The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind - by Julian Jaynes

The Helpless Spectator Theory

This doctrine assures us consciousness does nothing at all, and in fact can do nothing. Many tough-minded experimentalists still agree with Herbert Spencer that such a downgrading of consciousness is the only view that is consistent with straight evolutionary theory. Animals are evolved; nervous systems and their mechanical reflexes increase in complexity; when some unspecified degree of nervous complexity is reached, consciousness appears, and so begins its futile course as a helpless spectator of cosmic events. What we do is completely controlled by the wiring diagram of the brain and its reflexes to external stimuli. Consciousness is not more than the heat given off by the wires, a mere epiphenomenon.

The Consciousness of Consciousness

In being conscious of consciousness, we feel it is the most self-evident thing imaginable. We feel it is the defining attribute of all our waking states, our moods and affections, our memories, our thoughts, attentions, and volitions. We feel comfortably certain that consciousness is the basis of concepts, of learning and reasoning, of thought and judgment, and that it is so because it records and stores our experiences as they happen, allowing us to introspect on them and learn from them at will. We are also quite conscious that all this wonderful set of operations and contents that we call consciousness is located somewhere in the head. On critical examination, all of these statements are false. They are the costume that consciousness has been masquerading in for centuries. They are the misconceptions that have prevented a solution to the problem of the origin of consciousness.

Reactivity covers all stimuli my behavior takes account of in any way, while consciousness is something quite distinct and a far less ubiquitous phenomenon. We are conscious of what we are reacting to only from time to time. And whereas reactivity can be defined behaviorally and neurologically, consciousness at the present state of knowledge cannot.

Is Consciousness Necessary?

We have been brought to the conclusion that consciousness is not what we generally think it is. It is not to be confused with reactivity. It is not involved in hosts of perceptual phenomena. It is not involved in the performance of skills and often hinders their execution. It need not be involved in speaking, writing, listening, or reading. It does not copy down experience, as most people think. Consciousness is not at all involved in signal learning, and need not be involved in the learning of skills or solutions, which can go on without any consciousness whatever. It is not necessary for making judgments or in simple thinking. It is not the seat of reason, and indeed some of the most difficult instances of creative reasoning go on without any attending consciousness. And it has no location except an imaginary one!

Here it is only necessary to conclude that consciousness does not make all that much difference to a lot of our activities. If our reasonings have been correct, it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but who were not conscious at all. This is the important and in some ways upsetting notion that we are forced to conclude at this point.


Understanding a thing is to arrive at a metaphor for that thing by substituting something more familiar to us. And the feeling of familiarity is the feeling of understanding.

The terms theory and model are sometimes used interchangeably. But really they should not be. A theory is a relationship of the model to the things the model is supposed to represent. The Bohr model of the atom is that of a proton surrounded by orbiting electrons. It is something like the pattern of the solar system, and that is indeed one of its metaphoric sources. Bohr’s theory was that all atoms were similar to his model. The theory, with the more recent discovery of new particles and complicated interatomic relationships, has turned out not to be true. But the model remains. A model is neither true nor false; only the theory of its similarity to what it represents. A theory is thus a metaphor between a model and data. And understanding in science is the feeling of similarity between complicated data and a familiar model.

An analog is a model, but a model of a special kind. It is not like a scientific model, whose source may be anything at all and whose purpose is to ad as an hypothesis of explanation or understanding. Instead, an analog is at every point generated by the thing it is an analog of. A map is a good example. It is not a model in the scientific sense, not a hypothetical model like the Bohr atom to explain something unknown. Instead, it is constructed from something well known, if not completely known. Each region of a district of land is allotted a corresponding region on the map, though the materials of land and map are absolutely different and a large proportion of the features of the land have to be left out. And the relation between an analog map and its land is a metaphor.

Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.

Consciousness is the work of lexical metaphor. It is spun out of the concrete metaphiers of expression and their paraphiers, projecting paraphrands that exist only in the functional sense. Moreover, it goes on generating itself, each new paraphrand capable of being a metaphrand on its own, resulting in new metaphiers with their paraphiers, and so on. Of course this process is not and cannot be as haphazard as I am making it sound. The world is organized, highly organized, and the concrete metaphiers that are generating consciousness thus generate consciousness in an organized way. Hence the similarity of consciousness and the physical-behavioral world we are conscious of. And hence the structure of that world is echoed —though with certain differences—in the structure of consciousness.

The Features of Consciousness

  1. Spatialization: We invent mind-space inside our own heads as well as the heads of others. The word invent is perhaps too strong except in the ontological sense. We rather assume these ‘spaces’ without question. They are a part of what it is to be conscious and what it is to assume consciousness in others. Moreover, things that in the physical-behavioral world do not have a spatial quality are made to have such in consciousness. Otherwise we cannot be conscious of them. This we shall call spatialization.
  2. Excerption: In consciousness, we are never ‘seeing’ anything in its entirety. This is because such ‘seeing’ is an analog of actual behavior; and in actual behavior we can only see or pay attention to a part of a thing at any one moment. And so in consciousness. We excerpt from the collection of possible attentions to a thing which comprises our knowledge of it. And this is all that it is possible to do since consciousness is a metaphor of our actual behavior. How we excerpt other people largely determines the kind of world we feel we are living in. Take for example one’s relatives when one was a child. If we excerpt them as their failures, their hidden conflicts, their delusions, well, that is one thing. But if we excerpt them at their happiest, in their idiosyncratic delights, it is quite another world. Writers and artists are doing in a controlled way what happens ‘in’ consciousness more haphazardly.
  3. The Analog ‘I’: A most important ‘feature’ of this metaphor ‘world’ is the metaphor we have of ourselves, the analog ‘I’, which can ‘move about’ vicarially in our ‘imagination’, ‘doing’ things that we are not actually doing. There are of course many uses for such an analog ‘I’. We imagine ‘ourselves’ ‘doing’ this or that, and thus ‘make’ decisions on the basis of imagined ‘outcomes’ that would be impossible if we did not have an imagined ‘self’ behaving in an imagined ‘world’.
  4. The Metaphor ‘Me’: The analog ‘I’ is, however, not simply that. It is also a metaphor ‘me’ As we imagine ourselves strolling down the longer path we indeed catch ‘glimpses’ of ‘ourselves’. We can both look out from within the imagined self at the imagined vistas, or we can step back a bit and see ourselves perhaps kneeling down for a drink of water at a particular brook.
  5. Narratization: The assigning of causes to our behavior or saying why we did a particular thing is all a part of narratization. Such causes as reasons may be true or false, neutral or ideal. Consciousness is ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing. The thief narratizes his act as due to poverty, the poet his as due to beauty, and the scientist his as due to truth, purpose and cause inextricably woven into the spatialization of behavior in consciousness. But it is not just our own analog ‘I’ that we are narratizing; it is everything else in consciousness. A stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact. A child cries in the street and we narratize the event into a mental picture of a lost child and a parent searching for it. A cat is up in a tree and we narratize the event into a picture of a dog chasing it there.
  6. Conciliation: A final aspect of consciousness I wish to mention here is modeled upon a behavioral process common to most mammals. It really springs from simple recognition, where a slightly ambiguous perceived object is made to conform to some previously learned schema, an automatic process sometimes called assimilation. We assimilate a new stimulus into our conception or schema about it, even though it is slightly different. Since we never from moment to moment see or hear or touch things in exactly the same way, this process of assimilation into previous experience is going on all the time as we perceive our world. We are putting things together into recognizable objects on the basis of the previously learned schemes we have of them. Now assimilation consciousized is conciliation. In conciliation we are making excerpts or narratizations compatible with each other, just as in external perception the new stimulus and the internal conception are made to agree. If I ask you to think of a mountain meadow and a tower at the same time, you automatically conciliate them by having the tower rising from the meadow. But if I ask you to think of the mountain meadow and an ocean at the same time, conciliation tends not to occur and you are likely to think of one and then the other. You can only bring them together by a narratization. Thus there are principles of compatibility that govern this process, and such principles are learned and are based on the structure of the world.

Let me summarize as a way of ‘seeing’ where we are and the direction in which our discussion is going. We have said that consciousness is an operation rather than a thing, a repository, or a function. It operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’ that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it. It operates on any reactivity, excerpts relevant aspects, narratizes and conciliates them together in a metaphorical space where such meanings can be manipulated like things in space. Conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. Consciousness operates only on objectively observable things. Or, to say it another way with echoes of John Locke, there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first.

The Mind of Iliad

If our impressionistic development of a theory of consciousness in the last chapter is even pointing in the right direction, then consciousness can only have arisen in the human species, and that development must have come after the development of language.

There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad. And in general therefore, no words for consciousness or mental acts. The words in the Iliad that in a later age come to mean mental things have different meanings, all of them more concrete.

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness. The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of gods. To another, a man seems to be the cause of his own behavior. But not to the man himself.

Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices. The gods were organizations of the central nervous system and can be regarded as personae in the sense of poignant consistencies through time, amalgams of parental or admonitory images. The god is a part of the man, and quite consistent with this conception is the fact that the gods never step outside of natural laws. Greek gods cannot create anything out of nothing, unlike the Hebrew god of Genesis. In the relationship between the god and the hero in their dialectic, there are the same courtesies, emotions, persuasions as might occur between two people. The Greek god never steps forth in thunder, never begets awe or fear in the hero, and is as far from the outrageously pompous god of Job as it is possible to be. He simply leads, advises, and orders. Nor does the god occasion humility or even love, and little gratitude. Indeed, I suggest that the god-hero relationship was—by being its progenitor—similar to the referent of the ego-superego relationship of Freud or the self-generalized other relationship of Mead. The strongest emotion which the hero feels toward a god is amazement or wonder, the kind of emotion that we feel when the solution of a particularly difficult problem suddenly pops into our heads, or in the cry of eureka! from Archimedes in his bath.

The gods are what we now call hallucinations. Usually they are only seen and heard by the particular heroes they are speaking to. Sometimes they come in mists or out of the gray sea or a river, or from the sky, suggesting visual auras preceding them. But at other times, they simply occur. Usually they come as themselves, commonly as mere voices, but sometimes as other people closely related to the hero. The Trojan War was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did.

The picture then is one of strangeness and heartlessness and emptiness. We cannot approach these heroes by inventing mind-spaces behind their fierce eyes as we do with each other. Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we; he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon. In distinction to our own subjective conscious minds, we can call the mentality of the Myceneans a bicameral mind. Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then ‘told’ to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or ‘god’, or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not ‘see’ what to do by himself.

It is not that the vague general ideas of psychological causation appear first and then the poet gives them concrete pictorial form by inventing gods. It is, as I shall show later in this essay, just the other way around. And when it is suggested that the inward feelings of power or inward monitions or losses of judgment are the germs out of which the divine machinery developed, I return that the truth is just the reverse, that the presence of voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself, can order and direct, and that the creation of such a self is the product of culture. In a sense, we have become our own gods.

The main point of this chapter is that the earliest writing of men in a language that we can really comprehend, when looked at objectively, reveals a very different mentality from our own. And this must, I think, be accepted as true. Such instances of narratization, analog behavior, or mind-space as occasionally occur are regarded by scholars as of later authorship. The bulk of the poem is consistent in its lack of analog consciousness and points back to a very different kind of human nature. Since we know that Greek culture very quickly became a literature of consciousness, we may regard the Iliad as standing at the great turning of the times, and a window back into those unsubjective times when every kingdom was in essence a theocracy and every man the slave of voices heard whenever novel situations occurred.

The Bicameral Mind

The preposterous hypothesis we have come to in the previous chapter is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was conscious. This is almost incomprehensible to us. And since we are conscious, and wish to understand, we wish to reduce this to something familiar in our experience, as we saw was the nature of understanding in Chapter 2.

Perhaps a metaphor of something close to that state might be helpful. In driving a car, I am not sitting like a back-seat driver directing myself, but rather find myself committed and engaged with little consciousness. In fact my consciousness will usually be involved in something else, in a conversation with you if you happen to be my passenger, or in thinking about the origin of consciousness perhaps. My hand, foot, and head behavior, however, are almost in a different world. In touching something, I am touched; in turning my head, the world turns to me; in seeing, I am related to a world I immediately obey in the sense of driving on the road and not on the sidewalk. And I am not conscious of any of this. And certainly not logical about it. I am caught up, unconsciously enthralled, if you will, in a total interacting reciprocity of stimulation that may be constantly threatening or comforting, appealing or repelling, responding to the changes in traffic and particular aspects of it with trepidation or confidence, trust or distrust, while my consciousness is still off on other topics. Now simply subtract that consciousness and you have what a bicameral man would be like. The world would happen to him and his action would be an inextricable part of that happening with no consciousness whatever. And now let some brand-new situation occur, an accident up ahead, a blocked road, a flat tire, a stalled engine, and behold, our bicameral man would not do what you and I would do, that is, quickly and efficiently swivel our consciousness over to the matter and narratize out what to do. He would have to wait for his bicameral voice which with the stored-up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him nonconsciously what to do.

But what were such auditory hallucinations like? Some people find it difficult to even imagine that there can be mental voices that are heard with the same experiential quality as externally produced voices. After all, there is no mouth or larynx in the brain! Whatever brain areas are utilized, it is absolutely certain that such voices do exist and that experiencing them is just like hearing actual sound. Further, it is highly probable that the bicameral voices of antiquity were in quality very like such auditory hallucinations in contemporary people. They are heard by many completely normal people to varying degrees. Often it is in times of stress, when a parent’s comforting voice may be heard.

Of immense importance here is the fact that the nervous system of a patient makes simple perceptual judgments of which the patient’s ‘self’ is not aware. And these, as above, may then be transposed into voices that seem prophetic. A janitor coming down a hall may make a slight noise of which the patient is not conscious. But the patient hears his hallucinated voice cry out, “Now someone is coming down the hall with a bucket of water.” Then the door opens, and the prophecy is fulfilled. Credence in the prophetic character of the voices, just as perhaps in bicameral times, is thus built up and sustained. The patient then follows his voices alone and is defenseless against them. Or else, if the voices are not clear, he waits, catatonic and mute, to be shaped by them or, alternatively, by the voices and hands of his attendants.

If we are correct in assuming that schizophrenic hallucinations are similar to the guidances of gods in antiquity, then there should be some common physiological instigation in both instances. This, I suggest, is simply stress. In normal people, as we have mentioned, the stress threshold for release of hallucinations is extremely high; most of us need to be over our heads in trouble before we would hear voices. But in psychosis-prone persons, the threshold is somewhat lower.

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.

There is no person there, no point of space from which the voice emanates, a voice that you cannot back off from, as close to you as everything you call you, when its presence eludes all boundaries, when no escape is possible—flee and it flees with you—a voice unhindered by walls or distances, undiminished by muffling one’s ears, nor drowned out with anything, not even one’s own screaming—how helpless the hearer! And if one belonged to a bicameral culture, where the voices were recognized as at the utmost top of the hierarchy, taught you as gods, kings, majesties that owned you, head, heart, and foot, the omniscient, omnipotent voices that could not be categorized as beneath you, how obedient to them the bicameral man! The explanation of volition in subjective conscious men is still a profound problem that has not reached any satisfactory solution. But in bicameral men, this was volition. Another way to say it is that 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.

The studies of commissurotomy patients demonstrate conclusively that the two hemispheres can function so as to seem like two independent persons, which in the bicameral period were, I suggest, the individual and his god.

The Origin of Civilization

The bicameral mind is a form of social control and it is that form of social control which allowed mankind to move from small hunter-gatherer groups to large agricultural communities. The bicameral mind with its controlling gods was evolved as a final stage of the evolution of language. And in this development lies the origin of civilization.

Let us consider another problem in the origin of gods, the origin of auditory hallucinations. That there is a problem here comes from the very fact of their undoubted existence in the contemporary world, and their inferred existence in the bicameral period. The most plausible hypothesis is that verbal hallucinations were a side effect of language comprehension which evolved by natural selection as a method of behavioral control. Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir far upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratize the situation and so hold his analog ‘I’ in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was then capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do.

Like the queen in a termite nest or a beehive, the idols of a bicameral world are the carefully tended centers of social control, with auditory hallucinations instead of pheromones.

Gods, Graves, and Idols

Let us imagine ourselves coming as strangers to an unknown land and finding its settlements all organized on a similar plan: ordinary houses and buildings grouped around one larger and more magnificent dwelling. We would immediately assume that the large magnificent dwelling was the house of the prince who ruled there. And we might be right. But in the case of older civilizations, we would not be right if we supposed such a ruler was a person like a contemporary prince. Rather he was an hallucinated presence, or, in the more general case, a statue, often at one end of his superior house, with a table in front of him where the ordinary could place their offerings to him. Now, whenever we encounter a town or city plan such as this, with a central larger building that is not a dwelling and has no other practical use as a granary or barn, for example, and particularly if the building contains some kind of human effigy, we may take it as evidence of a bicameral culture or of a culture derived from one. This criterion may seem fatuous, simply because it is the plan of many towns today. We are so used to the town plan of a church surrounded by lesser houses and shops that we see nothing unusual. But our contemporary religious and city architecture is partly, I think, the residue of our bicameral past. The church or temple or mosque is still called the House of God. In it, we still speak to the god, still bring offerings to be placed on a table or altar before the god or his emblem. My purpose in speaking in this objective fashion is to defamiliarize this whole pattern, so that standing back and seeing civilized man against his entire primate evolution, we can see that such a pattern of town structure is unusual and not to be expected from our Neanderthal origins.

A third feature of primitive civilization that I take to be indicative of bicamerality is the enormous numbers and kinds of human effigies and their obvious centrality to ancient life. The first effigies in history were of course the propped-up corpses of chiefs, or the remodeled skulls we have referred to earlier. But thereafter they have an astonishing development. It is difficult to understand their obvious importance to the cultures involved with them apart from the supposition that they were aids in hallucinating voices.

Literate Bicameral Theocracies

I suggest that there is a built-in periodicity to bicameral theocracies, that the complexities of hallucinatory control with their very success increase until the civil state and civilized relations can no longer be sustained, and the bicameral society collapses. As I noted in the previous chapter, this occurred many times in the pre-Columbian civilizations of America, whole populations suddenly deserting their cities, with no external cause, and anarchically melting back into tribal living in surrounding terrain, but returning to their cities and their gods a century or so later.

I have endeavored in these two chapters to examine the record of a huge time span to reveal the plausibility that man and his early civilizations had a profoundly different mentality from our own, that in fact men and women were not conscious as are we, were not responsible for their actions, and therefore cannot be given the credit or blame for anything that was done over these vast millennia of time; that instead each person had a part of his nervous system which was divine, by which he was ordered about like any slave, a voice or voices which indeed were what we call volition and empowered what they commanded and were related to the hallucinated voices of others in a carefully established hierarchy. The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of anyone. They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere, and from stores of admonitory and preceptive experience, transmuted this experience into articulated speech which then ‘told’ the man what to do.

The Causes of Consciousness

There is no middle ground in intertheocracy relations. Admonitory voices echoing kings, viziers, parents, etc., are unlikely to command individuals into acts of compromise. Even today, our ideas of nobility are largely residues of bicameral authority: it is not noble to whine, it is not noble to plead, it is not noble to beg, even though these postures are really the most moral of ways to settle differences. And hence the instability of the bicameral world, and the fact that during the bicameral era boundary relations would, I think, be more likely to end in all-out friendship or all-out hostility than anything between these extremes.

The input to the divine hallucinatory aspect of the bicameral mind was auditory. It used cortical areas more closely connected to the auditory parts of the brain. And once the word of god was silent, written on dumb clay tablets or incised into speechless stone, the god’s commands or the king’s directives could be turned to or avoided by one’s own efforts in a way that auditory hallucinations never could be. The word of a god had a controllable location rather than an ubiquitous power with immediate obedience. This is extremely important.

How Consciousness Began

The observation of difference may be the origin of the analog space of consciousness. Natural selection may have played a role in the beginning of consciousness. But in putting up this question, I wish to be very clear that consciousness is chiefly a cultural introduction, learned on the basis of language and taught to others, rather than any biological necessity. But that it had and still has a survival value suggests that the change to consciousness may have been assisted by a certain amount of natural selection. It is impossible to calculate what percentage of the civilized world died in these terrible centuries toward the end of the second millennium B.C. I suspect it was enormous. And death would come soonest to those who impulsively lived by their unconscious habits or who could not resist the commandments of their gods to smite whatever strangers interfered with them. It is thus possible that individuals most obdurately bicameral, most obedient to their familiar divinities, would perish, leaving the genes of the less impetuous, the less bicameral, to endow the ensuing generations. And again we may appeal to the principle of Baldwinian evolution as we did in our discussion of language. Consciousness must be learned by each new generation, and those biologically most able to learn it would be those most likely to survive.

I have sketched out several factors at work in the great transilience from the bicameral mind to consciousness: (1) the weakening of the auditory by the advent of writing; (2) the inherent fragility of hallucinatory control; (3) the unworkableness of gods in the chaos of historical upheaval; (4) the positing of internal cause in the observation of difference in others; (5) the acquisition of narratization from epics; (6) the survival value of deceit; and (7) a modicum of natural selection.

A Change of Mind in Mesopotamia

The mighty themes of the religions of the world are here sounded for the first time. Why have the gods left us? Like friends who depart from us, they must be offended. Our misfortunes are our punishments for our offenses. We go down on our knees, begging to be forgiven. And then find redemption in some return of the word of a god. These aspects of present-day religion find an explanation in the theory of the bicameral mind and its breakdown during this period. The world had long known rules and dues. They were divinely ordained and humanly obeyed. But the idea of right and wrong, the idea of a good man and of redemption from sin and divine forgiveness only begin in this uneasy questioning of why the hallucinated guidances can no longer be heard.

The world had long known rules and dues. They were divinely ordained and humanly obeyed. But the idea of right and wrong, the idea of a good man and of redemption from sin and divine forgiveness only begin in this uneasy questioning of why the hallucinated guidances can no longer be heard.

These then are the four main types of divination, omens, sortilege, augury, and spontaneous divination. And I would draw to your attention that they can be considered as exopsychic methods of thought or decision-making, and that they are successively closer and closer proximations to the structure of consciousness. The fact that all of them have roots that go back far into the bicameral period should not detract from the force of the generalization that they became the important media of decision only after the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

The Intellectual Consciousness of Greece

After the Iliad, the Odyssey. And anyone reading these poems freshly and consecutively sees what a gigantic vault in mentality it is! The contrast with the Iliad is astonishing. Both in word and deed and character, the Odyssey describes a new and different world inhabited by new and different beings. The bicameral gods of the Iliad, in crossing over to the Odyssey, have become defensive and feeble. They disguise themselves more and even indulge in magic wands. The bicameral mind by its very definition directs much less of the action. The gods have less to do, and like receding ghosts talk more to each other—and that so tediously! The initiatives move from them, even against them, toward the work of the more conscious human characters, though overseen by a Zeus who in losing his absolute power has acquired a Lear-like interest in justice. Seers and omens, these hallmarks of the breakdown of bicamerality, are more common. Poetry, from describing external events objectively, is becoming subjectified into a poetry of personal conscious expression.

The Moral Consciousness of the Khabiru

The story or imagined story of the later Khabiru or Hebrews is told in what has come down to us as the Old Testament. The thesis to which we shall give our concern in this chapter is that this magnificent collection of history and harangue, of song, sermon, and story is in its grand overall contour the description of the loss of the bicameral mind, and its replacement by subjectivity over the first millennium B.C.

In the bicameral period, the strict hierarchy of society, the settled geography of its limits, its ziggurats, temples, and statuary, and the common upbringing of its citizens, all co-operated in the organization of different men’s bicameral voices into a stable hierarchy. Whose bicameral voice was the correct one was immediately decided by that hierarchy, and the recognition signals as to which god was speaking were known by everyone and reinforced by priests. But with the breakdown of bicamerality, particularly when a previously bicameral people has become nomadic as in the Exodus, the voices will begin to say different things to different people and the problem of authority becomes a considerable difficulty.

Once one has read through the Old Testament from this point of view, the entire succession of works becomes majestically and wonderfully the birth pangs of our subjective consciousness. No other literature has recorded this absolutely important event at such length or with such fullness. Chinese literature jumps into subjectivity in the teaching of Confucius with little before it. Indian hurtles from the bicameral Veda into the ultra subjective Upanishads, neither of which are as authentic to their times.


The Quest for Authorization

All about us lie the remnants of our recent bicameral past. We have our houses of gods which record our births, define us, marry us, and bury us, receive our confessions and intercede with the gods to forgive us our trespasses. Our laws are based upon values which without their divine pendancy would be empty and unenforceable. Our national mottoes and hymns of state are usually divine invocations. Our kings, presidents, judges, and officers begin their tenures with oaths to the now silent deities taken upon the writings of those who have last heard them. The most obvious and important carry-over from the previous mentality is thus our religious heritage in all its labyrinthine beauty and variety of forms. The overwhelming importance of religion both in general world history and in the history of the average world individual is of course very clear from any objective standpoint, even though a scientific view of man often seems embarrassed at acknowledging this most obvious fact. For in spite of all that rationalist materialist science has implied since the Scientific Revolution, mankind as a whole has not, does not, and perhaps cannot relinquish his fascination with some human type of relationship to a greater and wholly other, some mysterium tremendum with powers and intelligences beyond all left hemispheric categories, something necessarily indefinite and unclear, to be approached and felt in awe and wonder and almost speechless worship, rather than in clear conception, something that for modern religious people communicates in truths of feeling, rather than in what can be verbalized by the left hemisphere, and so what in our time can be more truly felt when least named, a patterning of self and numinous other from which, in times of our darkest distress, none of us can escape—even as the infinitely milder distress of decision-making brought out that relationship three millennia ago.

After the collapse of the bicameral mind, the world is still in a sense governed by gods, by statements and laws and prescriptions carved on stelae or written on papyrus or remembered by old men, and dating back to bicameral times. But the dissonance is there. Why are the gods no longer heard and seen? The Psalms cry out for answers. And more assurances are needed than the relics of history or the paid insistences of priests. Something palpable, something direct, something immediate! Some sensible assurance that we are not alone, that the gods are just silent, not dead, that behind all this hesitant subjective groping about for signs of certainty, there is a certainty to be had. Thus, as the slow withdrawing tide of divine voices and presences strands more and more of each population on the sands of subjective uncertainties, the variety of technique by which man attempts to make contact with his lost ocean of authority becomes extended. Prophets, poets, oracles, diviners, statue cults, mediums, astrologers, inspired saints, demon possession, tarot cards, Ouija boards, popes, and peyote all are the residue of bicamerality that was progressively narrowed down as uncertainties piled upon uncertainties.

The General Bicameral Paradigm: By this phrase, I mean an hypothesized structure behind a large class of phenomena of diminished consciousness which I am interpreting as partial holdovers from our earlier mentality. The paradigm has four aspects: the collective cognitive imperative, or belief system, a culturally agreed-on expectancy or prescription which defines the particular form of a phenomenon and the roles to be acted out within that form; an induction or formally ritualized procedure whose function is the narrowing of consciousness by focusing attention on a small range of preoccupations; the trance itself, a response to both the preceding, characterized by a lessening of consciousness or its loss, the diminishing of the analog ‘I,’ or its loss, resulting in a role that is accepted, tolerated, or encouraged by the group; and the archaic authorization to which the trance is directed or related to, usually a god, but sometimes a person who is accepted by the individual and his culture as an authority over the individual, and who by the collective cognitive imperative is prescribed to be responsible for controlling the trance state.

There is a kind of balance or summation among these elements, such that when one of them is weak the others must be strong for the phenomena to occur. Thus, as through time, particularly in the millennium following the beginning of consciousness, the collective cognitive imperative becomes weaker (that is, the general population tends toward skepticism about the archaic authorization), we find a rising emphasis on and complication of the induction procedures, as well as the trance state itself becoming more profound.

To this causative expectancy should be added something about the natural scene itself. Oracles begin in localities with a specific awesomeness, natural formations of mountain or gorge, of hallucinogenic wind or waves, of symbolic gleamings and vistas, which I suggest are more conducive to occasioning right hemisphere activity than the analytic planes of everyday life. Perhaps we can say that the geography of the bicameral mind in the first part of the first millennium B.C. was shrinking down into sites of awe and beauty where the voices of gods could still be heard.

Of Prophets and Possession

There is no such thing as possession or any hint of anything similar throughout the Iliad or Odyssey or other early poetry. No ‘god’ speaks through human lips in the truly bicameral age. Yet by 400 B.C., it is apparently as common as churches are with us, both in the many oracles scattered about Greece as well as in private individuals. The bicameral mind has vanished and possession is its trace.

The speech of possessed prophets is not an hallucination proper, not something heard by a conscious, semi-conscious, or even nonconscious man as in the bicameral mind proper. It is articulated externally and heard by others. It occurs only in normally conscious men and is coincident with a loss of that consciousness.

The vestiges of the bicameral mind do not exist in any empty psychological space. That is, they should not be considered as isolated phenomena that simply appear in a culture and loiter around doing nothing but leaning on their own antique merits. Instead, they always live at the very heart of a culture or subculture, moving out and filling up the unspoken and the unrationalized. They become indeed the irrational and unquestionable support and structural integrity of the culture.

Of Poetry and Music

The first poets were gods. Poetry began with the bicameral mind. The god-side of our ancient mentality, at least in a certain period of history, usually or perhaps always spoke in verse. This means that most men at one time, throughout the day, were hearing poetry (of a sort) composed and spoken within their own minds.

Poetry begins as the divine speech of the bicameral mind. Then, as the bicameral mind breaks down, there remain prophets. Some become institutionalized as oracles making decisions for the future. While others become specialized into poets, relating from the gods statements about the past. Then, as the bicameral mind shrinks back from its impulsiveness, and as perhaps a certain reticence falls upon the right hemisphere, poets who are to obtain this same state must learn to do it. As this becomes more difficult, the state becomes a fury, and then ecstatic possession, just as happened in the oracles. And then indeed toward the end of the first millennium B.C., just as the oracles began to become prosaic and their statements versified consciously, so poetry also. Its givenness by the unison Muses has vanished. And conscious men now wrote and crossed out and careted and rewrote their compositions in laborious mimesis of the older divine utterances.


How can such supererogatory enabling even exist? Hypnosis can cause this extra enabling because it engages the general bicameral paradigm which allows a more absolute control over behavior than is possible with consciousness.

The hypnotic trance is called just that. It is of course usually different from the kind of trance that goes on in other vestiges of the bicameral mind. Individuals do not have true auditory hallucinations, as in the trances of oracles or mediums. That place in the paradigm is taken over by the operator. But there is the same diminution and then absence of normal consciousness. Narratization is severely restricted. The analog ‘I’ is more or less effaced. The hypnotized subject is not living in a subjective world. He does not introspect as we do, does not know he is hypnotized, and is not constantly monitoring himself as, in an unhypnotized state, he does.


Like the phenomena discussed in the preceding chapters, schizophrenia, at least in part, is a vestige of bicamerality, a partial relapse to the bicameral mind. Some of the fundamental, most characteristic, and most commonly observed symptoms of florid unmedicated schizophrenia are uniquely consistent with the description I have given on previous pages of the bicameral mind. These symptoms are primarily the presence of auditory hallucinations, and the deterioration of consciousness, namely the loss of the analog ‘I’, the erosion of mind-space, and an inability to narratize.

Very clearly, there is a genetic inherited basis to the biochemistry underlying this radically different reaction to stress. And a question that must be asked of such a genetic disposition to something occurring so early in our reproductive years is, what biological advantage did it once have? Why, in the slang of the evolutionist, was it selected for? And at what period long, long ago, since such genetic disposition is present all over the world? The answer, of course, is one of the themes I have stated so often before in this essay. The selective advantage of such genes was the bicameral mind evolved by natural and human selection over the millennia of our early civilizations. The genes involved, whether causing what to conscious men is an enzyme deficiency or other, are the genes that were in the background of the prophets and the ‘sons of the nabiim’ and bicameral man before them. Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.

Schizophrenics are almost drowning in sensory data. Unable to narratize or conciliate, they see every tree and never the forest. They seem to have a more immediate and absolute involvement with their physical environment, a greater in-the-world-ness.

The Auguries of Science

But over and behind these and other causes of science has been something more universal, something in this age of specialization often unspoken. It is something about understanding the totality of existence, the essential defining reality of things, the entire universe and man’s place in it. It is a groping among stars for final answers, a wandering the infinitesimal for the infinitely general, a deeper and deeper pilgrimage into the unknown. It is a direction whose far beginning in the mists of history can be distantly seen in the search for lost directives in the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation.

What happens in this modern dissolution of ecclesiastical authorization reminds us a little of what happened long ago after the breakdown of the bicameral mind itself. Everywhere in the contemporary world there are substitutes, other methods of authorization. Some are revivals of ancient ones: the popularity of possession religions in South America, where the church had once been so strong; extreme religious absolutism ego-based on “the Spirit,” which is really the ascension of Paul over Jesus; an alarming rise in the serious acceptance of astrology, that direct heritage from the period of the breakdown of the bicameral mind in the Near East; or the more minor divination of the I Ching, also a direct heritage from the period just after the breakdown in China. There are also the huge commercial and sometimes psychological successes of various meditation procedures, sensitivity training groups, mind control, and group encounter practices. Other persuasions often seem like escapes from a new boredom of unbelief, but are also characterized by this search for authorization: faiths in various pseudosciences, as in Scientology, or in unidentified flying objects bringing authority from other parts of our universe, or that gods were at one time actually such visitors; or the stubborn muddled fascination with extrasensory perception as a supposed demonstration of a spiritual surround of our lives whence some authorization might come; or the use of psychotropic drugs as ways of contacting profounder realities, as they were for most of the American native Indian civilizations in the breakdown of their bicameral mind.

The very notion of truth is a culturally given direction, a part of the pervasive nostalgia for an earlier certainty. The very idea of a universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphology of history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind. What was then an augury for direction of action among the ruins of an archaic mentality is now the search for an innocence of certainty among the mythologies of facts.