Some methodological implications of biogenetic structural theory

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Charles Laughlin*


Biogenetic structural theory has developed an entrainment view of consciousness, a view that has methodological relevance for the anthropology of religion. Human consciousness is a function of the brain and is mediated by networks of living neural cells that develop from initial, neurognostic models of self and world. Models interact or "entrain" as a constantly changing field of experience. The concepts of "cognized" and "operational environments" are defined. Consciousness operates according to a natural cycle of "phases and warps." Recurrent phases of consciousness are cognized and labelled. The ritual control of transformations of consciousness is discussed and the model of the "cycle of meaning" is presented. The role of the shaman is addressed. The interaction between religious worldview and direct experience is seen to be a cycle that incorporates mythopoeic evocation of experience and interpretation of experience in terms of the worldview. The importance of ascertaining the kinds of experiences that arise for practitioners is emphasized.


Over the years, a group of us has developed an entrainment theory of human consciousness we call biogenetic structuralism, a perspective we believe has methodological relevance for the anthropological study of religion. By entrainment we mean that each moment of consciousness, and every attribute of consciousness, are mediated by a distinct pattern of neuroendocrine organization. As the term metaphorically suggests, networks of cells carrying out specific physiological and psychological functions link up like the cars making up a train (hence, "en-train"). Consciousness and its component activities are produced by organizations of cells interacting in conditioned ways. This view of consciousness poses a number of methodological issues germane to the ethnological study of religion. Preeminent among these issues is the question of how the ethnographer can discover the structures that produce the behavior, symbolism, and experience that make up the stock in trade of the field. This is a distinct problem in the absence of the technology requisite for the direct measurement of internal brain states.

Much of our work has been carried out in various aspects of the study of religion, including the function of symbols and natural categories in the ritual evocation of experience (Laughlin 1988c, 1992b, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1983). We have shown that certain universal features of symbolism, spatial and temporal cognition, affect and energy states, alternative phases of consciousness, and the like, are due to the genetically predisposed organization of the human nervous system. We have argued that the invariant aspects of behavior, consciousness and culture being discussed in the various structuralist theories of religion could be due to nothing other than inherent structures in the nervous system. Modern neuroscience can demonstrate that every thought, every image, every feeling and action is demonstrably mediated by the human brain.

Yet we have remained wary of the tantalizing lure of physiological reductionism. Indeed, we have worked to develop a theoretical perspective that: (1) is non-dualistic in modelling the mind and body, (2) is at the same time not reductionistic in the positivist sense (i.e., that neurophysiology can give a complete account of all things mental and cultural), and (3) remains open to all reasonable sources of data about human experience, consciousness and culture.

While it is true that (so far at least) few of us have had the opportunity to directly measure brain states in the field, considering consciousness in an evolutionary and developmental frame is still inescapable because: (1) there exists considerable evidence of dramatic encephalization found in the hominid fossil record, and (2) cultural variation seems to be the primary mode of human adaptation. It is my intention in this chapter to introduce a system of conceptual tools by which brain and consciousness may be considered in a unitary framework, despite the current lack in ethnography of direct measures of brain-consciousness interaction. Those readers wishing further information about these concepts and issues will be directed to relevant references.
Neurognosis and the Cognized Environment

Our first book (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974) presented some general concepts which were later refined and used in other studies. One important concept was neurognosis, a term we coined to label the inherent, rudimentary knowledge available to cognition in the initial organization of the fetal and infant nervous system (ibid:83, also Laughlin 1991). A human newborn and infant is a perceptually and cognitively competent being that takes its first conscious stance toward the world from the standpoint of a system of initial, genetically predisposed neurognostic models that come to mature in somatosensory interaction with the world (see Bower 1989, Spelke 1988a, 1988b, Laughlin 1991 on infant cognitive competence).

There is considerable evidence to show that most of the structures mediating consciousness at any given moment are located in the cortex of the brain (see Doty 1975). The principal function of the human nervous system at the level of the cerebral cortex is the construction of a vast network of these models. We call the totality of this network of neural models an individual's cognized environment, and contrast this with the operational environment that includes both the real nature of that individual as an organism and the individual's external environment (see Laughlin and Brady 1978:6, d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979:12, Rubinstein et al. 1984:21, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:82-90).1 The cognized environment and its constituent models, being comprised of living tissue, develop over a genetically predisposed course. Thus, not only is the initial organization of neural models neurognostic in their organization, so too is the course of development of those models and patterns of interaction and selection among models (see Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Varela 1979).
The Transcendental and the Zone of Uncertainty

One of our metaphysical assumptions is particularly pertinent to the anthropological study of religion. We assume that the operational environment is transcendental relative to the capacity of any individual or society to comprehend it. We do not mean by this that the operational environment is unknowable, but rather that knowledge is always intentional, developing, incomplete, and limited by the capacities of the brain doing the knowing. The cognized environment is a system of points of view about the operational environment, and there is always more to know about the operational environment, or any aspect of it, than can be known. Of course, socially shared content of cognized environments are part of what we all mean by "culture."

The brain does not take passive snapshots of the world. The operational environment is modeled in an active and adaptively isomorphic2 way. This means there must always exists a set of boundaries to knowledge, a zone of uncertainty3 (d'Aquili et al. 1979: 40, 171), formed by the limits to spatial discernment, and to the capacity of the individual or species to apprehend temporal and causal relations. The zone of uncertainty is the directly experienceable junction between the transcendental nature of the actual self and world, and the limits of an individual's or culture's understanding (see Elster 1984: Chapter 4). It is often native ideas formulated about the zone of uncertainty that form much of the knowledge recognized as "religion" by ethnographers. Ideas about the meaning of death, the source of intuitive inspiration, the normally hidden forces behind perceived events, and the meaning of chance events, the source of the healing power of herbs and other medicines, etc., are the very essence of religion in any society, whether or not the particular society has a concept equivalent to that of our English "religion" or not.

Neurognosis and Mind-Body Dualism

It is the concept of neurognosis that allows us to avoid the pitfalls of that most intractable of methodological problems, mind-body dualism. For the distinction between the cognized and operational environments is not suggested as a euphemism for mind versus body, but rather emphasizes the fact that the structures that produce the cognized environment are themselves part of the operational environment. Consciousness and its structures are wholly of and within the body, and nowhere but the body. Or, put another way, the cognized environment is how the operational environment models itself within organisms that have brains. Thus in our writings the cognized environment is never intended either as an epiphenomenon of brain states, or as only partially identical with brain activities. Moreover, neither mental nor physical accounts of consciousness and body are complete. The operational environment is not just the way we label the world as described by science. Scientific theories about, and descriptions of the world are another kind of cognized environment. Both the cognized and the operational environments are aspects of a single transcendental mystery, and thus cannot be reduced from one to the other. Biogenetic structuralism takes the view that because we are confronted with the profound mystery of the "mindbrain" (as Earl Count likes to call it), the widest possible scope of inquiry is appropriate for its study.

The trouble is that ethnographers tend to ignore neuroscientific questions -- again, because they have no means of directly measuring brain states in the field. The unconscious result of ignoring the neurosciences has been to perpetuate mind-body dualism in ethnographic descriptions of symbolism and meaningful behavior. This constitutes a methodological error of the first moment. Just because the ethnographer cannot yet measure brain states does not mean they are not occurring. Moreover, there will come a time in the foreseeable future when the technology will be available for direct measures of brain states in the field, and unless ethnological methods and theories come into accord with what we already know about our neurophysiological nature, neuroscience could well supersede anthropology as the discipline of choice in explaining panhuman phenomena (see especially TenHouton 1991).

This criticism is particularly appropriate when ethnography comes intermittently under the influence of the kind of cultural relativistic, "oddities and quiddities" approaches that theoretically ignore or deny panhuman universals in structure and culture. The knowledge comprising much of culture is indeed "local" in the Geertzian sense (Geertz 1983), but it is also rife with universal patterns due to the fact that all knowledge is mediated by structures inherent to the human brain and that mature and develop in diverse settings. Thus the ethnographer should be looking not only at the surface variance among peoples, but also at the patterns of regularity and similarity across cultural boundaries. Ethnographers should be sensitized to both the variety and the structural commonalities in the religious symbolism and practices being studied.

Ritual and the Symbolic Function

The first book-length application of biogenetic structural theory was an account of the evolution and structure of ceremonial ritual. In The Spectrum of Ritual (d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979) we generated a theory of ritual behavior as a mechanism by which intra- and interorganism entrainment of neurocognitive processes are evoked, thus making concerted action among social animals possible. It is methodologically crucial to understand that ritual always involves both internal communication within the organism and external communication between the organism and its conspecifics and world. In other words, ritual is activity that simultaneously constitutes external interactions among group members, or between the individual and its world (including the self) -- what Wallace (1966:218) called "allocommunication" -- and internal relations among structures all the way up and down the functional hierarchy of the individual nervous system -- what Wallace (ibid:220) called "autocommunication." Autocommunication may entail neural interactions ranging from those networks controlling the movement of muscle groups to those mediating the metabolic, emotional, imaginal and cognitive processing (d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979:1-50).

We used the general theory in the first book to examine formalized behavior among animals generally, then specifically among mammals, primates and humans, and finally looked at the various neurocognitive processes mediating arousal, affect, cognition, etc. As it has turned out, ritual has been a major focus of our work (see also d'Aquili 1983, d'Aquili and Laughlin 1975, Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin 1989) because of its ubiquitous nature and its role in controlling and transforming cognition and experience.

A related focus of biogenetic structural analysis has been the symbolic function (see Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Laughlin and Stephens 1980, MacDonald et al. 1989, Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988). We have been particularly interested in how sensory stimuli as symbols are able to penetrate to, and evoke those neurocognitive models mediating meaning, and, in turn, how models express themselves via symbolic actions and artifacts. Among other things, we have developed a theory of the evolution of the symbolic function that proceeds from primordial symbols (e.g., the simple recognition of an object), through cognized SYMBOLS (e.g., metaphors, cosmograms, ritual procedures) to sign systems (e.g., natural language utterances), and finally to formal sign systems (e.g., symbolic logic, set theory), any or all of which may operate at any moment in adult human cognition (Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:172-187).

Intentionality and Prefrontal-Sensorial Polarity

The moment-by-moment organization of the cognized environment is essentially intentional (Searle 1983). This fact is very important to our understanding of the organization of consciousness. Intentionality means that neural networks organize themselves, both spatially and temporally, around an object of consciousness. The focal object (e.g., a percept, category, feeling, sensation, image, thought, etc.) is also mediated by a neural network and is, for the moment, the nexus of cognitive, affective, metabolic and motor operations for the organism (Neisser 1976:20, Biederman 1987).

Intentionality is the experienced result of a polar interaction between the prefrontal cortex and the sensory cortex of the human brain. This interaction is both neurognostic and ubiquitous to human consciousness, regardless of cultural background (Laughlin 1988b, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:105). Subsidiary structures entrained as a consequence of the dialogue between prefrontal and sensory cortical processes may be located over a wide expanse of cortical, subcortical and endocrinal tissues. Intentionality is fundamental to understanding the mechanisms involved in religious practices such as meditation and dance which require intense concentration upon particularly salient objects. Under the proper conditions, the activity of virtually the entire nervous system and body may be reorganized around the object of focus. These conditions may be experienced as "absorption" or "ecstatic states."
Experience and Intentionality

Experience is produced by this intentional dialogue, and consists of the construction of a meaningful, phenomenal world by the sensorium, the latter being a field of neural activity that arises and dissolves in temporally sequential epochs and that is coordinated with cognitive processes that associate meaning and form in a unitary frame (Laughlin 1988b, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:108-112). By experience we are referring to "that which arises before the subject" in consciousness (see Dilthey 1976, Husserl 1977). This includes perception, thought, imagination, intuition, affect, somesthesis and sensation. A point to emphasize is that both the sensory and the cognitive-intentional aspects of experience are active products of neurological functioning, and are exquisitely ordered in the service of abstract pattern recognition in experience (Gibson 1969).

It is well to remember that the natural motivation of the human brain is toward meaningful experience, rather than toward truth. The brain at every moment of consciousness imposes an order upon the experience it produces. Much of that order is an interpretation of the relations among objects and events -- the very essence of meaning. Although experience usually occurs as a unitary field, maintaining a clear distinction between the interpretive and sensorial aspects of experience is methodologically useful. We can schematize this distinction as a kind of Two Hands Clapping Model of experience (see Figure 1).

Intentional-Interpretive 5 Sensory

Processes 5 Processes

5 5


5 5


Figure 1. The Two Hands Clapping Model of Experience. Sensory and intentional-interpretive processes rise to meet the sensorium in each moment of consciousness.
The unity of experience arising each moment in our consciousness is mediated by a continuously changing field of neural entrainments that may include any particular neural network one moment and exclude it the next (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:94-95). This intentional field incorporates both interpretive cognitions and sensorial attributes or "quale." The quale (e.g., color, frequency of tone, texture, line, etc.) are more primitive and hence are more obviously universal. The products of the higher cognitive processes are much more varied. This is why the interpretive aspects of experience tend to diverge more dramatically from individual to individual, and from culture to culture, than do the sensorial aspects. For example, while participating in native rituals the ethnographer may experience numinous light phenomena, body "witness," feeling states or lucid imagery similar to that described by the informants, but may come to interpret these perceptions according to views outside of the worldview of the host culture. Indeed, over-identification with the host interpretation of such experiences may stifle a more complete scientific account of the various processes and principles involved in the encounter. Over-identification with the host worldview (the emic fallacy) may be just as detrimental to good ethnological science as over-identification with current scientific views (the etic fallacy).
Cycles of Consciousness

One of the salient characteristics of the cognized environment is that it is experienced as a stream of recurring realities -- what Alfred Schutz (1945) called "multiple realities." The entrainments that mediate the cognized environment tend to cycle in a circadian loop, regulated by internal oscillators located in the thalamus of the diencephalon and the reticular activating system of the brain stem in interaction with external "zeitgebers" (i.e., temporal cues in the environment, like night and day, alarm clock, cup of coffee, schedules, etc.). Each moment of consciousness is a fresh re-entrainment of the cognized environment, a re-entrainment that is constrained to the general limits of the organism's circadian cycle. Re-entrainment may be experienced as anything from a continuity in the stream of consciousness to a radical transformation of experience.

Phases and Warps of Consciousness

Because the shifting entrainment of consciousness manifests recurrent temporal patterns, we may become aware of "chunks," or natural categories of the cognized environment which we recognize as distinct. The definitive characteristic of awareness is re-collection, re-membering, or re-cognition of patterns in experience, awareness tacitly presumes the role played by knowledge in the construction of experience.

Furthermore, since the recursive quality of experience displays discernable patterns, and may thus be recognized as such, reflexive knowledge about consciousness itself involves knowledge of experiential episodes. If an episode is perceived as a salient unit, then it may be cognized as distinct from other episodes, and perhaps categorically labelled: for example, I am "awake," "stoned," "depressed," "dreaming," "angry," "out of my body," "playing," etc. These cognized and labelled categories of experience, and their mediating neurocognitive entrainments, we call phases of consciousness. The points of experiential and neurophysiological transformation between phases we call warps of consciousness (Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:140-145).
Ritual and Warp Control

When a society wishes to exercise control over the recurrence and quality of a phase of consciousness, it will tend to ritualize the individual's activity during the warp preceding the phase (Laughlin et al. 1986). Warps are durations of neural transformation that are usually both short and efficacious. They also tend to occur unconsciously. For example, the hypnagogic warp before sleep lasts but a few seconds in most people in our society, yet its activity determines the quality of the dream phases that follow it. Tibetan dream yogis learn to control the hypnagogic by practicing certain rituals and are able to exercise considerable control over the organization of experience during dreaming. For this reason, the ethnographer should learn to recognize shifts in states of consciousness in informants and ascertain what, if any, ritual activity has been positioned so as to mediate the change of their internal state.

Rituals are often symbolically rich events. Moreover, rituals incorporate a variety of drivers that may account in some measure for the rituals' efficacy. Drivers are ritual elements that evoke specific neurophysiological effects. They may be fairly gross in their form, such as drumming, dancing, injestion of psychotropic drugs, sweat baths, ordeals, flickering lights, chanting, fasting, special diets, etc., or they may be relatively subtle in form, such as extraordinary concentration upon the breath, upon eidetic imagery, or upon a question. Drivers are very often universal in essential form. That is, their most efficacious aspects are found in rituals of peoples all over the planet (e.g., long bouts of drumming or chanting).

The ethnographer should also be aware that while a ritual activity may be a necessary condition for an intended experience, and perhaps even include a profusion of drivers, it is unlikely to be a sufficient condition. A ritual is a totality that is itself an element in a greater play. There will be other ingredients required to evoke the intended experience. For example, one may repeat a meditation many times without reaching the intended goal, because perhaps one of the requisites for the intended experience may be a certain level of tranquillity. It is not uncommon (e.g., in the Sun Dance; see Jorgensen 1972) for practitioners to have to repeat a ritual activity numerous times, and perhaps for years, before the intended experience arises. In addition, because experience develops over the course of life, rituals may be repeated over the course of years with the experiences intended by the guide or teacher changing with the maturation of the practitioner. Just because the ethnographer has participated in a ritual and has had an experience recognized by the host culture does not mean that the ethnographer has exhausted the repertoire of possibly relevant experiences evoked by the practice in informants who have been at it for years. The fact that Napoleon Chagnon (1977) took the psychotropic drug used by Yanomamo shamans once does not mean that he experienced the many and varied subtleties of reality that a mature shaman might experience.

Monophasic and Polyphasic Cultures

Mundane phases of consciousness naturally alternate between those phases that promote adaptation to the external operational environment (we lump these together and call them "being awake" in our culture) and those phases that promote mutual adaptation of tissues within the organism (we call these "being asleep;" see McManus, Laughlin and Shearer 1993). As a consequence, intentionality alternates between perceived objects and relations in the external operational environment, and imagined objects and relations representing internal processes of somatic activity. Many societies integrate knowledge gleaned from experiences encountered in all phases of consciousness within a single worldview. We call these polyphasic cultures.

By contrast, modern Euroamerican society typically gives credence only to experiences had in the "normal" waking phases -- that is, in the phases of consciousness oriented primarily toward adaptation to the external operational environment. We thus live in a relatively monophasic culture. Monophasic cultures are often characterized by a marked concern for adaptation to the external world, and have relatively less concern for inner growth and balance among phases of consciousness (Laughlin, McManus and D'Aquili 1990:155). Ethnographers who have been raised in monophasic cultures, and who find themselves working in polyphasic ones, may have to learn to access other phases of consciousness within their own experience which they may have heretofore ignored. Otherwise, they may miss precisely those experiences that enrich the worldview of their hosts. The ethnographer may be experientially out of accord with the host culture in two obvious situations: One is when the ethnographer is out of touch with his or her dream life and doing fieldwork among a society that routinely tracks their dream experiences and considers dreaming to be a substantial source of knowledge about themselves and their world. The other is when the polyphasic worldview of the host is enriched with experiences had while participating in rituals and drug-induced "trips" unavailable for whatever reason to the ethnographer.
Cross-Phase Transference

Phases of consciousness organized around the inner life of the individual are frequently ignored, repressed, negatively sanctioned, considered pathological, or otherwise derided by a monophasic culture. Experiences in alternative phases may be lost or compartmentalized in memory due to a failure of cross-phase transference. Memory of experiences in one phase of consciousness (dream, "trance") may be lost to another phase of consciousness ("awake") due to a radical transformation of intentionality during the warp between phases. Minimal reentrainment across warps is all that is required for integration of phases into some kind of continuity in memory. Fragmented phases of consciousness may arise in societies in which there are neither ritualized methods of cross-phase transference, nor a culturally transmitted, multiple reality worldview.

The Cycle of Meaning

The process of integrating knowledge, memory and experience, especially within a polyphasic society, we call the cycle of meaning. According to this cycle, a society's cosmology is expressed in its mythopoeic symbolism (myth, ritual performance, drama, art, stories, etc.) in such a way that it evokes direct experiences in alternative phases of consciousness (see Figure 2). The experiences and memories that arise as a consequence of participation in the mythopoeic procedures are in turn interpreted in terms of the cosmology in such a way that they verify and vivify the cosmology. A living cycle of meaning would seem to be a delicate process, and one that requires change or "revitalization" (Wallace 1966) over time in order for meaningful dialogue to continue between worldview and experience. The social construction of knowledge and individual experience are indeed involved in a reciprocal feedback system the properties of which may be changed by circumstances in such a way that the link between knowledge and experience may be hampered, and even lost. In other words, a religious system may become moribund due for some reason to the failure of the dialogue between worldview and direct experience.



By Shaman





By Shaman



Figure 2. The Cycle of Meaning. The society's worldview is expressed symbolically in its mythopoeia, and especially its ritual, which leads to direct experiences that are interpreted in such a way that the worldview is vivified and verified. Shamans may interject their influence into the process by structuring the symbolic expression and again by helping to interpret experience.
Many polyphasic societies encourage their members to explore multiple phases of consciousness (through dreams, visions, meditation states, drug trips, trance states, etc.) and interpret experiences that arise according to culturally recognized systems of meaning (Winkelman 1986, 1990). This process of exploring experiences in multiple realities combined with social appropriation of the meaning of these experiences within a single cycle of meaning is definitive of polyphasic culture (see e.g., Tonkinson 1978 and Poirier 1990 on the Australian Aborigines, Guedon 1984 on the Tsimshian in Canada, Laderman 1991 on Malay culture, Peters 1982 on Tamang shamanism). Many societies go so far as to compel alternative phases of consciousness by putting its members through initiation procedures, including ingesting psychotropic drugs and enforcing vision quests (see Bourguignon 1973, Naranjo 1987). The experiences encountered during these procedures in turn reify the society's multiple reality cosmology.

The role of the shaman in both initiating practitioners into experiences and interpreting those experiences for the practitioner and the society at large may be important. In some societies the "shamanic" role may be diffused throughout the population of elders who have themselves undergone the requisite initiates. In other societies, control of initiation and interpretation may be in the hands of a secret society. In still other societies, particular individuals may be recognized as especially adept at leading others through healing and other initiatory experiences, and interpreting experiences that arise of the initiate in dreams and other phases of consciousness.

Transpersonal Anthropology

Competent ethnographic fieldwork among some religious systems requires nothing less than a trained transpersonal anthropologist. A transpersonal anthropologist is one that is capable of participating in transpersonal experience; that is, capable of both attaining whatever extraordinary experiences and phases of consciousness that enrich the religious system, and relating these experiences to invariant patterns of symbolism, cognition and practice found in religions and cosmologies all over the planet (see d'Aquili 1982, Laughlin 1988a, 1989, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin McManus and Shearer 1983, Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1984, MacDonald et al. 1989, Webber et al. 1983). Our eventual goal is to understand: (1) the maximum potential genetic and developmental limits to patterns of entrainment and therefore to human consciousness in any and all cultures, (2) the mechanisms by which societies condition patterns of entrainment so as to control (limit or extend) the range of human experience, and the maturation of experience, (3) the mechanisms by which societies produce recurrent extraordinary experiences in some or all of their members so as to enliven their worldviews, and (4) by extrapolation, the possible future evolutionary possibilities of human consciousness (Laughlin and Richardson 1986).

Transpersonal anthropology is really just a natural extension of the grand tradition of "participant observation" that has made ethnology so unique among the social sciences. But it is an extension that requires the ethnographer to "suspend disbelief" in the native worldview to an extraordinary extent and to participate actively in those native procedures that guide one to the extraordinary experiences that give the worldview its spiritual grounding (see Young and Goulet n.d.). The ethnographer may have to go to the extent of apprenticing to a shaman or becoming a member of a secret society in order to gain access to the teachings leading eventually to relevant transpersonal experiences. Transpersonal ethnography depends upon applying something like the process of spiritual exploration outlined by Ken Wilber in A Sociable God (1983:133):

1. Injunction: this is always in the form, "If you want to know this, do this."

2. Apprehension: cognitive apprehension and illumination of "object domain" addressed by the injunction.

3. Communal confirmation: results are checked with those members of the host culture who have adequately completed the injunction and illuminative procedures.

To take an example from my own work among Tibetan Buddhist lamas, operationalizing the injunction was relatively straightforward. Lamas teach by a system of ritual initiations (wang kur) that dramatize the attributes of the focal deity. And the deity represents a state(s) of consciousness to be eventually realized by the initiate. The initiate participates rather passively in the drama, but is given certain active meditation work to complete in the weeks and months following the initiation. In keeping with many esoteric religious systems, the lama knows the extent of the maturation of the meditation by the experiences reported to him by the initiate. The meditations incorporate such ritual drivers as chanting, percussion, visualization, intense concentration, special diet, fasting, breathing exercises, body postures, etc., that all participate in incubating and eventually evoking transpersonal experiences that become the meaning of the symbolism for the initiate (Wilber's "apprehension and illumination"). Confirmation is attained in dialogue with one's lama and with other meditators who have undergone the same or similar disciplines. It becomes clear in time that in order to comprehend the meaning of the symbolism, one must do the work necessary to flesh out the experientially rich meaning. In a word, if the ethnographer has not undergone the apprehension phase, he or she cannot comprehend the real meaning the symbolism holds for the native.

To offer another example, Carol Laderman reports an experience she had of the angin, or "Inner Wind," she had while working with a shaman named Pak Long during her fieldwork among the Malay:

I thought [Pak Long] wanted to do a short ritual for me, to release me from the dangers inherent in witnessing women give birth, a ritual he had often performed for my benefit at the close of Main Peteri. Instead, he proceeded to recite the story of Dewa Muda (which he had deduced was my primary Inner Wind), accompanied by the orchestra and his own rhythmic pounding on the floor. My trust in him was strong enough now to allay my fears, and I allowed my consciousness to shift into an altered state. At the height of my trance, I felt the Wind blowing inside my chest with the force of a hurricane. ...When I later described the feelings I had while in trance to others who had been patients of Pak Long, they assured me that mine was a common experience. They also wondered at my surprise. One woman remarked, "Why did you think we call them Winds?"


Following through with the commitment to participant observation in the transpersonal realm adds both to the richness of the descriptive literature on the ethnography of religion, and to the depth of our understanding of how these systems work.
Training in Phenomenology

One reason why anthropologists have so often neglected the transpersonal realm of experience is that the culture of science in our age is, and has been for many generations, anti-introspectionist in its positivistic bias. This is particularly noticeable today in some schools of cognitive science where introspective methods are considered anathema. What is needed in ethnology is some training in phenomenology, especially for those wishing to do cross-cultural research on religious systems. Phenomenology (a la Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Aron Gurwitsch, and others, as well as some shamanic and eastern mystical traditions) is the study of the essential (invariant) processes of consciousness by way of mature contemplation.4

Phenomenological training directs the mind inward in a disciplined way. The student learns to direct concentration and inquiry toward his or her internal processes, be those processes dreaming, bodily functions (such as breathing, movement, etc.), eidetic imagery, feelings, thought processes, etc. The training builds habit patterns that counter the Euroamerican conditioning toward ignoring or repressing internal processes, and prepares the student for the kind of procedures used in the alien culture for incubating and attaining transpersonal experiences.


Disciplines such as humanistic and transpersonal psychology, ethnology, cognitive science and the neurosciences have been profitably combined to produce a broader understanding of consciousness-related phenomena (e.g., LeDoux and Hirst 1986; see TenHouton 1991 on the "ethnoneurologies"). Biogenetic structuralism is one such interdisciplinary dialogue in that we have attempted wherever possible to integrate transpersonal and phenomenological data into our avowed neuroanthropological analyses. In a word, we insist upon keeping the brain in mind -- and the mind-in-brain. We feel the most profitable approach to the study of our species and its unique consciousness is one that casts the widest possible net -- one that is open to, and that incorporates data: (1) that are derived from all relevant naturalistic (ethnographic), anatomical, clinical and experimental sources, (2) that have the widest experiential and phenomenological grounding, and (3) that pertains to the total context of consciousness within which the particular phenomenon being studied is embedded.

Perhaps our most important message to the ethnographer is that they should never lose sight of the relationship between experience and religious practice and institutions in non-Euroamerican societies. To treat ritual as merely exotic behavior, or even as meaningful behavior, without inquiring into the experiential realms associated with the behavior is to be satisfied with doing a half-job. This is true, even when the experience that may give core meaning to religious symbolism is for the most part invisible to the fieldworker. At least the fieldworker can give due credence to the native descriptions of experience, even though such experiences may elude the researcher (e.g., see Katz's 1982 description of his experiences with !Kung Bushman practices). The heuristic value of our model of the cycle of meaning is that it reminds us that the knowledge constituting much of culture derives its meaning in part via direct experience. And with respect to religious knowledge, the meaning in a living cosmology frequently derives from the extraordinary, even transpersonal experiences of the religions's practitioners. It is likely that few fieldworkers have accomplished these extraordinary experiences (but see Young and Goulet n.d.), and as a consequence the importance of such experiences has frequently been missed in the ethnographic accounts of religious systems. Biogenetic structuralism has developed a model of consciousness that requires an effort be made to describe both the external and internal activities of religious practitioners. Admittedly, this requirement poses a methodological challenge for the fieldworker. But it is not insurmountable, especially where the fieldworker is willing to participate in the activities designed to evoke the experiences that so enrich the religious aspects of the native worldview.

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* Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6, Ph: (819) 459-1121. He is the co-author of Biogenetic Structuralism (1974), The Spectrum of Ritual (1979), Extinction and Survival in Human Populations (1978), Science As Cognitive Process (1984), and Brain, Symbol and Experience (1990). He has done ethnographic fieldwork among the So of northeastern Uganda, Tibetan lamas (as a monk for seven years) during several trips to Nepal and India, and the Navajo in New Mexico. The author wishes to thank Professor John Cove, Dr. Eugene d'Aquili, Dr. Robert Rubinstein, Jon Shearer, John McManus and Susan Sample for sharing freely their many insights along the way. He also wishes to thank his teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, especially Namgyal Rimpoche, Chogay Trichen Rimpoche, and the late Kalu Rimpoche.

1 We borrowed these terms from Rappaport (1968), but have considerably changed their meanings.

2 We have given a technical definition of "adaptive isomorphism" in d'Aquili et al. (1979: 17). The term implies that models are partially isomorphic to at least the extent required for survival. "Isomorphic" means that the elements and relations comprising the neural model are not the same as those of the noumenon in the being or the world being modeled. And just as there is more to a real airplane than there is to a model airplane, so too is there "transcendentally" more to the noumenon than there is to the model -- unless, of course, it is the neural network comprising the model that is itself the noumenon.

3 Edmund Husserl's (1931) term for this is "horizon."

4 Several recent studies by the author exemplify this merging of contemplative anthropological and neuroscientific perspectives. Some of my own work has been directed at developing a "neurophenomenology" -- that is, a phenomenology that is lodged in a neuroscientific and anthropological explanatory framework. One study discusses the essential intentionality of consciousness (noted by all phenomenologies) in terms of the dialogue between prefrontal cortex and sensorial cortex, as we discussed above (Laughlin 1988b). A second study suggests the relationship between invariant temporal patterns of perceptual sequencing and the neuropsychological literature available on "perceptual framing" (Laughlin 1988c). A third study pertains to the experiential foundations of the concept of causation (Laughlin 1992a). And a fourth study looks at the fuzziness of natural categories in relation to transpersonal and contemplative experiences (Laughlin 1992b).

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