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matt j rosano
Matt J Rosano
Southeastern Louisiana University

Matt J. Rossano received his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California at Riverside in 1991. He is a Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA. He is the author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, released in June 2010 by Oxford Press. His interests include: Evolution and human nature, evolutionary psychology, consciousness, evolution of the mind/brain, religion and science, and evolution of religion.


Around 100,000  years before present(ybp), anatomically modern humans (AMH)(these are not the same as Neanderthals and other hominids at the time) went back to the place from whence they emigrated, Africa; however, their retreat did not last as they were expanding again into the Eurasian landmass again 60,000 ybp and showing evidence of a much more sophisticated social structure and developed levels of cognition. This might have been due to ecological conditions in Africa at the time that created an extinction environment for AMH. From this, a level of social complexity partly based in religion emerged.tobatoba

According to Stanley Ambrose, a professor at the University of Illinois, during this period of difficulty for AMH, there was an eruption that caused a 6-10 year volcanic winter followed by a 1000 year winter winter(an ice age). This served to bottleneck AMH’s population to about only 2000 individuals, which luckily is the closest humans have ever come to extinction. This problem set the stage for a series of developments for human cognition’s development into what it is today.

The Social Solution

Around 75,000 ybp, we see evidence of trade going on around Africa: stashes of beads and sets of tools are found together, and we know they have intrinsic value as the beads are all the same type and the tools have a sophistication that man should not have accomplished at this time. These tools were a “social response to ecological stress.” The eruption made it so that AMH had to band together and trade resources or risk extinction. This solution (social solution) remained a part of human interaction even after AMH escaped extinction and is a critical part of today’s horticulture society.

Another aide to the development of society was the usage of ritual: a rule-governed pattern of formalized, attention-demanding behavior. The main usage of ritual in mammals is to confront tense or awkward situations in a way that releases tension. It draws attention away from threatening cues and defensive responses and so creates conditions for extended social interaction. Ritual behavior is also the basis of many other social and cognitive skills and so no matter how few rituals were observed, the fact that they happened at all served as a keystone to the development of social bonds.

Origins of Modern Cognition

Archaeologists have suggested that modern cognition is based on the use of symbols to organize behavior. Put another way, symbols help us organize our society by having a set standard (think of the alphabet). The symbols have purely arbitrary value decided by the culture that uses them. The reason we are able to use these symbols as social cues is because of the increase in working memory during this period. We gained the ability to hold goal-relevant information while completing other tasks. This increased memory combined with the development of symbols, humans began to master the concept of shared intentionality, which is just a fancy way of saying we can understand what another person is doing or thinking and so we can create shared meanings and communicate.

This working memory was also extremely important in the establishment of more complex rituals as these rituals needed increasing levels of self-restraint. The ability to ignore an intuitive response to complete a ritual takes a level of mental fortitude that AMH developed.  Evidence shows that rituals in place to develop group trust and solidarity are the most demanding of self-control and focus. Three main types of social rituals were key in building group alliances and trust: trust building and reconciliation, initiation, and shamanistic.

trust fall
an example of a ritual that we use today where we have to hold back our inhibitions

Rituals of Trust-Building and Reconciliation: These types of rituals likely saw a rise in polarity as AMH started grouping up more and more. Individuals had to show that they could restrain their instinct when it came to interactions with the group to show that they were indeed members who embodied the group’s best interests. The individuals who could not inhibit these instincts were probably left to survive alone as outcasts.

Rituals of Initiation: Even today, over 70% of traditional societies have rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood. As society during this period become more and more complex, the initiation practices became more intense. The ability to have self-control during these rites is a hallmark of the increased working memory needed for symbolic thought.

Shamanistic Healing Rituals: Shamanism combined supernatural authority to social norm which led to increased within group cohesion. Groups that were bonded by these emotionally taxing rituals would more likely exhibit altruism during times of scarcity and this gave the group a fitness advantage over other hominids. These shamanistic rituals were also heavy on their usage of mind altering drugs ad most of the practices during the rituals served the gual of achieving an altered state of consciousness. This process of ritual healing shows evidence of being viable at the time for increasing survival rate and the rituals might have even played a roll in increasing working memory necessary for modern cognition with the mind altering drugs.

The Fortuitous Mutation

Stanford archaeologist Richard Klein’s theory on human development is that the difference between AMH  and other hominins was genetic mutations that restructured AMH’s brains in a way to conduce social interaction resulting in a cognitive advantage. In 1896, three researchers studied the process known as the Baldwin effect which provided a mechanism for allowing environmental phylogenic traits to become genetically expressed through processes of natural selection. Acquired traits do not necessarily affect the genes, but they might create an advantage in these individuals that could contribute to this gene becoming expressed in future generations. Complex cognitive skills could have emerged as a necessity of the environment and as that necessity persisted, the traits required for cognitive abilities were genetically expressed and become stabilized in the gene pool.

Baby Rituals

When we observe rituals in mammals, we can see all of the elements associated (attention-demanding, formalized, rule governed) in interactions between infants and adults. Within an hour of birth, human babies start imitating facial expressions indicating these reactions are more than just reflexes, they are genetically coded and expressed. Even in later infancy, we notice a pattern in mother-child interactions:

  1. Initiation- engage attention
  2. Mutual orientation- excitement calms and voices soothing
  3. Greeting- infant moves limbs, mother more animated
  4. Play Dialogue- take turns making sounds (protoconversation)
We see that this baby has learned the action, so why does she laugh every time we play peek-a-boo?

These elements show that there is a specific order followed, and even if this ritual is not used to confront an awkward situation, it teaches the baby the process of ritual behavior. Why does a baby laugh every single time you play peek-a-boo? It’s not like it has not leaned what is going on, it is part of the ritual of the game (you would be hard pressed to find a baby that doesn’t laugh at peek-a-boo).  These interactions with adults and especially mothers teach infants the critical skills of how to regulate emotions based on interactions, how to use social partners as cues for emotion and as a source of information, and how to use the ritual context to interpret a situation and the emotions attached to it.

The parents of AMH 70,000 years ago did not share this level of intricacy in parent-infant interactions, but ones that showed increased  levels of it were more likely to reproduce and this possibly became a part of genetic code through the Baldwinian process.

Unique Culture Produces Unique Cognition

After all of this, we only have one question: why us? There were other hominids like the Neanderthals that shared many features with us, but did not show this level of cognition. The only differences were the wide ranged trading patterns of AMH and supernatural beliefs associated with shamanistic rituals. Basically, increased social rituals were the only differences that allowed humans to develop cognition and developed highly complex social rituals because of this. The reason humans are so unique, no matter how corny it sounds, is because we worked in groups as a species due to survival needs.



In his essay, "Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology," author Michael Winkelman looks at various instances of shamanism across cultures to find similarities that reveal "universals" about the practice.

Dr. Michael Winkelman Associate Professor Arizona State University
Dr. Michael Winkelman
Associate Professor Arizona State University

Winkelman recently retired from his post as an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University to begin studies in Brazil. Winkelman focuses his research on shamanism as medicine, applied medical anthropology, and cross-cultural relations. His knowledge of cross-cultural relations allow him to find these shamanistic "universals" that he argues are the basis of the practice's modern resurgence. After receiving his Bachelors degree from Rice University, Ph.D from the University of California at Irvine, and Masters Degree from the University of Arizona, Winkelman made strides in researching shamanism's ability to heal substance abuse issues as well.

To preface his research, Winkelman starts by noting that shamanism is "humanity's most ancient spiritual, religious, and healing practice" and is currently having a resurgence because it is rooted in the basic functions of the "brain, mind, and consciousness." In the past, this rooting provided shamanism with a functional role in survival and cultural evolution in hunter-gatherer societies. Since shamanistic rituals date back to human prehistory, they produced what Winkelman characterizes as an "evolved psychology" that gives shamanism relevance in a modern society.

In order to have a resurgence however, there must have been a decline somewhere along the line. Confusion about the true nature of shamanism created skepticism because of the variety of shamanistic rituals that span contrasting countries and cultures. Winkelman also adds that the practice's origin outside of the western world and association with altered states of consciousness helped to create a stigma. However, treatments for "spiritual emergencies" and substance addictions have helped prove the worth of shamanistic ritual in modern society.

Modern research, like that done by Winkelman, has helped to empirically prove an association between shamanistic practices and opioid releases in the brain that "enhance serotogenic function." In order to do this, practitioners use a plethora of shamanistic activities and symbols designed to elicit "physiological, psychological, and emotional" responses. When these responses are quantified they form the biological bases of the shamanic "universals." These include shamanistic healers, altered states of consciousness, analogical thought, and community rituals.

Winkelman found in his cross-cultural study that Shamanistic healers are a "universal" in shamanistic  cultures and that they even share many similar characteristics across cultures. The healers share a common background in alternated states of consciousness, which forms the basis for their "universal institutionalization of mechanisms for altering consciousness and healing through integrative brain functioning." Shamans also share many other characteristics such as interpreting illnesses as being caused by spirits, symbolic manipulations for healing, and attributing illnesses to the work of other shamans. Their work focuses on achieving a state of "religious ecstasy" that is a form of altered consciousness. This state causes a natural nervous system reaction that triggers a sense of relaxation and brain synchronization. Lower brain structures are stimulated to create a "synthesis of behavior, emotion, and thought"

Another "universal" in shamanistic healing that has already been mentioned is altered states of consciousness. Rhythmic activities employing music, dance, and mimetic control are frequently used to achieve altered states through theta and alpha wave brain patterns. Rhythmic activities are also beneficial when trying to promote group cohesion. Large groups are able to connect easily through music because it promotes "synchrony, coordination, and cooperation among group members." (Hint: get ready for tomorrow) Visionary experiences are also important in shamanistic healing as the symbolic method as opposed to activity method employed by the rhythmic activities. Winkelman's research finds that these visionary experiences are "a natural brain phenomenon" that occurs when the brain "releases the normal suppression of the visual cortex."

Combining ritual songs and dance is one of the most common ways to achieve an altered state of consciousness
Combining ritual songs and dance is one of the most common ways to achieve an altered state of consciousness


Analogical thought is also often present in shamanism as Winkelman finds that innate processing modules for natural history of intelligence nand mental attributions regarding "others" manifest themselves in shamanism through analogs. Animism, animal allies, and examples of self-representational death and rebirth all reflect preverbal brain structures dating back thousands of years. Animism involves the attribution of of human mental and social capabilities to animals, nature, and the unknown. According to Winkelman's research, organisms model their own mental states to other organisms mind and behavior. Animal allies also employ the natural history model that animism employs, but involve representations of "sacred others" and attribute more specific brain capacities to specific animals. Soul Flight as well as death and rebirth experiences are also universally manifested in shamanism. A common example of this is a near death experience where the soul goes on a momentary "journey."

Community rituals are also highly important to shamanism as attachment and affectional bonds are also helpful in releasing the natural brain opiates necessary for healing. These opioids are known for stimulating the immune system, providing senses of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness, enhancing coping skills, maintaining homeostasis, reducing pain, decreasing stress levels, and allowing for greater environmental adaptation. Community rituals are important in treating "soul loss" which is one of the main shamanic illnesses. Shamans also use cultural symbols that the community helps to reinforce in order to manipulate physiological responses. Symbols can manifest themselves unconsciously, allowing shamans to heal through advanced methods of engagement with "neurocognitive structures to produce therapeutic changes."

Can anyone guess what some of these pre-verbal shamanistic symbols are?
Can anyone guess what some of these pre-verbal shamanistic symbols are?

Through these "universal" processes, shamanistic healing allows for the restructuring of ego and identity in the person. The "universals" that Winkelman found in his research also help to create a special mode of consciousness that creates synchronized brain wave discharge patterns. These patterns help to coordinate the hierachical functions of the brain in a more positive manner. Through better coordination of the functional levels of the brain in this state of consciousness, the self is better able to induce personal, cognitive, and social integration as a means of healing.

Overall, the main points to take away from Winkelman's research are...

  • Shamanism has experienced a resurgence in modern society as it reflects basic concepts of human nature
  • Shamanism's healing powers come from creating an altered state of consciousness that release natural opiates stimulating serotonin flow.
  • Shamanistic healing rituals alter physiological, psychological, and emotional responses by using activity (dancing, music) and cultural symbols.



Ed Norton & Brad Pitt in "Fight Club"
Ed Norton's character in "Fight Club" has dissociative identity disorder (DID), & Brad Pitt is actually one of his alters. This movie is an example of what I refer to as DID being the contemporary deus ex machina, wherein it swoops in & resolves otherwise inextricable plots. In all fairness though, it's based on a book I have yet to read, which I'm told is better.

Dissociation is the main focus of this series. Dissociation is a filtering, compartmentalizing, or apportioning of consciousness or awareness. I've called dissociation 'partitioning of awareness' (2005). This essentially means we can compartmentalize aspects of awareness from each other in our mind. It's the psychological state shared among shaman when they travel mentally to other realms, when initiates leave their bodies & are replaced by deities or spirits, or when you seem to be under the spell of someone else during hypnosis (not really, but bear with me). It's what is going on in Fight Club when Edward Norton alternates himself as Brad Pitt or is simply the zoning out you're doing right now if your eyes are reading these words, but your mind is thinking about something else.

It can be useful to understand the context of a theoretical model. I've just spent a few days reading about how Darwin's thinking about transmutation over many years & various pursuits led to his dawning realization of his conceptualization of natural selection. I'm certainly no Darwin, but in the spirit of a history of science--my own history & the science I do--I owe my interest in dissociation to two people really, my wife & Professor John Beatty.

Professor John Beatty
Professor John Beatty is a linguist but blew my mind with his True Renaissance Man Anthropologist resume: His father was Mohawk, mother was German. He grew up half on the rez in upstate NY, half in Brooklyn. He speaks fluent Mohawk & often curses at students in Mohawk. His father later remarried a Kiowa-Apache woman, & he learned to speak that too. His family adopted two Cantonese boys when he was growing up, & he learned to speak some Cantonese thru them. He has done fieldwork in Ireland, Mexico, & Japan & speaks Japanese, some Totonoc. He taught in Germany. Before becoming an anthropologist, he was an opera singer, an actor, a baker, a sailor, an Army Intelligence Officer, a NY City Police Detective, & some other stuff. He's written books on intercultural communication, runs several museums, consults for the NYPD on occult-looking stuff, & does pro bono PI work. He helps run a silent film festival & currently adjuncts in the Department of Film after he quit the BC Anthro Dept the day before the semester began. And he had his front teeth knocked out by Washoe the chimp when he was a linguistics grad student.

I began to be interested in dissociation when I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. I was taking a really fascinating course called "Cults, the Occult & Secret Societies" (yes, Anthropology really is simply the coolest major in college) with Professor John Beatty. As a quick aside, I owe Prof. Beatty much, as from the very beginning, he let me take the graduate-level course  for honors credit because I worked during the day & couldn't take the undergraduate course. He would spend 2 hours with me in the hallway after a 75 minute class talking about topics related to the course (which I scarcely understood & am still, to this day, finally making connections with what he said then). He made many special accommodations so I could take his courses despite conflicts with work or other courses, &, despite being a linguist with expertise in Native American languages & film, he saw what attracted me & pointed me in the direction of sociobiology, psychological anthropology, & medical anthropology. During the year when I was teaching at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum because I could not get funding for the PhD or Master's programs I'd been admitted to & then became an imminent father of triplets (Prof Beatty, in his typical cantankerous way & as an avowed lifelong bachelor, encouraged me to sell them on eBay & make a tidy profit), Prof Beatty pointed me toward museum studies (he ran several small museums out of Brooklyn College & a local bank), helped out with our Intrepid Museum programming, & suggested I look outside anthropology in programs that could fund me for the expertise I desired. I got admitted to an online museum studies program & was all ready to enroll when I got the call from the University at Albany (SUNY), offering me a full teaching assistantship, & where I had made contact with evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, Jr., who devised the mirror test that is the basis for much of the self-awareness & theory of mind research over the past 40 years.

In Prof Beatty's "Cults, the Occult, & Secret Societies," I had to do a research paper for my honors project & had become interested in similarities I noted between readings about Vodou (in yet another class that had a module on Caribbean culture--this was very relevant, as Brooklyn College sits in the largest Caribbean community in the world outside the Caribbean), shamanism (which seems to come up in every cultural anthropology course, so I had probably noted it in the intro to four-field anthropology I had taken the previous semester with Prof. Beatty), & the field of Dance/Movement Therapy my wife, Loretta Lynn (when we first met, my wife said, "You know, if we got married, I'd be 'Loretta Lynn' [like the famous country singer for those of you not following along]--that I wasn't scared off by that was her sign to go full bore ahead!), was studying in a master's program at Pratt Institute in NY. Dance/Movement Therapy is a non-verbal approach to psychological analysis & mind/body integration.

I was editing papers my wife was writing for her studies in Creative Arts Therapy generally & Dance/Movement Therapy specifically. The Pratt program is based in Freudian & Jungian psychoanalysis, but the ability of therapists to "read" clients' movements & to help them through getting them moving in rhythmic & group-oriented ways resonates strongly with cross-cultural shamanic-possession ethnomedical modalities. My wife worked in Woodhull Medical Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in in-patient psych. Bed-Stuy is a relatively poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn with an appreciable immigrant population. Patients my wife worked with were largely mentally ill & homeless. Many of them also didn't speak English, so there were numerous barriers to verbal therapy. They were the lowest of low-functioning, in many ways. Because this was a non-verbal therapy (& because my wife hates writing), she convinced her advisers that it made more sense for her to compile a video thesis instead of a written one. So, as I sat watching video of her sessions with patients, where they would gather round a parachute & use it as a pivot to facilitate group movement, I had two epiphanies:

  1. The social movement integration that she was facilitating was the same type of behavior that ethnographic films of Haitian Vodou or !Kung Bushmen depicted except the pivot was a fire or something similar--the non-verbal approach to social integration was similar.
  2. The important component to facilitating better functioning is not self-reflection or awareness--it is social skills. These therapeutic interventions helped people function better socially. You can be a total mess in your mind, but you won't be institutionalized unless it's a social problem. Similarly, you can go to see a Vodou mambo or priest for personal issues, but the cure or the therapy is inevitably social.
Mama Lola. Photo by Claudine Michel.
Mama Lola. Photo by Claudine Michel.

Another quick aside that reinforced this analogy for me & a thread I still regret not following up on. Upon graduating the Pratt program, my wife continued working at Woodhull, &, in my interest in Vodou, I read Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Recall that the largest Caribbean community in the world outside the Caribbean is in Brooklyn, so many of my wife's co-workers were Haitian, including relatives of Mama Lola. Mama Lola was still there practicing (& I think still is) &, were I not an undergrad at the time, I may have had the chutzpah to look her up. As it was, my wife & I discussed Dance/Movement Therapy with Mama Lola's relatives, who were Vodou practitioners & affirmed similarities. Furthermore, when my wife & I started trying to have children & realized were suffered fertility issues, one of those relatives brought us Mama Lola's phone number, so we could try that therapeutic invention. Ultimately, we decided it was too sensitive & painful an issue for us to subject to cultural tourism (especially after we unsuccessfully tried Chinese medicine), stuck with our own biomedical cultural model, & went to a fertility clinic for intrauterine insemination (& successfully produced triplet boys, who are 10 years old now!).

I was interested in the common thread & noted, additionally, similarities with other similar phenomena & spent the semester writing an exhaustive paper on shamanism, possession trance, hypnosis, multiple personality/dissociative identity disorder, & demonic possession.

Mirrors and Compasses: An 85th Birthday Symposium for Erika Bourguignon
Erika Bourguignon. Photo taken by Melinda Kanner at Mirrors and Compasses: An 85th birthday Symposium for Erika Bourguignon, held at The Ohio State University on Friday, February 20, 2009.

Two books formed the spine of that investigation & my foundation in studying dissociation for several years. I stumbled on Felicitas Goodman's How About Demons? Possession & Exorcism in the Modern World (1988), which led me to Possession (1976) by Erika Bourguignon. Erika Bourguignon is a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology from Ohio State specializing in psychological anthropology.  Possession is an ethnology, or cross-cultural investigation & comparison, that examines possession states. It is based specifically on her work in Haiti studying Vodou possession trance (which differs from mere possession, because of the dissociative trance that is described as a displacement of self &, in theory, has neurological correlates) but compares such possession trance to shamanic spirit journeys, demonic possession, multiple personality, or other types of possession around the world. Besides the ethnology Possession, Bourguignon is notable & continually cited for her 1968 ethnologic analysis of the appearance of altered states of consciousness as normal parts of cultural practices.

Felicitas Goodman, now deceased, was a student of Bourguignon's. Her story is interesting, as she came to anthropology later in life, focused on the ethnology of glossolalia (speaking in tongues), & went on to found a New Age facility called the Cuyamungue Institute, dedicated to rediscovering trance as a form of everyday relaxation through ritual postures. Goodman's early work & dissertation, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (1972), are really phenomenal, as she was the first to conduct neuroanthropology among Apostolic Pentecostals. She worked in Indiana & Mexico, conducting ethnography of tongue-speaking & recording glossolalia to test the hypothesis that it has universal features. She found, in brief, that while there are dialectic differences among groups, there are universal aspects of glossolalia that suggest it is not faked but is something else entirely (whether or not it is truly God's voice is not the question, as there have been non-Christian glossolalists as well). Goodman's later work tended to be less ethnographic than historical & experimental. Her more famous work is the The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (2005), which analyzes the German demon possession case upon which The Exorcism of Emily Rose (U.S., 2005) & Requiem (Germany, 2006) films are based. She also began collecting prehistoric & historic depictions of postures that she suspected were, like yoga postures, meant to induce altered states of consciousness. She conducted several studies using college students to simulate the postures & measure physiological responses to them. This work is outlined in Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences (1990)  & Ecstatic Trance: New Ritual Body Postures: A Workbook (with Nana Nauwald, 2003). How About Demons? picks up where Bourguignon's Possession left off, comparing contemporary forms of dissociation cross-culturally, including her own studies of glossolalia, faith-healing, demon possession, & experimental work.

I tried some of the trance postures published in The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys (2009) by Belinda Gore, who took over the Cuyamungue Institute when Goodman died. Here is the fish woman pose with Douglas Weathers simulating it.
I tried some of the trance postures published in The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys (2009) by Belinda Gore, who took over the Cuyamungue Institute when Goodman died. Here is the fish woman pose with Douglas Weathers simulating it.

This all led me to studies of Pentecostal glossolalia, self-deception, & other forms of trance, which I'll be writing about in future posts. These posts are drafts of what I hope will become my "position paper" toward informing my tenure & promotion committee reviewers how all my research fits together (along with the rest of the academic community, who might read it) &, ultimately, a book. I'm posting these drafts in the course blog for "Primate Religion & Human Consciousness" because the course follows my exploration & thinking for the book.  This semester is the 4th time I've taught the course, & it has changed somewhat dramatically each time. It has provided me an opportunity to integrate my interests in biopsychology with anthropology of consciousness. The first semester we read Julian Paul Keenan's The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness (with Gordon Gallup, Jr. & Dean Falk, 2003), a series of articles, & conducted numerous in-class activities & in-class research projects. The next time I taught it, we read Barbara King's Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (2007), David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, & the Nature of Society (2002), & the 2nd volume of Michael Winkelman & Etzel Cardena's Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (2011), articles, & conducted in-class activities & out-of-class research projects. Last year we read Evolving God, Darwin's Cathedral, & Joseph Bulbulia & colleagues' The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques (2008); & I encouraged students to take up Wilson's challenge of a church-by-church ethnography toward testing his multi-level adaptationist model, which has since blossomed into the Religious Ecology Study (aka Belongingness Ecology Study). After giving two talks last year (one for the Tuscaloosa Humanist Society & another for the American Anthropological Association) that integrate all of my projects within one cohesive theme, I revamped this course to follow the outline of those talks & expand on that material.  Currently, we are focusing on specific readings that inform each slide from those talks (& their accompanying Powerpoint slides), trying to include author biographies to put this research into a historical & disciplinary context, & always developing more experiential activities to facilitate "embodied" learning.

I hope that all of this will find form to make for a compelling read & provide avenues by which others, whether scientists or no, can appreciate the point I'm exploring--that our "consciousness" has mechanisms that, by design, curtail awareness. I think this is fairly intuitive to most people, but there is an interesting contrast when we talk of seeking to expand our consciousnesses or for higher consciousness as some natural progression of humanness that I think may be an artifact or by-product of other cognitive functions. And even as I write this, I feel my awareness of exactly what I'd like to say hiding in the murk of my mind, murkiness I hope both to see through yet leave in place, if that makes any sense.


In a documentary about his work, The Mystical Brain (Raynauld 2006), neuroscientist Mario Beauregard states something to the effect that even when he was a child, he believed humans possessed some type of soul that was more than the sum of neuroanatomy. Indeed, Beauregard's work takes the vantage that spirituality is more than the neural networks.

Mario Beauregard is a neuroscientist affiliated with the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona. Beauregard received his Ph.D. from the University of Montreal, completed post-docs at the University of Texas Medical School & Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill, & has published a whole buncha science papers & two books, Brain Wars (2012) & The Spiritual Brain (2009).The Spiritual Brain

His research focus is on emotions & transcendent states, which he defines as "experiences that extend or lie beyond the limits of ordinary experience" (Beauregard 2011:63). In particular, Beauregard is interested in mystical experiences & cites William James (1902), who outlined several characteristics of mystical states:

  • Ineffability: quality of eluding any adequate account in words
  • Noetic quality: experienced as a state of deep knowledge or insight unknown to discursive intellect
  • Transiency: cannot be sustained for long
  • Passivity: feeling that, after experience sets in, one is no long in control & may in grasp of superior power
William James and Josiah Royce, near James's country home in Chocorua, New Hampshire in September 1903. James's daughter Peggy took the picture. On hearing the camera click, James cried out: "Royce, you're being photographed! Look out! I say Damn the Absolute!"
William James and Josiah Royce, near James's country home in Chocorua, New Hampshire in September 1903. James's daughter Peggy took the picture. On hearing the camera click, James cried out: "Royce, you're being photographed! Look out! I say Damn the Absolute!"

William James' significant influence is apparent in Beauregard's theoretical ethos, as with many researchers of consciousness. I must admit that I find that James was consistently & profoundly ahead of his time. William James (1842-1910) was one of the most influential philosophers to come out of the U.S. He was also a pioneering psychologist & a medical doctor, though he never practiced the latter. He was born wealthy into a family of intellectual prestige. His godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, also known as "Darwin's bulldog," & brother of novelist Henry James ("Turn of the Screw," "Daisy Miller"). He was known for being a Pragmatist & believed that the value of any truth is dependent upon its use to the person holding it. He was the founder of Functional Psychology but his approach was as a radical empiricist--he though the world & experience cannot be halted for entirely objective analysis, as the intrusion of analysis always changes the world. And why I would like to claim him as an honorary foundation of anthropology (like Emile Durkheim & so many others) is his belief that diversity is the default human condition. What I came to realize thru my own fieldwork that he noted over 100 years ago is that one can believe in a god & prove its existence by what belief brings to one's own life. James wrote several influential books, but the one I need to remember to teach sometime in our Landmarks of Anthropological Literature is The Varieties of  Religious Experience.

Beauregard also draws on the work of Walter Terence Stace, a British philosopher who published two books on mysticism. Stace indicated that mystical experiences could be extrovertive or introvertive. Extrovertive mystical states are facilitated by nature, art, music, or mundane objects & are transfigured by awareness of the One; whereas introvertive states find the One at the bottom of the human self. In general, mystical states are triggered by mind-altering drugs, as well as natural substances, shamanic practices, meditation, hypnosis, near-death experiences, regular religious/spiritual practice, or nothing at all. And they can utterly transform attitudes & beliefs related to worldview, belief systems, relationships, & sense of self.

limbic system
limbic system

But this is nothing new to anyone who has smoked a joint while on Loratab, eaten good LSD, drank a bottle of Robitussin, eaten packs of Nyquil Liquicaps, or whatever the kids are doing nowadays. These things are fuck your mind, but what does that mean? Well, it depends, but it may have a lot to do with the temporal lobe & limbic system. The temporal lobe is the region of the cerebral cortex beneath the lateral fissure that influences visual memories, sensory input, language comprehension, storing new memories, emotion, & meaning derivation. The limbic system is a collection of structures supporting emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, & olfaction that integrates external stimuli with internal drives, & marks valence of stimuli & experiences. According to Joseph LeDoux, it's not really a system but historically was considered an evolutionary novel layer & thus is identified together.

Anyway, temporal lobe epilepsy has been associated with hyperreligiosity in some people & speculation runs amok that religous zealots of the past who have galvanized cultural change may have been epileptics of this variety--e.g., St. Paul, Muhammad, Joan of Arc, & Joseph Smith. While this is a sensational aside, what is important to note is that most people who have temporal lobe epilepsy are transcendent experiences are not epileptics, & very few epileptics report transcendent experiences during seizures.

The limbic-marker hypothesis (Saver & Rabin 1997) suggests that temporolimbic discharges underlie core features of transcendent experiences, such as noetic/ineffable content, sense of touching ultimate reality, experiences of unity with all, timelessness, spacelessness, & feelings of positive affect, peace, & joy. Such discharges may mark experiences as depersonalized/derealized, crucially important or self-referent, harmonious, or ecstatic. As with strong emotions, experiences associated with such discharges can be named but cannot be communicated in full visceral intensity. This reminds me of one of the more impressive descriptions my Pentecostal informants have given me of her baptism of the Spirit, when she received the Holy Ghost for the first time. She said it was thousands of times greater than that feeling of absolute feeling of devoted love you get occasionally when you look at your own child (especially when they're sleeping--my kids say we're creepy for sitting in their rooms at night having transcendent experiences watching them sleep).

Neural correlates of religious experience: dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal, medial parietal cortex
Neural correlates of religious experience: dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal, medial parietal cortex

Beauregard's brain imaging work builds on that of Nina Azari & co. (2001), who conducted some of the first such studies of religious experiences. Members of the Free Evangelical Fundamentalist Community read Psalms 23, verse 1, which their conversion experiences are based on, relative to nonreligious participants reading "happy" & "neutral" texts. PET scans indicated activation in religious participants in dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal, & medial parietal cortices. Most significant is an assessment consistent with Bernard Silka & Daniel McIntosh (1995):

Religious experience is a cognitive attributional phenomenon, mediated by a pre-established neural circuit... Religious attributions are based on religious schemata...about religion & religious issues & include reinforced structures for inferring religiously related causality of experienced events (Beauregard 2011:70).

Beauregard with the Dalai Lama
Beauregard with the Dalai Lama

The Mystical Mind documents Beauregard's own investigations of the meditative prayers states of several Carmelite Nuns. It follows him from the lab to conference presentations about his work, framed by an interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. It also visits the labs of such neurotheology colleagues as Michael Persinger, Richard Davidson, & Antoine Lutz. It follows Beauregard to a Templeton Foundation-sponsored "Mind & Life" conference, where several neurotheologians meet with with religious leaders. Andrew Newberg is interviewed, though his work is not discussed. Lacking narration & marred a bit by a soundtrack of Gregorian chanting or Mongolian throat music or something (which I love, but not in this context), the documentary is a bit sleepy & could have filled the space by covering more ground. For instance, it is suggested that we don't know if different meditative types of practice produce different brain states, but Newberg has demonstrated that this is true, albeit in limited samples. It also takes a little context to understand all that is going on. For instance, an audience member criticizes Beauregard at a conference for the credit he gives the Pam Reynolds case, though it has not been corroborated. Reading Beauregard's chapter "Transcendent Experiences & Brain Mechanisms" in the Cardena & Winkelman volume puts much of it in context.

I do like the documentary, but what makes it exceptional is about 5 seconds of dialogue by the Dalai Lama wherein he says thru his interpreter that the Buddhist creation myth is that humans evolve from monkeys. The Dalai Lama himself interrupts his interpreter to say that he knows Tibetan humans at least evolved from monkeys, which is a more scientific statement. Ha! Neurotheology joke? I get it!