June 29, 2012

The worldwide reach of shamanism

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 5:46 pm by Jeremy

This section of my book begins an examination of shamanism.  It kicks off by defining it, looking at its worldwide reach and asking why shamanism got to be so global…

[Previous section: The hunter-gatherer view of the natural world]

The worldwide reach of shamanism

Shamanism is one of those controversial terms that can spark innumerable debates among both academics and spiritual seekers, such as whether it should be identified with a specific region, how old it is, and even how it should be defined.  For our purposes, a shaman can be understood as a particular person within a hunter-gatherer society who is believed to have the ability to mediate between the everyday world and the spirit worlds (of which there are frequently two: an upper world in the sky and a lower world beneath the earth).[1]*

A shaman is someone who mediates between the everyday world and the spirit worlds

This mediation generally takes the form of a journey, in which the shaman’s spirit leaves his regular body to visit the other worlds.  In order to embark on this journey, the shaman needs to get himself into a kind of ecstatic trance, something he does through a combination of different kinds of activities: chanting, fasting, hyperventilating, prolonged rhythmic dancing, and frequently ingesting intoxicating or hallucinogenic substances.  Often, this initiation of the journey is a community event, in which others join in the chanting or dancing, but it can also be a solitary experience for the shaman.  While he’s on the journey, the shaman’s body will sometimes be seen to be shaking and “talking in tongues,” while the shaman’s spirit may be taking the form of another animal.  Once he’s in one of the spirit worlds, the shaman will engage in the (oftentimes terrifying) experience of communicating with the spirits, usually with the goal of accomplishing a specific need of the community, which might include healing, controlling the activities of the wild animals or possibly influencing the weather.[2]

Shamanism was first by observed by Western travelers in Siberia and Central Asia and the word originated from the Tungusic tribes of Eastern Siberia where the central figure of the community was called the saman.[3]  Because of this, some purists have insisted that the term should be reserved only for the specific kind of shamanism practiced in Siberia and Central Asia.

Shamanism was first observed by Western travelers in the Tungusic tribe of Siberia

At the other extreme, various post-modernists have argued that although something like shamanism may exist around the world, no meaningful generalizations can be made about its different forms, and each variety should be understood separately, within its own context.[4]  However, other studies of shamanism around the world have produced overwhelmingly convincing evidence showing a pattern of the type of shamanistic practices described above in the vast majority of forager cultures worldwide, leading to the reasonable conclusion that shamanism is in fact a universal hunter-gatherer practice and there is “every reason to study them together with Siberian shamanism.”[5]

Just as important as the worldwide reach of shamanism is its continued influence on major cultural traditions that evolved well beyond shamanism’s hunter-gatherer origins.  For example, significant shamanistic influences have been identified in the practices of traditional Indian Yoga, in some of the underlying practices of ancient Chinese culture, and in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica.[6]*

Shamanic practices have been identified as the original source of modern yoga

Why would shamanism be so prevalent all around the world?  There are two possible explanations for this.  One theory postulates shamanism as a tradition practiced in the earliest days of modern humans, back in the time when the first epic journey was being taken out of Africa.  Under this “diffusion” hypothesis, the original Upper Paleolithic immigrants to Europe brought shamanistic beliefs with them, as did their fellow travelers who migrated throughout Asia.  Some of those Asian settlers then crossed the Bering Straits around thirteen thousand years ago, making it all the way down to the southern part of South America within a couple of thousand years, along with their shamanistic practices.  This theory thus sees shamanism as “a very ancient mythological base that was shared by Asia and America on a Paleolithic level.”[7]  The other theory asserts that shamanism is “the consequence of independent inventions, or derivations, from a common neuropsychology” of human beings, and would therefore be expected to emerge in different hunter-gatherer societies worldwide independent of any diffusion.[8]  Importantly, these two theories are not mutually exclusive: shamanism could be an expected result of the underlying hunter-gatherer worldview as described earlier, as well as having diffused historically from the original “out of Africa” migration.[9]*  In this case, shamanism should have been an integral part of the early human “mythic consciousness” discussed in the previous chapter, and its reliance on altered states of consciousness might tell us something about the evolving role of the pfc in the human mind.


[1] See Eliade, M. (1964/2004). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, chapter 8, “Shamanism and Cosmology”, 259-287.  While shamanism is sometimes viewed as existing in both hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, Winkelman has argued convincingly that the socio-cognitive shifts caused by agriculture lead to a “transformation of the shaman into other types of magico-religious healing practitioners,” and that true shamanism is in fact limited to forager societies.  This issue, however, does not affect the discussion of shamanism as a hunter-gatherer phenomenon presented here.  See Winkelman, M. J. (1990). “Shamans and Other “Magico-Religious” Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations.” Ethos, 18(3), 308-352.

[2] For summary descriptions and definitions of shaman practices, see Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 133; Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101; Winkelman, M. (1990) op. cit.; Grosman, L., Munro, N. D., and Belfer-Cohen, A. (2008). “A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel).” PNAS, 105(46), 17665-17669; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., passim.

[3] Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4.

[4] See discussions of this issue in Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Wright (2009) op. cit., 490-91n; D.S. Whitley in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.

[5] Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4.  Also, see Winkelman (1990) op. cit. and Lewis-Williams (2002) op. cit.

[6] In the case of Yoga, Feuerstein describes “many aspects and motifs of Shamanism” including the “yogin’s ecstatic introversion and mystical ascent,” a number of the yogic postures including the cross-legged sitting and the tradition of tapas or asceticism.  See Feuerstein, G. (1998). The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 94-5.  In the case of Chinese culture, Chang describes the “close relationship with shamanism” of ancient Chinese civilization in Chang, K.-C. (2000). “Ancient China and Its Anthropological Significance”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, pp. 1-11; Creel describes the early Chinese tradition of “wu, often called ‘shamans,’ who held séances with spirits and were believed able to heal the sick” in Creel, H. G. (1970). What Is Taoism? and Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 11-12; and Eliade notes the “presence of a considerable number of shamanic techniques throughout the course of Chinese history,” in Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 456-7.  Chang (2000) op. cit. notes the shamanistic sources of Mayan and Aztec practices, referring to the research of Peter T. Furst.

[7] Willey, G. R. (2000). “Ancient Chinese, New World, and Near Eastern Ideological Traditions: Some Observations”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Monographs, pp. 25-36.  See also Jean Clottes in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.; Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 333.

[8] Winkelman (2002) op. cit.

[9] In his argument for a “common neuropsychology,” Winkelman points out that “one must ask why shamanic practices should maintain such similarity across time and societies,  while the language and other social variables such as marriage patterns, family organization, marital residence, and kinship terminology should acquire such divergent patterns.”  He concludes that “even if the present distribution of shamanism can be attributed to diffusion from an original common source, it would not have persisted if it were based merely upon a diffused system of belief and not also upon some other objective features that made it an adaptive response.” – Winkelman (1990) op. cit.

May 31, 2012

Everything is connected

Posted in Hunter-gatherers tagged , , , , , at 4:17 pm by Jeremy

This section of my book on the hunter-gatherer worldview discusses its most important underlying assumption: that everything is connected.  At the end of the section, I speculate that the connectivity of this worldview and the intrinsic connectivity of language (through recursion) is not coincidental, but arises from the fact that both conceptual systems emerge from the unique connectivity and patterning instinct of the human prefrontal cortex (pfc).

Everything is connected

Of all the underlying patterns of the hunter-gatherer worldview, there is probably none so pervasive as the implicit belief that all aspects of the world – humans, animals, ancestors, spirits, trees, rocks and rivers – are interrelated parts of a dynamic, integrated whole.  In the words of one anthropologist, “hunter-gatherers think about the world in a highly integrated fashion, with an interpenetration of the natural and social in a single integrated environment, and an ideology encompassing humans, animals, and plants in a living nature.”[1]  The natural environment is, for hunter-gatherers, most definitely alive.  Anthropologist Richard Nelson writes evocatively about the sentient natural world perceived by the Koyukon people of Alaska’s boreal forest:

Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.  A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone.  The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified.  They feel.  They can be offended.  And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.  All things in nature have a special kind of life… All that exists in nature is imbued with awareness and power; all events in nature are potentially manifestations of this power; all actions toward nature are mediated by consideration of its consciousness and sensitivity.[2]

This sentience of nature is frequently manifested in the spirits that are perceived to exist all around.  To call these spirits “supernatural” would be a serious misconception, applying another modern viewpoint anachronistically to the hunter-gatherer cosmology.

To hunter-gatherers, spirits were an integral part of the natural world

These spirits are an integral part of the natural world just as much as humans and other animals.  As Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness wrote about the spirits of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indians, “they are a part of the natural order of the universe no less than man himself, whom they resemble in the possession of intelligence and emotions.  Like man, too, they are male or female, and in some cases at least may even have families of their own.  Some are tied down to definite localities, some move from place to place at will; some are friendly to Indians, other hostile.”[3]

Just as the spirits are integrally connected to the natural world, so those aspects of life that we define as “religion” permeate all the normal, daily activities of the hunter-gatherer.  As Wright puts it, “one of the more ironic properties of hunter-gatherer religion: it doesn’t exist.  That is, if you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.  The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label ‘religious’ are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them.”[4]

One forager tradition that powerfully demonstrates the interconnectedness of each of the dimensions of life that we tend to keep separate is the Aboriginal Dreamtime.    As described by researcher Deborah Bird Rose, “in Aboriginal Australia, the living world is a created world, brought into being as a world of form, difference, and connection by creative beings called Dreamings.”[5]  Rose goes on to describe the Aboriginal creation myth of the Dreamtime:

The Australian continent is crisscrossed with the tracks of the Dreamings: walking, slithering, crawling, flying, chasing, hunting, weeping, dying, birthing.  They were performing rituals, distributing the plants, making the landforms and water, establishing things in their own places, making the relationships between one place and another.  They left parts of themselves, looked back and looked ahead, and still traveled, changing languages, changing songs, changing skin.  They were changing shape from animal to human and back to animal and human again, becoming ancestral to particular animals and humans.  Through their creative actions they demarcated a world of difference and of relationships that crosscut difference.[6]

Through the Dreamtime, Australian Aboriginals integrate not only the human, natural and spiritual domains, but also the past, present and future.  We are used to creation myths describing events that occurred long ago, but for the Aboriginals the Dreamtime exists in the present as much as in the past.

For the Australian aboriginals, the Dreamtime exists as much in the present as the past

In the words of one observer, “it exists as a kind of metaphysical now, … a spiritual yet nonetheless real dimension of time and space somehow interpenetrating and concurrent with our own.”[7]  The creative ancestors may connect with humans in dreams, but also in other ways.  For example, in a phenomenon known as “conception Dreaming,” it’s believed that the spirit of the place where a woman initially conceives a baby enters the fetus there, and remains a part of the infant when she’s born.[8] As Rose describes it, there is “thus a web of relatedness in which everything is connected to something that is connected to something, and so forth.”[9]  Here is the same idea expressed in the more concrete words of an elderly aboriginal lady, Daisy Utemorrah:

All these things, the plants and the trees, the mountains and the hills and the stars and the clouds, we represent them.  You see these trees over there?  We represent them.  I might represent that tree there.  Might be my name there, in that tree.  Yes, and the reeds, too, in the waters… the frogs and the tadpoles and the fish… even the crickets… all kinds of things… we represent them.[10]

This integration of meaning, where “nothing is without connection,”[11] is intriguingly reminiscent of the inherent structure of language as described earlier.[12]  In language, the power of recursion can be viewed as a “magical weave,” permitting the connection of previously separate modules of the brain in order to create new meaning.  Just as in language a symbolic network permits emergent meaning to arise from its connectivity, so in the hunter-gatherer worldview, all aspects of life participate in a conceptual system which “links species, places, and regions, and leaves no region, place, species, or individual standing outside creation, life processes, and responsibilities.”[13]  I suggest that this similarity between the structure of language and the forager worldview is not coincidental, but rather arises from the fact that both conceptual systems are created by the innate connectivity and patterning instinct of the pfc.


[1] Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101.

[2] Nelson, R. K. (2002). “The watchful world”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 343-364.

[3] Cited in Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[4] Wright (2009) op. cit., 19-20.

[5] Rose, D. B. (2002). “Sacred site, ancestral clearing, and environmental ethics”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 319-342.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arden, H. (1994). Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia, New York: HarperCollins, 3-4.

[8] Rose, D. B. (1996). Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 39-40.

[9] Rose (2002) op. cit.

[10] Arden (1994) op. cit., 23.

[11] Rose (2002) op. cit.

[12] See Chapter 3, “What’s special about language?”, page 29.

[13] Ibid.

May 25, 2012

Video of Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex presentation

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , at 6:04 pm by Jeremy

Here’s a video of the presentation I gave at the conference Towards A Science of Consciousness in April.

It’s called the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex and summarizes what this blog is all about, and a major theme of my book Liology: Towards A Science of Consciousness.

I hope you’ll find it a worthwhile twenty minutes.

May 22, 2012

“Where am I? Among what do I move?”

Posted in Hunter-gatherers tagged , at 4:11 pm by Jeremy

I’m going to resume posting on this blog sections of the book I’m writing entitled Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning.  Last year, I posted in this blog the first four chapters of the book.  Today, I’m beginning with the first section of my chapter on the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, entitled “The Giving Environment: The World of the Hunter-Gatherers.”  It will examine their lifestyle and cosmology, and identify their values which are in many ways so fundamentally different from our own.

The first section, below, is called “Where am I?  Among what do I move?” is about some of the conceptual issues arising from any serious study of hunter-gatherer cosmology:

  • the common error of applying anachronistic viewpoints and values to hunter-gatherers;
  • the question whether any universal values can actually be applied to such a diverse group;
  • how valid is it to use observations about contemporary hunter-gatherer groups to understand those from our distant past.

As always, please feel free to leave me any constructive comments or thoughts.

‘Where am I?  Among what do I move?”

Modern political commentators frequently like to use the example of hunter-gatherers to make their point about our underlying human nature, as if to show that their position is unassailably correct.  It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.  The seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, famously wrote that “the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all,” leading to “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” as a result of which the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1]

For Thomas Hobbes, the lives of hunter-gatherers were “nasty, brutish and short.”

In the turning intellectual tides of the following century, the diametrically opposed romantic myth of the “noble savage,” associated with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, took hold of the European imagination.[2]*  Nowadays, the references are more sophisticated but the underlying themes remain.  Liberal commentators like to emphasize the group-oriented, sharing mentality of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (also sometimes referred to as “foragers”), while their conservative opponents continue the Hobbesian line, pointing to the endemic warfare of many pre-civilized cultures.

For Rousseau, hunter-gatherers were “noble savages.”

In reality, any attempt to understand the hunter-gatherer worldview through the lens of our modern value system is doomed to draw a distorted and inaccurate picture.  Such perspectives are by their very nature anachronistic, using conceptual structures that developed many thousands of years after the patterns of thought evolved that infuse hunter-gatherer cognition.  Therefore, this chapter attempts the daunting challenge of painting an impression of the hunter-gatherer worldview without applying modern values to the picture.  The approach is first to identify the underpinnings of how foragers made sense of their world, then to relate this to the mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter, and finally to trace how certain core values characteristic to hunter-gatherers arose from this worldview.

But first, another potential conceptual stumbling block has to be resolved.  A chapter on the “hunter-gatherer worldview” implicitly assumes that there is, in fact, a unitary worldview of hunter-gatherers that can be described.  How can that be?  How can a group of forest-dwellers deep in the heart of the Amazon see the world in the same way as a community of Inuit up in the Arctic circle?  For that matter, since hunter-gatherers have been around since time immemorial, who’s to say if their worldview today has any similarity to that of their ancestors in past millennia?  There is some truth in these objections.  The languages and the specific attributes of the environment differ drastically for different hunter-gatherer cultures.  One culture may be oriented around a river, another around the migration of a particular animal.  In fact, the differences between various cultures are some of the marvels of our world and are justifiably celebrated as such.  But over many decades of anthropological research, there has been an increasing realization of what the prominent anthropologist Bruce Trigger calls “certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior.”[3]  These uniformities tend to exist under the surface of the specific beliefs and practices of different forager groups, leading to underlying patterns of thought that are remarkably similar across cultures even while the manifestations of those patterns are delightfully unique for each culture. These underlying patterns relate to what’s been described as “that organization of ideas which answers to a man the questions: Where am I?  Among what do I move?  What are my relations to these things?”[4]  They are the underlying structures of the hunter-gatherer’s “cognitive orientation in a cosmos.”[5] In the words of anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, “there are basic premises and principles implied, even if these do not happen to be consciously formulated and articulated by the people themselves.”[6]  In short, they form the infrastructure of the hunter-gatherer worldview, and it’s this chapter’s mission to try to describe them.

Given the earlier warning about anachronisms, it’s important to spend a moment on another potential source of controversy in understanding hunter-gatherer cultures: whether or not it’s valid to use contemporary observations made by anthropologists to impute the primordial hunter-gatherer worldview all the way back to Upper Paleolithic days.

Kalahari Bushmen: is it valid to use modern hunter-gatherers as a model of earlier pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies?

The 19th century archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, who first coined the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic, kicked off this tradition, writing a bestseller called Pre-historic Times in which he considered the foragers of his era as “the living representatives of the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic.”[7]  We’ve come a long way since then, and modern theorists warn that it’s “unreliable to generalize from the ethnographic present to the paleolithic past without explicit supporting evidence.”[8]  After all, not only is there the question of how hunter-gatherer cosmology may have evolved on its own accord, but there’s also the inevitable influence from agricultural communities surrounding those few hunter-gatherer societies that still remain.  Nevertheless, in the words of modern scholar Robert Wright, “they’re the best clues we’ll ever have to generic religious beliefs circa 12,000 BCE, before the invention of agriculture.  Cave paintings are attractive, but they don’t talk.”[9]*  Given our search for underlying uniformities in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems reasonable to apply the general principle that the more you see a structural pattern in different contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, the more confidently you can apply this pattern to the past.

[Next post: Everything is connected]


[1] Hobbes, T. (1651).  Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, London: Andrew Crooke, Chapter XIII.

[2] See Keeley, L. H. (1996). War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, New York: Oxford University Press, 5-8, for a detailed summary of the Hobbes versus Rousseau debate.  However, it should be noted that Rousseau, although an ardent critic of Hobbes, in fact never used the “noble savage” phrase, which was coined by the English poet John Dryden in 1672 in the poem “The Conquest of Granada.”

[3] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 683.

[4] Redfield, R. (1952).  “The Primitive World View”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96, 30-36.

[5] Hallowell, A. I. (1960/2002). “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, 19-20.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 152.

[8] Ibid., 118-19.

[9] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 17.  His view is echoed by renowned archaeologist Graeme Barker who writes “… although there is today, and has been in the recent past, considerable variability in forager societies, much more striking are the similarities that can be discerned in the economic, organizational, and ideational or cognitive solutions that most of them have developed for living as they do.  For all the difficulties of using ethnographic material, the behaviours of recent and present-day foragers remain an invaluable resource for helping us reflect on the likely characteristics of forager behaviours before farming.”  See Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 44.

April 20, 2012

Presentation at “Towards a Science of Consciousness”

Posted in Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , at 2:54 pm by Jeremy

Last week, I gave my presentation on the “Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex” at the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona.  I’m glad to say it was very well received, and an interesting and wide ranging set of questions ensued.

Here are a couple of pictures of me at the podium.

Image  Image

I’m working on editing a video of the presentation, which I’ll post on this blog as soon as it comes available.  Meanwhile, you can click here to download a pdf version of the presentation.

May 23, 2011

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

Posted in consciousness, Language and Myth tagged , , , at 5:53 pm by Jeremy

This blog describes how our current state of consciousness may be viewed as a “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex.”  Sounds a little extreme, perhaps?  Well, hopefully browsing the pages of this blog will persuade you.  But, if you have a desire to place this view in the context of some highly respected academic viewpoints, look no further than the celebrated cognitive neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, who describes this very tyranny with reference to what he calls “Big Brother culture.”  Or check out the equally respected anthropologist/neurosocientist, Terrence Deacon, who describes how our “symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.”

This last section of my chapter on the “Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Liology: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, pulls together my concept of the external pfc with the viewpoints of these two other luminaries.

[PREVIOUS POST]

“Ensnared in an inescapable web”

How much are we in control of our own constructions of meaning that we apply to the world around us?  To what extent has our culture’s external pfc shaped our minds so that we can only think in the patterns we’ve inherited from the past?  Merlin Donald warns us that the external pfc has “assumed a certain autonomy”[1] and in many ways acts like an organism with its own volition.  He makes his point with some hard-hitting words:

Our cultures invade us and set our agendas.  Once we have internalized the symbolic conventions of a culture, we can never again be truly alone in semantic space, even if we were to withdraw to a hermitage or spend the rest of our lives in solitary confinement.  Big Brother culture owns us because it gets to us early.  As a result, we internalize its norms and habits at a very basic level.  We have no choice in this.  Culture influences what moves us, what we look for, and how we think for as long as we live.  We work out the vectors of our lives in a space that is defined culturally.  In some cases, this process involves a hierarchy of influences that are normally invisible to us.[2]

The external pfc invades our consciousness like an alien force from an old Star Trek re-run

Like an alien force from an old Star Trek re-run, the external pfc maintains its existence outside any one of us, and yet at the same time pervades our minds.  In Deacon’s description, it’s “not bounded within a mind or body, and derives its existence from outside – from other minds and other times.  It is implicitly part of a larger whole, and … is virtually present independent of the existence of the particular brain and body that support it.”[3]  But as Deacon points out, it is most certainly not virtual in its impact on the tangible world around us.  The abstract conceptions created by the external pfc – whether it’s Valhalla, Olympus, Heaven, Hell or God – “have been among the most powerful tools for shaping historical changes.  These abstract representations have physical efficacy.  They can and do change the world.  They are as real and concrete as the force of gravity or the impact of a projectile.”[4]  The generation that witnessed the tragic events of September 11, 2001 needs no reminder of the concrete consequences of abstract symbols.

This is the source of the power that has led in modern times to what I refer to as the tyranny of the pfc.  As Donald describes it, “we have created a collective organism that appears ominous at times.  Our interlinked nervous systems, newly powerful in their electronic extensions, are now challenging the supremacy of the natural world.”[5]  Deacon, perhaps even more chillingly, compares it to a “mind virus” that’s out of control:

The symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.  Like a ‘mind virus’, the symbolic adaptation has infected us, and now by virtue of the irresistible urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously propagates itself throughout the world.[6]

It should be emphasized that this view of the external pfc’s power over our minds is no mere intellectual exercise.  It has real and tangible implications for the future of the human race and the planet on which we reside.  It has led, as Deacon puts it, to “a new phase of cultural evolution – one that is much more independent of individual human brains and speech, and one that has led to a modern runaway process which may very well prove to be unsustainable into the distant future.”[7]  Other tyrannies in history have eventually come undone through the will of brave individuals who have refused to surrender their fate to an external authority.  But in this case it’s our own minds that are subject to the tyranny.  We’re dealing with “a gigantic cognitive web, defining and constraining the parameters of memory, knowledge, and thought in its members, both as individuals and as a group,” a web which can “threaten our intellectual autonomy… rob us of the freedom to think certain kinds of thoughts.”[8]

Our minds are ensnared in the "inescapable web" of the external pfc

When one first realizes the immense power that our culture has had over shaping the very structures of our minds, it’s tempting to surrender to it, to abdicate responsibility for trying to disentangle oneself  from the “inescapable web.”  However, daunting as the task may be, it’s not impossible to regain at least some autonomy from the grasp of the external pfc.  Even our brains themselves, sculpted from infancy by our cultural influences, can literally be reshaped to a certain degree.  As will be discussed later in this book, modern neuroscience has demonstrated that even an adult brain remains plastic, thus permitting us the power to consciously re-sculpt some of the structures of our thought that the external pfc had shaped in us from infancy.[9]  If we go back to the analogy of the brain’s neuronal organization as a field of tall grass, where paths have been created over time from frequent usage, it’s also possible to find new ways through the bush, even after the main thoroughfares have been laid down.  Finding a different pathway through the tall grass can be inconvenient, messy and even scary, so it’s clearly something you’d do only if you discover that the old paths lead you to places you don’t want to go.

This book is dedicated to identifying some of the foundational structures of thought that have shaped our own cultural patterning, and examining how they may be taking our civilization to places where we don’t want to go.  I believe that it is only through a clear identification of these underlying structures that we are able perceive them in our own minds and thereby gain some freedom to disentangle ourselves from the “inescapable web,” to undo the tyranny of the pfc within ourselves and ultimately, perhaps, to influence the shape of the external pfc that will sculpt the minds of future generations.

We’ve seen in this chapter how the underlying cognitive foundations of social intelligence, theory of mind and linguistic capability created the groundwork for the pfc to construct meaning in our world, and how the intrinsic “patterning instinct” of the pfc led inevitably to the formation of mythic consciousness as the backdrop of the modern human mind.  Now the time has come to turn our attention to the specifics of the “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe” that infused the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose way of living was the only one we humans ever knew for ninety-five percent of our history.


[1] Ibid., 12.

[2] Ibid., 298-99.

[3] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 452-3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donald (2001) op. cit., 300.

[6] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 436.

[7] Ibid., 375.

[8] Donald (2001) op. cit., xiv.

[9] Part III, Chapter __.  For an overview of modern neuroscientific findings on the plasticity of the adult brain, see Begley, S. (2007). Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, New York: Ballantine Books.

May 11, 2011

The External Pfc

Posted in consciousness, Language and Myth tagged , , , at 10:46 pm by Jeremy

This blog describes how our consciousness is under excessive control from our prefrontal cortex (pfc).  But it’s not just our own pfc that controls our consciousness.  Far more powerful is the control exercised by the external pfc,  that cumulative collection of symbolic patterns over countless generations that governs how our own brains connected up as we developed in infancy.  That’s what this section of my book, Liology: Towards An Integration of Science and Spirit, is about.

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The external pfc

With all the discussion of metaphors, you might be tempted to think that the notion of an individual’s pfc being molded by the thought structures around her is itself a metaphor, that it’s not literally describing a physical process.  However, in this case, it’s no metaphor.  The pfc of each individual infant growing up in her culture is quite literally shaped by the structures of thought that have evolved in that specific culture.

In order to see how this can be, it’s necessary to understand the basic process of how an infant’s brain matures.  In recent years, neuroscientists have made great progress in identifying these dynamics, and it’s now become clear that infant brain development is to a large extent a pruning process.  In the embryo and the newly born infant, massive amounts of neuronal connections, known as synapses, are formed quite variably and spontaneously.  As the infant gets used to certain behaviors, such as grasping, nursing or cooing, the synaptic junctions that led to a successful behavior quickly get strengthened by increased usage.  However, those connections which are never used by the infant begin to wither away.  As the infant grows, this process of synaptic reinforcement continues until some pathways are massively strengthened while countless others which turned out be useless have died out.  A useful analogy to visualize this process is an uncultivated field of tall grass through which, all of a sudden, people begin walking to get to various places they need to go.  At first, everyone’s beating about the bush, but after a while, certain trails begin to appear in the grass, as the most successful routes taken become more popular and cause the wild grass to get flattened down, so that eventually clear pathways emerge through the field.  The clearer the pathway, the more likely it is to be used by the next person, thus leading to a positive feedback cycle.  This process in the brain is sometimes referred to as synaptic pruning, because the less useful neurons and synaptic pathways are pruned away by lack of use.[1]*

Neuronal connections grow over time like trails through tall grass

This is how the pfc of each individual infant is literally molded by external factors which, as Donald describes, “can actually change the operational architecture of cognition in the individual by influencing the developing brain.”[2]  In a 2009 paper entitled “Foundations for a New Science of Learning,” one team points out that human infants remain immature for a far longer period than other animals, as the brain continues to grow throughout childhood.  This slow process of maturation permits the brain to adapt to the specific variables of the outside world through a process that they call “neural commitment,” whereby the brain’s “neural architecture and circuitry” is molded based on the “structured models” of the environment that the infant perceives.[3]  Another research team supports these findings, describing how “the extended postnatal development of the human cortex” permits “synaptic proliferation and pruning” to “restructure the maturing brain in response to the environment and to the community of practices in which development is embedded.”[4]

Because of this process, a human born in the modern world might be genetically identical to one of our ancestors born before, say, the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but if a brain scan could be performed on both individuals at maturity, they would look very different.  Cognitive neuroscientist Wolf Singer points out that “the organization of our brains is not only determined by the genes” but is also shaped by the influences of our “socio-cultural environment …  This is the reason why the fine-grained connectivity of our brains differs from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors despite the rather similar genetic dispositions.”  He explains that the differences in our brains would not be in the general layout and gross structure, but rather in the “the dense meshwork of local intracortical connections.”[5]

The external pfc is the sculptor of each individual's brain

So the brain is literally sculpted by the influences it receives in its early years.  But what’s doing the sculpting?  What I’m calling the “external pfc” is the cumulative symbolic network of meaning that’s been constructed by countless generations of minds within a given cultural tradition.  The pfc of each person born into that tradition is sculpted by the previous accumulation of symbolic meanings, and then may contribute its own unique interpretations of the inherited symbolic network to modify incrementally the external pfc for the next generation.  It’s important to understand that, although the external pfc, with its accumulation of prior meaning, is far more powerful than any individual pfc, the relationship between them is, to a certain degree, mutually interactive.  As described by one team of cognitive scientists:

The nervous system, the body and the environment are highly structured dynamical systems, coupled to each other on multiple levels.  Because they are so thoroughly enmeshed – biologically, ecologically and socially – a better conception of brain, body and environment would be as mutually embedded systems rather than as internally and externally located with respect to one another.[6]

The integration of symbolic meaning between an individual and his culture allows “human beings to, in effect, pool their cognitive resources both contemporaneously and over historical time in ways that are unique in the animal kingdom.”[7]  This symbolic interaction is the hallmark of culture and is viewed by many experts as the major driver of the massive changes that humans have brought to their environment over the millennia.  The famed evolutionary biologist, Conrad Waddington, sees as the defining characteristic of humanity “an extremely elaborate system by which the whole conceptual understanding of the past is made available to present recruits to human society.  We have here what in effect amounts to a new mode of hereditary transmission.  It may be referred to as the cultural or ‘socio-genetic’ system.”[8]

Is the external pfc, then, merely another term for what’s generally known as culture?  While there are subtle differences between the two, this is largely correct.  However, the word “culture” is often very broadly and loosely defined, and so I call it the “external pfc” to emphasize the symbolic network of meaning that interacts with the pfc of each individual growing up within a culture.  Two different definitions of culture by experts in the field will illustrate my point:

1.  “Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.”[9]

2.  “By cognition, I mean simply the internal structure of ideas that represent the world and that directs behaviors appropriate to the world represented.  By culture, I intend only the distributed structure of cognition, that is, the causal networking of ideas and behaviors within and between minds.”[10]

The first definition emphasizes a one-way flow from society to the individual and focuses on the behavioral, rather than cognitive, effects of cultural transmission.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this definition, but it misses the dynamic I’ve been describing.  The second definition, on the other hand, points out the “distributed structure of cognition” and emphasizes a two-way flow of causal networking.   This cumulative and dynamic network of meaning “within and between minds” is what I mean by the external pfc.

However, interactive as the relationship may be between the external pfc and the individual mind, it’s certainly not a level playing field.  The external pfc is guaranteed to shape the individual’s pfc far more extensively than vice versa.  There are a number of reasons for this.  The first is that the external pfc, as a cumulative aggregation of meaning, offers a far more extensive modeling of the universe than an individual mind could ever hope to achieve.  Secondly, the individual mind is being molded when it is too new and unformed to make up its own patterns of meaning, so that by the time an individual has achieved a level of self-awareness enabling him to attempt to structure his own meaning, the neural pathways in his mind have already been largely sculpted.

Donald describes well how the process he calls “deep enculturation” begins from birth to “affect the way major parts of the executive brain become wired up during development”:

Shortly after birth, the infant is wedded to a specific culture that takes control of its cognitive development through a series of transactions.  This may sound improbable because cultural linkages are invisible to the child.  They hide behind many surrogates, such as parents, family, tribal customs, institutions, and so on.  These are the carriers of the culture, the front lines of the infant’s encounter with vast collective forces that it never sees and whose existence even the surrogates may not suspect.[11]

The impact of deep enculturation is “so close to us,” Donald notes, “that we are normally unaware of it.”  In fact, as we mature, the most structural aspects of this enculturation become embedded deep in our unconscious.  “All of our knowledge and beliefs,” write Lakoff and Johnson, “are framed in terms of a conceptual system that resides mostly in the cognitive unconscious,” which acts like a “hidden hand that shapes how we conceptualize all aspects of our experience…, how we automatically and unconsciously comprehend what we experience.”[12]

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[1] The neuroscientist Gerald Edelman is credited with first developing this understanding of infant brain development, with his theory of “neural Darwinism.”  See Rosenfield, I. (1986). “Neural Darwinism: A New Approach to Memory and Perception.” The New York Review of Books, 33(15 [Oct. 9, 1986]).  Also see Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 83-4 for a discussion in Edelman’s own words.  Separately, neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux developed a similar theory of “learning by selection”; see Rosenfield, I., and Ziff, E. (2008). “How the Mind Works: Revelations.” The New York Review of Books, June 26, 2008, 62-65 for a discussion of Changeux’s approach.

[2] Donald, M. (1999). “Material Culture and Cognition: Concluding Thoughts”, in C. Renfrew and C. Scarre, (eds.), Cognition and Material Culture: the Archaeology of Symbolic Storage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 181-187.

[3] Meltzoff, A. N., Kuhl, P. K., Movellan, J., and Sejnowski, T. J. (2009). “Foundations for a New Science of Learning.” Science, 325(17 July 2009), 284-288.

[4] Brooks, P. J., and Ragir, S. (2008). “Prolonged plasticity: Necessary and sufficient for language-ready brains.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5 (2008)), 514-515.

[5] Singer, W. (2009). “The Brain, a Complex Self-Organizing System.” European Review, 17(2), 321-29.

[6] Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

[7] Tomasello, M. (1999). “The Human Adaptation for Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology(28), 509-29.

[8] Waddington, C. H. (1959). “Evolutionary Systems – Animal and Human.” Nature, 183, 1634-1638.

[9] Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[10] Atran, S. (2002) op .cit., 10.

[11]Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, New York: Norton, 211-12.

[12] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 13.

November 28, 2010

The patterning instinct

Posted in Hunter-gatherers, Language and Myth tagged , , , , at 12:11 am by Jeremy

The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) instills in us a patterning instinct that shapes patterns of meaning to make sense of our world.  This section from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness explains how this patterning instinct forms the essence of our mythic consciousness that is the source of religious thought.  It then begins to explore the question of how an infant’s pfc first begins to lock into the patterns of meaning of its specific culture.

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The patterning instinct

The !Kung Bushmen possess one of the most ancient unbroken cultural traditions in the world.  As noted earlier, they belong genetically to one of the earliest lineages of the human race, dating back to before the takeover by the L3 lineage which now dominates the globe.  Their technology, “if uncovered by an archeologist and taken in isolation, would place them in the late Stone Age.”  Not surprisingly, anthropologists have been drawn to study them to gain insights into the earliest forms of human cognition.  Merlin Donald describes how “myth and religion permeate every activity” of their daily lives from the way they hunt wild animals to the celebration of a girl’s first menstruation.  The !Kung take their beliefs so seriously that they will rarely even discuss them; when they do, it’s only with hushed voices, and they’re afraid even to utter the names of their gods.  Donald summarizes their mythical thought  as “a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors.” He sees their sophisticated and complex ritual and myth as a paradigmatic example of how the human mind “has expanded its reach … to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”[1]

!Kung Bushmen: their mythic consciousness arises from the patterning instinct of the pfc

This is the essence of the mythic consciousness that arose with the Upper Paleolithic revolution, and it’s one that Donald relates closely to the development of fully modern language.  Modern language was first used, he proposes, “to construct conceptual models of the human universe.  Its function was evidently tied to the development of integrative thought – to the grand unifying synthesis of formerly disconnected, time-bound snippets of information.”  The pre-eminence of myth in early human society, Donald argues, is “testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought,” which involved the “first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe.”[2] This is why, as Boyer has put it, “religion as we know it probably appeared with the modern mind.”[3]

In the previous chapter, we discussed how the pfc’s patterning instinct works to mold the young infant’s brain by picking up patterns in the voices she hears around her until she locks into those sounds that match her particular language, ignoring those that don’t fit.[4] Similarly, we now see the pfc honing into patterns of meaning to make sense of the everyday world, to create Donald’s “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”  Crucially, the way the pfc applies meaning is to use the same symbolic behavior that it had developed for its social and linguistic capabilities.  As Deacon describes it, “the symbolic capacity seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what it models.”  Deacon compares the pfc’s symbolic predisposition to the relentlessly focused perceptions of an autistic savant.  The savant, he writes, “instead of seeing a field of wildflowers, sees 247 flowers.  Similarly, we don’t just see a world of physical processes, accidents, reproducing organisms, and biological information processors churning out complex plans, desires, and needs.  Instead, we see the handiwork of an infinite wisdom, the working out of a divine plan, the children of a creator, and a conflict between those on the side of good and those on the side of evil.”  This is the inevitable and all-embracing power of the mythic consciousness.  “Wherever we look, we expect to find purpose.  All things can be seen as signs and symbols of an all-knowing consciousness at work… We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.”[5]

It’s only in recent years that advances in cognitive neuroscience have enabled the linkage of our symbolic drive for meaning with the physiology of the pfc.  However, earlier observers have at times noticed the same unyielding drive for meaning in the human condition without the explicit attribution to the pfc.  The father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, saw this “craving to understand” as a natural consequence of human cognition, writing that “as soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.”[6] The influential 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw something similar, describing a human as a “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal,” whose “drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.”  Geertz sees religion, art and ideology – the products of mythic consciousness – as “attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.”[7] More recently, other observers have arrived at similar conceptions to the pfc’s patterning instinct, one group describing a “cognitive imperative” for humans to “construct myths to explain their world,” and another researcher summarizing it as a “narrative drive” to “create meaning to our world.”[8]

Clifford Geertz: saw a human as a "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal"

Powerful as this patterning instinct of the pfc appears to be, we would severely understate the overwhelming force of its influence in molding our human consciousness unless we look more closely at the process of how the molding and patterning takes place in an infant’s developing mind.  Just as language “warps the perception” of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, to the extent that a grown Japanese person can’t distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child’s pfc constructs meaning in her world.  It’s as though there is an external pfc created by the cumulative symbolic constructions of generations of minds gone before, which has already assembled the comprehensive mythological structures of thought that will be inherited by the new generation.  How this “external pfc” molds each individual’s own pfc as they grow up in their culture is what we’ll now examine.


[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 213-16, 267.  Donald cites an earlier study of the !Kung Bushmen in his evaluation of their cultural traditions: Lee, R.B. and De Vore, I. (1976).  Kalahari hunter-gatherers: Studies of the !Kung Sang and their neighbors. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Boyer (2001) op. cit., 323.

[4] Chapter 3, page 39.

[5] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 435.

[6] Cited from Darwin, C. (1871)The Descent of Man by Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

[7] Cited by Guthrie (1993) op. cit., 32.

[8] d’Aquili, E., and Newberg, A. B. (1999). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 86; Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

November 12, 2010

Religion as a spandrel

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , , , at 11:20 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness”, examines the emerging view held by cognitive anthropologists of religion as a “spandrel” or a superfluous by-product of the structure of the human mind.  While this view yields some compelling results, I suggest that in fact religion, as a product of mythic consciousness, is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the prefrontal cortex.  The chapter is taken from the book I’m writing entitled Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.

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Religion as a spandrel

Evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin once kicked off a deservedly famous paper by describing the great central dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.  There are beautiful mosaics covering not just the central circles of the dome but also the arches holding it up, along with the triangular spaces formed where two arches meet each other at right angles.  These spaces are called spandrels, and Gould and Lewontin used them to illustrate a hugely influential evolutionary theory.  A spandrel doesn’t, by itself, serve any purpose.  It simply exists as an architectural by-product of the arches which of course serve a crucial purpose, holding up the dome.  But if someone looked at the beautifully decorated spandrels without knowing anything about architecture, they would see them as an integral part of the architectural design.  The living world, Gould and Lewontin argued, is full of evolutionary spandrels, features or functions that seem to have evolved for a specific purpose but which, on closer evaluation, turn out to have been a superfluous by-product of something else.[1]

A spandrel in St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice: is religion another spandrel?

For some cognitive anthropologists, religion is a spandrel.  To understand how religion evolved, they believe that you need to look, not just at religion itself, but at some of the key cognitive functions of the modern human mind, and what you find is that religion developed as a by-product or side-effect of those functions.  “Religion ensues,” writes Scott Atran, “from the ordinary workings of the human mind as it deals with emotionally compelling problems of human existence, such as birth, aging, death, unforeseen calamities, and love.”[2] It’s a “converging by-product of several cognitive and emotional mechanisms that evolved for mundane adaptive tasks.”[3]

These cognitive mechanisms are ones that we’re already familiar with from what we know about the workings of the pfc.  They include the all-important theory of mind,  along with our ability for thinking about people even though they’re distant from us in space and time, known as “displacement,” as well as our power to hold “counterfactuals” in our mind: things that we can consider even though we know them not to be true, such as “if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated…”[4] Without attempting a complete review of how these cognitive mechanisms engendered religion, we’ll examine some of the more important examples to get an idea for how the process is seen to work.

One of the most widespread aspects of religious thought worldwide and throughout history is the belief that a spirit exists separately from a body.  In order to see how this might relate to the pfc, consider the underlying process that leads to our capability for displacement.  As young infants, we quickly learn that people can apparently disappear and then reappear, sometimes minutes, hours or even days later.  A realization that consequently occurs to us is the continued existence of that person even while she has disappeared.  This continued existence of someone who’s left our immediate vicinity soon becomes an essential ingredient of our social intelligence, allowing us to think, for example, about what the other person would feel or think if they were there.  It is a relatively simple step for the same practice of displacement to apply to the thoughts and feelings of a dead person.  In one study showing our “natural disposition toward afterlife beliefs,” some kindergarten-age children were presented with a puppet show, where an anthropomorphized mouse was killed and eaten by an alligator.  When the children were asked about the biological aspects of the dead mouse, such as whether he still needed to eat or relieve himself, they were clear that this was no longer the case.  Yet when they were asked whether the dead mouse was still thinking or feeling, most children answered yes.  These beliefs could not be attributed to cultural indoctrination, because when older children were asked the same questions, they were less likely to attribute continued thoughts and feelings to the dead mouse.  These results led the researchers to suggest that the belief that a dead person still exists in some form may actually be our “default cognitive stance,” part of our “intuitive pattern of reasoning.”[5]

This makes even more sense when we remember, as noted in Chapter 2, that the same part of the pfc – the medial prefrontal cortex – is activated when we think about others and when we exercise self-awareness to think about ourselves.[6] As a result of our self-awareness, we tend to “feel our ‘self’ to be the owner of the body, but we are not the same as our bodies.”[7]*  It doesn’t take too much of a mental leap to view others in the same way, and therefore assume that when their bodies die, their “selves” continue to exist, especially since we can still think about them, talk about them, and imagine what they would be feeling about something.  As one researcher puts it, “social-intelligence systems do not ‘shut off’ with death; indeed most people still have thoughts and feelings about the recently dead.”[8] Given our social intelligence as the source of our unique cognition, it’s much easier for our minds to think of someone still existing but not being there in person, than it is to conceive of them ceasing to exist altogether.

Besides naturally believing in spirits, little children also intuitively believe that everything exists for a purpose, a viewpoint known as teleology, and one that is inextricably intertwined with religious thought.  Psychologist Deborah Kelemen has conducted a number of studies of children’s beliefs with some intriguing results.  When American 7- and 8-year olds were asked why prehistoric rocks were pointy, they rejected physical explanations like “bits of stuff piled up for a long period of time” for teleological explanations such as “so that animals wouldn’t sit on them and smash them” or “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy.”  Similarly, the children explained that “clouds are for raining” and rejected more physical reasons even when told that adults explained them this way.  Similar results were found in British children, who are raised in a culture markedly less religious-oriented than that of the United States.  Kelemen explains these findings as “side effects of a socially intelligent mind that is naturally inclined to privilege intentional explanation and is, therefore, oriented toward explanations characterizing nature as an intentionally designed artifact.”[9]*

Pointy rocks: 7-year-olds think they have a teleological explanation

As we get older, we may accept other reasons for pointy rocks, but we can never really overcome the powerful drive in our minds to assign agency to inanimate objects and actions.  If we’re home alone on a dark, stormy night and we hear a door creaking open in the other room, our first reaction is fear that it might be an intruder, not that it’s just the wind blowing the door open.  We have, as Atran puts it, “a naturally selected cognitive mechanism for detecting agents – such as predators, protectors, and prey,” and this mechanism is “trip-wired to attribute agency to virtually any action that mimics the stimulus conditions of natural agents: faces on clouds, voices in the wind, shadow figures, the intentions of cars or computers, and so on.”[10] It’s clear how these “agency detector” systems have served a powerful evolutionary purpose: if it was in fact just the wind blowing the door, there’s no harm in making a mistake other than a brief surge of adrenaline; if however, it really was an intruder in your house but you assumed it was just the wind, the mistake you made could possibly cost you your life.

More generally, the heightened risk of not identifying when another person is the cause of something has led to our universal tendency towards rampant anthropomorphism.  Stewart Guthrie, author of a book aptly named Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, argues that “anthropomorphism may best be explained as the result of an attempt to see not what we want to see or what is easy to see, but what is important to see: what may affect us for better or worse.”  Because of our powerful anthropomorphic tendency, “we search everywhere, involuntarily and unknowingly, for human form and results of human action, and often seem to find them where they do not exist.”[11]

When our anthropomorphic tendency is applied to religious thought, what’s notable is that it’s the human mind, rather than any other aspect of humans, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods.  Anthropologist Pascal Boyer notes that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind.”[12] This, of course, makes sense in light of the evolutionary development of theory of mind as a core underpinning of our social intelligence.[13] This is the first time that we see a dynamic (which we will see again later in this book) of the human mind imputing its own pfc-mediated capabilities into external constructs of its own creation.  In this case, it is the power of symbolic thought that is assigned to the gods, as Guthrie describes:

How religion differs from other anthropomorphism is that it attributes the most distinctive feature of humans, a capacity for language and related symbolism, to the world.  Gods are persons in large part because they have this capacity.  Gods may have other important features, such as emotions, forethought, or a moral sense, but these are made possible, and made known to humans, by symbolic action.[14]

The approach to understanding religion as a spandrel clearly yields some compelling results, and casts a spotlight on how the pfc’s evolved capabilities can lead to consequences far removed from the original evolutionary causes of its powers.   There are, it should be noted, other theories of the rise of religion which, while not contradictory to the spandrel approach, emphasize very different factors, such as the role of religion in maintaining social and moral cohesion in increasingly large and complex societies.  However, the spandrel explanation, attractive as it is, tends to lead to a conclusion that religious thought of some kind is a likely, but not an essential part of human cognition.  In Boyer’s words, it suggests “a picture of religion as a probable, although by no means inevitable by-product of the normal operation of human cognition.” [15]

In contrast to this view, I would propose that underlying the cognitive structure of religious thought is a mythic consciousness that is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the pfc.  We saw in the previous chapter that what has been conventionally termed a “language instinct” is really a more fundamental “patterning instinct” of the pfc.[16] Similarly here, as we look for the underlying driver of religious thought, we will see that the pfc’s “patterning instinct” leads as inevitably to a mythic consciousness as it does to language itself.

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[1] Gould, S. J., and Lewontin, R. C. (1979). “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Biological Sciences. City, pp. 581-598.

[2] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[3] Atran, S., and Norenzayan, A. (2004). “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27(6), 713-730.

[4] See Chapter 3, page 32 for a discussion of these abilities with respect to language.

[5] Bering, J. M. (2006). “The folk psychology of souls.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(5), 453-498.

[6] Chapter 2, page 20.

[7] Pyysiäinen, I., and Hauser, M. (2010). “The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 104-109, citing Bloom, P. (2004) Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes us Human, Basic Books.  This sense of a “self” distinct from the body  is discussed in more detail in Part II of this book.

[8] Boyer, P. (2003). “Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3: March 2003), 119-124.

[9] Kelemen, D. (2004). “Are Children “Intuitive Theists”?: Reasoning About Purpose and Design in Nature.” Psychological Science, 15(5), 295-301; Kelemen, D., and Rosset, E. (2009). “The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition, 111, 138-143.  Her view is supported by Michael Tomasello who believes that “human causal understanding… evolved first in the social domain to comprehend others as intentional agents,” thus allowing our hominid ancestors to predict and explain the behavior of others in their social group.”  See Tomasello, M. (2000). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 23-5.

[10] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[11] Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 82-3, 187.  Italics in original.

[12] Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 144-5.  Italics in original.

[13] See Chapter 2, page 19.

[14] Guthrie, op. cit., 198.

[15] Boyer (2003) op. cit.

[16] Chapter 3, “The ‘language instinct'”, pages 38-40.

November 6, 2010

The tragedy of cognition

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 11:04 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, looks at the theory that fear of death was responsible for the original rise of religion.

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The tragedy of cognition

We’ve already had plenty of reasons to be impressed by the power of the pfc’s capabilities, even by this early stage in human history.  The unique connectivity of the pfc was responsible for our developing theory of mind, thus seeing others as independent agents; for creating hierarchies of thoughts, leading to complex tools and the recursion of language; and for crossing the metaphoric threshold that permitted us to think and communicate abstract thoughts, possibly leading to us becoming the only hominid species still around today.  But all these powers came at a terrible cost, something that one researcher has aptly described as the “tragedy of cognition.”[1]

Once you understand that those around you are thinking and feeling people just like you, a disturbing crescendo of connections will happen in your mind when one of those people dies.  It’s very clear to you that the mind and life force that previously animated that dead person have vanished.  And if that’s what happens to those around you, then by applying your pfc-mediated power to project future scenarios, you soon realize that this will eventually be your own fate.  Coursing along the pfc’s connections to the emotional centers of our brain, this realization quickly merges with the powerful evolutionary drive to live and becomes a terrible, profound dread at the inevitable future reality of our own death.  Terrence Deacon expresses well the inextricable linkage between our symbolic powers and the dread of death:

Knowledge of death, of the inconceivable possibility that the experiences of life will end, is a datum that only symbolic representation can impart.  Other species may experience loss, and the pain of separation, and the difficulty of abandoning a dead companion; yet without the ability to represent this abstract counterfactual (at least for the moment) relationship, there can be no emotional connection to one’s own future death.[2]

Early human burial remains: humans began burying their dead well before the Upper Paleolithic revolution

It seems reasonable to assume that there’s some connection between the emergence of that dread of death and the earliest signs of our ancestors burying their dead.  The first deliberate burials yet discovered date back to about ninety-five thousand years ago, before even the cross-hatched ochre from Blombos Cave, and there’s clear evidence that the Neanderthals also buried their dead.  So this tragedy of cognition seems to date back to a relatively early phase in the rise of our symbolic powers which has been searingly described by one archaeologist as “the birth of metaphysical anguish.”[3]

Not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition implicating this fear of death in the emergence of religious thought.  For example, the famed 20th century anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, theorized that “strong personal attachments and the fact of death, which of all human events is the most upsetting and disorganizing to man’s calculations, are perhaps the main sources of religious belief.”  For Malinowski, religion is the “affirmation that death is not real, that man has a soul and that this is immortal, [and] arises out of a deep need to deny personal destruction.”  Following his theme, a school of thought has since arisen called “terror management theory,” which posits that “spiritual beliefs serve the function of helping humans deny the finality of death.”  In this theory, just as an infant gains comfort and security from the authority of her parents, so as she grows up and becomes aware of death, she is comforted by the notion of deities who are frequently seen as patriarchal or matriarchal figures.

This all makes sense, as far as it goes.  However, it seems noteworthy that the fear of death extended all the way back to Neanderthals and other pre-humans, so it doesn’t seem like quite enough to account for all the complexity of religious thought.  Was there perhaps something in the cognitive breakthrough that caused the Upper Paleolithic revolution that was also responsible for the emergence of religious thought as we now know it?  Several cognitive anthropologists have recently proposed that this is, indeed, the case.

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[1] Atran, S. (2002). In Gods We Trust, New York: Oxford University Press, 66-67.

[2] Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 436-7.

[3] Culotta, E. (2009). “On the Origin of Religion.” Science, 326(6 November 2009), 784-787, quoting Henry de Lumley; Sjöblom, T. (2007). “Spandrels, Gazelles and Flying Buttresses: Religion as Adaptation or as a By-Product.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 7(3-4), 293-312.

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