Ritual and the Symbolic Function: A Summary of Biogenetic Structural Theory
                Ritual and the Symbolic Function:

            A Summary of Biogenetic Structural Theory


                       Charles D. Laughlin

              Department of Sociology-Anthropology

                       Carleton University

     I like to think of ritual essentially as performance,

     enactment, not primarily as rules or rubrics.  The

     rules "frame" the ritual process, but the ritual

     process transcends its frame.  A river needs banks or

     it will be a dangerous flood, but banks without a river

     epitomize aridity.

                    Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre

                          INTRODUCTION      Over the years a group of us has developed a body of theory we call biogenetic structuralism.  This body of theory is quite complex in that it forms a synthesis of neurobiological, anthropological and phenomenological material in such a way as to integrate what are otherwise apparently disparate approaches to human nature.  And, as this perspective has resulted in a useful explanation of human ritual and symbolic behavior, areas of study attracting a great deal of current interest (Grimes 1985, Turner 1982, Fernandez 1986, Noll 1985), we would like to summarize its highlights so that those readers wishing to apply the theory to these studies may have access to it in summary form.                     THE COGNIZED ENVIRONMENT            From our point of view, ritual behavior is intricately coupled with the processes by which the human brain constitutes a world of experience, and communicates knowledge about that world in symbolic ways.  Both experience and knowledge are produced by organizations of cells within the nervous system.  Biogenetic structuralism conceives of the human being as an organism, and thus as a community of cells.  The trillions of cells comprising the being are organized into various organs and other structures that function to maintain their own integrity and that of the being as a whole.  The nervous system is a sub-community of cells that has evolved to facilitate the communication between different body structures, regulation of these structures, and the internal depiction of the being and its environment (Klopf 1982, Young 1978, Varela 1979).  The latter function is primarily the job of the evolutionarily most advanced parts of the nervous system (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Jerison 1985, MacLean 1973).       The principal function of the human nervous system at the level of the cerebral cortex is the construction of a vast network of models of the world.  Models are comprised of the organization taken by constituent cells and their patterns of interaction (Pribram 1971), and this form expressed as activity is "information" -- literally that which results from the cells' in-forming (see Varela 1979, Young 1987: 27).  We call this entire structure of models an individual's cognized environment.  This term contrasts with an individual's operational environment which is the real nature of that individual as an organism and that individual's world as an ecosystem.  Both the organism (or species) develops (or evolves) and the outer operational environment unfolds and develops.  This co-evolutionary view is as fundamental to biogenetic structuralism, as it has been for similar theories.      The cognized environment emerges as a developmentally maturing structure during the course of life -- especially early life (see Laughlin 1985, 1989a) -- by means of the growth and interconnection of networks of cells that become active in development, that grow, and that become progressively stratified into more complex and hierarchical organizations (Bruner 1974).  The prime function of the cognized environment is the adaptation of the individual to its operational environment (Piaget 1971, 1985), which is to say to actual transformations in itself and its world.   The Transcendental and the Zone of Uncertainty.      The emphasis upon adaptation is important, for we make the fundamental assumption that the operational environment is transcendental relative to the capacity of any individual or group to comprehend it.  The cognized environment is never more than a model, a point of view, a system of knowledge about the operational environment.  There is always more to know about the operational environment, or any aspect of it, than can be known.  The operational environment may be modeled in an adaptively useful way -- and this is precisely the function of the higher neural processes of the human brain -- but there always exists a set of boundaries to knowledge, a zone of uncertainty   (d'Aquili et al. 1979: 40, 171) formed by the limits to spatial discernment and discrimination, and to comprehension of temporal and causal relations.  The zone of uncertainty is the directly experienceable boundary between the transcendental nature of the being and the world, and the limits of an individual's understanding (see Elster 1984: Chapter 4).   The Rule of Minimal Inclusion.      Because the true nature of the operational environment is transcendental, and because all forms of knowledge -- all theories, models, conceptions, images and points of view -- are partial, incomplete and (however useful and adaptive) distortions of the true nature of things, biogenetic structuralism has embraced a methodological discipline it has called the "rule of minimal inclusion" (see Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984: 93):  Any explanation of a living system (including its behavior, perception, cognition or experience) must take into account any and all levels of organization efficiently present (or "co- producing"; see Ackoff and Emery 1972) in that system and the interaction between that system and its environment.        It is the exercise of this rule in approaching a study and explanation of any particular phenomenon that produces the most robust form of theory.  In the case of biogenetic structuralism, this robustness has taken the form of a perspective that can handle the incorporation of: (1) introspective knowledge derived from the direct experience of consciousness, (2) observations of behavior and vicarious reports of experience, and (3) the neurobiological data pertaining to the structures mediating that behavior and experience. Neurognosis.      The neural networks comprising the cognized environment have their developmental origin in initial neurognostic structures that are usually present before, at, or just after birth, and the organization of which is largely determined genetically.  For example, psychophysiological research has shown that newborns are already neurognostically prepared to process speech sounds in syllabic "chunks" similar to adult speech perception (Busnel and Granier-Deferre 1983), to perceive and explore physical objects (especially the edges of objects; Streri and Spelke 1988), to mimic facial expressions (Meltzoff and Moore 1983), and to categorize invariant qualities of perceptual objects (Wilson in Harnad 1987).        The developmental selection and reorganization of these inherent structures is neurognostically regulated as well; that is, the course of much of development is genetically charted (e.g., Turkewitz and Kenny 1982).  Development of neural models involves a great deal of selectivity among alternative interconnections (Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Varela 1979, Purves 1988).  Some potential organizations deteriorate, others become active, and still others remain relatively latent and undeveloped.  This selectivity is one reason why there is such remarkable (but never unlimited; see Will and Eclancher 1984) plasticity in cognitive adaptation to the transcendental nature of the being and the world.  For example, severe damage to the left cerebral hemisphere may result in the right hemisphere taking over some language functions if the damage is sustained early in infancy.        And, there is a great deal of evidence that the relative richness or poverty of the outer operational environment has a determinant effect upon the complexity and growth of neural networks in ontogenesis (Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988).  With conceptual systems theory (Schroder, Driver and Streufert 1967), we have argued that there is a range of optimality of operational environmental stimulation for each and every stage in human neurocognitive development.  Within this range there will be suboptimal, optimal and superoptimal environmental press which will be experienced as uninteresting, interesting and stressful, respectively.  Maurer and Maurer (1988) have indicated that when the environment becomes too stimulating, an infant simply goes to sleep. Intentionality.      The ongoing, moment-by-moment activity of the cognized environment is essentially intentional in organization; that is, neural networks tend to organize themselves about a phenomenal object (Mohanty 1972, Searle 1983).  The phenomenal object is also produced by a neural network and is, for the moment, the central focus of cognitive, affective, metabolic and behavioral operations for the organism (Neisser 1976: 20ff).  Intentionality derives from a characteristic dialogue between the prefrontal cortex (Fuster 1980, Stuss and Benson 1986) and the sensory cortex of the human brain (Laughlin 1986, 1988b, 1988c, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter 4).  Subsidiary structures incorporated during the course of the dialogue between prefrontal and sensory processes may be located over a wide expanse of cortical (e.g., parietal visual attention structures, right hemisphere imaginal structures, left hemisphere language processing structures), subcortical (e.g., hippocampal recognition structures, brainstem arousal structures, limbic emotional structures), endocrinal (e.g., hypothalamic and pituitary structures), and immunological (e.g., lymphatic system, liver) areas.       Experience occurs as a function of this intentional dialogue and primarily involves the construction of a phenomenal world within the sensory system, the latter being a field of neural activity that arises and dissolves in temporally sequential epochs and that is coordinated with cognitive processes that associate meaning and form in a (more or less) unitary frame (Laughlin 1988c).  A point to emphasize here is that both the sensory and the cognitive-intentional aspects of experience are active (never static!) products of neurological functioning, and are exquisitely ordered in the service of abstract pattern recognition, both in moment-by-moment adult experience (Gibson 1969), and in development from the earliest periods of pre- and perinatal consciousness (Chamberlain in Verny 1987).        The total field of experience arising each moment is produced by what we call the conscious network, a continuously changing field of neural connections that may include any particular network one moment and exclude it the next (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990).  Conscious network at any given moment is never comprised of all the potentially available  networks, and there are vast fields of neural networks subconsciously active within the being and that are never connected to conscious network.  Moreover, conscious experience is not a simple function that may be located in one place in the brain -- say in the hippocampus or in the frontal lobes.  Rather it is a complex of functions of a constantly shifting field of networks located over a wide area of cortical and subcortical tissue. The Empirical Modification Cycle.      The cognized environment is thus conceived as an "autopoieic" structure (Maturana and Varela 1980, Varela 1979): an autonomous, self-constructing, self-regulating system one function of which is to make possible the adaptation of the organism to its ever unfolding operational environment, and another function of which is to maintain the unitary continuity of the organism.  The action (motor) component of the cognized environment operates to control what arises within experience so as to fulfill anticipated events within internally generated limits, a feedforward process we have termed the empirical modification cycle, or EMC (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974: 84ff; see also Pribram 1971, Neisser 1976, Arbib 1972, Powers 1973, Gray 1982, and Varela 1979 for consonant views).  This feedforward process that anticipates sensory fulfillment is required for learning, and for transformation of models confronting the changing and ultimately incomprehensible complexity of an essentially transcendental world.  Perhaps just as important, an understanding of this process is required in theory to bridge from the cognitive structure to the world in order to avoid mind- body dualism, and its conceptual concomitants, culture-nature dualism and empiricism vs. idealism (see Bourdieu 1977: 78ff for his very relevant concept of "habitus").      The action phase of the EMC of higher animals is often extended physically via technology (Beck 1980) to control the perceived world in order to give rise to experienced events that match those anticipated by cognitive structures.  The easiest and most primitive way the organism accomplishes this control is by body movement and locomotion -- sensory organs or the entire body may be moved in space.  The world may also be technologically manipulated so that experience "opens up" to the senses and some previously hidden aspects of the operational environment are revealed -- the bird coaxes a grub from under the tree bark; the chimpanzee fishes for termites.  Human beings will likewise move their sensory organs and bodies in space (see Devine 1985 on the varieties of human locomotion), and are able to behaviorally transform their operational environments (both their inner being and their outer world) far more handily and with far more complexity than other animals.  They are thus able to better control sensory events so that they appear to take a form expected by cognitive processes; e.g., humans look for pathogens under a microscope.  This capacity to move in and transform the world so that external sensing produces anticipated perceiving is, as we shall soon see, the very roots of technology and ritual. Stabilization of Structures      This developmental interaction between neural models and the operational environment -- as we have said, an interaction involving selection of, growth of, connection and reconnection of, and stratification of hierarchy of initially neurognostic structures  -- tends to relatively stabilize the organization of somatic structures relative to particular stimuli in the operational environment.  It makes sense, therefore, to speak of an individual's cognized environment and its constituent models as an autopoieic system of stabilized structures adapting to its operational environment.  In other words, the nervous system constructs models from initial neurognostic structures that will then become the organizations of cells that process information about their respective objects.      Culture, on this account, is conceived as socially patterned and stabile structures in individual cognized environments, as well as the social procedures by means of which those structures are established (Turner 1983).  The cognitive imperative to organize internal neural networks at every hierarchical level in interaction with the operational environment provides the intrinsic motivation evident in the mimicry and play of developing individuals (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Laughlin and McManus 1982).  Generally speaking, the more important a particular pattern of structural development is to a society, the more the society will impose environmental conditions upon its young.                       THE SYMBOLIC FUNCTION      The development and activity of the cognized environment is thoroughly symbolic in nature.  The symbolic function refers to the relationship between the sensory object and the neurocognitive, neuroendocrinal, neuroimmunological, and other somatic processes intended upon the object.  The symbolic function of the nervous system is that by which the whole network of models mediating the "meaning" of an object is neuro- dynamically associated with that object.  The object, whether anticipated, imagined or actual, is produced by a network of cells that provides a partial meaning (the topography or other order of the object, its constituent features and its context within the sensory field).  The object in this sense is commonly called a "symbol."  The cognitive associations intended upon the object -- that is, the conceptual, imaginal, affective, arousal, metabolic and motor networks that become configurationally linked to the conscious network formed in the dialogue between the prefrontal "subject" and the sensorial "object" -- function to extend and elaborate the meaning of the object-as-symbol for the subject.   Evocative, Fulfilling and Expressive Modes.      These multiple, often complex interconnections tend (during development or enculturation) to form an intentional structure with the sensory object being alternatively its evocator, its fulfillment and its expression.  In the evocative mode the object is first sensed and then the sensory system activates, becomes connected to, and is configured by these multiple associations -- it is literally re-cognized.  The phenomenal symbol may have been stimulated by external sensory systems, or by internal imaginal systems (as in dreams, fantasies and hallucinatory imagery). In either case, we would say that the symbol has "penetrated" its meaning -- that is, the network mediating the object has evoked a wider field of interconnections producing the "meaning" of the object (Webber and Laughlin 1979).      In the fulfilling mode the process is reversed and the network of multiple associations "desires" or anticipates the object for its fulfillment (see Edmund Husserl's discussions of "hyle" and "filling;" see also Miller 1984: 135, Laughlin 1988c, Laughlin and Lepage 1989, Neisser 1976, Elster 1983).  Fulfillment may involve an imagined object or an object stimulated by events in the operational environment.  In the latter instance there may well be a motor component to acquiring the fulfilling object.  In other words, the individual may go seeking the desired object (Powers 1973, Arbib 1972).  We would say in this case that the symbol has "fulfilled" its meaning.        And in the expressive mode, being a specialization of the fulfilling mode, the intentional network selects an object that signifies its meaning for the purpose of communication in the operational environment, or between individuals' cognized environments.  If the communication is between cognized environments (whether between humans or non-human social animals), then a symbolic act would obviously involve both expression and evocation.  Thus we would say that a symbol has "expressed" its meaning.  Expressive symbols may be verbal (utilizing left lobe conceptual/language processing), or imaginal (utilizing right lobe representational processing; see Paivio 1986, TenHouten 1978-79).      The biogenetic structuralist group has considered numerous issues relevant to the study of the symbolic function, including masquerade (Webber, Stephens and Laughlin 1983, Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988), the evolution of brain and symbol (Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981), ritual (d'Aquili 1983, d'Aquili and Laughlin 1975, d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979), myth and language (Laughlin and Stephens 1980), exchange (Laughlin 1988a), play (Laughlin and McManus 1982), technology (Laughlin and Lepage 1989), phenomenology (Laughlin 1988b, 1988c, Laughlin 1990, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990) and transpersonal experience (d'Aquili 1982, Laughlin, Chetelat and Sekar 1985, Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1984, Laughlin 1989b, Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1983, Laughlin et al. 1986, MacDonald et al. 1988).  We consider many of the same fundamental processes to be operating at the neurocognitive level in all of these symbolic activities and among all human societies; processes many of which are operating as well in the neurophysiology of at least all higher animals. Evolution of the Symbolic Function.      Yet the human brain has clearly evolved, and the symbolic function naturally enough has evolved along with it (Holloway 1981, 1983, Jerison 1985).  The symbolic function is operating during every moment of consciousness, and does so tacitly for the most part, being largely unconscious to all but the most self- aware humans.  Humans do come to cognize certain symbols as especially salient, and are potentially more aware of the role of the cognized symbol (or as we put it, the SYMBOL) in its penetrative, fulfilling and expressive modes.  Thus the red sap of a particular tree can come to be metaphorically associated with menstrual blood, sexual maturity and other notions important to a West African people (Turner 1967), or a wooden cross may evoke a powerful set of associations for a devout Christian.  SYMBOLS are typically those that evoke the most profound, ramified, socially controlled and even archetypal intentionalities available in a culture's repertoire (e.g., rituals, flags, totems, shamanic and dramatic regalia, geographical features, cosmograms, icons, etc.).  The capacity to cognize symbols as SYMBOLS seems at best rudimentary in the higher non-human animals (e.g., meat for chimpanzees in their exchange rituals; see Teleki 1973), but had apparently become quite advanced among hominids by the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic.  Entire events may be demarcated as SYMBOLIC and take the characteristic form of performance and ceremony.      A still more evolutionarily advanced form of the symbolic function is signing.  A sign is a specialized constituent in a greater symbolic operation (e.g., lexemes are constituents of texts).  In sign systems there is a more evident specialization of meaning and hierarchical organization of embedded perceptual constituents (e.g., phonemes comprising lexemes, lexemes comprising utterances, utterances comprising conversations, etc.).  Signs also show a loss of the evolutionarily older stimulus-bound (so-called iconic) reference.  They are thus a more abstract element participating in a relatively stimulus-free contextualization of meaning.  However, in natural signing situations, such as a conversation, the telling of a myth, or the report of an event, the SYMBOLIC reference is rarely if ever lost at the highest level of intent.  The context of the sign is the patterned (grammatical) relations it forms with other signs and embedded levels of signs, but the actual lived context of the text is almost always experiential (Merleau-Ponty 1964, Tillich 1963), and frequently metaphorical (Fernandez 1986).        The most advanced form of symbolic activity is formal signing in which both the constituent signs and the highest level of text may be totally abstracted from stimulus reference (e.g., mathematics and formal logical structures, as well as certain types of abstract art).  Formal sign systems can establish their own contexts. Adaptation and the Symbolic Function.      All four levels of symbolic activity may be operating in the same social event and operating within and between the same cognized environments.  Furthermore, all four levels have adaptive consequences in both phylogenesis and ontogenesis.  The adaptive importance of the symbolic function, operating unconsciously in most individuals, has been made clear above.  Stimuli in the operational environment produce sensory objects that evoke structural associations and responses that have developed in perceptual and behavioral interaction with those stimuli.  They are knowledge about those stimuli, or more properly about phenomena.  Penetration to the greater neurocognitive field allows rapid association of total meaning from initially partial information about events in the operational environment.  Yet any set of models producing meaning about any intentional object reflects its own zone of uncertainty -- there is always a "horizon," whether itt be perceptual or cognitive.  The attributes or abstract features recognized are always a subset of the total possible attributes and the meaning evoked can always be different, or more accurate, more complete, more precise, seen from a different vantage point, etc., relative to the transcendental nature of the stimulus in the operational environment, regardless of whether the stimulus originates from within the being or from the external world.      SYMBOLIC activity may exhibit its adaptive function in more dramatic ways, and in ways that have held great interest for anthropologists.  Some forms of SYMBOLISM such as mythology are directed in part at coping with a society's consensus zone of uncertainty.  Myth typically provides an explanation for the origins of the world and society, for the relations of life and death, and for why things are the way they appear.  Myth may provide a map of significant relations among gross domains of objects and events such as animals, heavenly bodies, seasons and calamities.  Myth often provides a description of the normally unseen domains of the cosmos, multiple realities the existence of which accounts for unseen forces affecting human affairs.  And when glimpsed, experiences of these previously hidden domains are given mythical significance -- the myth providing at the same time both the context of evocation and the context of interpretation.  As we shall see, myth is commonly grounded and vivified within the context of ritual activity, activity that may at many levels bring mythical SYMBOLISM alive.      The adaptive importance of sign systems is most evident in natural language.  Language evolved to facilitate the exchange of vicarious experience in a species whose brain had evolved to the point where it could know far more about the world than is ever present to perception.  The potential problem for a social species with such a brain is that the consciousness, awareness and experience of individual group members may diverge to the extent that group consensus reality and social action become impossible.  Interaction between individuals' cognized environments via language and other symbolic means makes possible a significant overlap in vicarious experience despite the inability of every individual to have the same history of direct experiences (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974: Chapter 4, Chapple 1970, Count 1973, Kurland and Beckerman 1987).  It is upon a proper analysis of the mechanisms by which cognized environments become adaptively synchronized that an integration of cognitive (or subjective) and social theories becomes possible (see e.g. Burridge 1979, Henriques et al. 1984 on this issue).      Formal sign systems (like symbolic logic, and arithmetic, geometrical and algebraic formulations) make possible the expression of abstract cognized relations about both the world and the being that are content-free (Beth and Piaget 1966).  Knowledge of essential or abstract patterns in relations may be expressed and transmitted without the necessity of concrete sensory fulfillment.  Formal signs are artifacts of abstract thought; that is, thought about the logic of ideas and relations. Moreover, they are typically grounded in the intuitive grasp of the essential processes of consciousness itself (Husserl 1970).       And as we have said, all four levels of symbolic activity may be operating in the same event.  Imagine, if you will, a lecture being given by a professor on the topic of quantum physics.  You are a student in the class and while you are attending the highly abstract, mathematical material on the board (formal signing), your brain is simultaneously tracking visual and somaesthetic cues in the environment for change (symbolic activity), you are relating to the professor and your classmates in part as an interaction between social statuses (SYMBOLIC activity), and the professor and you are communicating in natural language (signing, perhaps replete with metaphoric allusions) to better enable an understanding of the formulae on the board.              RITUAL: THE TECHNOLOGY OF COORDINATION      We wish now to apply the general ideas summarized above to an explanation of human ritual activity.  But in order to do so, we must take pains to avoid the erroneous and even solipsistic view that the symbolic function is entirely internal to the nervous system, or consciousness, and that it does not involve activity in the world.  For the symbolic function does indeed evidence an interactive aspect between the cognized and operational environments.  The intentional processes of the human brain organize not only sensorial events, but also behavior.  Thus it is quite easy to show that the symbolic function may include a technological component.

Click here to return to Iona Miller Home Page

Click here to email Iona Miller.