Did Religions Arise From Our Misunderstanding of Human Consciousness?

bicameral mind
Computer artwork of a frontal view of a human brain. In the background a neural network of nerve cells firing. Science Photo Library - PASIEKA/Getty Images

Humans have been claiming to hear the voice of God for eons, but one psychologist's controversial theory disputes whether we ever heard it at all. Were people mistaking their own internal voices—their very consciousness — for an almighty deity? And if so, how did that shape the evolution of organized religion? And what does hearing the voice of God have to do with cognitive functions, mental memories and a bicameral mind? That's what Matt Frederick, Ben Bowlin and Noel Brown talk about in this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind with guest host Joe McCormick of the podcast Stuff To Blow Your Mind.

Recently popularized by HBO's "Westworld," the theory of a bicameral mind was written in 1976 by psychologist Julian Jaynes in his book "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind." He posits that human consciousness is only about 3,000 years old. Before humans mastered language— meaning we understood metaphors, comparisons and differences of perspective — we didn't have what we recognize today as basic consciousness, or the ability to self-reflect. Instead, Jayne says, thoughts occurred to us and we obeyed the thoughts without question, believing that we were receiving orders from some higher authority.


Jaynes points to Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" poems as evidence: Characters in the earlier "Iliad" had no introspection, no tendency to ask why; the heroes in the story were told what to do, and simply did it. Later, in the "Odyssey," critical thinking is apparent in the story, with Odysseus and other characters reflecting on their actions and the consequences of doing them.

Jaynes argues that what was really happening was the two hemispheres of the brain communicating. The areas of the brain that deal with processing language reside in the left hemisphere. When the left side of the brain talks to the right side, it presents information as an auditory hallucination, making us think we hear a little voice telling us what to do. Now that we have a higher grasp on consciousness, we understand that that little voice actually belongs to us. But at one time, we thought we were literally hearing commands from on high.

Until we knew that these voices weren't from any gods, we felt abandoned by them. Jaynes feels that this accounts for the rise of organized religions: Humans felt the need for righteous interpreters to speak to and for the gods, since we could no longer do it ourselves.

There's plenty to debate in this hypothesis; after all, it's hard to base an entire scientific theory on a couple of old poems by Homer. Some point out that this idea is also ethnocentric, based entirely on the formation of the English language. But many others believe that it was the lightning bolt to understanding human consciousness and how it has changed our species. So is hearing voices the product of the evolution from a bicameral mind, or not? And how does schizophrenia fit into this theory? Hear what Matt, Ben, Noel and Joe think in this fascinating podcast.