October 8th, 2002

Julian Jaynes

Monday afternoon, I went to a lecture, by one William Woodward, about the life and psychological theories of Julian Jaynes, a psychologist and scholar best known for his 1976 book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This theory is quite complex, but as one person accurately defined Jaynes' theory:

Julian Jaynes [...] claims that the shift from tribal to individual identity corresponded with the development of true consciousness[...]. Before true consciousness became prevalent, he claims, our brain hemispheres operated mostly independently of one another, separated into a "god" half (the right lobe) and a "human" half (the left). For the most part, the "human" was in control; whenever a situation requiring a decision arose, the person would hallucinate a voice-- a "god"-- telling him/her what to do, sometimes with accompanying visuals. This voice would often be the voice of an authority, such as a king, or a loved one, dead or alive. According to Jaynes, the only remnants of such function left to the modern world are to be found in such altered states as schizophrenic process and trances, as in-- you guessed it-- vodoun. In the trance state, Jaynes says, a vodoun worshipper can experience the god-voices again for a brief period, simulating the consciousness of an earlier stage of human history.

Before his death in 1997, interestingly enough on Prince Edward Island where he and his mother long kept a summer home, Jaynes viewed consciousness as a phenomenon created by language and by metaphor. His theories have been influential: In cyberpunk fiction, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash was inspired by Jaynes' theory of consciousness, and to this date it retains some influence. I fear, though, that despite Jaynes' Island connections I'm not convinced of his theory. I believe he simply doesn't understand the way in which epic poetry was written, that The Iliad's characters are simply described through poetic metaphors based on evidence from modern epic poetry-writers in non-literate societies.

Except ...

I wrote earlier in my journal that:

I didn't make any conscious decision not to examine these clues. That would have been a conscious act. I just simply acted--or not acted, or whichever verb is appropriate--I suppose, on the default assumption that I was heterosexual. [...] I wasn't denying anything; I had no consciousness of denying anything. I simply didn't think of myself as falling in that broad and rather scary category of "non-heterosexual," and didn't bother to consider the possibility that I myself--as opposed to, say, a hypothetical future self, or an alternate-historical self--might indeed fall in that category.

I don't think this is what Jaynes meant. I've become much more self-aware since I realized I was bi, but I was still self-aware before. But still, Jaynes' theories do strike some kind of chord in me, they seem to possess some poetic and relative truth even if they are not absolutely correct.


I played my first game of Diplomacy this night. I played Russia, and for a time I did quite well--I was able to seize Romania, and I boldly assaulted eastern Germany. Unfortunately, I'd not covered my rear on the Black Sea, and the Germans, Austrians, and Turks were able to reduce me to Moscow.

Still, I had great fun. Any PBEM games out there, Halford?