Some of us, who study history, often wonder how the ancients might have been just like us and how they might have been quite different. For decades, this question lurked in the dark recesses of my mind. However, only once or twice did the question ever bubble up to the surface and become spoken.
Then, not very long ago, I was surfing the internet reading about something or other when I saw my question in print. It turned out that another man had not only asked the question but he had even written a book about it. In all fairness, the “consciousness” he was talking about is not exactly the same thing that most of us think of when we hear the word. None the less, a fleshing out of my hunch was only a few clicks away!
I ordered the book “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes. It cost me 98 cents (plus shipping) on Amazon and was well worth the money. Jaynes, it turned out, was a modern day Renaissance man. Proficient in several languages, the history of religion, archeology, psychology and more, his book builds a fairly strong case that “consciousness” came into being only around 3,000 years ago, probably first amongst the Assyrians. Most compelling are his comparisons of ancient texts from before the transformation to those following it. He delves very deeply into the Iliad and the Odyssey, explaining that some parts were added later. He does the same for various books of the Bible. Even as brain scans were in their infancy at the time (the book was written in the 1970’s), he boldly predicts that, as technology advances, certain results would be seen within the field of hallucination and schizophrenia research. Sure enough, his predictions came true and tend to support his theory.
Many, who hear this theory, wonder out loud, “how is it possible that humans who lacked consciousness could build the pyramids, sustain complex civilizations and even invent writing?” The first few chapters give adequate answers to these questions. Later chapters explain how the invention of writing helped seal the fate of the predecessor to the conscious mind: the “bicameral mind”. In the bicameral mind, the left hemisphere of the brain would “speak” to the right hemisphere. The ancients understood this as the voice of “God”:
“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 (pg. 93).”
Does Jaynes’ claim that ancient humans were all schizophrenics? Not really; just that schizophrenia is a diseased version, a mutated throwback if you will, of what used to be normal. His theory does unravel some mysteries such as why some ancient civilizations suddenly collapsed for no apparent reason (they reached a critical level of complexity no longer supported by the bicameral mind), how the Assyrians were able to so easily conquer their rivals (it was conscious versus bicameral – no contest) and the historical role of prophesy, idols and the Oracles (a yearning for the “Voice of God” that was lost).
As mentioned, it turns out not all humans became conscious at the same time. Even back in the 70’s, when the book was written, political correctness was already very strong. This is probably why Jaynes does not explicitly explain the conquest of the New World, by Europe, within the context of his theory. But he does hint at it and his theory certainly helps explain how several hundred Spanish troops could have toppled mighty empires.
There is a website for Jaynes’ theory, and a related forum and there have been followup books such as “Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness”. Unfortunately, Jaynes died in 1997 but his spirit lives on in his monumental ideas.