Rachel Aviv writes at n+1:
Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton, had little patience for his colleagues, who spent hours in the lab doing “petty, petty humdrum things.” He dismissed their “objective aridity,” “cunning lingo,” and “valiant nonsense.” The field of psychology, he wrote, was little more than “bad poetry disguised as science.”
Jaynes published only one book, in 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which tells the story of how mankind learned to think. Critics described it as a bizarre and reckless masterpiece—the American Journal of Psychiatry called Jaynes “as startling as Freud in the Interpretation of Dreams.” Drawing on evidence from neurology, archaeology, art history, theology, and Greek poetry, Jaynes captured the experience of modern consciousness—“a whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can”—as sensitively and tragically as any great novelist.
Jaynes knew that he would be punished for “hustling into territories jealously guarded by myriad aggressive specialists.” Although his book anticipated theories in linguistics, neuroscience, and philosophy, he has been more or less eliminated from the history of ideas. The first book on Jaynes’s life and work is long overdue; it was published by the Julian Jaynes Society, a cultish group of scholars and enthusiasts. The society’s founder, Marcel Kuijsten, who has a degree in business, has filled two volumes with nearly all Jaynes’s interviews and papers—on dreams, hallucinations, poetry, animal cognition, and cave paintings. The first volume, called Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, opens with a biography of Jaynes, written by William Woodward, a historian of science, and June Tower, Jaynes’s old neighbor. Narrated in a spare, humorless tone, the biography describes Jaynes as a psychological prophet who oriented his life around a single question. He felt almost afflicted by his need for a scientific theory for consciousness, a narrative that would allow all the mysteries of the world to “shiveringly fall into accurate and wonderful place.”
Born the son of a Unitarian minister in Newton, Massachusetts, Jaynes was mystified by his own capacity for inwardness, a nagging stream of desires, worries, invented futures, and humiliations. He attributed the inspiration for Origins to an episode of “darkest distress” when he was lying on his couch, despairing over the question of “how we can know anything at all”: “Suddenly, out of an absolute quiet, there came a firm, distinct loud voice from my upper right which said, ‘Include the knower in the known!’ It lugged me to my feet absurdly exclaiming, ‘Hello?’”
As a doctoral student at Yale, Jaynes produced highly regarded papers on animal learning, but he became increasingly frustrated by the principles of behaviorism, the reigning school of psychology at the time, which took a mechanistic view of the human mind and the scientist’s role in observing it. Jaynes mocked himself for running paramecia and protozoa through mazes, “all on the naive assumption that I was chronicling the grand evolution of consciousness. Ridiculous!” He moved up in the animal kingdom, studying learning in worms, fish, rats, chicks, and cats, before finally realizing that he had fallen prey to a “huge historical neurosis.” He concluded that consciousness had no location in the brain. Instead, it was a function of language.
Jaynes began inspecting the world’s earliest literature for the first signs of human consciousness. “I started off like in a detective story,” he told a reporter for the Princeton radio station. As he moved backward through the centuries, he saw that consciousness, as he had defined it, disappeared somewhere between the Odyssey and the Iliad. Odysseus is a modern hero, introspective and deceptive. In the Iliad, the writing of which scholars date some three hundred years earlier, the characters are passive and mentally inert. They have no concept of a private mental space. The word “psyche” referred only to actual substances in the body, breath, and blood, which leave the warrior’s body as soon as he dies. The gods, emerging from mists or clouds or the sea, handle the warrior’s decisions. When Achilles accuses Agamemnon of stealing his mistress, Agamemnon insists he had no agency. “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus,” he explains. “So what could I do? Gods always have their way.”
Critics have interpreted the meddling presence of the god as poetic devices, but Jaynes accused translators of imputing a modern mentality to people with subjectivities foreign to us. “The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination,’” he wrote. “They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere.” Jaynes drew on research with patients with severed corpora callossa, the band of fibers that separates the two hemispheres of the brain, which showed that the two chambers can function independently, without conscious awareness of information processed in the other half. Jaynes proposed that the Trojan War was fought by men with a kind of split brain, a “bicameral mind.” In moments of stress, the left hemisphere, “slave-like,” perceived hallucinated voices in the right hemisphere—the god hemisphere—as direct commands.
Read more here.