Volume 5, Number 2 Spring, 1992

Editor : Dr. Charles Laughlin, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6, Phone (819) 459-1121, E-mail charles laughlin@carleton.bitnet.


The bad news is that I have decided to stop editing NNN

at the end of this year and volume. This for two reasons. The main reason for my decision is that the membership in the network has steadily declined, indicating both a lack of interest in the project and the predictable effects of the recession. Roland Fischer notes that the same thing happened to his periodical, the Journal of Altered States of Consciousness , in the early '80s.

If it were all bad news, I would be downright sad about this decision. But there is also good news, because the other reason I'm giving up the editorship is that I have been invited to become the new editor of the journal, Anthropology of Consciousness , the organ of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness , an affiliate of the American Anthropological Association . I am taking over from Joseph Long who is retiring for reasons of ill health.

In my letter of intent to the board of SAC I noted that if I was given the editorship of AOC , I would keep things pretty much as they are, except that I would increase participation by people outside the society and would increase the neuroanthro-pological content of the journal. I would like to take this opportunity to invite all of you to join the society, or at least subscribe to the journal, and support it as you have done the NNN . Sub-scription to the AOC costs US$ 25. It also comes with membership in the society. Contact me directly for information about joining or subscribing.

In any event, my decision to step down as editor does not mean that the network or the NNN need end. If one of you is willing to take up the role of editor and central hub of the wheel of information, please contact me. I can pass all the software and other stuff necessary to put the newsletter together over to you easily, assuming you have access to a computer and printer. I will certainly continue to support the project if one of you will take over managing it. Let me know what you think.

I want to take the opportunity afforded me by this year's issues to discuss what I think is the importance of neuro-anthropology to science and to the study of humanity.



The Central Question in scientific metaphysics is, and always has been, how do we come to know what we claim to know? This fundamental question is traditionally institutionalized by academic philosophy as the two poles of metaphysics asking what is reality (the study of "ontology") and how do we come to know it (the study of "epistemology")? But this dualistic conception of metaphysics is more a representation of what is wrong with academic metaphysics than it is an accurate reflection of metaphysics in the lives of sentient beings. Moreover, it is more a hindrance than a help in solving the Central Question -- at least in the context of a modern science that must take into account modern neuroscience. Ontological and epistem-ological questions are actually two sides of the same coin, for it is only possible to conceptually separate ontology and epistemology by maintaining an increasingly obsolete dualism where mental and physical processes are considered to exist as distinct and separate domains.

This dualistic institutional-ization of the Central Question that gives rise to the ontology-epistemology dichotomy is a social manifestation of a more fundamental dualism -- a dualism that is usually called the "mind-body," or "mind-brain" problem. And the mind-body problem is apparently as intractable as it is obstructive to attaining a holistic understanding of consciousness. As we come to find out more and more about the evolution of the human brain and how it works, we are driven to the conclusion that consciousness and the various factors of consciousness are functions or "acts" (a la Husserl) of the nervous system. One requirement, then, for reaching a solution to the cental question is discovering how we may speak in a single voice about the conscious brain, or as the great neuroanthropologist, Earl W. Count ( NNN 3(1), 1990), likes to put it, the "mindbrain."

H. Tristram Engelhardt (1977:51) quotes Lord Brain as saying, "The brain and the mind constitute a unity, and we may leave to the philo-sophers, who have separated them in thought, the task of putting them together again." But can the discovery of the requisite unitary language be left solely to philosophers (by this I mean traditional academic philosophers)? I think not. My hesitation in assigning the task exclusively to philosophy stems not from a disrespect for our philo-sophical heritage, but rather from my appreciation as an anthropologist that most philosophers demonstrate little cognizance of either their cultural conditioning or their own phenomenology. The extent to which the mind-brain issue is inherent in, and an artifact of Euroamerican culture is absent in most philosophical accounts of metaphysics. Metaphysical systems rarely acknowledge the cultural context of their meaning. Indeed, I doubt most metaphysicians are even aware of the cultural embeddedness of their views. Most metaphysicians, like most scientists, are the products of Euroamerican enculturation into an essentially material-ist culture that bifurcates experience into a mental world and a physical world. The roots of dualism in their thought extend back into their early childhood conditioning and tend to permeate, not only the languages they speak, but also their actual experience of themselves and their world. As Edwin Arthur Burtt (1932:1) wrote:

"How curious, after all, is the way in which we moderns think about our world! And it is all so novel, too. The cosmology underlying our mental processes is but three centuries old -- a mere infant in the history of thought -- and yet we cling to it with the same embarrassed zeal with which a young father fondles his new-born baby. Like him, we are ignorant enough of its precise nature; like him, we nevertheless take it piously to be ours and allow it a subtly pervasive and unhindered control over our thinking."

It is apparent that not only does a solution to the Central Question require a dialogue between philosophy and the rapidly burgeoning neuro-sciences, it also requires a level of transcultural understanding unavailable to most philosophers and scientists who are un-critically formed by their cultural views. An adequate re-evaluation of scientific metaphysics requires an anthropological component in order to avoid the numerous pitfalls of unconsciously generated, uncritically held meanings -- what Husserl called the "natural attitude" of non-phenomenological minds toward their world and self.

The absence of a cross-cultural critique of metaphysics means that metaphysicians cannot cleanly distinguish essential structure from cultural norm, cannot appreciate the logic of multiple realities in non-Euroamerican cosmologies, usually cannot sense when they are demythologizing and overly rationalizing mystical intuitions, and are unable to appreciate the extent to which their experience of their mind and body conditions their views about the relationship between mind and reality.

There are, of course, a number of standard views pertaining to the mind-body relationship, usually focusing upon the nature and direction of causation (see Campbell 1984 for a good summary). Some views hold that mind is spirit and essentially non-causal in nature, and therefore outside the domain of the physical sciences. Others like the behaviorists in psychology have virtually denied any existence of mind other than as sets of dispositions to behave.

Of the various philosophical points of view, only two are seriously considered in contemporary scientific metaphysics. Campbell (1984) labelled these "central-state materialism" and "the new epiphenomenalism." Central-state materialism holds that all mental and physical events are reducible to the laws of the physical sciences. The physical sciences are con-sidered complete explanations for any and all conditions arising either in mentation or in behavior (this view includes many so-called identity theories of mind and brain; e.g., Presley 1967).

The new epiphenomenalism holds (along with the "old" epiphenomenalism of the nineteenth century) that mental and physical events exist as two distinct domains, but admits that some (but not all) mental events exist in a causal relationship with physical events. Popper and Eccles' (1977) theory of the relationship between brain functions and various levels of mentation is an example of this kind of epiphenomenalism. Other examples may be found among the cognitive scientists of the functionalist school who, like Fodor (1975) or Dennett (1978), impose a machine intelligence metaphor upon consciousness, distinguishing between mentation as "software" and body (brain) as "hardware." Lycan (1987) adheres to the functionalist approach, but tries to avoid the extreme dualism by introducing modular "homunculi," or irreducible functional units at the highest level of mental functioning -- a kind of emergent properties escape.

These various views all bear the hallmark of Euroamerican ethnocentricity. That is, they all posit a dualism between mind and body that is distinctive to Euroamerican culture. Mind and body (brain) are conceptually distinguished, thus posing the problem of how to relate the two. Philosophy has generated numerous views of the mind-body problem, but most of them reveal permutations on the same set of deep cultural presumptions that are inherent in Euroamerican enculturation. Most contemporary metaphysical formulations: (1) depend for knowledge upon rational argumentation, (2) only give credence to experiences had in a narrow range of "waking" states of consciousness, (3) posit formal, abstract notions of causation occurring between concrete, distinct objects, (4) equate cognition with language, (5) are anti-introspectionist, and (6) consider "mystical" experiences and knowledge to be outside the realm of scientific discourse. All of these presumptions may, under certain conditions, create snags to a re-evaluation of the metaphysical foundations of science.

For example, the assumption, so dear to many philosophers, that an understanding of the process of knowing only requires a correct analysis of language, is a culturally-loaded fiction. As such, it signals an ignorance on the part of the thinker about their own cultural con-ditioning. The ignorance derives from a level of contemplative immaturity engendered and fostered by a cultural proscription against introspection as a source of knowledge about consciousness and psychological processes.

This anti-introspection proscription (e.g., in the work of Kant; see Lyons 1986) is part-and-parcel of the consciousness requisite to the maintenance of a materialist culture. In other words, the two go hand-in-hand, on the one hand a proscription against mature contemplation and on the other hand a belief in mental-physical dualism. As Dewart (1989:32-59) notes, this proscription results in driving the inevitable and unavoidable ramifications of introspection underground. It is common sense after all that consciousness can only be known directly via intro-spection (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:76-83). Thus any metaphysical or scientific theory that includes the concept of consciousness, of any component of consciousness, or of any euphemism for consciousness (i.e., "mind," "psyche," etc.) is being informed explicitly or implicitly from introspection.

Because mind-brain dualism is structurally intrinsic to Euroamerican culture, it is unconsciously insidious and very pervasive in our culture's artifacts of knowledge, including scientific theories and metaphysical systems. Leslie Dewart (1989) has written a book that provides an illustrative example of what I mean. Entitled Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in Origin and Development of Human Nature , the book argues persuasively for the importance of the phenomenological method as a grounding of science (ibid:27-33), but it does so by perpetuating the notion that language is requisite to the evolution and development of human consciousness. Dewart (ibid:70-72) denies that consciousness is a function of brain, but is rather a quality of the functioning of the brain. He says that con-ceiving of consciousness as a function of the brain makes the interaction between consciousness and brain "inexplicable" (ibid:71). By this nifty bit of doublethink, consciousness becomes an epiphenomenon that is only a potential that requires linguistic communication for its acquisition and development (ibid:115-116).

There are several consequences of Dewart's view that are instructive to my argument. By denying that consciousness is a function of the nervous system, and requiring language for its acquisition, he is forced to deny both that non-human animals have consciousness (ibid:35) and that human fetuses and newborns are conscious (ibid:169-170) -- this, despite persuasive evidence to the contrary (see Griffin 1976 and Gallup 1979 on animal consciousness, and Chamberlain 1987, Bower 1989 and Laughlin 1991 on infant consciousness). Moreover, Dewart (1989:70) claims that consciousness is not inherent in the human organism, but is acquired by learning. Only the potential for consciousness is inherited. We learn to be conscious by way of speech. A logical inconsistency in his argument is that it makes no ethnological sense, for if consciousness is not inherent, but is learned and dependent upon speech, then it should be possible in principle for ethnographers to find human societies in which people have failed to learn to be conscious. This conclusion is absurd, of course, because there exists no such society in which people experience but exhibit no consciousness. Consciousness is pan-human in nature and, therefore, must be inherent in the structure of the genotype.

Moreover, the claim that either consciousness or knowledge requires language reveals a profound phenomenological immaturity in theorists like Dewart. In fact one of the common experiences had during the course of meditation leading to mature contemplation is the inevitable falling-away of discursive thought (i.e., the running on of inner speech, internal linguistic commentary about the object of consciousness) and fantasy. Knowledge, of course, does not fall away, and it is this deeper intuitive knowing that is the hallmark of mature contemplative insight. Indeed, some contemplative traditions use techniques (for example, the Zen koan and plains Indian vision quest) specifically designed to defeat rational, linguistic knowledge.

This issue aside for the moment, the most important methodological consequence of Dewart's argument is that by explaining away an organic basis of consciousness and leaving it effectively an epiphenomenon, he is not required to master or credence the neurobiology relevant to the evolution, development and functioning of consciousness. Inclusion of the neurobiology of consciousness is both necessary to a modern and holistic metaphysical system, and is a complex issue addressed competently by many theorists who have seriously consider the various issues involved, including how the brain models the world (Rose 1988, Young 1978, 1987), how brain and consciousness evolved (Calvin 1983, Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Jerison 1973, 1985, Jerison and Jerison 1988, MacLean 1990, Eccles 1989), how brain functions relate to cognition (Arbib 1972, 1989, Eimos and Galaburda 1990, Pribram 1971, 1986, 1991) and language (Poizner, Klima and Bellugi 1987), how learning occurs during development (Hebb 1949, Davis et al. 1988, Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Edelman and Mountcastle 1978, Varela 1979, Maturana and Varela 1980), how environmental conditions influence neural development (Diamond 1988, Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Grossberg 1987), and how the brain operates to produce alternative states of consciousness (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990, Persinger 1987, Hobson 1988). Considering this rich variety of efforts to integrate what we know about the brain with what we know about con-sciousness, philosophical excursions into metaphysics that exclude neuroscientific knowledge increasingly seem to be outmoded, ignorant and, frankly, uninteresting.


Arbib, M.A. (1972) The Metaphorical Brain: An Introduction to Cybernetics as Artificial Intelligence and Brain Theory. New York: Wiley.

Arbib, Michael A. (1989) The Metaphorical Brain 2: Neural Networks and Beyond. New York: Wiley.

Bower, T.G. (1989) The Rational Infant: Learning in Infancy. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Burtt, E.A. (1932) The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science: A Historical and Critical Essay (2nd edition). New York: Harcourt Brace.

Calvin, W.H. (1983) The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Campbell, K. (1984) Body and Mind. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Chamberlain, D.B. (1987) "The Cognitive Newborn: A Scientific Update." The British Journal of Psychotherapy 4(1): 30-71.

Changeux, J.-P. (1985) Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, J.L. et al. (1988) Brain Structure, Learning and Memory. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Dennett, D.C. (1978) Brainstorms. Montgomery, VT: Bradford.

Dewart, L. (1989) Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in the Origin and Development of Human Nature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Diamond, M.C. (1988) Enriched Heredity: The Impact of the Environment on the Anatomy of the Brain. New York: Free Press.

Eccles, John (1989) Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self. NY: Routledge, Chapman and Hall.

Edelman, G.M. (1987) Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. New York: Basic Books.

Edelman, G.M. and V.B. Mountcastle (1978) The Mindful Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Eimos, Peter D. & A.M. Galaburda, eds. (1990) Neurobiology of Cognition . Cambridge: MIT Press.

Engelhardt, H.T. (1977) "Husserl and the Mind-Brain Relation." in Interdisciplinary Phenomenology, Ed. by D. Ihde and R.M. Zane. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Fodor, J. (1975) The Language of Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gallup, G.G. (1979) "Self-Awareness in Primates." American Scientist 67:417-421.

Griffin, D.R. (1976) The Question of Animal Awareness. Rockefeller University Press.

Grossberg, S. (1987) The Adaptive Brain. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Hebb, D.O. (1949) The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley.

Hobson, J. Allan (1988) The Dreaming Brain. NY: Basic Books.

Jerison, H.J. (1973) Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence. New York: Academic Press.

Jerison, H.J. (1985) "On the Evolution of Mind." Brain and Mind. Ed. D.A. Oakley. New York: Methuen.

Jerison, H.J. and I. Jerison (1988) Intelligence and Evolutionary Biology. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Laughlin, C.D. (1991) Pre- and Perinatal Brain Development and Enculturation: A Biogenetic Structural Approach. Human Nature 2(3):171-213.

Laughlin, C.D. and E.G. D'Aquili (1974) Biogenetic Structuralism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Laughlin, C.D., J. McManus and E.G. d'Aquil (1990) Brain, Symbol and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lycan, W.G. (1987) Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lyons, W. (1986) The Disappearance of Introspection. Cambridge: MIT Press.

MacLean, P.D. (1990) The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. NY: Plenum.

Maturana, H.R. and F.J. Varela (1987) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: New Science Library.

Persinger, Michael A. (1987) Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. NY: Praeger.

Poizner, Howard, E.S. Klima & U. Bellugi (1987) What the Hands Reveal about the Brain.

Popper, K.R. and J.C. Eccles (1977) The Self and Its Brain. New York: Springer International.

Presley, C.F. (1967) The Identity Theory of Mind. Brisbane: Blackie.

Pribram, K.H. (1971). Languages of the Brain. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Pribram, K.H. (1986) "The Cognitive Revolution and Mind/Brain Issues." American Psychologist 41(5): 507-520.

Pribram, Karl H. (1991) Brain and Perception: Holonomy and Structure in Figural Processing. Erlbaum.

Renner, M.J. and M.R. Rosenzweig (1987) Enriched and Impoverished Environments. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Rose, Steven (1988) The Conscious Brain. Paragon House.

Varela, F.J. (1979) Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York: Elsevier North Holland.

Young, J.Z. (1987) Philosophy and the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Ackerman, Sandra (1992) Discovering the Brain. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. [survey of current neuroscience]

Allman, W.F. (1989) Apprentices of Wonder: Inside the Neural Network Revolution. New York: Bantam.

Edelman, G.M. (1992) Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. New York: Basic Books. [history of neuropsychology]

Rostak, Richard (1991) The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own. New York: Harmony Books.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown. [ha, ha! explained away, he should have said!]