After bingeing on the entire first season of Westworld a few months ago, I started to realize that the idea of cognitive bicameralism in the context of psychology is not used as widely as it should be in films and TV series. In contrast, Hollywood has been obsessed with the subconscious mind for decades. When Inception went mainstream in 2010, it was described as ground-breaking and mind-blowing, when in fact, movies about the subconscious and its different layers have been around for years. In literature, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club not only became a best-seller and cult favorite, but also did fairly well in Hollywood, thanks to the popularity of the super-powered Brad Pitt/Edward Norton cast. More recently, TV shows like Mr. Robot have also introduced the concept of multiple personalities to its largely millennial audience.
The human brain is still one of the last frontiers of anatomical science. Many schools of thought still believe that we have barely harnessed a fraction of our mind’s potential, and Hollywood has exploited the mystery and fascination with movies like Limitless (2011) and Lucy (2014). The fact is that viewers love to go to the movies or watch TV shows to get their minds blown, and so far the subconscious mind has filled many a producer’s coffers.
On the other hand, there have not been very many materials related to the pre-conscious, or the pre-historic state of human consciousness, and I always wondered why. It is a fascinating subject, and I would say even more interesting, and should have been more controversial, than its biological counterpart, Darwin’s Origin of the Species. And yet, not too many people know or have even heard about it, which inspired me to write an article on the topic today.
The concept of cognitive bicameralism was formed by Princeton psychologist Dr. Julian Jaynes, who, in 1976, wrote in his first and only book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, the theory which tried to explain how human consciousness evolved from its pre-historic non-human (“unconscious”) state, to the complex network of emotions, judgment, and conscience that we now all take for granted.
And if that’s not enough to trigger your interest, consider this – Dr. Jaynes also theorized that as early as 3000 BC – barely a thousand years before Christ was born! – ancient man possessed what he called a pre-conscious brain, that was capable only of executing programmed tasks like automatons, by merely obeying direct orders from the “legislative” parts of his mind, thus borrowing the more political concept of bicameralism in the a democratic government.
This chatty side of the brain apparently was responsible for anything that got done before 3000 years ago, until the bicameral mind finally broke down. To put it simply, I have summarized below what I remember and understand about Dr. Jaynes’ thesis, as well as the sequence of events which led to the supposed breakdown into full human subjective consciousness.
- Every morning when you get out of bed, brush your teeth, take a shower, and maybe even put on some clothes, do you think about each and every step you take, every gesture you make? The answer is no. That’s because your mind has been “programmed” to go through your morning rituals without really thinking about them too much, without much need for a higher level of consciousness. Somewhere in your brain, a silent voice is dictating what you need to do, and you just obey, because everything is the same as it always was. The preconscious mind was similar, except the “routine” was not programmed by habit, but by genetics. Pre-historic, and even ancient people hunted, mated, built villages, farms and communities – because they were programmed to do so. The voice in the legislative side half of their brain simply issued a silent command, and the executive side simply, well, executed. And yes, you read that right, as far as Dr. Jaynes is concerned, these “bicameral men” built entire civilizations in this pre-conscious state.
- In support of such an outrageous theory, Dr. Jaynes dissected various pieces of art and literature from different cultures spanning thousands of years, showcasing the glaring differences in the way these were expressed. For example, in Homer’s the Iliad, any accounts about the heroes were completely devoid of introspection. He compared and contrasted this with the more anthropocentric Odyssey, supposedly written after the birth of consciousness, when heroes spoke in the first person and displayed the one of the most evolved emotions of all – guilt. For those more familiar with the Christian Bible, Dr. Jaynes even went as far as to compare the way older texts, such as the Old Testament, were written, compared to the newer chapters of the Apostles, and attempted to answer the modern question “Why have the gods stopped talking to us?” by explaining that the “god-voices” and images were simply interpretations of the legislative side of the brain in full action.
- The big consciousness bang supposedly occurred sometime between the second to the first millennium BC, thanks to the need to develop language in order to communicate to the ever-expanding, more complicated world. As man began to translate the voices in his head into actual words, he learned that he needs more new words to express himself more clearly, and thus began to use metaphors, which in turn led to the further expansion of language, so on and so forth. The voices in his head became less influential, until eventually, he didn’t need them anymore. The only time he needed to turn back to the voices was during moments of extreme stress, when he needed specific guidance. Here Dr. Jaynes used ancient sculptures in Egypt to point out how statues deities used to be built in the same height as the kings and masters, but as time wore on, they started getting bigger and bigger – all the better to hear, my dear.
- For the most part, modern-day humans have already evolved into a full state of subjective consciousness, but a trace of the past still remains. Dr. Jaynes explained that when people go into a deep trance during hypnotism, they are in fact accessing the pre-historic parts of their brain. At the same time, schizophrenics who feel as if they have no choice but to follow the voices in their heads have modern-day remnants of minds past. Other modern manifestations include how mountaineers in extremely stressful situations often feel a presence guiding them to safety.
I don’t think the day is near when Hollywood will stop exploiting what’s unknown about the brain to produce mindless blockbusters. In the meantime, a quick Google search using the keywords “movies based on bicameralism psychology” yielded very few titles. I think it’s time to create a series of movies and TV series surrounding the bicameral men, and I for one, will eagerly watch them.
One thought on “Bicameralism Theory Should be the Next Breakout Genre in Hollywood”
Have you read Philip K. Dick? Many of his stories have been made into movies. And Amazon has now made two series based on his work.
I mention him because he thought along similar lines as Jaynes. In A Scanner Darkly, he explored the issue of brain hemispheres in terms of human experience and identity. He did read Jaynes’ book and wrote a Jaynes a letter, but it isn’t known if Jaynes ever read it or responded.
There has been a number of fiction writers who have used Jaynes’ ideas. Consider William Gibson’s Snow Crash which apparently is also being made into an Amazon series.