Were Babylonians Self-Conscious?

Andrea E. Cavanna, Consultant in Behavioural Neurology,

Other Contributors:

December 01, 2011

Reynolds and Wilson's article on obsessive compulsive disorder and psychopathic behaviour in Babylon gives us unprecedented insights into how these psychiatric disorders were identified and - to some extent - conceptualised by an ancient civilization. Surprisingly, the Babylonian descriptions are accurate and modern, and thoroughly objective. As noticed by the Authors, this objectivity is one of the most interesting aspects of the accounts that we can find in Sumerian and Akkadian tablets. The lack of a subjective perspective over obsessional thoughts and pathological ruminations is remarkable, given the intrinsically subjective nature of anxiety and psychotic symptoms. One possible hypothesis for this interesting observation is implicitly suggested by the Authors when they write that Babylonians, considering the origin and nature of mental illness as deeply mysterious, restricted themselves to the simple observation and record of the abnormal behaviour, rather than trying to give a physical or a supernatural account of these disorders. According to this hypothesis, the position of Babylonians was surprisingly wise and scientifically-minded: they did not speculate on psychiatric disorders mainly because they were aware of their limitations in understanding them. This attitude would reveal ante-litteram reflections on suspension of judgment (Socrates: "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing") and appropriate use of language (Wittgenstein: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."). Although this hypothesis has many merits, including its logical linearity, it falls short of accounting for certain historical inconsistencies. Why Babylonians provided supernatural explanations, such as the bad influence of gods or evil spirits on the human soul, for a variety of medical disorders but not for mental illness? What was so special that distinguished pathological behaviours from other disorders? If we take for granted the mystery-hypothesis, these questions are destined to remain unanswered. At least two other hypotheses can be put forward in order to account for the objective stance taken by Babylonians in describing psychiatric disorders. The first one is that psychopathic behaviours, obsessive compulsive symptoms and phobic reactions were regarded as performed in absence of free will. Since the abnormal behaviour was taken to be involuntary, Babylonians accounted for it entirely in objective terms. In so doing, they might have intended to underline that the aberrant actions were beyond the subject's will and control. This hypothesis clarifies why the psychopathic behaviour was regarded as different from other disorders. On the other hand, this solution is still subjected to the criticism aforementioned with regards to the mystery-hypothesis. Why did Babylonians not resort to a supernatural explanation, if people who suffered from psychosis seem to act under the control of an external will? Moreover, the absence-of-free-will-hypothesis raises the fascinating issue about whether or not Babylonians had a concept of volition similar to ours.

This issue leads us to the second and perhaps most intriguing hypothesis, which is based on Julian Jaynes' model of the bicameral mind (1). On the ground of detailed philological evidence, Jaynes' thought- provoking book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) argued that in the second millennium B.C. the ancient populations had not as yet developed our modern concept of consciousness. According to Jaynes' theory, the notions of volition and decision, intimately bound with the idea of conscious will, did not emerge until a more sophisticated language allowed introspection and self- visualization. Since its development, this controversial evolutionary model for the origin of consciousness has been the subject of a continuing debate (2, 3). Among other things, Jaynes argued that Babylonians and other ancient civilizations lacked the linguistic sophistication of mental concepts which might be a pre-requisite for higher-order awareness or a fully fledged self-representation. This hypothesis gains support from philological studies of the Iliad lexicon, which notoriously lacks words directly translating our concepts of "consciousness" and even "mind" (4). In fact, in the passages of the poem which come from the oldest oral tradition, the Homeric heroes appear to act as if they were driven by uncontrollable external forces, rather than their own free will. The analogy with the "automatic" aspects of the obsessive compulsive disorder and the psychopathic behaviour described by Babylonians is astonishing. The idea of ancient Greeks and Babylonians without self-consciousness can seem bizarre at first sight. However, it is likely that concepts which are for us of ordinary use - that is, mind, self, consciousness, self-awareness, identity, etc. - went through a process of development and transformation in the course of Western civilisation (5). This last hypothesis might provide an answer to both questions mentioned above. Lacking a sophisticated concept of a unitary subjective Self, Babylonians could not distinguish between self- and nonself-conscious behaviour. Consequently, neutral and objective accounts were their only ways of describing obsessive compulsive disorders and psychopathic behaviours. Finally, they might have not resorted to a supernatural explanation for psychiatric disorders simply because they had no conception as yet of a conscious mind susceptible to be affected by divine entities.


1. Jaynes J. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston, MA; Houghton Mifflin, 1976. 2. Kuijsten M. (ed.) Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited. Julian Jaynes Society Henderson, NV, 2006. 3. Cavanna A.E., Trimble M., Cinti F., Monaco F. The "bicameral mind" 30 years on: a critical reappraisal of Julian Jaynes' hypothesis. Functional Neurology 2007; 22(1): 11-15. 4. Taylor C. Sources of the Self. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1989. 5. Crivellato E., Ribatti D. Soul, Mind, Brain: Greek philosophy and the birth of neuroscience. Brian Research Bulletin 2007; 71: 327-336.

Conflict of Interest:

None declared

Conflict of Interest

None declared