Julian Jaynes was six years old and staring at a yellow forsythia bush when the problem first entered his mind: "I thought, 'How do I know that other people see the same yellow I see?' I had the idea that there was a space in everyone else's head that I couldn't get to. How did that space get there?"
Jaynes, 55, a research psychologist at Princeton, now knows that what he was trying to comprehend was consciousnessand how it arose from mere matter. Indeed, he thinks he finally has the answer: consciousness arose from language in two evolutionary steps and appeared for the first time in human history in the second millennium B.C. Jaynes proposes this startling concept in his new book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If his theory is correct, mankind existed without consciousness for thousands of centuries, functioning dimly in "antlike" colonies nearly up to the age of Confucius and the ancient Greek philosophers. Before consciousness, says Jaynes, mankind was directed by hallucinatory voices, which survive today in schizophrenics; these voices, assumed to be divine, gave rise to all religions.
How can an entire civilization be unconscious? Jaynes' answer: much the same way that sleepwalkers and hypnotized people function without awareness. According to Jaynes, humans began to develop language around 100,000 B.C., but lived with virtually no inner life until about 10,000 B.C. Like rats in a maze, humans could solve problems, and had crude abilities to think and remember. But there was no introspection, no independent will, no ability to imagine or ponder the past and future.
Jaynes thinks that man developed the inner voices to solve problems. Without consciousness, he was guided mostly by habit. Thus new situations produced stress, which resulted in unconscious decisions in the form of inner, audible commands. These voicesa side effect of language and a primitive form of willenabled man to keep at his tasks longer. Man's brain gradually evolved to accommodate the voices. He became "bicameral": the left side of the brain was for speech,* and the right hemisphere produced the inner commands. Eventually, the voices were attributed to kings and gods, thus becoming remarkable instruments of social control and allowing the nomadic hunter-gatherers to form permanent, structured communities.
Social Chaos. Bicameral civilization began to break down between 2000 and 1000 B.C., Jaynes believes, because society grew too intricate to be directed by the simple commands of the voices. The growing use of the written word helped undermine the unquestioned authority of the godlike voices. Some of the last utterances of the gods, written down, became the beginning of law. Jaynes is vague about how consciousness arose to replace the voices. His best guess: man was somehow jolted into awareness by social chaos. Vast migrations, invasions and natural catastrophes finally "drove the wedge of consciousness between god and man," says Jaynes. "Man became modern."