What if it was far more interesting and paradigm shifting than that…
What if the two hemispheres operated as two almost separate brains, two almost different individuals? Today we are beings that have a single identity, our two brains work together to create a consciousness we describe as ‘me’.
But what if that wasn’t always the case? What if the two brains operated as two different identities? The Left being the ‘doer’ and the Right being the ‘instructor’…
What if there was a time, many thousands of years ago when, some psychologists have proposed, that mankind did not have the same kind of consciousness that we have today?
Almost all modern humans today have free-will governed by a stream of consciousness thought conversation that appears to be in our heads. Our heads appear to have a silent, private place where we can weigh up decisions and think through thoughts. Instead of this, ancient man may have been unable to weigh up decisions and not had this internal space.
Julian Jaynes (1920–1997), a psychologist at Princeton University, USA, proposed in 1977 in his controversial but critically acclaimed book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind that humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.
The Left and Right brains provided an external voice and an externalised voice. With no internal dialogue, the ‘bicameral’ man would have had to talk out-loud, and not to himself, but to his other voice which he would have heard as if it was external and separate from himself, outside his head. This external voice, originated in his right hemisphere, would communicate decisions and information to him which he heard as auditory hallucinations.
Today, some people still do hear voices telling them what to do. We label them as schizophrenic. If the voices they hear tell them positive things the person tends to think of the voice as coming from an angel (and does not often report the fact). If the voice is negative and nasty people often seek medical advice and label the voice as demonic. (Various studies suggest that 4% of the population regularly hear voices today).
In a civilisation where everyone externalised their inner voices, the society was used to living amongst angels and demons, or good and bad gods. Their world was structured by individuals responding to the voices of their own personal gods, giving them orders and telling them what to do. We have written accounts that many people not only hallucinated voices, but many actually saw their gods too, sometimes as humanoid beings, sometimes as anthropomorphised animals or talking objects. Some civilisation worshiped the dead, decorating their bodies and brining gifts. They did this not out of loss for the deceased, but because the dead person would still be talking to them and still giving orders from within their crypt.
Such societies were highly organised in strict pyramidal chain of command structures. When the bicameral mind broke down, perhaps due to stress from some natural disaster, those people were left lonely and scared.
Jaynes puts the development of modern consciousness to around the end of the second millennium B.C. in Greece and Mesopotamia with the transition occurring at different times in other parts of the world due to local events or clashes with non-bicameral groups. An example is when the Spanish invaded South America and the bicameral Aztec civilisation collapsed overnight.
The newly conscious people could suddenly no longer hear the voices of their gods and didn’t know what to do. They had no orders to follow but an overwhelming desire to follow. They sought solace from those that could still hear the voices and obeyed their orders instead, setting them up as oracles. When these sought-after individuals became scarcer they were given even more power and priesthoods were invented.
Eventually only the insane or a few rare prophets heard voices at all. Some of the priests would turn to narcotics and rituals to invoke what connection with the gods that they could and would attempt (often successfully) to hear the voices.
Then, for most people, with no reliable connection with the gods was available, the societies had to rely on faith in the old stories and start to guess what the gods may desire them to do today. With the leadership structures still identical to before, things could continue as before, albeit with laws now having to be mutually agreed and the requirement for law enforcement.
The old bicameral command structure is still used in an almost identical way in most religious orders, armies and dictatorships today. Anywhere else, the system doesn’t work with non-bicameral brains as non-bicameral people will think for themselves and often question orders. This has become even more prevalent in the last 50 years, since the end of the Second World War in the West, where the youth have grown up with less and less command structure in their lives. Many people today lack the ability and discipline needed to follow orders as well as a lack of faith in authority, whatever it’s source.
In our wholly post-bicameral age, the voices of the gods are long silent. We need a different kind of leadership based on example setting and inspiration if we are ever to work together again.
(If you’re interested in the Bicameral theory, do read the books The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited)
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