Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D.

Biogenetic Structural Studies of Religion

Biogenetic structuralism is a body of theory and research strategies that works to integrate our understanding of consciousness, culture and brain in a single perspective. Our approach is simultaneously neurobiological, phenomenological and sociocultural, incorporating all the avenues of scientific research relevant to the study of religion (see Laughlin 1989b, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:13). First and foremost, we require that any phenomenon be treated with reference to the structures of the body, especially the neural structures producing it, as well as the sociocultural conditioning the phenomenon and the experiential dimensions that inform the phenomenon. These "windows" onto the scope of inquiry apply especially to religious phenomena in which it is very easy for ethnographers to err by excluding the structural and experiential dimensions. Biogenetic structuralism takes to heart the demands of William James's radical empiricism, a method that requires that experience be the primary locus of research, and not treated merely as an ancillary concern (see Laughlin and McManus 1995).
The production of experience is a complex process of biological construction in which cells organize themselves under the simultaneous press of genetic information, sensory information about the environment, feedback about the efficacy of their own actions in the world, and the lawful demands of autoregulation -- a Piagetian theme that seems to be taken up more recently by Gerald Edelman in his neurobiological theory of consciousness (1989:151-153). The veridical quality of immediate sensory experience is informed from past experiences stored as developing cognitive structures in the nervous system. Developmentally speaking, the person develops an internal experiential world which provides an increasingly more complex informational standpoint from which to act in the world (Piaget 1985:7-10).
The structures of experience begin as nascent neurognostic structures in the pre- and perinatal nervous system. By neurognostic I mean that the initial organization of the structures is determined by the genotype. Because neurognostic models are living cells, they function as soon as they grow and become interconnected. Thus they function as neurognosis, or genetically determined properties of sensing, perception, cognition, feeling, etc. Neurognosis produces our earliest experience of the world, the "already there-ness" of our pre- and perinatal lifeworld (Laughlin 1991).
Of particular significance to the comparative study of religion is the cross-cultural variance in access to and conditioning of alternative phases of consciousness (see d'Aquili and Newberg 1996). Experience seems to be distributed across a range of phases from those concerned with adaptation to the outer world to those depicting relations internal to the organism. The most common alternation is between what we call waking and sleeping/dreaming states. In modern Euroamerican cultures, children are taught to disattend their dream states and to focus on adaptational interactions with the world. Moreover, religious and quazi-religious practices geared to accessing alternative phases of consciousness are discouraged or negatively sanctioned. Thus Euroamerican awareness is primarily concerned with tracking, cognizing and responding to external events in the so-called waking state. Euroamerican culture thus tends to be monophasic in its orientation, in the cognitive processes it enculturates, and in its responses to the world.
This state of affairs is in sharp contrast to the majority of cultures in which access to multiple phases of consciousness are positively sanctioned and enculturated. We term these polyphasic cultures. In these cultures, experiences had in dreams, in visions, under the influence of various psychotropic drugs and herbs, and under various ritual conditions inform the society's general system of knowledge. The important thing to note is that the human brain is neurognostically structured to experience in multiple phases, and not merely in the waking states so treasured by materialist cultures such as our own.
Some people are concerned that a fully embodied view of consciousness, such as the one I am espousing here, leaves no room for life after death, or consciousness before birth -- that it eliminates the possibilities for the survival of the soul or karmic reincarnation, or diminishes the significance of transpersonal experiences such as near death or out of the body experiences. These people indeed reflect the existential matters of "ultimate concern" facing peoples everywhere (Tillich 1963, Becker 1973).
But such worries arise only as a consequence of reducing consciousness to a mechanistic, materialistic conception of the body and the physical world, and although such a metaphysical view of the nervous system is common in science, it is by no means the only possible scientific view. Indeed, the impact of modern quantum physics is having a modulating effect upon the more mechanistic biases in biology and neurobiology. Some researchers have related various transpersonal experiences to quantum mechanics (e.g., Puthoff, Targ and May 1981, Walker 1973), and some of us have begun to look at the conscious brain, and particularly its neurognostic structures, as very complex manifestations of coherence in the sea of quantum energies that permeate the entire universe (see Wallace 1993, Laughlin 1996a, Deutsch 1985, Penrose 1989, Lockwood 1989, Laszlo 1995, Pribram 1996).
Contrary to a materialistic view of the conscious brain, which would of necessity conceive of the individual body as a discrete entity, a quantum physical view requires that a totality of energy relations be considered in any account of the physical body. That is, the physical body, including its conscious nervous system, must be considered as a locus of coherence in the sea of energies that are the universe. The direct interaction of neurocognitive structures with quantum events -- events that may be distant in space and time -- becomes possible from this new view. Non-local causation through the medium of the quantum sea might explain a variety of phenomena encountered in the anthropology of religion, including co-dreaming, magic, remote viewing, archetypal consciousness, telepathy, and so on.
Neurognosis has evolved within the greater framework of the evolution of the quantum universe and cannot any longer be considered apart from our understanding of the biophysical properties of the universe. Neurognosis is a very complex type of coherent energy, and as a consequence is structured in such a way as to produce not only nascent knowledge about material phenomena of local significance (i.e., space, objects, relations and movements among objects, etc.), but also nascent knowledge about the structure of the quantum sea itself. In short, we are born knowing both the world as locality and the world as universality. The former knowledge results in awareness related to objects in proximity to our senses, and the latter to experiences of the quantum sea as Plenum Void.
Enculturation into a monophasic culture such as our own will encourage development of neurognosis that is important to the adaptation to local material objects and relations, while enculturation into polyphasic cultural traditions may result in more advanced development of neurognosis pertaining to the totality of the quantum sea (however the sea may be symbolically coded by any particular society; e.g., "Holy Wind" in Navajo cosmology; see McNeley 1981). The difference in the kind of enculturation is crucial to understanding why it is so difficult for anthropologists to come to grips with the experiential dimensions of traditional religious life.
A transpersonal anthropologist is one that is capable of both attaining whatever extraordinary experiences and phases of consciousness that inform the religious system, and evaluating these experiences relative to invariant patterns of symbolism, cognition and practice found in religions and cosmologies all over the planet.
Taking an example from my own work among Tibetan Buddhist lamas, operationalizing the injunction was relatively straightforward. Tibetan gurus teach by a system of ritual initiations (wang kur) that dramatize the attributes of the focal deity (see Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1984). And the deity represents a state, or series of states of consciousness to be eventually realized by the initiate. The initiate participates rather passively in the initiatory drama, but is given more active meditation work to complete in the weeks and months following the initiation. In keeping with many esoteric religious systems, the lama knows the extent of the maturation of the meditation by the experiences reported back to him by the initiate as the latter's work unfolds. The meditations incorporate such ritual drivers as chanting, percussion, visualization, intense concentration, special diet, fasting, breathing exercises, body postures, etc., that all participate in incubating and eventually evoking transpersonal experiences that become the meaning of the symbolism for the initiate (Wilber's "apprehension and illumination"). Confirmation is attained in dialogue with one's teacher and with other meditators who have undergone the same or similar disciplines. It becomes clear over time that in order to comprehend the meaning of the symbolism, one must do the work necessary to flesh out the experientially rich meaning. In a word, if the ethnographer hasn't undergone the apprehension phase, he or she cannot comprehend the real meaning the symbolism holds for the native.
Phenomenological training directs the mind inward in a disciplined way. The student learns to direct concentration and inquiry toward his or her own internal processes, be those processes dreaming, bodily functions (such as breathing, movement, etc.), eidetic imagery, feelings, thought processes, etc. The training builds habit patterns that counter the Euroamerican conditioning toward ignoring or repressing internal processes, and prepares the student for the kind of procedures used in many alien cultural situations for incubating and attaining transpersonal experiences.
A major focus of our research has been the study of the relations between ritual of various kinds (i.e., performances, festivals, ceremonies, repetitive techniques, myth-ritual complexes, etc.) and experiences which the rituals are designed to evoke (see especially d'Aquili and Laughlin 1975, d'Aquili 1983, Laughlin, McManus, Rubinstein and Shearer 1986, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990).(6 Among other things, we have looked at drivers embedded in the fabric of ritual that operate to penetrate into the structures mediating experience and trigger those structures. A driver may be defined as any recurrent element in a ritual that has a predictable effect upon the operating neural structures mediating experience.
Another way to conceive of drivers, or driving as a process, is in terms of a hierarchy of neurocognitive functioning (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:105, 317). The entire neuroendocrine system of the human body may be driven from the "top-down," so to speak, by means of symbolic penetration, whereas symbolic activity mediated by the brain's cortex may be driven from the "bottom-up" by lower neurological, metabolic and endocrinological activities.
The driving in either case may be extrinsic or intrinsic. Intense concentration upon a salient ritual symbol may (from the "top-down") result in profound transformation of the entire body. The symbol may be a meditation object out in the world, or an eidetic image constructed before the mind's eye. On the other hand, fasting (intrinsic driving) or ingesting psychotropic substances (extrinsic driving) may (from the "bottom-up") result in significant alteration of sensory and cognitive activity.
Many polyphasic societies encourage their members to explore multiple phases of consciousness (through dreams, visions, meditation states, drug trips, trance states, etc.) and interpret experiences that arise according to culturally recognized systems of meaning (d'Aquili 1982, McManus, Laughlin and Shearer 1993b, Winkelman 1986, 1990). This process of exploring experiences of multiple realities, combined with social appropriation of the meaning of these experiences within a single cycle of meaning, is typical of polyphasic cultures (see e.g., Tonkinson 1978 and Poirier 1990 on the Australian Aborigines, Guedon 1984 on the Tsimshian in Canada, Laderman 1991 on Malay culture, Peters 1982 on Tamang shamanism, and Schele and Freidel 1990 on the shamanism-based kingship among the ancient Maya). Many societies go so far as to compel alternative phases of consciousness by putting their members through initiation procedures, including ingesting psychotropic drugs and mandatory vision quests (see Bourguignon 1973, Naranjo 1987). The experiences encountered during these procedures in turn reify the society's multiple reality cosmology.
The role of the shaman or ritual specialist in both initiating practitioners into experiences and interpreting those experiences for the practitioner and the society at large is frequently important. In other societies the "shamanistic" role may be diffused throughout the population of elders who have themselves undergone the requisite initiates. In still other societies, control of initiation and interpretation may be in the hands of the elders of a secret society. In still other societies, particular individuals may be recognized as especially adept at leading others through healing and other initiatory experiences, and interpreting experiences that arise of the initiate in dreams and other phases of consciousness.
The Mystical Brain
One point to be drawn from all this is that the human brain is inherently mystical; that is, the human brain is driven by its own inherent structure to know the hidden. It is mystical in respect both to its neurognostic structure, and to its encounter with the transcendental nature of itself and the external environment. The brain is prepared by virtue of its neurognosis to both come to know the self and the world, and to experience the transcendental nature of reality in ways that surpass the normal limitations of either the senses or rational thought. I repeat, our brain and our body are transcendental objects to our cognized environment. Our brain is embedded in the quantum sea and is a product of the evolution of coherence within the quantum sea. And as such, the brain is structured from its earliest period of neurogenesis to intuitively comprehend the structure of the quantum sea, and to reveal and enact that structure within its conscious processes by way of insight, imagery, metaphor and performance.
Neurognostic comprehension of the quantum sea has been an indispensable ingredient in nature's strategy for maintaining the tension between the need for internal conservation of form, and the need to adapt to the external operational environment. There are cultures on the planet in which individuals are encouraged to know in both the cosmological and the adaptational modes, whereas most of us in the West have undergone enculturation away from the cosmological and in favor of local adaptational knowing. Thus, traditions that foster techniques and experiences pertaining to the direct apprehension of the nature of the cosmos are experienced by us to be very "exotic" and "mystical."
Sensate, Idealistic and Ideational Cultures
The mystical brain is a major bulwark against extremely unrealistic and maladaptive cognized environments. As Pitirim Sorokin (1957, 1962) showed us, cultures that are way out on the adaptational pole in their way of knowing (he called these sensate cultures) tend to compensate by swinging back toward a more balanced view in which knowledge derived from the adaptational mode becomes integrated with knowledge arising from development of the conservational mode (he called these idealistic cultures). This seems to be happening in Western culture at the present time with the rise of charismatic movements, conversion to alternative Asian religions and the growth of various New Age movements like neoshamanism. The problem, of course, is that cultures never stand still, and the balance struck in one generation between rational and mystical ways of knowing may be lost to subsequent generations in the movement of the culture toward the opposite mystical pole (Sorokin called these ideational cultures).
From the point of view of people in an ideational culture, what we might consider "mystical" knowledge or experience is not mystical at all. It is simply "the way things are." After all, the word "occult" in English just means "hidden from view" or "hard to see." When we finally experience and comprehend the mysteries, they are no longer hidden, and hence no longer "occult." The human brain is neurognostically prepared to apprehend the mysteries, but to the extent that we have been enculturated not to do so is perhaps the extent that we must apply effort and exotic techniques to produce mystical experiences. It is a common experience among mature contemplatives that the more advanced their meditation skills become over the years, the more subtle their "mystical" experiences become. As Carl Jung occasionally remarked, the more out of touch our ego is from our greater self, the more dramatic may be our calling to the path of mystical awareness.
The "mystical brain" is a brain striving for balance in response to the tension produced by conservational and adaptational forces operating during development. We must always remember that the cognized environment is produced by a living system of cells. If the press of environmental and social conditions result in an over-emphasis upon adaptational development -- which is a condition that seems endemic to sensate cultures -- the inherent processes of metabolic and organismic integration will tend to reassert their activities where possible. And such compensatory activities may be experienced by the individual as "mystical" dreams, visions and other phenomena -- perhaps a calling to greater attention to the inner workings of the psyche.
This is why something like a monastic subculture emerges in some spiritual traditions. Monasteries are social institutions that minimize the adaptational press so that more energy and attention may be payed to the mysteries. Monasteries are manifestations at the social level of the innate drive of the brain to know the mysteries of existence and to commune with totality. More common still are traditions of "retreat" that remove people from the daily grind for a period of time so that the compensatory drive to the mysteries may, however briefly, assert itself.
However it manifests itself, our mystical brain is poised, like the Tarot's Fool, on the brink of our own individual zone of uncertainty, neurognostically prepared at any moment to step off into the mysteries. The experiences attained in one context become the stuff of good science -- good science being dependent upon minds that strive to explain anomalous data. And experiences had in another context become the food of spiritual awareness. Although institutionalized science and religion may appear to represent the opposite ends of a social spectrum, genuine mysticism and good science are not as far apart as many would have us believe. For both mysticism and good science depend upon the unfettered exercise of the mystical brain.

Archetypes, Neurognosis and the Quantum Sea

Charles D. Laughlin, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 5B6

C.G. Jung left a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the ontological status of the archetypes and the collective unconscious. He did so because of the inadequacy of the science of his day. Modern developments in the neurosciences and quantum physics — especially the new physics of the vacuum — allow us to develop Jung's understanding of the archetypes further. This paper analyzes the salient characteristics of Jung's concept of the archetype and uses modern biogenetic structural theory to integrate archetypal psychology and the neurosciences. The paper reviews some of the evidence in favor of direct neurophysiological- quantum coupling and suggests how neural processing and quantum events may interpenetrate.


Volume 8, Number 4, December 1997, pages 144-159

The Evolution of Cyborg Consciousness

Charles D. Laughlin
International Consciousness Research Laboratories
and Carleton University
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Ottawa K1S 5B6

Inspired by Donna Haraway's essay, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," numerous "cyborg" studies in anthropology, sociology, history and literary criticism have looked at the relationship between humans and technology.  A problem with many of these studies is that they use the term "cyborg" metaphorically and fuzzily without an appreciation of the history of cybernetics.  This paper will critique both the profound insights and non-trivial distortions engendered by the cyborg polemic.  A neuroanthropological model of human technics is presented that allows a scientifically useful discrimination to be made between cyborg and non-cyborg (i.e., robot, android, AI, etc.) technologies.  Technology is seen as a nonlinear, bidirectional process of penetration in which the body is physically extended outward into the world and the world is physically interjected inward into the body.  Four stages of the evolution of the cyborg are defined.  Grounded extrapolations are made about the future development of cyborg consciousness and its implications for culture and extraterrestrial anthropology.

Volume 3, Numbers 3-4, July-December 1993, pages 14-27

Time, Intentionality, and a Neurophenomenology of the Dot

Charles D. Laughlin
Carleton University

The purposes of this paper are twofold: first, I wish to correct a systematic bias in Husserlian transcendental phenomenology.  This bias is in favor of intuition of essences of meaning and against the intuition of essences of sensation.   This bias is explained as a product of Husserl's mind-body dualism.  Second, I suggest the possibility of a neurophenomenology from a biogenetic structural point of view.  This neurophenomenology merges the knowledge of essences derived from mature contemplation with knowledge of the structures of experience derived from neuroanthropology.  After addressing these two issues I proceed to describe the sensorium from a neurophenomenological perspective, and the constituent element of perception, the dot.  I hypothesize that experience arises in the dialogue between prefrontal cortical processes and sensorial processes, that experience is constituted within a field of sensorial dots that arise and dissolve in temporal frames.  I conclude that Husserl's view of the phenomenology of time is essentially correct and is both in keeping with findings from current neurophysiology, and amenable to a modern scientific view of consciousness and to many of the religious traditions encountered by ethnographers.  The implications of a neurophenomenology for the anthropological study of consciousness are suggested.

The cyborg, the ideology chip and the ‘guru program’
This article tries to counter current scientific neglect of the possibility of direct brain-machine interfacing for the future development and evolution of human consciousness. It examines how cybernetics – the science of controlling and regulating complex systems – might either optimize or thwart neurocognitive development in the cyborg child. A model is presented in which technology both penetrates outwards from the body into the world, and inwards from the world into the body.

The model posits four stages in the evolution of the cyborg. The fourth stage represents the interface of cybernetics with Artificial Intelligence (AI), opening up profound implications for psychological development. This is the stage at which limb and organ replacements might extend from the peripheral to the central nervous system; from limbs and pacemakers perhaps to ‘video eyes’ or silicon-neuron interfaces that allow thought control of computers.

From this model empirically grounded speculations are offered about the future development of higher cognitive functions in the cyborg child. In particular, the AI component of the cyborg brain-machine linkage may function to condition development along task-oriented and ideological lines, or open up new dimensions in neurocognitive development (the so-called ‘guru program’).

Whether or not these speculations prove accurate in detail over time, the stage IV cyborg may well prove to be the next stage in hominid evolution, and those working to bring it about may represent catalysts to an evolutionary transformation. The present study has also been written to raise our consciousness about the important ethical issues we will face in relation to cyborg development. Clear thinking and planning now could make all the difference in how cyborg technologies are implemented in the child, for the younger the child, the more profound the developmental ramifications. This understanding alone should be incentive enough to open a serious debate about cyborg-related ethical and instrumental issues.

Although I do feel that cyborg technologies are on the horizon, whether they are wholesome or unwholesome depends entirely on how they are implemented. In order to guide developments toward the former, educators and social scientists, ethicists and religious leaders should combine forces with concerned parents in a public discussion of the issues, to work out guidelines for future cyborg applications that target children. If left up to corporations, cyborg development will almost certainly veer toward the ‘ideology chip’ scenario. But if we remain fully alert to the issues involved in cyborg development – and effective regulation of cyborg applications is the key to that – we may be able to steer a course towards the more benign ‘guru program’, and thus toward the future wellbeing of humanity.

The full version of this article, by Charles D. Laughlin, appears in foresight, Vol 2, No 3, June 2000.

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