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Two heads are better than one. - John Heywood

The Bicameral Mind

Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, "Chapter 4 The Bicameral Mind"

We are conscious human beings.  We are trying to understand human nature.  The preposterous hypothesis we have come to in the previous chapter is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man.  Neither part was conscious.  This is almost incomprehensible to us.  And since we are conscious, and wish to understand, we wish to reduce this to something familiar in our experience, as we saw was the nature of understanding in Chapter 2. And this is what I shall attempt in the present chapter.


Very little can be said to make the man side of it seem familiar to us, except by referring back to the first chapter, to remember all the things we do without the aid of consciousness.  But how unsatisfying is a list of nots!  Somehow we still wish to identify with Achilles.  We still feel that there must, there absolutely must be something he feels inside.  What we are trying to do is to invent a mind-space and a world of analog behaviors in him just as we do in ourselves and our contemporaries.  And this invention, I say, is not valid for Greeks of this period.

Perhaps a metaphor of something close to that state might be helpful.  In driving a car, I am not sitting like a back-seat driver directing myself, but rather find myself committed and engaged with little consciousness.[1] In fact my consciousness will usually be involved in something else, in a conversation with you if you happen to be my passenger, or in thinking about the origin of consciousness perhaps.  My hand, foot, and head behavior, however, are almost in a different world.  In touching something, I am touched; in turning my head, the world turns to me i in seeing, I am related to a world I immediately obey in the sense of driving on the road and not on the sidewalk.  And I am not conscious of any of this.  And certainly not logical about it.  I am caught up, unconsciously enthralled, if you will, in a total interacting reciprocity of stimulation that may be constantly threatening or comforting, appealing or repelling, responding to the changes in traffic and particular aspects of it with trepidation or confidence, trust or distrust, while my consciousness is still off on other topics.

Now simply subtract that consciousness and you have what a bicameral man would be like.  The world would happen to him and his action would be an inextricable part of that happening with no consciousness whatever.  And now let some brand-new situation occur, an accident up ahead, a blocked road, a flat tire, a stalled engine, and behold, our bicameral man would not do what you and 1 would do, that is, quickly and efficiently swivel our consciousness over to the matter and narrative out what to do.  He would have to wait for his bicameral voice which with the stored-up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him non-consciously what to do.


But what were such auditory hallucinations like?  Some people find it difficult to even imagine that there can be mental voices that are heard with the same experiential quality as externally produced voices.  After all, there is no mouth or larynx in the brain!

Whatever brain areas are utilized, it is absolutely certain that such voices do exist and that experiencing them is just like hearing actual sound.  Further, it is highly probable that the bicameral voices of antiquity were in quality very like such auditory hallucinations in contemporary people.  They are heard by many completely normal people to varying degrees.  Often it is in times of stress, when a parent's comforting voice may be heard.

Or in the midst of some persisting problem.  In my late twenties, living alone on Beacon Hill in Boston, I had for about a week been studying and autistically pondering some of the problems in this book, particularly the question of what knowledge is and how we can know anything at all.  My convictions and misgivings had been circling about through the sometimes precious fogs of epistemologies, finding nowhere to land.  One afternoon I lay down in intellectual despair on a couch.  Suddenly, out of an absolute quiet, there came a firm, distinct loud voice from my upper right which said, "Include the knower in the known!" It lugged me to my feet absurdly exclaiming, "Hello?" looking for whoever was in the room.  The voice had had an exact location.  No one was there!  Not even behind the wall where I sheepishly looked.  I do not take this nebulous profundity as divinely inspired, but I do think that it is similar to what was heard by those who have in the past claimed such special selection.

Such voices may be heard by perfectly normal people on a more continuing basis.  After giving lectures on the theory in this book, I have been surprised at members of the audience who have come up afterwards to tell me of their voices.  One young biologist's wife said that almost every morning as she made the beds and did the housework, she had long, informative, and pleasant conversations with the voice of her dead grandmother in which the grandmother's voice was actually heard.  This came as something of a shock to her alarmed husband, for she had never previously mentioned it, since "hearing voices" is generally supposed to be a sign of insanity.  Which, in distressed people, of course, it is.  But because of the dread surrounding this disease, the actual incidence of auditory hallucinations in normal people on such a continuing basis is not known.

The only extensive study was a poor one done in the last century in England.[2] Only hallucinations of normal people when they were in good health were counted.  Of 7717 men, 7.8 percent had experienced hallucinations at some time.  Among 7599 women, the figure was 12 percent.  Hallucinations were most frequent in subjects between twenty and twenty-nine years of age, the same age incidentally at which schizophrenia most commonly occurs.  There were twice as many visual hallucinations as auditory.  National differences were also found.  Russians had twice as many hallucinations as the average.  Brazilians had even more because of a very high incidence of auditory hallucinations. just why is anyone's conjecture.  One of the deficiencies of this study, however, is that in a country where ghosts are exciting gossip, it is difficult to have accurate criteria of what is actually seen and heard as an hallucination.  There is an important need for further and better studies of this sort.[3]

Hallucinations in Psychotics

It is of course in the distress of schizophrenia that auditory hallucinations similar to bicameral voices are most common and best studied.  This is now a difficult matter.  At a suspicion of hallucinations, distressed psychotics are given some kind of chemotherapy such as Thorazine, which specifically eliminates hallucinations.  This procedure is at least questionable, and may be done not for the patient, but for the hospital which wishes to eliminate this rival control over the patient.  But it has never been shown that hallucinating patients are more intractable than others.  Indeed, as judged by other patients, hallucinating schizophrenics are more friendly, less defensive, more likable, and have more positive expectancies toward others in the hospital than non-hallucinating patients.[4] And it is possible that even when the effect is apparently negative, hallucinated voices may be helpful to the healing process.

At any rate, since the advent of chemotherapy the incidence of hallucinatory patients is much less than it once was.  Recent studies have revealed a wide variation among different hospitals, ranging from 50 percent of psychotics in the Boston City Hospital, to 30 percent in a hospital in Oregon[5] and even lower in hospitals with long-term patients under considerable sedation.  Thus, in what follows, I am leaning more heavily on some of the older literature in the psychoses, such as Bleuler's great classic, Dementia Praecox, in which the hallucinatory aspect of schizophrenia in particular is more clearly seen.[6]  This is important if we are to have an idea of the nature ' and range of the bicameral voices heard in the early civilizations.

The Character of the Voices

The voices in schizophrenia take any and every relationship to the individual.  They converse, threaten, curse, criticize, consult, often in short sentences.  They admonish, console, mock, command, or sometimes simply announce everything that's happening.  They yell, whine, sneer, and vary from the slightest whisper to a thunderous shout.  Often the voices take on some special peculiarity, such as speaking very slowly, scanning, rhyming, or in rhythms, or even in foreign languages.  There may be one particular voice, more often a few voices, and occasionally many.  As in bicameral civilizations, they are recognized as gods, angels, devils, enemies, or a particular person or relative.  Or occasionally they are ascribed to some kind of apparatus reminiscent of the statuary which we will see was important in this regard in bicameral kingdoms.

Sometimes the voices bring patients to despair, commanding them to do something and then viciously reproaching them after the command is carried out.  Sometimes they are a dialogue, as of two people discussing the patient.  Sometimes the roles of pro and con are taken over by the voices of different people.  The voice of his daughter tells a patient: "He is going to be burnt alive!" While his mother's voice says: "He will not be burnt!"[7] In other instances, there are several voices gabbling all at once, so that the patient cannot follow them.

Their Locality and Function

In some cases) particularly the most serious, the voices are not localized.  But usually they are.  They call from one side or another, from the rear, from above and below; only rarely do they come from directly in front of the patient.  They may seem to come from walls, from the cellar and the roof, from heaven and from hell, near or far, from parts of the body or parts of the clothing.  And sometimes, as one patient put it, "they assume the nature of all those objects through which they speak-whether they speak out of walls, or from ventilators, or in the woods and fields."[8] In some patients there is a tendency to associate the good consoling voices with the upper right, while bad voices come from below and to the left.  In rare instances, the voices seem to the patient to come from his own mouth, sometimes feeling like foreign bodies bulging up in his mouth.  Sometimes the voices are hypostasized in bizarre ways.  One patient claimed that a voice was perched above each of his ears, one of which was a little larger than the other, which is reminiscent of the ka's and the way they were depicted in the statues of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter.

Very often the voices criticize a patient's thoughts and actions.  Sometimes they forbid him to do what he was just thinking of doing.  And sometimes this occurs even before the patient is aware of his intention.  One intelligent paranoid who came from the Swiss canton of Thurgau harbored hostile feelings toward his personal attendant.  As the latter stepped into his room, the voice said in its most reproachful tone before the patient had done anything, "There you have it!  A Thurgauer beats up a perfectly decent private attendant!"[9]

Of immense importance here is the fact that the nervous system of a patient makes simple perceptual judgments of which the patient's 'self' is not aware.  And these, as above, may then be transposed into voices that seem prophetic.  A janitor coming down a hall may make a slight noise of which the patient is not conscious.  But the patient hears his hallucinated voice cry out, "Now someone is coming down the hall with a bucket of water." Then the door opens, and the prophecy is fulfilled.  Credence in the prophetic character of the voices, just as perhaps in bicameral times, is thus built up and sustained.  The patient then follows his voices alone and is defenseless against them.  Or else, if the voices are not clear, he waits, catatonic and mute, to be shaped by them or, alternatively, by the voices and hands of his attendants.

Usually the severity of schizophrenia oscillates during hospitalization and often the voices come and go with the undulations of the illness.  Sometimes they occur only when the patients are doing certain things, or only in certain environments.  And in many patients, before the present-day chemotherapy, there was no-single waking moment free from them.  When the illness is most severe, the voices are loudest and come from outsider when least severe, voices often tend to be internal whispers; and when internally localized, their auditory qualities are sometimes vague.  A patient might say, "They are not at all real voices but merely reproductions of the voices of dead relatives." Particularly intelligent patients in mild forms of the illness are often not sure whether they are actually hearing the voices or whether they are only compelled to think them, like "audible thoughts," or "soundless voices," or "hallucinations of meanings."

Hallucinations must have some innate structure in the nervous system underlying them.  We can see this clearly by studying the matter in those who have been profoundly deaf since birth or very early childhood.  For even they can—somehow—experience auditory hallucinations.  This is commonly seen in deaf schizophrenics.  In one study, 16 out of 22 hallucinating, profoundly deaf schizophrenics insisted they had heard some kind of communication.[10]  One thirty-two-year-old woman, born deaf, who was full of self-recrimination about a therapeutic abortion, claimed she heard accusations from God.  Another, a fifty-year-old congenitally deaf woman, heard supernatural voices which proclaimed her to have occult powers.

The Visual Component

Visual hallucinations in schizophrenia occur less commonly, but sometimes with extreme clarity and vividness.  One of my schizophrenic subjects, a vivacious twenty-year-old writer of folk songs, had been sitting in a car for a long time, anxiously waiting for a friend.  A blue car coming along the road suddenly, oddly, slowed, turned rusty brown, then grew huge gray wings and slowly flapped over a hedge and disappeared.  Her greater alarm, however, came when others in the street behaved as if nothing extraordinary had happened.  Why?  Unless all of them were somehow in league to hide their reactions from her.  And why should that be?  It is often the narratization of such false events by consciousness, fitting the world in around them in a rational way, that brings on other tragic symptoms.

It is interesting that profoundly deaf schizophrenics who do not have auditory hallucinations often have visual hallucinations of sign language.  A sixteen-year-old girl who became deaf at the age of eight months indulged in bizarre communication with empty spaces and gesticulated to the walls.  An older, congenitally deaf woman communicated with her hallucinated boyfriend in sign language.  Other deaf patients may appear to be in constant communication with imaginary people using a word salad of signs and finger spelling.  One thirty-five-year-old deaf woman, who lost her hearing at the age of fourteen months, lived a life of unrestrained promiscuity alternating with violent temper outbursts.  On admission, she explained in sign language that every morning a spirit dressed in a white -robe came to her, saying things in sign language which were at times frightening and which set the pace of her mood for the day.  Another deaf patient would spit at empty space, saying that she was spitting at the angels who were lurking there.  A thirty-year-old man, deaf since birth, more benignly, would see little angels and Lilliputian people around him and believed he had a magic wand with which he could achieve almost anything.

Occasionally, in what are called acute twilight states, whole scenes, often of a religious nature, may be hallucinated even in broad daylight, the heavens standing open with a god speaking to the patient.  Or sometimes writing will appear before a patient as before Belshazzar.  A paranoid patient saw the word poison in the air at the very moment when the attendant made him take his medicine.  In other instances, the visual hallucinations may be fitted into the real environment, with figures walking about the ward, or standing above the doctor's head, even as I suggest Athene appeared to Achilles.  More usually, when visual hallucinations occur with voices, they are merely shining light or cloudy fog, as Thetis came to Achilles or Yahweh to Moses.

The Release of the Gods

If we are correct in assuming that schizophrenic hallucinations are similar to the guidances of gods in antiquity, then there should be some common physiological instigation in both instances.  This, I suggest, is simply stress.  In normal people, as we have mentioned, the stress threshold for release of hallucinations is extremely high; most of us need to be over our heads in trouble before we would hear voices.  But in psychosis-prone persons, the threshold is somewhat lower; as in the girl I described, only anxious waiting in a parked car was necessary.  This is caused, I think, by the buildup in the blood of breakdown products of stress-produced adrenalin which the individual is, for genetical reasons, unable to pass through the kidneys as fast as a normal person.

During the eras of the bicameral mind, we may suppose that the stress threshold for hallucinations was much, much lower than in either normal people or schizophrenics today.  The only stress necessary was that which occurs when a change in behavior is necessary because of some novelty in a situation.  Anything that could not be dealt with on the basis of habit, any conflict between work and fatigue, between attack and flight, any choice between whom to obey or what to do, anything that required any decision at all was sufficient to cause an auditory hallucination.

It has now been clearly established that decision-making (and I would like to remove every trace of conscious connotation from the word 'decision') is precisely what stress is.  If rats have to cross an electric grid each time they wish to get food and water) such rats develop ulcers.[11] Just shocking the rats does not do this to them.  There has to be the pause of conflict or the decision-making stress of whether to cross a grid or not to produce this effect.  If two monkeys are placed in harnesses, in such a way that one of the monkeys can press a bar at least once every twenty seconds to avoid a periodic shock to both monkeys' feet, within three or four weeks the decision-making monkey will have ulcers, while the other, equally shocked monkey will not.[12] It is the pause of unknowingness that is important.  For if the experiment is so arranged that an animal can make an effective response and receive immediate feedback of his success, executive ulcers, as they are often called, do not occur.[13]

So Achilles, repulsed by Agamemnon, in decision-stress by the gray sea, hallucinates Thetis out of the mists.  So Hector, faced with the decision-suffering of whether to go outside the walls of Troy to fight Achilles or stay within them, in the stress of the decision hallucinates the voice that tells him to go out.  The divine voice ends the decision-stress before it has reached any considerable level.  Had Achilles or Hector been modern executives, living in a culture that repressed their stress-relieving gods, they too might have collected their share of our psychosomatic diseases.


We must not leave this subject of the hallucinatory mechanism without facing up to the more profound question of why such voices are believed, why obeyed.  For believed as objectively real, they are, and obeyed as objectively real in the face of all the evidence of experience and the mountains of common sense.  Indeed, the voices a patient hears are more real than the doctor's voice.  He sometimes says so.  "If that is not a real voice, then I can just as well say that even you are not now really talking to me," said one schizophrenic to his physicians.  And another when questioned replied:

Yes, Sir.  I hear voices distinctly, even loudly; they interrupt us at this moment.  It is more easy for me to listen to them than to you.  I can more easily believe in their significance and actuality, and they do not ask questions.[14]

That he alone hears the voices is not of much concern.  Sometimes he feels he has been honored by this gift, singled out by divine forces, elected and glorified, and this even when the voice reproaches him bitterly, even when it is leading him to death.  He is somehow face to face with elemental auditory powers, more real than wind or rain or fire, powers that deride and threaten and console, powers that he cannot step back from and see objectively.

One sunny afternoon not long ago, a man was lying back in a deck chair on the beach at Coney Island.  Suddenly, he heard a voice so loud and clear that he looked about at his companions, certain that they too must have heard the voice.  When they acted as if nothing had happened, he began to feel strange and moved his chair away from them.  And then

. . . suddenly, clearer, deeper, and even louder than before, the deep voice came at me again, right in my ear this time, and getting me tight and shivery inside.  "Larry Jayson, I told you before you weren't any good.  Why are you sitting here making believe you are as good as anyone else when you're not?  Whom are you fooling?"

The deep voice was so loud and so clear, everyone must have heard it.  He got up and walked slowly away, down the stairs of the boardwalk to the stretch of sand below.  He waited to see if the voice came back. lt did, its words pounding in this time, not the way you hear any words, but deeper,

. . . as though all parts of me had become ears, with my fingers hearing the words, and my legs, and my head too.  "You're no good," the voice said slowly, in the same deep tones.  "You've never been any good or use on earth.  There is the ocean.  You might just as well drown yourself.  Just walk in, and keep walking.”

As soon as the voice was through, I knew by its cold command, I had to obey it.[15]

The patient walking the pounded sands of Coney Island heard his pounding voices as clearly as Achilles heard Thetis along the misted shores of the Aegean.  And even as Agamemnon "had to obey" the "cold command" of Zeus, or Paul the command of Jesus before Damascus, so Mr. Jayson waded into the Atlantic Ocean to drown.  Against the will of his voices, he was saved by lifeguards and brought to Bellevue Hospital, where he recovered to write of this bicameral experience.

In some less severe cases, the patients, when accustomed to the voices, can learn to be objective toward them and to attenuate their authority.  But almost all autobiographies of schizophrenic patients are consistent in speaking of the unquestioning submission, at least at first, to the commands of the voices.  Why should this be so?  Why should such voices have such authority either in Argos, on the road to Damascus, or the shores of Coney Island?

Sound is a very special modality.  We cannot handle it.  We cannot push it away.  We cannot turn our backs to it.  We can close our eyes, hold our noses, withdraw from touch, refuse to taste.  We cannot close our ears though we can partly muffle them.  Sound is the least controllable of all sense modalities, and it is-this that is the medium of that most intricate of all evolutionary achievements, language.  We are therefore looking at a problem of considerable depth and complexity.

The Control of Obedience

Consider what it is to listen and understand someone speaking to us.  In a certain sense we have to become the other person; or rather, we let him become part of us for a brief second.  We suspend our own identities, after which we come back to ourselves and accept or reject what he has said.  But that brief second of dawdling identity is the nature of understanding language; and if that language is a command, the identification of understanding becomes the obedience.  To hear is actually a kind of obedience.  Indeed, both words come from the same root and therefore were probably the same word originally.  This is true in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Russian, as well as in English, where 'obey' comes from the Latin obedire, which is a composite of ob + audire, to hear facing someone.[16]

The problem is the control of such obedience.  This is done in two ways.

The first but less important is simply by spatial distance.  Think, if you will, of what you do when hearing someone else talk to you.  You adjust your distance to some culturally established standard.[17]  When the speaker is too close, it seems he is trying to control your thoughts too closely.  When too far, he is not controlling them enough for you to understand him comfortably.  If you are from an Arabian country, a face-to-face distance of less than twelve inches is comfortable.  But in more northern countries, the conversation distance most comfortable is almost twice that, a cultural difference, which in social exchanges can result in a variety of international misunderstandings.  To converse with someone at less than the usual distance means at least an attempted mutuality of obedience and control, as, for example, in a love relationship, or in the face-to-face threatening of two men about to fight.  To speak to someone within that distance is to attempt to truly dominate him or her.  To be spoken to within that distance, and there remain, results in the strong tendency to accept the authority of the person who is speaking.

The second and more important way that we control other people's voice-authority over us is by our opinions of them.  Why are we forever judging, forever criticizing, forever putting people in categories of faint praise or reproof?  We constantly rate others and pigeonhole them in often ridiculous status hierarchies simply to regulate their control over us and our thoughts.  Our personal judgments of others are filters of influence.  If you wish to allow another's language power over you, simply hold him higher in your own private scale of esteem.

And now consider what it is like if neither of these methods avail, because there is no person there, no point of space from which the voice emanates, a voice that you cannot back off from, as close to you as everything you call you, when its presence eludes all boundaries, when no escape is possible—flee and it flees with you—a voice unhindered by walls or distances, undiminished by muffling one's ears, nor drowned out with anything, not even one's own screaming - how helpless the hearer!  And if one belonged to a bicameral culture, where the voices were recognized as at the utmost top of the hierarchy, taught you as gods, kings, majesties that owned you, head, heart, and foot, the omniscient, omnipotent voices that could not be categorized as beneath you, how obedient to them the bicameral man!

The explanation of volition in subjective conscious men is still a profound problem that has not reached any satisfactory solution.  But in bicameral men, this was volition.  Another way to say it is that volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.


[1]  I owe the idea of this example to Erwin W. Straus' insightful essay, "Phenomenology of Hallucinations," in L. J. West, ed., Hallucinations (New York: Grune and Stratton, 1962.), pp. 220-232.

[2]  Henry Sidgewick et al., "Report on the census of hallucinations," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1894, 34: 25-394.

[3]  An example of what not to do may be found in D. J. West, "A mass-observation questionnaire on hallucinations," Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, I948, 34: 197-I96.

[4]  P. M. Lewinsohn, "Characteristics of patients with hallucinations," Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1968, 24: 423.

[5]  P. E. Nathan, H. F. Simpson, and M. M. Audberg, "A systems analytic model of diagnosis”.  The diagnostic validity of abnormal perceptual behavior," Journal of Clinical Psychology, i 969, 25: 115-I 36.

[6]  Eugen Bleuler, Dementia Praecox or The Group of Schizophrenias, Joseph Zinkin, trans. (New York: International Universities Press, 1950).  Other sources for the sections to follow include my own observations and interviews with patients, works footnoted on subsequent pages, various chapters in L. J. West, and miscellaneous case reports.

[7]  Bleuler, p. 97f.

[8]  T. Hennell, The Witnesses (London: Davis, 19 3 8), p. 182.

[9]  Bleuler, p. 98.

[10] J. D. Rainer, S. Abdullah, and J. C. Altshuler, "Phenomenology of hallucinations in the deaf" in Origin and Mechanisms Of Hallucinations, Wolfram Keup, ed. (New York: Plenum Press, 1970), PP. 449-465.

[11] W. L. Sawrey and J. D. Weisz, "An experimental method of producing gastric ulcers," Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1956, 49: 269-270.

[12] J. V. Brady, R. W. Porter, D. G. Conrad, and J. W. Mason, "Avoidance behavior and the development of gastro-duodenal ulcers," Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1958, z: 69-72.

[13] J. M. Weiss, "Psychological Factors in Stress and Disease," Scientific American,1972, 226: 106.

[14] Hennell, pp. 181-182.

[15] L. N. Jayson, Mania (New York: Funk and Wagnall, 1937), PP. 1-3.

[16] Straus, p. 229.

[17] For those interested in pursuing this subject, see Edward T. Hall's The Hidden Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1966), which stresses the cultural differences, and Robert Sommer's Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969), which examines spatial behavior in depth.

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