The Voices in Our Heads

According to the bicameral theory of consciousness, thousands of years ago, in an earlier stage of evolution, human beings did not have the same kind of interior mental lives that we have today. They did not think the same way that we do today. In fact, based on our notion of what a thought is, they did not really have “thoughts” at all. Rather, in the bicameral age, all human action was the result of “hearing voices.” One side the brain issued commands, and the other side, hearing, in their minds, the commands as if uttered by a god,obeyed them – and had no choice but do obey them. Humanity had yet to develop the capacity for rational deliberation. Everyone was, in a sense, schizophrenic. The two hemispheres of the brain were not yet conjoined in the way that they are today. Thus, what we would experience as having thoughts, the bicameral human would experience as hearing voices, voices that they could not realize were their own. This theory is taken to explain the lack of any rational deliberation and decision-making in ancient poems such as the Iliad. Humans did not make decisions – they obeyed their voices, which they understood as the voices of the gods. Any action was done at the behest of such a god. Modern consciousness emerged later. And the voices became our own. Winner of the U.S National Book Award in 1978, Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (, offers a provocative reinterpretation of the origins of consciousness, drawing on ancient literature and archeological data which seem to point to a radically different picture of the ancient world. Any fan of HBO’s Westworld will remember as well that it was this theory that was used to create the artificial intelligence of the “hosts.” True or not, it is certainly a thought provoking read and highly entertaining.