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THE CYCLE OF MEANING:
SOME METHODOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF
BIOGENETIC STRUCTURAL THEORY
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