Overview of Julian Jaynes’s Theory of Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind

Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by many people who hear voices today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.

To support his theory, Jaynes draws evidence from a wide range of fields, including neuroscience, psychology, archaeology, ancient history, and the analysis of ancient texts. Jaynes’s theory has profound implications for our understanding of human history as well as many aspects of modern life.

Jaynes’s theory can be broken down into four independent hypotheses:

  1. Consciousness — as he carefully defines it — is a learned process based on metaphorical languageMisunderstandings about Jaynes’s theory usually stem from not understanding Jaynes’s more precise definition of consciousness.
  2. That preceding the development of consciousness there was a different mentality based on verbal hallucinations called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind.
  3. Dating the development of consciousness (as Jaynes carefully defines it) to around the end of the second millennium B.C. in Greece and Mesopotamia. The transition occurred at different times in other parts of the world.
  4. The neurological model for the bicameral mind, which has now been confirmed by dozens of brain imaging studies.

Why Julian Jaynes’s Theory is Important

  1. Jaynes’s theory explains a wide range of otherwise inexplicable phenomena, such as divination, idols, the pyramids and other forms of monumental mortuary architecture, hypnosis, hallucinations, and children’s imaginary companions. All of these things suddenly make sense when you understand the theory.
  2. Jaynes’s theory offers a fascinating explanation for the origin of gods and the origin of religion — one of the great mysteries of human civilization.
  3. Jaynes’s theory provides a historical context for hearing voices — providing a radical new way of understanding mental illness. Jaynes’s theory helped inspire the modern interest in hearing voices and the Hearing Voices Network.
  4. Jaynes’s theory provides a neurological model for hearing voices, which has now been verified in dozens of brain imaging studies, and is being used to develop future treatments for those with persistent, obtrusive voices.


  1. Start by reading Jaynes’s book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If you are short on time, start by reading Julian Jaynes’s article “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind.”
  2. Join the Julian Jaynes Society: Access exclusive content to better understand Julian Jaynes’s theory while helping to support our mission. The Member Area is a treasure trove of articles, interviews, videos, audio programs, lectures, and book reviews about the theory. Also be sure to subscribe to our mailing list to get the latest updates and news related to the theory.
  3. Read The Julian Jaynes Collection, which contains additional material by Jaynes as well as interviews and in-depth discussion of his theory, and Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind and Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, which provide additional discussion of Jaynes’s ideas by a variety of scholars, as well as articles by Jaynes himself. These three books expands on various aspects of Jaynes’s theory, update the reader on research relevant to his ideas, and address common critiques of Jaynes’s theory.
  4. Listen to the Digital Audio Programs on Jaynes’s theory and read The Jaynesian, the newsletter of the Julian Jaynes Society. Both of these provide additional insights and discussion on Jaynes’s theory. Review the Myths vs. Facts and Critiques & Responses sections of the website. Questions can be posted on the Discussion Forum.
  5. For those serious about gaining an in-depth understanding of Jaynes’s theory, our Self Study Course provides a full course on the theory.