what he has found and how it may explain some of our development. I never got the feeling he was an advocate for Christ so much as he was an advocate of not speculating beyond his evidence.

    If my argument is anything, it is that Jaynes's work confirms Scripture in ways previously impossible. It explains why we believe as we do. And if in fact our belief is based in our neurology, we are foolish to ignore it. Just as we would be foolish to ignore our opposable thumbs and their role in our development.

    If we are made to believe, and God is real, that makes sense. If we are made to believe, and God doesn't exist, that still makes sense, because it at least explains why we believe. If we are not made to believe, and God doesn't exist, we have a lot of explaining to do. If we are not made to believe, and God does exist, things may be just like He says.

    I prefer the first way. It's just my nature.
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    Oct 31 2013: wow, thank you for the comment, kirk! it was very insightful. i hadnt thought of it in quite that way before.
  • Oct 10 2013: As someone who first read Jayne's book when it first came out over 37 years ago, I can attest that over the years, the more I read about ancient history, psychology, and religion, the more I became convinced of the validity of his ideas. Anyone seriously interested in looking at the human psyche and its changes through history should visit the website of the Julian Jaynes Society ( There you can judge for yourself while perusing through the many articles that treat or apply his ideas in order to see what Jayneisan psychology "really" has to say and offer. I say this because some commentators only partially read his book and misunderstand and mischaracterize what he actually wrote. As in any "big theory," there are different moving parts, as it were, and one cannot assess the constellation of Jaynes's ideas by reducing it to a simple principle, trying to disprove or prove it as if it were a math problem. Also, for those who are serious, take a look at the two books "Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness:
    Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited" and "The Julian Jaynes Collection." These elaborate on his ideas.
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      Oct 20 2013: "As in any "big theory," there are different moving parts, as it were, and one cannot assess the constellation of Jaynes's ideas by reducing it to a simple principle"

      E = MC2
      Energy is conserved
      position and momentum cannot be mesured simultaneously
      ... I could spend my day writing down the simple principles of the biggest theories.

      Would you please sum up the basic idea for the la(z)y man ?
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    Oct 7 2013: Wow, you got me investigating something I'd never heard about. And information about psychological bicameralism is scarce!
    Perhaps you should explain or summarize the basic idea for us with too little spare time to go through the book. Until then, this is what I've gathered, and I hope you'll correct some of it :

    Consciousness emerged 3000 years ago worldwide. It's not about tribal vs civilized lifestyles since the author apparently studied ancient texts instead of visiting remote tribesmen for his research. He seems to have no valid explanation for its emergence other than (my sources might be doing him great injustice) the idea that volcanic activity around the mediterranea caused stress and that the humans of the time had to become more creative to cope with that stress and hardship. He doesn't provide a link between creativity and his definition of consciousness and does expect us to accept that hunter-gatherers had less stressfull lifestyles and that, worse, they had lesser need of creative thinking.
    He well explains how conscious, 'introceptive', thinking is linked to the aquiring of a language, but fails to notice that our brains are fined-tuned to such an ability to the extent that it's rather impossible to explain the evolution of the human brain into what it is without the parallel evolution of language and the use of metaphor.
    He mentions schizophrenia as a remnant of our early bicameralism but disdains the fact that schizophrenics have most likely entertained the jobs of tribe shamans, occuring regularly in 1% of the population regardless of the geography or any other parameter. And the very idea that members of a tribe could benefit from the mindset of someone hearing voices all day long says that they themselves had a need for metaphors, the way we today have a need to watch convincing actors in movie theatres to play out our inner questions.
    At this point I'm probably making a fool of myself. But I hope this gives you some place to begin with. Thks