Origins of IFS in the bicameral mind

Origins of IFS in the bicameral mind

October 26, 2023
internal family systems, history

This article was published in PARTS & SELF magazine and is reprinted here verbatim.

Richard Schwartz derived the Internal Family Systems (IFS) method through clinical experience. While many reports of positive outcomes attest to the method’s validity, IFS is seen by some as a somewhat separate and niche approach within the broader field of psychology. One way of placing IFS in a historical context is to look for theories of psychological evolution that hinge on the differentiation of Parts from a mono-mind. The Bicameral Mind Theory, advanced by Julian Jaynes, is one such theory. This controversial and unconventional theory is outlined in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (published in 1976).

One reason that this book is more controversial than deserved is because the word consciousness is defined in a unique and specific manner that sets it apart from many other theories of consciousness. For Jaynes, consciousness refers to the ability to introspect. Jaynes posited that early humans lacked introspective self-awareness and instead experienced auditory hallucinations, which they interpreted as the voices of “gods” or external authorities guiding their actions. He named this state bicameral to suggest that the most important (or only) mental division was into an Authority Part and a personal Part. In this bicameral state of mind, ancient people had experiences somewhat resembling those of modern individuals with schizophrenia. Instead of consciously assessing unfamiliar or surprising situations, ancients would hear a voice providing authoritative guidance or commands and would unquestioningly obey. These ancient people had negligible introspective access to their own thought processes.

Jaynes’ argument rests primarily on analyses of the vocabularies of ancient texts, including the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, and other religious and mythological writings. The oldest texts display a profound poverty of psychological insight. Hence, the Bicameral Mind Theory can be regarded as an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity or linguistic determinism. Linguistic determinism suggests that the language we speak influences and shapes our thoughts, perceptions, and worldview. For the Bicameral Mind Theory, introspection, including thought, is a learned ability rooted in language and culture rather than being innate. The development of metaphors and language played a crucial role in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, leading to the emergence of modern introspective self-awareness.

Since Jaynes’s death in 1997, there has been some modest progress in the development of his theory. For example, evidence has surfaced about lateralization of brain function. Neuropsychologist Oliver Sachs found that some patients with damage to the right hemisphere of the brain experienced auditory hallucinations. Separately, cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga learned from his experiments with split-brain patients that the two hemispheres of the brain can have different experiences and motivations. These findings suggest that Jaynes’s idea of a divided mind is not entirely implausible.

Taking a different tack, developmental psychologist Bill Rowe speculated that introspection emerges in the childhood of every modern human similar to how introspection evolved historically. In other words, child development may recapitulate human evolution. To what extent Jaynes’ ideas contribute insight to child development is still an open question. At least Rowe (2012) hoped to make the bicameral mind feel less distant and more familiar.

Even with future advances in neuroimaging and our understanding of child development, it is hard to imagine what evidence might help confirm or refute Jaynes’s theory. Any direct evidence that humans once had a bicameral mind is long gone. Moreover, some scholars have advanced competing theories to explain the peculiar nature of ancient texts and archaeological artefacts. From the point of view of the practical application of Internal Family Systems to heal trauma, Jaynes’s work will likely have little impact. However, it would be a kind of poetic justice if we could trace the origins of Internal Family Systems back to the dawn of history.

Rowe, B. (2012). Retrospective: Julian Jaynes and the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. The American Journal of Psychology, 125(1), 95-112.