Charles D. Laughlin (1)

Abstract : Over a quarter century of biogenetic structural studies of religious phenomena are surveyed, including work done on the neuroanthropology of ritual, symbolism and other universal phenomena encountered cross-culturally in religious systems. The difference between cognitive/cultural models of reality (the "cognized environment") and reality itself (the "operational environment") is emphasized. The relations between ritual, myth, transpersonal experience, universal properties of moral systems and the comprehension of ecology are discussed. Different types of culture are distinguished relative to their ability to stimulate mystical experiences and make them meaningful within the context of their collective world



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).

Experience in Biogenetic Structural Theory

Experience is the play by which the body enacts the world for itself. And that play occurs on the stage constituted by networks of neurophysiological structures, the entire set of which we term (after Roy Rappaport (2) ) a person's cognized environment . The on-going, moment-by-moment play of experience is a depiction of the person's operational environment ; that is, the real world consisting of the person and the person's environment.

The structures of experience, which we call models -- the sum total of models in the individual brain is the person's cognized environment -- are conditioned in their form and function by the regulation of physical processes in the body. The regulatory function of the organ of experience -- the nervous system with its brain -- manifests a polarity between adaptation to the environment and the maintenance of the integrity of the body's internal organization. This polarity produces a tension in the organism between the necessity to rise to meet environmental challenges and to conserve its own internal viability. Organisms thus naturally strive to "autoregulate" their activities in a way that simultaneously answers these twin demands -- the answer being a dynamic state of "equilibration" (Piaget 1977, 1985).

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 (3) 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).

And because neurognostic structures are living cells, they develop their internal organization in part from a developmental plan which is inherent in the organism and which guides the maturation of the body, and in part from adaptational press of the operational environment. Neurognosis, too, is subject to the tension between conservation of structure and adaptation to the operational environment. A major orientation of human adaptation is toward the social environment. Enculturation may be understood as the process of socially guiding the maturation of neurognostic structures. At the expense of appearing simplistic, certain neurognostic structures are socially selected for development and other are not (see Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Varela 1979 on the neurophysiology of this process). Certain domains of experience are socially encouraged to develop while other domains are ignored or discouraged. There exists a great deal of overlap in the experiences of peoples everywhere, due primarily to species specific neurognosis developing along similar lines in roughly the same conditions on the same planet. But details of conditioning and the entire complement of experiences may vary drastically across cultural lines.

Phases of Consciousness

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.


The anthropology of religion is systematically hampered by the monophasic conditioning of our practitioners. Competent ethnographic fieldwork, among some religious systems at least, requires nothing less than a trained transpersonal anthropologist (Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1983, Laughlin 1989a, 1994a). 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.

In keeping with James' radical empiricism, the goal of a transpersonal approach to the study of religion is to understand: (1) the maximum potential genetic and developmental limits to patterns of human consciousness in any and all cultures, (2) the mechanisms by which societies condition patterns of human experience, and the maturation of experience, (3) the mechanisms by which societies produce recurrent extraordinary experiences in some or all of their members so as to enliven and inform their worldviews, and (4) by extrapolation, the possible future evolutionary possibilities of human consciousness (e.g., Laughlin and Richardson 1986).

Transpersonal anthropology is really just a natural extension of the grand tradition of "participant observation" that has made ethnology so unique among the social sciences. But it is an extension that requires the ethnographer to "suspend disbelief" in the native worldview to an extraordinary extent and to participate actively in those native procedures that guide one to the extraordinary experiences that give the worldview its spiritual grounding (see Young and Goulet 1994). Transpersonal ethnography depends upon the researcher being able to apply something like the process of spiritual exploration outlined by Ken Wilber in A Sociable God (1983:133):

1. Injunction : Any transpersonal exploration begins with the injunction, "If you want to know this, do this."

2. Apprehension : The work is done, the "thick participation" carried out, and cognitive apprehension and illumination of "object domain" addressed by the injunction are attained.

3. Communal confirmation : The experiences attained are checked with those members of the host culture who have adequately completed the injunction and illuminative procedures.

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.


One reason why anthropologists have so often neglected the transpersonal realm of religious experience is that the culture of science in our age is, and has been for some generations, anti-introspectionist in its positivist bias. This is particularly noticeable today in some schools of cognitive science where introspective methods are still considered anathema. What is needed in ethnology as a counter for this culturally-driven bias is training in phenomenology, (4) especially for those wishing to do cross-cultural research on religious and healing systems. Phenomenology (a la Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Aron Gurwitsch, and others, as well as some shamanic and eastern mystical traditions) is the study of the essential (invariant) processes of consciousness by the application of mature contemplation. (5)

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.

One way to conceive of drivers is to distinguish between those that are extrinsic and those that are intrinsic to the organism. Extrinsic drivers are elements such as drumming or concentration upon an icon that depends upon external stimuli. Intrinsic drivers such as fasting or breathing techniques that are staged within the body. Table 1 lists some examples of both kinds:

Table 1: Types of Drivers Used in Ritual Production of Experience

Intrinsic : Examples :

breathing exercises Buddhist meditation


chanting Hindu and Buddhist mantra


vision quest Plains Indian vision quests

dream incubation Tsimshian shamanism

fever Iroquois Handsome Lake

movement, Tsimshian


circadian rhythms


physical exertion long distance running;

Tibetan trance-


fatigue vision quest

concentration Navajo stargazing, Zen

koan meditation

directed intention

seclusion Tsimshian shamans

sensory deprivation Kogi mamas (w/seclusion)

Extrinsic :


dancing Bushman n/um dance

drumming Tsimshian healing

group chanting Tsimshian healing

flickering light

psychotropic drugs Southwest USA datura complex


art Navajo sandpainting

skrying shaman's mirror

kasina Buddhist 10 meditations

mnemonics Tsimshian power songs


scary task firewalking, snake

handling, drinking


pain plains vision quest

sweat bath Plains Indian Sundance

sweat lodge

performance Tibetan cham dances

bloodletting Maya ritual bloodletting

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.


The sociocultural process of integrating knowledge, memory and experience in groups we call the cycle of meaning (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:214). A society's worldview is expressed in its mythopoeia (myth, ritual performance, drama, art, stories, etc.) in such a way that it evokes direct experiences in various phases of consciousness (see Figure 1). The experiences and memories that arise as a consequence of participation in mythopoeic procedures are interpreted in terms of the worldview in such a way that they instantiate, and thus verify and vivify the society's theory of the world -- a theory that frequently posits the existence of what Alfred Schutz (1945) called "multiple realities."

A living cycle of meaning would seem to be a delicate process by which socially shared knowledge is balanced with intersubjective communication about direct experience, and one that requires change or "revitalization" (Wallace 1966) over time in order for meaningful dialogue to continue between worldview and personal experience. The social construction of knowledge and individual experience would seem to be involved in a reciprocal feedback system the properties of which may be changed by circumstances in such a way that the link between knowledge and experience may be hampered, and even lost. In other words, a religious system may become moribund due to the failure of the cyclical dialogue between worldview and direct experience to complete itself.




by Shaman





by Shaman


Figure 1. The Cycle of Meaning . The society's worldview is expressed symbolically in its mythopoeia, and especially its ritual, which leads to direct experiences that are interpreted in such a way that the worldview is vivified and verified. Shamans may mediate the process by structuring the symbolic expression and again by helping to interpret experience.

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.


A central question is, why do so many societies practice rituals that are clearly designed to alter peoples' normal everyday experience? As Erika Bourguignon (1973) noted while considering the almost ubiquitous use of psychotropic substances cross-culturally, there seems to be an inherent drive on the part of humans to alter their state of consciousness. Part of the answer, I think, lies in the very nature of the relationship between the cognized and operational environments of all people everywhere. Traditional religions are concerned with the hidden aspects of reality, the forces behind events. Traditional systems operate on the principle that in order to control the visible, the invisible domain of causes must be ascertained, revealed and manipulated.

The Transcendental Nature of the Operational Environment

In biogenetic structural terms, while the cognized environment is how we know and experience our organism and our world, the system of neurological transformations that produce the cognized environment is part of the operational environment within which we are embedded and to which we must adapt in order to survive. The operational environment, including our own organism, may thus be considered transcendental relative to our cognized environment in at least three senses:

1. The sense of part to whole . There is always more to learn about the operational environment, or anything within it, than can ever actually be known. This is true because there is no knowing apart from the "in-forming" process of neural modelling.

2. The sense of locality . Cognized environments reflect the fact that organisms are located in the operational environment. Thus the demands of adaptation privilege local knowledge relative to universal knowledge. Moreover, the cognized environment is organized intentionally, whereas the operational environment is all there all the time, and exists without focus.

3. The sense of the invisible . Much of reality is invisible to our senses, and thus can only be known by inference. We cannot see electromagnetic waves, only their effects. This is especially true of complex causal processes. Causes may be invisible because the effective elements are too separated in space or time to be apprehended, or they may be invisible because they cannot be detected given the limitations of our senses or our technology.

The transcendental is mysterious in all these senses. We lose track of the transcendental nature of things when we feel we are in control of events, but when we lose that sense of being in control, the zone of uncertainty reasserts itself. The zone of uncertainty is the limit of our knowledge in any domain, and is the "horizon" (to use Husserl's term) beyond which we may discern the great mystery of existence and the greatest challenge to the cognitive imperative. Most of reality is invisible to direct sensory experience and must be adumbrated and conceptualized or imagined in our encounter with reality. By implication, we are each of us a transcendental being that is forever beyond the grasp of either our total self-knowledge or omniscience about the nature of, or our effects upon the world.

The cognized environment is to the operational environment as a map is to a landscape. However, the cognized map is never static, but rather is a living, breathing representation produced by transformations in the organization of living cells. At a micro-level of organization, these transformations have their material reality in patterned coordinations among neurons whose initial social interactions are neurognostic, whose eventual developmental complexity will be variable, and whose evocation may or may not be environmentally triggered.

The cosmology may be expressed in ritual performances that reveal the normally hidden, causal forces behind matters of ultimate concern; forces that are considered to be real in the society's worldview and that recurrently tax the limits of our zone of uncertainty. This is what we have called the epiphanic function of ritual. Participation in a ritual, either as an actor or as a spectator, may lead to experiences (e.g., visions, enactments, dreams, intuitions, etc.) that reveal previously hidden aspects of the cosmos (or the self). In this way, symbolic forms both "come alive" in the experiences of people and accrue socially relevant significance via the cycle of meaning.

It is not uncommon for the normal state of the body to be altered in the service of epiphany -- especially alterations of the face, as happens with donning a mask (Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988, Webber, Stephens and Laughlin 1983). For example, the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other peoples of the American Southwest stage elaborate performances during which masked and costumed dancers enact the various deities described in myth (see e.g., Beck, Walters and Francisco 1990). Masked dancers on the island of Bali in the Pacific are considered to have special powers, that their actual performances may be prefaced by long hours of preparation involving diet, purification and protection rituals (McPhee 1970). The key to understanding such metamorphic rituals is to recognize the reversal of the readily visible person to the status of invisible, and of the usually invisible force (deity, spirit, ancestor, hero, etc.) to the status of visible (see Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988).

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.


Acknowledgements: I wish to thank the many people who have made this study possible. I especially want to thank John McManus and Eugene G. d'Aquili who joined me in formulating this perspective. Thanks also go to Harold E. Puthoff of the Institute of Advanced Research in Austin, Texas, who has taught me a great deal about the quantum universe. And many thanks to all my fellow members of the International Consciousness Research Laboratories (ICRL) group who have taught me much and who have supported my efforts over the last few years.


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1. Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D. is a professor of anthropology and religion in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6, Ph: 819-459-1121, Fax: 819-459-3537, E-mail: See his biogenetic structuralism webpage, which includes many of these references, at

2. We are indebted to Roy Rappaport (1968) for the concepts of cognized and operational environments. It is clear from Rappaport's (1979:97-144, 1984:337-352) later writings that the meanings we have constructed for these terms are even closer to his thinking than we initially thought. We originally interpreted him as simply equating cognized environment with the native worldview and the operational environment with the world as viewed by science. And of course, we consider scientific theories of the world to also be cognized environments. In fact, Rappaport's (personal communication, May, 1993) thinking does not differ substantially from our view. For our own development of these crucial concepts, see Laughlin and Brady (1978: 6), d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus (1979: 12ff), Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus (1984: 21ff), and Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990:82-90).

3. The concept of neurognosis is discussed in Laughlin and d'Aquili (1974: Chapter 5), Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990: Chapter 2), d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus (1979: 8ff) and Laughlin (1996a, 1996b).

4. Some of my own work has been directed at developing a "neurophenomenology" -- that is, a phenomenology that is lodged in a neuroscientific and anthropological explanatory framework (see Laughlin 1996c). The following studies integrate phenomenology and neuroscience in order to understand: the essential intentionality of consciousness (noted by all phenomenologies) in terms of the dialogue between the prefrontal cortex and the sensorial cortex of the brain (Laughlin 1988); the relationship between invariant temporal patterns of perceptual sequencing and internal time consciousness, and the neuropsychological literature available on "perceptual framing" (Laughlin 1992a); the relationship between love and exchange rituals (Laughlin 1985), the transcendental aspects of play and games (Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin 1990, 1993b), the phenomenology of psychic energy (Laughlin 1994b), the experiential foundations of the concept of causation (Laughlin 1992b); the fuzziness of natural categories in relation to transpersonal and contemplative experiences (Laughlin 1993a); the experience of archetypal symbolism (Laughlin 1996a); and the nature and structure of intuitive knowing (Laughlin 1997).

5. Mature contemplation refers to the level of phenomenological competence at which the ethnographer is able to watch the productions of his or her own mind with equanimity. The researcher is no longer threatened by novel experiences, for he or she knows with certainty that any or all experiences are possible and the products of ones own mental processes. For expanded discussions of mature contemplation, see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:Chapter 11. An entire special issue of the journal Zygon (see Zygon Vol. 28, No. 2, June 1993) was given over to a discussion of biogenetic structuralism and mature contemplation.

6. Our work on ritual has covered such topics as: the evolution and development of ritual (d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979), ritual and stress (Laughlin and Brady 1978:13), the role of ritual in scientific paradigms (Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984:64, 79), the relations between myth and ritual (d'Aquili 1983), the neuropsychological concomitants of ritual activity (d'Aquili and Laughlin 1975), ritual giving and the experience of loving-kindness (Laughlin 1985), ritual and transpersonal experiences (Laughlin 1989a, 1994a), ritual and play (Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin 1992, 1993b), ritual and symbolism (Laughlin 1989b), masks used in rituals (Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988), and ritual and meditation (Laughlin 1994b, MacDonald, Cove, Laughlin and McManus 1988).