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This serial post will be about dissociation as transcendence & why both are apparently ubiquitous & simultaneously extremely psychosocially diverse.  I will make several functionalist claims, as follow:

  • Consciousness is costly
  • Dissociation is a basic function of consciousness
  • Dissociation defrays the costs of awareness
  • Transcendence is just another word for dissociation
  • Transcendence appears in diverse psychocultural forms not because of its primacy but because it is a baseline necessity
Pentecostal service in a "campo," in this case a carport, in Via de Mar, Moin, Costa Rica
Pentecostal service in a "campo," in this case a carport, in Via de Mar, Moin, Costa Rica

Transcendent experiences are those beyond the limits of ordinary experience (Beauregard 2011).  There are varieties of transcendent experiences moderated by personal, social, & cultural circumstances.  Personal circumstances can be psychological & biological &, of course, are not mutually exclusive of social & cultural influences but are directly influenced by & interact with them.  Therefore, we can study transcendence from a number of perspectives.  For instance, I study speaking in tongues & other religious behaviorfire-induced trance or transcendence influenced by “flickering light & sudden sound,” & self-deception or transcendence of self-awareness as an adaptation or unconscious mating strategy.

Fireside trance (Photo courtesy Heath Kinzer)
Fireside trance (Photo courtesy Heath Kinzer)

These studies are based on a cognitive science of religion model.  This approach holds that cognitive mechanisms related to religio-spiritual behavior are either adaptations for religious behavior or exaptations evolved to deal with general problems but uniquely invoked for religious purposes.  I tend toward the latter school of thought & follow cognitive anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse (2004) in imagining that religions develop, in a non-linear way, following the modes of religiosity: "catchy" concepts --> repetitive rituals --> convoluted doctrine.

Kobe Bryant was believed to be self-deceiving when he claimed Katelyn Faber's "no" really meant "yes"
Kobe Bryant was believed to be self-deceiving when he claimed Katelyn Faber's "no" really meant "yes"

Transcendent experiences tend to be rather catchy & get repetitively repeated.  Doctrine is much harder to grapple with, so many people never get past the 2nd mode (some never get past the first, as I lay out in "The Wrong Holy Ghost").  Transcendence and thus “consciousness” are ecologically relative, which is a super-important point.  "Consciousness" I define as a combination of self- and other-awareness, but the dimensions of self & the others one is aware of are also relative.  This is why, even within religion, which is too often referred to monolithically as Religion with a capital "R," diversity is critical to ecological flexibility & stability.

Just as natural environments consist of many ecological niches that require different strategies of survival and reproduction, so too should different social environments foster different cultural and religious system.  In other words, we postulate that environments of stability, security, and wealth will cause a different form of religiosity to thrive--that is, liberal religion. (Storm & Wilson 2009)

This, therefore, is the perspective we take in the Religious Ecology Study, which examines group-level commitment behavior and success, based on a model proposed by biologist David Sloan Wilson in Darwin's Cathedral (2010). The main criterion for inclusion in the study is that a group fulfill anthropologist Barbara King's (2007) model of spiritual inclusion, which means that they inculcate a sense of “belongingness” among members. I have conducted such research among several Pentecostal church groups in New York, Tuscaloosa, and Costa Rica; and students in an Honors course I teach and in my research group have conducted research among video game communities (ABXY) and extremely liberal churches (e.g., Unitarian Universalist) and observed groups that defy traditional categorization (Temple of Divine Reality).

These are various outputs of the Religious Ecology Study [REST] (or, as I've taken to calling it lately because some student groups prefer to study secular groups, the Belongingness Ecology Study Tuscaloosa [BEST]). Clockwise from left are the checklist from the REST workbook, attendance at group meetings as an indication of commitment signaling in a video game club, a map drawn of a unique "school" one group of students unofficially observed, & a graph indicating the relationship among types of commitment & previous religious experience among a local Unitarian Universalist congregation.
These are various outputs of the Religious Ecology Study [REST] (or, as I've taken to calling it lately because some student groups prefer to study secular groups, the Belongingness Ecology Study Tuscaloosa [BEST]). Clockwise from left are the checklist from the REST workbook, attendance at group meetings as an indication of commitment signaling in a video game club, a map drawn of a unique "school" one group of students unofficially observed, & a graph indicating the relationship among types of commitment & previous religious experience among a local Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Thus far, the common thread among cooperatively successful groups is some transcendence of self in supporting the group. And, ironically, among groups less successful in sustaining cooperation, we observed other forms of systemic psychological transcendence that did not rely on group participation (e.g., the video gamer club).

The working hypothesis of this model, therefore, is that transcendence functionally limits consciousness. This can be demonstrated psychologically, phenomenologically, and neurologically. Evolved functional limitations of consciousness are exapted and superstimulated as part of ritual religious structures and behaviors.


Self-Conception and Evolution

I’m going to start off by defining four important aspects of self-conception as touched on in the reading 🙂

Self-conception is the awareness of self as…

1.      An object of knowledge

2.      The subject of experience

3.       An entity that exists through time

4.       A causal agent

In this article John G. H. Cant and Daniel J. Povinelli focus the most on number 4, self-conception as the awareness of self as a causal agent.

What exactly does being aware of yourself as a causal agent mean? Why should we care? And what are Povinelli and Cant exactly hypothesizing?

Well, a causal agent is an entity that produces an effect or is responsible for events or results. So basically it means possessing the awareness that your actions have specific consequences.

We should care because there is not much known regarding the evolution of these aspects of self-concept, and Povinelli and Cant have evidence to believe that number 4 (which they believe to be the most primitive) evolved relatively recently. Ironic, right?

Before we go any further, I just wanted to distinguish self-conception from self-perception.

Self-perception is defined by Leary & Butterworth as self-knowledge obtained through personal experiences and transferred to memory. Self-conception is when you can conceive of yourself and reflect on your own mental processes. It is widely believed that humans develop self-conception anywhere from 18-24 months of age.

There is strong evidence stating that only humans and some of the great apes possess the ability to self-conceptualize. We touched on this a couple of classes ago with self-recognition. Gorillas seem to be the exception to the rule as they don’t show any ability in experiments to recognize themselves in mirrors. There is an exception to the exception to the rule though, as specially trained Koko the gorilla showed some signs of self-recognition. It is unknown if Koko was exhibiting true signs of self-recognition or if she was trying to control the image without completely understanding she was the reflection. Gorillas and their exclusion are important to keep in mind when looking at predictions from this model.

Self-recognition is important in looking at the evolution of self-conception as it, according to Gallup, shows that the species under question is self-aware and capable of conceiving their existence. They have some idea of who they are or what characterizes them.


Schemata (or schema singular) are defined as “internal(presumably neural) states that are triggered by stimuli in the outside world.” They control motor output because of this, are in a sense, causal. Infants graduate from simple schema like reaching, turning head, etc., to a more elaborate form, where they would grab a box of cheerios, open it up, reach into the bag, and pull out a cheerio to put in their mouth.

Schemata are causally connected to an external object or event, but do not serve as a source of representation. It is simply present in the mind.  Mental representations possess a connection with an object or event when it is not present. Connecting these two different things together creates a proposition. Propositions are linguistic or imaginal statements that connect the dots, so to speak. For example, it would be like a toddler picking up a doll and categorizing it as a toy.

Gorillas have the ability to possess schema, but not the ability to relate it to something non concrete or present. So when they look in a mirror, they see an image, but can’t connect the dots to what the image is. They just see it and are like…crickets. They have no knowledge about themselves and can’t draw on anything other than direct perception.

This relates to self-conception as the awareness of self as a causal agent because a species can look at the reflection in the mirror (the object of perception) and realize that it’s actions are caused by them (held only in mind).

How Does This Relate to Monkeys Climbing Trees?

Understanding the evolution of self-conception existent in great apes and humans (minus gorillas) is dependent on understanding when and why schemata based knowledge proved insufficient for our common ancestor and their ecological circumstances.

Let’s look at some theories that will help us better understand primate intelligence and its evolution…

Social Intelligence Hypothesis

·         It is proven that socialized species tend to have more sophisticated mental abilities and are overall more intelligent than those who live in isolation

·         The only problem with this theory is the gorilla factor. There are many species as social as the great apes, but they do not have the ability to self-conceptualize

The Hunt for ‘Nanners

·         Another theory is that the need to find food led to higher intelligence and mental capacity. Milton proposed that the benefits of having to remember where the spatial location of a food source is and phonological patterns associated with this = smarter monkey

·         Parker and Gibson argue that this “extractive foraging” causes the development of higher sensorimotor skills and/or brain size.

·         This theory doesn’t really make sense because other species with the same sensorimotor levels do not use this strategy, and also why would the extractive foraging of some species result in the evolving of higher intelligence while it doesn’t in others?

FINALLY- Cant and Povinelli’s Model

This model argues that self-conception initially evolved as a psychological mechanism to facilitate planning and execution of unusually flexible locomotor patterns existent in the ancestors of great apes and humans. They used the long-tailed macaque, siamang, and orangutan as a basis for their hypothesis.

Can this Branch Hold Me?

A key aspect to the model is vertical tree trunks. These species must swing from tree to tree avoiding falling where there are gaps. They must also be knowledgeable of the fact that branches become less and less stable the farther away they are from the trunk. The less stable branches are where the fruit is usually located. But, all other aspects of these species’ existence is reliant on their ability to solve this locomotor problems.

Body weight is a critical factor as it jeopardizes the stability of the branches and trees to hold up heavier species such as the orangutan. More weight on a branch also means the branch will bend downward, sometimes increasing the gap from tree to tree.

Another factor is that larger animals are more fragile than smaller ones, meaning that they have a higher fatality rate when falling out of the canopy.

Common Locomotion Solutions

  • Suspension
  •  Multiple supports
  • Habitat compliance

Cant and Povenilli also introduce the idea of stereotyped or nonstereotyped locomotion. Orangutans are proven to gear more towards nonstereotyped locomotion as they are at a higher risk of falling due to their body weight. This means they have to troubleshoot and be more aware of their environment because they have more to lose if they make a mistake. Because of this they have to vary their movements more, unlike smaller species such as the siamang or long tailed macaque.

Cant and Povenilli feel that this model best explains the evolution of primate intelligence and self-conception because, in order to breeze through the trees, these animals have to be extremely aware of themselves and their surroundings. The have to recognize themselves as a causal agent in order to survive and get their next meal.

This model gives more evolutionary insight than ever before as to why only humans and large-bodied apes possess the ability to self-conceptualize.




Pia Nystrom
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate

Pia Nystrom and Pamela Ashmore are university professors, researchers, and best friends. They are also passionate animal lovers. Nystrom and Ashmore both received PhDs in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis where they met as graduate students. Nystrom now lectures across the Atlantic at the University of Sheffield in the UK, while Ashmore is an Anthropology department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Though they have lived in different continents since 1994, these two friends managed to write a book for undergraduates on their favorite subject, primates.

The Life of Primates

The Life of Primates (2008) gives the reader an in-depth yet straightforward review of nonhuman primate biology. This includes the social behaviors, environments, and cognitive processes of primates as well as basic physiology. The chapter we’ll be discussing is “The Primate Brain and Complex Behavior.” In this section, Nystrom and Ashmore cover a broad range of topics from they “why”s to the “how”s of primate brains and cognition.

Why study nonhuman primate cognition?

Kiri & Mobali of the Memphis Zoo

Because we ourselves are primates, the brains and behaviors of other apes and monkeys interest us and allow for interesting views of our own neurological evolution and psychology. Nonhuman primate cognition research is highly controversial-- especially in its interpretation. Many don’t believe that humans can ever truly understand the minds of other animals because we cannot experience their perspectives for ourselves. However, we continue with this research in order to answer both philosophical and evolutionary questions.

The philosophical questions relate to our desire to know our position in nature - how unique our minds are compared to other creatures. Those who seek answers to the evolutionary questions examine our closest extant relatives (bonobos, chimps, etc) while trying to understand the evolution of the human brain.

Early Research

Nonhuman primate research began in 1927 with Köhler’s chimp observations in the Canary Islands. He was the first to suggest that chimps were capable of insightful behaviors. Systematic research into primate cognition did not truly begin until the 1960’s, however, and even then most of that was done on captive primates. The biggest discoveries of this time period were from two field studies in Tanzania where the researchers showed the chimps frequently construct and use tools. Later research revealed that chimps have tool kits and that these kits are different regionally. This is more than Homo habilis can say with its identical tools across time and geography.

Brain Size


Though brain size usually correlates with complexity, the discovery of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia means this assumption must be reevaluated. H. floresiensis has a small brain case and stature (around the size of a modern chimp), yet it used tools which were much more advanced than those of chimps. This leads us to believe that the internal organization of the brain may be more important than its size. Still though, primates have larger brains than expected based on body size alone and are known to have more complex behaviors than other orders of animals.

Now the question is why did primates evolve such large brains? The brain is a metabolically expensive organ to run. There must have been a very strong selective pressure for large brains that outweighed the energetic cost.

There are several hypotheses for why primates have large brains. Primates with larger home ranges and which also eat fruit (a high energy food) have larger brains. They also seem to have the most efficient routes between food sources on their home ranges mapped out in their heads - this relates to the expensive tissue hypothesis. Sociality is another characteristic which correlates with brain size. Primates which live in large groups have complex interactions and can use “social tools” to achieve their own goals. For example, many primates use manipulation to gain access to food. This is the social intelligence hypothesis.


Mirror Test
Mirror Test

Researchers are also interested in whether nonhuman primates have theory of mind. However, it is very difficult to ascertain whether or not nonhuman primates understand another individual’s mental perspective. In order to learn more about nonhuman theory of mind, researchers have attempted to study an individuals awareness. If an organism has theory of mind, it is assumed to also have awareness. Though awareness is also a complex subject, it may studied a bit more easily than theory of mind. Awareness can be divided into two levels, self-recognition and self-attribution. Self-recognition is the ability to identify oneself apart from others. Self-attribution is when an individual aware of their own mental state and can use this to predict the actions of others.

The mirror test is the most often used test for self-recognition. Chimps, bonobos, and orangutans appear to recognize themselves in the mirror and use it to examine parts of their body they might not normally see. Gorillas do not react in this way and instead try to threaten the image. However, the famous captive gorilla Koko is said to routinely examine herself with a mirror. This may be because of her increased level of social stimulation. Gordon Gallup, the mirror test deviser, suggested that self-recognition could be an index for self-attribution.

Why do primates need to think?

The ability to understand others’ mental states can create more effective cooperation as well as social manipulation. Both of these lead to gains for the individual. Organisms which can differentiate between friendly and unfriendly interactions and intentions are better suited to realize when they are being manipulated or give them the means to manipulate. These abilities also potentially allow for the exchange of knowledge through observation or teaching.


Tool use has never been so adorable.
Tool use has never been so adorable.

As we learned in the Leary/Buttermore paper, tool use is a very large component of research on primate cognition. Primates are hand-feeders, meaning they use their hands for eating and essentially all grabbing activities. Hands are represented extensively in the sensory and motor areas of primate brains. While not all primates use tools, the grasping ability of the hand makes tools fairly useful in the primate world. Chimps and orangutans frequently use them, other species do not quite as much or at all.

Tools are not always used for food either - they can be used in displays and grooming as well. Chimps have been known to throw rocks at enemies and monkeys often dislodge branches to frighten away predators.

Not only are primates able to use tools, but they are also capable of making them. To do this requires forethought. They must have an idea of what the final product should look like and an understand of what materials to use to make that product. Chimps have also been known to make tools hours ahead of time - up to 14 hours of reaching the goal.

The “how”s of tool use in nonhuman primates are widely disputed. Capuchins seem to via trial and error, whereas with chimps it seems to be a mixture of emulation and perhaps intentional teaching.

While we may not ever truly understand the cognitive processes of nonhuman primates, we can learn a lot about our own evolutionary history from this research. There does not seem to be a distinct dividing line between our mental capacities and their own, especially when in a stimulating environment.


First, here's some kids being kids.

It shouldn't surprise you that we aren't born with the ability to recognize our own reflection. Self-recognition is a skill that can develop as early as 18 months in children. In their article, Self-Awareness, Social Intelligence and Schizophrenia, Gordon Gallup and his colleagues delve deep into just what it means to be able to identify yourself in a reflection.

So,  you're not a vampire. What else?

The evidence provided by Gallup and his colleagues strongly suggests that the ability to recognize yourself in a mirror is closely related to your ability to conceive yourself as an individual, and infer information about the mental states of other individuals. As a matter of fact, self-recognition typically develops in humans around the same time as primitive social intelligence. In other words, whenever you can recognize yourself, you can try and piece together what other people are thinking or feeling.

On the flip side...

Species that fail to self-identify show no evidence whatsoever that they can infer information about the mental states of other individuals. I'm sure at some point you've all seen a cat or dog look at its reflection in a mirror. Normally, dogs will behave as if their reflection is another dog, and may bark or growl at its own reflection. Cats, from my experience, totally fail to give a single fuck about their reflections.

Is that anot-OH look a floor.

How do we know anything else can self-identify?

Gallup et al. provides an experiment in his article that was done using chimpanzees. The chimps had mirrors placed in their housing, and were given several days to grow accustomed to them. At first, the chimps behaved as if there was another member of their species with them. but after several days, the chimps began to use the mirrors to look at their bodies and groom themselves in new ways. Eventually, the chimps were sedated, the mirrors were removed and they had red marks applied to their bodies in places that were not visible without the use of a mirror. When the chimps were awake, fed, and watered, and the mirrors were reintroduced. The chimps began to investigate the marks, and even smelled their fingers after touching them. Orangutans and bonobos have also demonstrated self-identification skills, while evidence for the fourth great ape, gorillas, is mostly negative.

Do you see what I see?

As I said before, there is a strongly suspected link between self-recognition and the ability to infer information about the mental states of others.

Nails on a chalkboard...

Does this image make you cringe just a little bit? If not, get help. But the fact that I expected this image to conjure up that ungodly noise in your mind is an example of me making a social inference. If the ability to self-identify and the ability to make inferences about others is as closely linked as many suspect, then we can suppose that species that cant self-identify are incapable of empathizing with other of their species. And we would seemingly be correct.

In 1997, Anil et al. observed the reaction of pigs when they were shown the slaughter of other pigs. Or, rather, they observed the lack of a reaction. Besides mild stress caused by the jostling of the handlers, the pigs showed absolutely no distress while watching the slaughter of their piggy comrades.


The Cortex is the cause.

The ability to self-recognize and mental state attribution (infer what others are thinking) is believed to be located in our frontal cortex.

Frontal Lobe, home of the Frontal Cortex. Shocker.

The right prefrontal cortex is considered the prime culprit for self recognition and mental state attribution. In a study by Keenan et al. subjects were asked to press one key if an image of their own face was shown, another if a friend's face was shown, and yet another if a stranger's face was shown. Now, many of you may have heard that the right side of the brain plays a larger role in the left side of the body. In fact, subjects were asked to press the keys first with their right hands, then with their left, and they identified their own face faster while using their left hands.

Self-recognition and mental health.

Schizophrenics will commonly react to their own reflection as if it were the reflection of a completely different person. In rare cases, some schizophrenics claim to see no reflection at all. Evidence suggests that a fascination with mirrors may be the precursor to schizophrenia, as many schizophrenics are extremely interested in mirrors and the images in them.


Many schizophrenics also struggle with the ability to identify what others are thinking or feeling. If a schizophrenic is told a joke where an assumption must be made about a mental state, they will have a very difficult time finding it humorous. Coincidentally or not, people with damage to their frontal cortex also display difficulty understanding these situations, as do children, whose brains have not fully developed yet. There is plenty of evidence now pointing to frontal lobe dysfunction as the cause of schizophrenia.

Putting it all together...

The abilities of self-recognition and mental state attribution obviously play an enormous role in our lives every day. If the key to these behaviors lies in our frontal cortex, as evidence suggests, there are many possibilities not only within the field of psychology but also medicine. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness, and the key to understanding it is within our grasp.






"I just can't wait to be king!" At least, I think so, but I really don't know what I'm asking for.

When Are You an Adult?

Allison James begins her chapter On Being a Child: The Self, the Group and the Category sharing an anecdote in which a twelve year old boy, frustrated by the restrictions of his youthfulness, asked her, “When are you an adult?” James confesses that she did not know how to answer the boy, because achieving adulthood, as many of us nineteen – twenty-two year olds have recently come to understand very personally, is more than simply reaching a certain age. It reminds me of a moderately amusing little quote from Grey’s Anatomy which now exists to be re-pinned on Pinterest and shared on Facebook over and over by 20-somethings and 40-somethings alike who think they’re cute (including, but certainly not limited to my own older sister and mother):

"LOL, I'm so young at heart."
"LOL, I'm so young at heart."

But our silly white-girl humor aside, the point of James’s article actually stems from the concerns of the opposite perspective; of children who don’t yet fear the responsibilities of adulthood, and aspire to the status and privilege that comes with being a “grown-up.” As a musical theatre enthusiast (*ahem*nerd), I thought of  a scene in the Golden Age Rogers & Hammerstein musical The King and I, in which King Mongkut finds himself in a “puzzlement,” talking to his oldest son and heir, Prince Chulalongkorn, about the nature of knowledge and kingship. Replace “King” with “an adult,” and it becomes obvious that the concern is not so much singular to a prince attaining the monarchy, but universally to a child attaining adulthood.

Prince: But you must know because you are King [an adult]!

King: Someday you too will be King [an adult] and you too will everything.

Prince: But how do I learn? And when do I know that I know everything?

King: When you are King [an adult].

Grown-ups realizing it's not all that they thought it would be.
Grown-ups realizing it's not all that they thought it would be.

"A Puzzlement"

In the following musical number “A Puzzlement,” King Mongkut wrestles with the fact that, contrary to what he believed when he was a child, he did not automatically gain a perfect black-and-white understanding of the universe, but actually found that “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know, [and] very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago.” And yet, disillusioned as he is, he continues to pass the misconception of adulthood to his naïve child. Why is this?

As James reflects on her encounter with the twelve year old, she muses, “He has no doubt found out, by now, what it means to be an adult. I, on the other hand, am still asking what it means to be a child.”

When I Was a Child, I Spake as a Child…

In his 1977 book What Is a Child?, Nicholas Tucker defined a child essentially as under-developed individual, “lacking the competency of an adult” and requiring coaching in order to correct childish imperfections and attain an adult-level of social and physical maturity. Think 1 Corinthians 13:11.

 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

While not exactly wrong—a child truly isn’t as competent and self-reliant as an adult—this attitude towards children lends itself to be more harmful to a child’s development into a mature, self-reliant individual by conceptually separating children from the adult world of which they are eventually supposed to be a part. Later theories reject such conceptualization and hold that the uniqueness of children’s biology contextualizes rather than determines the social experiences of children.

The Kiddie Table

I heard y'all like Harry Potter...
I heard y'all like Harry Potter...

 The most obvious example of childhood contextualizing a child’s social experience can be found at any large family gathering: the kiddie table. Everyone gathers at Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, and while parents, aunts, and uncles all gather around the “grown up table” with the family china, all cousins from ages two to fifteen are sent to the folding table with plastic, or even paper plates. It’s not at all that children are biologically unfit to sit at the dining room table with the rest of the family; in fact, when it’s just the nuclear family eating together on any week night, the three year old and twelve year old have their own places at the table, but when it’s a large social gathering, they are denied that honor.

I can feel the indignation my eleven year old self suffered to this day. “Are my parents ashamed of me? Do they assume I was going to say something stupid around Aunt Heidi? Why would they think that? I’m a straight-A student, aren’t they proud of me? My seventeen year old sister gets to sit at the grown-up table; do they love her more than me, just because she’s bigger? It’s not my fault I’m still small. I don’t want to sit at the kiddie table. Mikey picks his nose. I don’t deserve to sit at the same table as someone who picks his nose.”

This, among many other factors, meant that as a child, I never identified with the “Peter Pan” desire to never grow up. If we’re honest, I don’t think most children do. The Peter Pan –complex, I guess – is something adults, swamped with the stress of adulthood, project onto children. I wanted to grow up; to be equal to adults in respect and privilege. Which, again, was also most likely the result of how adults, not children, defined childhood and adulthood and established discriminating boundaries between the two.

Size Does Matter

James’s article identifies that one of the first ways children begin to develop a sense of self-consciousness is in the observation, and comparison of their body and others’. They recognize that they are more capable and bigger than infants, and that older, even more capable children are bigger than they. They naturally identify personal progression with physical growth. This idea is perpetuated by the linguistic bias of adults adopting this childish understanding when conversing and counselling children. Children are praised for accomplishments and hailed as “big kids” (think of the jingle, “I’m a big kid now!”), and scolded for “little kid” behavior like crying or refusing to share.

I measure my personal progression by my physical size relative to smaller, less capable individuals, and will be troubled for years with insecurities relating to my physical and emotional development. SUCCESS.
I measure my personal progression by my physical size relative to smaller, less capable individuals, and will be troubled for years with insecurities relating to my physical and emotional development. SUCCESS.

The result? The belief that being small is a failure. That children are imperfect, and will be rewarded when they succeed in becoming bigger. Should children be encouraged to develop mature, capable qualities and skills at an appropriate pace in order to grow up into well-adjusted, responsible adults? Absolutely. But identifying these qualities and skills as either “big” or “small” sets children up for damaging self-consciousness as their developing bodies grow and change at a rate not precisely proportional to their developing selves.


David Sloan Wilson is a hardcore evolutionary biologist; Evolution is his religion. That is what makes his approach to studying religion so particularly interesting. Borrowing the term “Secular Utility” from Emile Durkheim, Sloan appreciates and in many ways dissects the importance of religious practices in human prosperity. It makes the reader wonder if religious rules are the source or the product of practices that aided in success. I think his opinion leads more toward the religious rules stemming out of evolutionary success rather than initially causing it. He views religion from an organismal approach, believing the survival of any religion is bound by the same constraints of any organism. In the chapter “The Secular Utility of Religion”, Sloan looks closely at 3 religions and breaks down their practices to their most biologically successful nature.


The Water Temple System of Bali     The people of the Water Temples do not have what most Americans would view as a modern religion or agricultural system. They worship a water goddess called Dewi Danu, and the high priest, called Jero Gde, is an earthly embodiment of the goddess. Over hundreds of years with no adaptation to modern machinery, the Bali have created a huge system of aqueducts to lead water to their rice paddies. At every new branch of the system, there is another subak (a small social unit) that operates in a democratic fashion and has its own deities, separate from the others but still under Dewi Danu. Their cultivation of rice has as much to do with the collective cooperation of the subaks as their individual group cooperation. Big issues like dam maintenance and pest control, along with water distribution and planting seasons are coordinated with the entire community. Problems are carefully inspected, analyzed, and solved by the priests and the subak heads. What surprised outsiders the most is that so much practical wisdom was embodied by their religion. When a researcher asked a subak head where the authority of Jero Gde came from, he replied, “Belief…. overflowing belief. Concerning Batur temple-- really that is the center, the origin of waters, you see. At this moment, the Jero Gde holds all this in his hands. At the temple of Lake Batur.” Their belief in Dewi Danu and her embodiment in Jero Gde is the entire basis of their complex water system. Without the goddess, there are no water temples or unifying basis for the Bali people, and without that, the complex and organized aqueduct system could not exist. The extravagant religion with many deities under the same goddess unifies the Bali under one of the most basic needs for human survival. Food.


To say the Jewish people as a whole have had a tough go throughout history would be an understatement. The most interesting part about them though, has to be how long they have endured; their history is enormous, definitely one of the longest surviving religions. Wilson makes the point that what made the religion so successful is not much different than what might make a particular species successful. Judaism is a fairly strict religion that follows the rules given to them in the Hebrew Bible closely. These rules obviously make a group that follows them more functional and cooperational than one which does not. The Hebrew Bible is a little unclear on behavior towards outsiders, at one point saying to ‘not oppress the alien’ and giving instructions for war in another. On the whole, the Jewish people have remained a relatively genetically and religiously pure society. Their strength in kinship has been a great advantage over the past 2000 years, but also their greatest source of criticism. They have been attacked countless times, but the culture always prevails because of their powerful social identity. Judaism is not a religion that actively seeks members like others, and the practice of genetic isolation goes outside the basic principles of group selection, but this genetic isolation has made their brotherhood grow stronger in the literal and figurative sense, creating an altruistic attitude among the Jews as a community. The strict rules of Judaism have served as a secular utility for the Jews, making their culture withstand thousands of years with the same cultural identity.


The Early Christian Church

The strength of the early Christian Church stemmed from an exponential growth over a few hundred years. Scientists were baffled by this boom until Rodney Stark used comparative analysis of 22 Roman cities to examine the growth by measuring city size, distance along trade routes between Jerusalem and Rome, and the presence of a synagogue around the year 100 to measure Jewish influence. Stark took information that had been around all along and made sense of them. Contrary to what most people think about Rome, it was a hectic, violent, unwelcoming place; fires were frequent and the city was divided among many ethnic groups that didn’t get along. By the start of Christianity, Roman culture was inhospitable for reproduction, not in the sense that babies are bad, but the fact that it was a male dominated culture made the desire for male babies much higher than the poor female babies that were many times killed. The introduction of Christianity was attractive to many women in particular because of the rules governing reproduction and more importantly the greater freedom and status it offered. The Christian teachings also encouraged altruism towards all, consequentially increasing the life expectancy of the early Christians (if they didn’t die of the plague helping those afflicted). Christianity established a more free, less threatening Rome. While that is the nature of the religion, as a secular utility it increased reproduction and decreased violence. A heightened community and belongingness helped the people and the religion thrive.



Which came first: the chicken or the egg?  Or if you're a Harry Potter fan was it the Phoenix or the flame? That is the question that anthropologist Pascal Boyer brings forth in his essay titled Religion: Bound to believe? However, rather than dealing with poultry origins he seems to be more curious about religion and its origins in our culture.  Boyer wants to find out if "religion [is] an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution" and though it would be great to have one single answer it appears to be a question that can be argued in many different ways.

Pascal Boyer is a french anthropologist who continues his work today as a Professor at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, and has published multiple books, including  Religion Explained (2001), and The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (1994).  He studied anthropology at the University of Paris and at Cambridge, and was a professor at Cambridge, San Diego, Lyon and Santa Barbara before finally settling in St. Louis Missouri, where he continues to teach anthropology and psychology today.


Religion and Its' Contributing Factors

Boyer's research mainly discusses why cultures have religious beliefs, and why it continues to be such a popular topic of conversation and controversy among groups.  He discusses how findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology all contribute to ours and/or other culture's basis of religion.

  • Cognitive Psychology: scientific study of mind and mental function including learning, memory, attention, perception, reasoning, language, etc.
  • Neuroscience: sciences which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain
  • Cultural Anthropology: branch of anthropology that deals with human culture and society
  • Archaeology: study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains

Religious Theories

So these are some of the contributing factors behind our religious ideas, but what  are some of the actual beliefs people hold on the topic? Due to the many perceptions of religion by different groups in society, multiple theories have surfaced. Many religious people do not want religion to be dissected and explained through science, because they feel as though it will lose its power if science is able to explain it.  On the other hand, certain scientists believe that religion is childish or make-believe, and so they disregard it and view it as unimportant.

What we have come to realize is that religion should not be dissected or examined too closely by science.  Religion is represented by the combination of the following practices: Ritual, morality, metaphysics, and social identity.

  • Ritual: established or prescribed procedure for religion or another rite
  • Morality: conformity to the rules of right conduct
  • Metaphysics: branch of psychology that treats of first principles, including ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology
  • Social Identity: one's sense of self  as a member of a social group (or groups)


The Social Identity Theory is a popular idea today,because everyone can relate to it.  Henri Tajfel believed that groups that we belong to are important because they give us pride and boost our self esteem.  Here at the University of Alabama we all know what it is like to have a sense of social identity, because anytime anyone says anything about our school we can't help but be proud to say "Roll Tide".  As humans we want to feel like we belong and like we are a part of something that is bigger than ourselves.  However, like in any social group, at Alabama we discriminate and stereotype those who are not a part of the Crimson Tide.  For instance, anytime we see someone with an Auburn license plate, or an Auburn sweatshirt on we automatically assume that said Auburn fan is stupid... or redneck... or inbred, etc. (just a few examples).  What Henry Tajfel believed was that this is a normal part of social identity: separating the "us" from the "them".  This kind of separation increases our pride in our own social group, and gives one a sense of belonging.

Religion As We Grow

Our view of religion as we grow older can be compared to our view of Santa as we were kids.  Growing up your parents would always tell you that you had to be good because Santa was watching, and if you weren't good you'd end up with coal in your stocking.  Therefore we would keep track of the things we did right and wrong because we thought that Santa only cared about acts that involved morality.  Boyer explains that our thought processes with religion are very similar.  We tend to pray and ask for God's forgiveness when we have done something wrong because we believe God knows when those events occur, yet we don't concern ourselves with God's opinion on random events in our day to day lives that don't actually have anything to do with morality. This is just one of the things about humans that make us unique to other species:  our sense and understanding about morality.

Another unique trait among humans is our ability to form bonds with large groups of people with which we have no relation to whatsoever.  Our ability to form and maintain these bonds affect our religious beliefs.  It all can be linked back to the social identity theory, because part of being involved with organized religion is submitting to one groups sets of certain beliefs, while completely disregarding another group's.  This signals that one is ready to fully submit to a group and in return this person can now include religion as a part of their social identity.

In Conclusion

Poyer is able to express many ideas on humans and how religion came to be.  His study of our cognitive traits have led to many significant theories and ideas about how religion and humans have intertwining histories and have evolved together through time.  So I suppose the question of "Which came first?" isn't as important as we make it seem.  The question I would like to pose is how has the development of religion throughout or evolution made us better over time?  Has it? Do we want to know the answer? So while we never really decided if one came before the other, it seems as though a continued growth and understanding of how religion and evolution have developed over time is what is most important. After all, a circle has no beginning, right?



Studying the Stone Age is almost so boring that it’s rude, right? Researcher Yulia Ustinova has the right idea (second only to studying history while actually stoned) by approaching ancient peoples specifically to find out what type of mind-altering shenanigans they were into back then.

Her research focuses mainly on the role of Greek religion within society, and her current project is entitled “Mania: Altered States of Consciousness and Insanity in Ancient Greece.” Sounds entertaining to say the least. Among a ton of papers and chapters in collective volumes, Ustinova has written two books entitled: "The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom: Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God" and "Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth." She currently teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but has also taught in London and Chicago and conducted research in Leningrad. Suffice it to say she’s pretty legit.

Her article “Consciousness Alteration Practices in the West from Prehistory to Late Antiquity” gives an overview of the people, practices, and potentially harmful substances we can study beginning with the Stone Age. The specific stories she mentions can be understood outside of their cultural context, making them easy for us uncultured swine to understand what they’re all about.

So let’s rewind a few years.

Not your average refrigerator art

PREHISTORY: What a mystery

Because humans in the Stone Age didn’t communicate with writing, we are left with their art, i.e. cave paintings, for clues about their experiences with altered consciousness. We have vague ideas that they did indeed have these experiences, because their drawings tend to mimic certain visual hallucinations like zigzags, grids, and dots. Some consider these images “embodied metaphors expressing subjective feelings of death” which describe an individual’s experience of altered consciousness. In the Neolithic period, art started resembling certain visual phenomena like spirals, which according to modern shamans may represent doorways between dimensions. From Paleolithic to Neolithic eras, people began using various other methods of altering their consciousnesses, including:

  • Music and Dance- Picture lots of repetitive stomping and banging on things.
  • Psychoactive plants- While there is little hard evidence that hunter-gatherers used them intentionally, it's highly likely they were aware of the plants' effects, because, c'mon.
  • Opium- Accounts surfaced in the Neolithic era.
  • Alcohol- Accounts showed up in the 4th millennium in eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

It's likely that all of these were used in a religious context.

PROTOHISTORY: Or as I like to call it, Brotohistory

Protohistoric peoples are less mysterious because they began leaving texts giving us the dirty details. Herodotus gives the first account of a “purification rite” involving hemp seeds as a hallucinogen. This showed that in Iranian-speaking cultures, hallucinogens were used in religious ceremonies, and that other Europeans used hemp as a psychoactive substance. Also, accounts from this time period give us more information about the Germans, Celts, and a few other peoples beginning to use alcohol in their cultures.

File:Levant (orthographic projection).png
Geographical reference

ANCIENT NEAR EAST: Things get interesting

In the Ancient Near East, which Ustinova clarifies as being “part of the West because the Mediterranean world has always served as a bridge between Northern Europe and the Levant,” we find more of these kooks using opium and other plants like water lilies for mind-altering. In several cultures such as Minoan and Egyptian, opium and other plants were most likely used specifically to alter states of consciousness. They also used beer and wine in social and ritual contexts. Around this time period, people started believing that altered states of consciousness were linked to prophesy giving. The Mari texts from 18th century BCE give counts of men and women “possessed” by spirits and they named them ecstatics or respondents. These texts detail the culture's perception of prophetic moments. Furthermore, in ancient Israel, what they called “inspired prophecy” played a huge role in the culture. For example, Ezekiel’s vision in the Old Testament gives a primary recollection of altered consciousness. His experience takes on several hallucinatory forms: visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, and kinesthetic. This may have been some form of synesthesia.

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg
His beard is full of secrets.

ANCIENT GREECE: The really good stuff

In Ancient Greece, some versions of this “madness” were sought and revered, and others were looked down upon. States of altered consciousness were viewed as a blessing if "the divine" had inspired them. Plato named four different types of “god-induced frenzy”: prophetic, initiatory, poetic, and erotic. In Greece, someone had to be possessed by a god to gain inspiration—an inspired person was seen as a medium between two realms. The terms used for these experiences were “enthousiasmos” or “mania.”

  • Prophetic: There were many methods seers or prophetic priests used to induce this state of prophetic “enthousiasmos”: drinking sacred water, dipping feet into sacred water, shutting themselves in a temple, mounting sacred structures, fasting, seclusion, and many more. People involved in these frenzies were disposed to hallucinations because of their lifestyles and the rituals they underwent in preparation. One example of this was the “Daimonion of Socrates” by Plutarch. This detailed an out-of-body experience of a man who, in a “prepared” state, enters an oracular crypt and experiences some larger-than-life sensations, leading him to profound conclusions about his mortality. Such mystery rites were directly relevant to the individual, and were aimed to influence that person’s attitude toward life and death.
  • Initiatory: The most important objective of Greek initiations was to make participants live through a certain experience; they
    Eleusinian Mysteries

    had to be inducted into a certain state of mind to achieve it. Ustinova asks us to consider the questions: what was the nature of the experience, and what methods were used to make the initiated “fit for the purpose”? The pay off for this ritual was that the individual gained peace of mind and acceptance of death. They were essentially forced to endure death and learn not to fear it. This mirrors modern individuals who experience life threatening situations (such as a heart attack or trauma injury) and come back from the experience with a whole new personality or outlook on life.

  • Poetic: Lastly, in this era it was believed that poetry and prophecy sprung from the same source and that poets inspired by muses must "celebrate past and future."

The Greeks studied many ways to liberate their souls from their bodies at will, including meditation, bringing themselves to the verge of death, welcoming possession, and so on. They viewed this separation of the body and soul as the ultimate way to gain wisdom--a wisdom that was not attainable when the soul was restricted by the body.

ROMAN EMPIRE: Basically copycats

Goddess Isis

Lastly, Ustinova examines the Roman Empire, which essentially adopted the consciousness-altering practices of the Greeks when the Greek and Near East cultures flooded theirs. This led to mysteries such as the Greco-Roman Mystery of Isis; initiates were made to feel the anguish of the goddess Isis and live through it. They approached the "threshold of death" and experienced contact with the divinity. The Roman Empire also birthed Plotinus, the Father of Wetstern Mysticism.




From the Stone Age to Late Antiquity, individuals definitely experienced and experimented with altered states of consciousness. As time passed, accounts and records became more specific, individualized, and culturally relevant. These events and people have extreme influence in the development of human history, and the study of such practices is still very relevant today.

So the next time you're bored in history class, wondering how it's possible that at one point the Austrian army actually attacked itself to the point of self-inflicted decimation, just remember it could be due to the fact that they were probably high on opium. #history.


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!