Jaynes was born West Newton, Massachusetts and attended Harvard University. He was an undergraduate at McGill University and afterwards received master's and doctorate degrees from Yale University. Jaynes lectured as a professor of psychology Princeton University from 1966 to 1990, and was said to be a popular teacher, occasionally invited to lecture at other universities.
Jaynes' theories on consciousness proved highly controversial, to say the least. At the time of publication of The Origin of Consciousness, he was heavily criticized for pandering to pedestrian readers and not submitting the work to a proper peer review. It was, however, a successful work of popular science, and was a nominee for the National Book Award in 1978.
The polemics created by the book tended to overshadow his other achievements, which were numerous, mostly in the fields of animal behavior and ethology.