Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist, best known for his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he argued that ancient peoples were not conscious.
Jaynes’ definition of consciousness is synonymous with what philosophers call “meta-consciousness” or “meta-awareness”, i.e., awareness of awareness, thoughts about thinking, desires about desires, beliefs about beliefs. This form of reflection is also distinct from the kinds of “deliberations” seen in other higher animals such as crows insofar as it is dependent on linguistic cognition.
Jaynes wrote that ancient humans before roughly 1000BC were not reflectively meta-conscious and operated by means of automatic, nonconscious habit-schemas. Instead of having meta-consciousness, these humans were constituted by what Jaynes calls the “bicameral mind”. For bicameral humans, when habit did not suffice to handle novel stimuli and stress rose at the moment of decision, neural activity in the “dominant” (left) hemisphere was modulated by auditory verbal hallucinations originating in the so-called “silent” (right) hemisphere (particularly the right temporal cortex), which were heard as the voice of a chieftain or god and immediately obeyed.
Jaynes wrote, “[For bicameral humans], volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” Jaynes argued that the change from bicamerality to consciousness (linguistic meta-cognition) occurred over a period of ten centuries beginning around 1792 BC. The selection pressure for Jaynesian consciousness as a means for cognitive control is due, in part, to chaotic social disorganizations and the development of new methods of behavioral control such as writing.”
At the heart of this classic, seminal book is Julian Jaynes’s still-controversial thesis that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but instead is a learned process that came about only three thousand years ago and is still developing. The implications of this revolutionary scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history and culture, our religion — and indeed our future.