Gods, voice-hearing and the bicameral mind

A few months back I was giving a philosophy workshop in a mental health charity. It was one of my less popular events – only one person turned up, a Romanian man who had recently moved to the UK and was finding it tough. We talked about Socratic philosophy, about the idea of engaging your inner voice in a rational dialogue, and the man (let’s call him Anghel) quietly told me that he heard voices.

Anghel heard one particular voice, and wondered who or what it was. He’d gone online, to an app called God Picker, and in very postmodern fashion picked a God – he’d chosen an ancient Mediterranean fish goddess called Atargatis – and made it his personal deity. Things went OK for him, he said, as long as he obeyed the commands of Atargatis. He was nervous about telling the local authorities about the fish-goddess, in case they locked him up and put him under heavy medication. I suggested he contact the Hearing Voices Network instead, to find support from other voice-hearers.

I thought about Anghel this week, as I was reading an extraordinary book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by a Princeton psychologist called Julian Jaynes.

The book was a big hit when it came out in 1976, and has an unusually diverse roster of fans – Daniel Dennett was influenced by its theory of consciousness, David Bowie picked it as one of his 100 must-read books, Terence McKenna thought it was ‘a most provocative book’, while Philip K Dick thought it was a ‘stunning theory’. Richard Dawkins spoke for many when he said (in The God Delusion): ‘it’s one of those books that is either complete rubbish or consummate genius’.

Jaynes’ thesis, baldly stated, is this: human consciousness (which Jaynes defines as self-conscious introspection) only emerged around 3000 years ago. Before that, everyone heard voices and saw visions, which they took as the commands of the gods, and obeyed unquestioningly. These voices or commands came from the right hemisphere of the brain, which ‘bicameral man’ experienced as alien or Other.

Achilles: the lights are on but nobody’s home

This, says Jaynes, is the world we meet in the Iliad. Homer’s heroes have no inner world, no capacity of introspection. The gods appear to them at various points and tell them what to do, and they do it. They don’t have free will in the modern sense, rather they are ‘noble automatons’. They are, in effect, a different species – not homo sapiens but rather ‘bicameral man’.

Jaynes’ astonishing hypothesis is that you can have a whole civilization operating without consciousness, that’s to say, without introspection or free will. A zombie civilization. You can see why the theory appealed to Daniel Dennett and Philip K. Dick.

He speculates that voice-hearing developed as a form of social hierarchical control. When we’re near the chief, we can hear his commands. But when we’re further away and out of the chief’s presence, we can still hear commands from our inner chief, so to speak.

Then, sometime in the second or first millennium BC, subjective consciousness emerged. Jaynes thinks this happened through the expansion of metaphor – our minds became able to make analogies, to link like with like, to imagine time as stretching forwards and backwards, to imagine ourselves as narrative heroes with a variety of choices (what he calls ‘the analog I’). As metaphors connect, like synapses, homo sapiens generated a rippling field of metaphoric consciousness.

With the emergence of subjective consciousness, the ‘bicameral mind’ breaks down – or rather, the external voices become integrated into internal consciousness. The gods are no longer heard so often, except in moments of extreme stress. Instead, we internalize their commands as the voice of conscience. We notice the gods speak to us less, and we miss their guidance and fear their wrath. We wonder what we did wrong, to make the gods go silent.

Michelangelo’s Jeremiah, waiting for a call

Another of Jaynes’ astonishing hypotheses is that the great organized religions emerged out of a ‘nostalgic anguish’ for the lost voices / departed gods. In one remarkable chapter, he uses the Bible as evidence for this departure. In the beginning, Elohim (the Mighty Ones) spoke to us all the time. Then came the Fall – the emergence of subjective consciousness. After that, the Mighty Ones only appear to certain chosen prophets, like Moses, and are organized into one entity, called Jehovah, to which we must be monogamously faithful, or else.

Instead of the constant presence of the Mighty Ones, we have instead the poor substitute of Deuteronomic priestcraft and scripture. The Bible is indeed filled with anguish at the silence of the Divine (like Psalm 35: ‘Do not stay silent, do not abandon me oh Lord’). But at moments of stress, like the exodus from Egypt or the fall of Jerusalem, the voices return to prophets (just as, for Anghel and many other immigrants, voice-hearing may emerge as a response to the stress of immigration).

Although humans evolved into a higher state of subjective consciousness, vestiges of the bicameral mind still remain, most obviously in voice-hearing. As much as 10% of the population hear voices at some point in their lives, much higher than the clinical incidence of schizophrenia (1%). For many people, voice-hearing is not debilitating and can be positive and encouraging.

Sensing a voice or presence often emerges in stressful situations – anecdotally, it’s relatively common for the dying to see the spirits of dead loved ones, likewise as many as 35% of people who have recently lost a loved one say they have a sense of the departed’s continued presence. Mountaineers in extreme conditions often report a sensed presence guiding them (known as the Third Man Factor).

A bear of very little brain (roughly 50%, to be exact)

And around 65% of children say they have had ‘imaginary friends’ or toys that play a sort of guardian-angel role in their lives – Jaynes thought children evolve from bicameral to conscious, much as Piaget thought young children are by nature animist (ie they attribute consciousness to things, and may attribute special consciousness to favourite toy-companions, like Winnie the Pooh or Sheriff Andy).

These are all vestiges of the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes, as is our capacity to be hypnotized (our hypnagogic openness to external commands is a remnant of the bicameral mind’s obedience to social hierarchy) and our love of poetry, which seems to come to poets from Parnassus or some other Beyond.

Such is Jaynes’ remarkable theory. Alas, he never wrote another book, but his magnum opus is increasingly popular, not least because some recent brain-imaging studies confirm his ideas about brain-function lateralisation and the origin of auditory hallucinations in the right hemisphere.

His book is similar in some respects to Iain McGilchrist’s recent work, The Master and his Emissary, which also uses the bicameral mind for a Grand Historical Theory. But McGilchrist thinks the two hemispheres have become progressively less integrated, rather than more, and this is why the gods have gone silent. He thinks we need to bring the right hemisphere back into the game, through poetry or religious practices, while Jaynes is much less concerned with returning to some bicameral utopia. Indeed, like Max Weber he warns we should resist the nostalgic desire for the right hemisphere’s charismatic certainty.

Genius or bonkers?

What can we say about Jaynes’ theory? Well, it’s refreshingly bold. But as a theory of consciousness it doesn’t really solve the ‘hard problem’ of how mind comes from matter. Even if Achilles isn’t self-consciously introspective, he is still experiencing mental events.

Jaynes’ theory that auditory hallucinations are a form of social control doesn’t sound quite right, either. Look at how many voice-hearers have resisted and destabilized social control, from Moses to Socrates to Jesus to Joan of Arc.

Jaynes doesn’t have much evidence for his contention that everyone used to hear voices and lack introspection – his main evidence is the Iliad. But the characters in that are special, they are heroes, with a special relationship to the divine. If the gods spoke to everyone, why are prophets like Cassandra remarkable or different? Why the need for divination in the Iliad, if the gods are constantly telling people what to do?

And is Jaynes saying that schizophrenics or voice-hearers today lack conscious introspection and free will, that they are automatons? Better to say that they have the capacity to question and not obey their voices, it’s just that often they choose to follow their voices’ commands because they are terrified of them. Some voice-hearers learn a more flexible and egalitarian relationship to their voices. (Marcel Kuijsten, who has edited Jaynes’ work, tells me Jaynes did not equate schizophrenia with bicameral man – in schizophrenics subjective consciousness has emerged).

Those are some of my reservations about the theory. What I like about it is the suggestion that subjective consciousness emerged at a particular moment, and this moment was quite recent. I think, in fact, that fifth-century BC Athens was one of the moments when modern consciousness was born.

Suddenly, in fifth-century BC Athens, many people stopped hearing or believing in the gods, and some sophists insisted that the only real authority was Public Opinion. As a result, rhetoric, or the art of seeming, is born. This was taken as a profound heresy by bicameral minds like Sophocles, the inspired tragedian, who insisted we must honour the intuitive and god-hearing part of us rather than denigrate it or try to leave it behind. What you see in Sophocles’ last two tragedies (Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus) is a last-ditch attempt to marry together the splitting parts of the Athenian soul – the worldly and the other-worldly.

Oedipus (right) and Theseus, the intuitive and the pragmatic…

…and Philoctetes (right) and Neoptolemus, also representing the marriage of the intuitive and the pragmatic

And at this moment of the birth of modern consciousness, there stands Socrates, with one foot in each era. He insists that we must bring our unexamined beliefs into consciousness and ask if they make sense. He is the midwife of subjective consciousness. And yet he also has a daemon who gives him moral commands, and he insists he has been sent on a mission to humanity by the Gods. I love these two figures – Sophocles and Socrates – because they are trying to integrate the two eras, to marry the two hemispheres.

Jaynes and the Hearing Voices Network

Perhaps the most impressive practical consequence of Jaynes’ book was the establishment of the Hearing Voices Networks, and the beginning of a more enlightened approach to voice-hearing.

In the 1980s, a Dutch psychiatrist called Marius Romme was treating a 30-year-old voice-hearer called Patsy Hague. She was on tranquilizers, which failed to stop the voices and made it difficult for her to think. She became suicidal. Then Romme happened to lend her a copy of Jaynes’ book. It made her think perhaps she was not ill so much as ‘living in the wrong century’, and also gave her confidence that her voices were ‘real’, or as real as the invisible God that Romme and others believed in. Hague told Romme: ‘You believe in a God we never see or hear, so why shouldn’t you believe in the voices I really do hear?” Why not listen to what the voices had to say, rather than dismissing them as meaningless pathological symptoms?

Romme set up a meeting between Hague and other voice-hearers, who enthusiastically swapped stories and shared their sense of helplessness, vulnerability and alienation from their society. A sort of peer-led support network emerged, and has continued to blossom since then.

Today, the voice-hearers network is increasingly challenging the traditional theory that auditory hallucinations are sufficient for a diagnosis of psychosis or schizophrenia, which should be treated with anti-psychotics without any regard for the content of the messages. More and more healthy and high-functioning adults are ‘coming out’ as people who have occasionally or frequently heard voices. I personally heard a voice once, during that near-death experience in 2001, although I’ve never heard one since.

I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).

Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.

What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).

To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.

Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.

Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?


  • eileen munro says:

    Suggests, new radical…you are joking, I have had that many barnies (Scottish for battles), that it has been served with an Asbo!

  • eileen munro says:

    In my colossal cranium that is!

  • Timothy Rue says:

    Rather than bicameral mind, consider the subconscious mind with one part managing the functionality of the body and the other part interfacing with the external world.

    Evolution motivated by population growth.

    From the bicameral/subconscious mind to a transition to the conscious mind to the currently happening transition integration of the subconscious mind with the conscious mind to achieve a super conscious or whole mind state.


    It is interesting to see such thinking in terms of supporting the current transition, the integration.

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  • Angela Woods says:

    hi Jules

    A fascinating post – many thanks! It’s always interesting to read about people’s encounters with Jaynes…a thesis which mesmerises and polarises in equal measure. If you haven’t already seen them – Simon McCarthy-Jones’ book ‘Hearing Voices’ starts by taking a fresh look at the historical evidence for Jaynes’ claims (http://www.simonmccarthyjones.com/books/), and Lisa Blackman’s new book ‘Immaterial Bodies’ I think you would find generally fascinating (esp chapter 6 on voice-hearing and chapter 7 on Jaynes http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book234418#tabview=toc)

  • Stephen says:

    Thank you for an interesting post. I am currently reading the KJV and being presently in the area of Leviticus and Numbers, the ‘voice’ thesis sheds new light on the story. (And pardon the levity, but there are voices in my head, imploring me to give up on this book: I’m not sure I can take any more of the cubits, goats ‘the tribe of’.. etc)

  • Amy says:

    I haven’t read the book so can’t comment on it, but I definitely think there’s something to be said for individual consciousness being a relatively new facet of the human experience. It may be that as we developed the more highly intellectual parts of our brain, so too our sense of self developed (the left brain being the part that distinguishes the individual from the group). Initially this may have taken the form of hearing divine voices (most likely a hint of our subconscious from which we had separated somewhat) and then perhaps we made another step and became more aware that these voices were our own. Over zealous thought (too much left brain) seems just as, if not more likely, to lead to serious mental problems than subconscious voices. Finding patterns where there aren’t any can lead you down a very dangerous and obsessive path. Madness, as Chesterton postulated, is so sinister because of its closeness to sanity. It’s just that it asks fewer questions and believes its own answers.

  • Stephen says:


    LRB latest article on madness I found interesting this month

  • Stephen says:


    LRB latest article on madness I found interesting this month

  • Matt M says:

    Excellent article, I found it very interesting. Being a long-term reader of Jaynes’ work there are two things that I want to mention here. Like Daniel Dennett, Jaynes would likely say that there is no hard problem of consciousness, or more specifically, the problem solves itself.

    “Jaynes’ theory that auditory hallucinations are a form of social control doesn’t sound quite right, either. Look at how many voice-hearers have resisted and destabilized social control, from Moses to Socrates to Jesus to Joan of Arc.”

    Auditory hallucinations, or any psychological phenomenon, can only act as a type of social control if the majority of a population has the same, or at least a similar experience. This is a large part of why bicameral societies are inherently fragile and they collapse from time to time– the larger a society gets the more difficult it is for auditory hallucinations to act as a form of social control. Also, after the threshold for auditory hallucinations increased and the majority of a population stopped hearing voices very often (thousands of years ago), then the people that still heard voices were taught that voice hearing is not something which is socially acceptable.

  • Daniel Gill says:

    The Master’s Sun is an internationally critically acclaimed S.Korean television drama about a young woman of modest means who becomes the treasured asset of a truly alienated wealthy shopping mall owner. After various hauntings at the mall, he becomes concerned about his bottom line, and so he hires her for free hugs that she greedily tends to use up whenever she gets too scared.

    S.Korea holds a paradoxical position in the hyper-modern world for being predominantly shamanistic . Perhaps sorcery is a more apt term according to Chongho Kim, author of Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox, due to Korean shamanism’s lack of trance for altered states. Instead, their ‘shamans’ commune through the daemonic-dread, the shudder elicited from intimations of the numinous theorized by Rudolf Otto in his Idea Of The Holy, and use it as a means of temporal distortion to sacrifice their souls to Hungry Ghosts . In this sense, like in Vietnam, their shamanism is closer to hermeticism and Victorian spiritualism than ‘shamanism’ .

    A new television show, called Bride of the Century, is precisely about this. Unlike the secrecy prevalent in the western occult schools, S.Korean ministry of culture actively promotes scholarship and the culture of their Korean shamanism to the entire world.


  • Daniel Gill says:

    Maybe not that western occult societies are secretive but they are discreet, they don’t hold the belief that their teachings would benefit the wider society as a whole as they do in Vietnam or S.Korea

  • Daniel Gill says:

    in S.Korea, really modern country, having a shrine and regular communion with ghosts is proper social etiquette .. Vietnam is a lot like S.Korea as well in this way. Unlike Japan where this culture has been put into the closet, in S.Korea its on their mainstream TV , it’s part of their zeitgeist and intricately connected to their sense of humanism

  • Daniel Gill says:

    You can watch S.Korean television, entire series, for free using http://www.DramaFever.com , and stream to your TV using a small dongle like Roku .

  • Daniel Gill says:

    This is precisely the concept of Korean Shamanism

    the spirits are communed with out of Chaos , or Other-World (maybe Nether-World is more apt)
    in the english translation of Dr. Kim Tae-kon’s Korean Shamanism -Muism, the Other-World is translated out as Chaos
    this is important — the mirror on a kamidana shrine in Shinto is not a reflection , but a portal to the Beyond, it’s the Gate opened before the threshold outside of subjective awareness, its the allowance of things to come in ,the mirror is an absence , not a thing itself .

    example from the poetry of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts,

    The Flight Of The Geese

    I hear the low wind wash the softening snow,
    The low tide loiter down the shore. The night
    Full filled with April forecast, hath no light.
    The salt wave on the sedge-flat pulses slow.
    Through the hid furrows lisp in murmurous flow
    The thaw’s shy ministers; and hark! The height
    Of heaven grows weird and loud with unseen flight
    Of strong hosts prophesying as they go!
    High through the drenched and hollow night their wings
    Beat northward hard on winter’s trail. The sound
    Of their confused and solemn voices, borne
    Athwart the dark to their long Arctic morn,
    Comes with a sanction and an awe profound,
    A boding of unknown, foreshadowed things.

    another poem by him,

    The Skater

    My glad feet shod with the glittering steel
    I was the god of the wingèd heel.
    The hills in the far white sky were lost;
    The world lay still in the wide white frost;
    And the woods hung hushed in their long white dream
    By the ghostly, glimmering, ice-blue stream.
    Here was a pathway, smooth like glass,
    Where I and the wandering wind might pass
    To the far-off palaces, drifted deep,
    Where Winter’s retinue rests in sleep.
    I followed the lure, I fled like a bird,
    Till the startled hollows awoke and heard
    A spinning whisper, a sibilant twang,
    As the stroke of the steel on the tense ice rang;
    And the wandering wind was left behind
    As faster, faster I followed my mind;
    Till the blood sang high in my eager brain,
    And the joy of my flight was almost pain.
    The I stayed the rush of my eager speed
    And silently went as a drifting seed, —
    Slowly, furtively, till my eyes
    Grew big with the awe of a dim surmise,
    And the hair of my neck began to creep
    At hearing the wilderness talk in sleep.
    Shapes in the fir-gloom drifted near.
    In the deep of my heart I heard my fear.
    And I turned and fled, like a soul pursued,
    From the white, inviolate solitude.

    This is a beautiful illustration of daemonic-dread, its allure and fascination, the dread, and its softness .

    temporal distortion , another Roberts poem ,

    Going Over

    A girl’s voice in the night troubled my heart.
    Across the roar of the guns, the crash of the shells,
    Low and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it.
    Where was the broken parapet, crumbling about me?
    Where my shadowy comrades, crouching expectant?
    A girl’s voice in the dark troubled my heart.
    A dream was the ooze of the trench, the wet clay slipping.
    A dream the sudden out-flare of the wide-flung Verys.
    I saw but a garden of lilacs, a-flower in the dusk.
    What was the sergeant saying?—I passed it along.—
    Did I pass it along? I was breathing the breath of the lilacs.
    For a girl’s voice in the night troubled my heart.
    Over! How the mud sucks! Vomits red the barrage.
    But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs.
    For a girl’s voice in the night troubled my heart.
    Tender and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it.

    unlike in shamanism where there is ascent to the Dreamtime through trance,
    sorcerers entreat the descent of spirits through alchemy, offering their sympathy – woe and lament, Korean shamans commonly initiate after a tragic death

  • Daniel Gill says:

    a trailer for Final Fantasy XIII – Lightning Returns


    beautiful illustration of daemonic-dread coeval with lament and soul sacrifice, the descent of spirits and not the ascent to spirits . profoundly different than shamanism

  • Daniel Gill says:

    I think Marcel Mauss is also important to mention. In his work titled “The Gift”, he extended the concept of an offering as a carrier of mana, one’s potential divinity . Primitive economies operated upon an exchange of mana, not through buying and selling but through gifting and reciprocity . A gift from A to B impels B to give greater back to A . In theorizing gifts as an exchange of mana including the spirits and the gods, Mauss also implied a theory of alchemy in spirit worship that we can extend from the theories of Rudolf Otto and daemonic-dread .

    This is a trailer for Shutter , a Thai film .


    Perhaps in no other arena is Otto more vindicated for his perennial understanding of the mystical experience than in the acknowledgment of the popularity internationally of the asian ghost story.

    Somdet Toh is Thailand’s most revered and popular monk, famous for taming the angry ghost of Mae Nak , a famous folk legend. They will place his iconography higher than Buddha on their altars, since he embodies THAI buddhism -Somdet Toh is a national hero and national Buddha, so he deserves their highest respect. In Justin Thomas McDaniel’s Lovelorn Ghost And The Magical Monk, we get a preBuddhist resistance to Buddhism.. Thai monks are licentious, superstitious, and not anxious to reach a state of nirvana they want to choose the reincarnation of their next life, and revere the dead long after they’re supposed to reach nirvana.

    Trailer for Nang Nak

    Trailer for Ghost Of Mae Nak

    Communion with the ghost world is difficult, prone to sadness, and unhinges the mind, but is also a necessary element to the health of society .

    I believe that if we lose the honest portrayal of what the ghost is, within creative fiction, we lose the means to sympathize as well.

    A great western example of this difficult relationship to the spirit world and our need for using it as a means of reconciliation is Hamlet, by Shakespeare, regarded among the greatest stories in the English language , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rd74Gniz-A

    but it takes a peculiarly special kind of person to empathize on the level of someone like Hamlet, or Frodo (Lord of the Rings) , to cross the subjective boundary as Otto and Mauss describe into objective experience.

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  • Excellent post! Your interest in the poets who heard dissociative voices or used dissociative practices has been my abiding interest for nearly 20 years. I have published a series of articles that you can find on my Web site. My blog, particularly the post noted below, lays out the basis of my interest and findings. My book is in the works and hope that it will be published in the near future. Many thanks for your insights!


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