[Revised 7 September 1996]

Over the years a group of us have developed a body of theory we call biogenetic structuralism. The original book of that title (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974) represented an interdisciplinary merger of anthropology, psychology and the neurosciences. It presented the view that the universal structures characteristic of human language, cognition about time and space, affect, certain psychopathologies, and the like were due to the genetically predisposed organization of the nervous system. It seemed to us preposterous (and still does) that the invariant patterns of behavior, cognition and culture being discussed in various structuralist theories could be lodged anywhere other than in the nervous system. After all, every thought, every image, every feeling and action is demonstrably mediated by the nervous system. Moreover, it seemed to us possible to develop a theoretical perspective that:

was non- dualistic in modelling mind and body,
was not reductionistic in the positivist sense (i.e., that the physical sciences can give a complete account of all things mental/cultural), and
was informed by all reasonable sources of data about human consciousness and culture.

This project had to be lodged within an evolutionary frame due to:

the evidence of dramatic encephalization found in the fossil record of extinct human ancestors, and
the fact that cultural variation was conceived as the primary mode of human adaptation.

We thus explored the different areas of the nervous system that seem to have evolved during the course of hominid encephalization and that produce the distinctly human quality of mentation, learning, communication, and social action characteristic of our species today.


Our first book presented some general concepts which were later refined and used in other studies. One important concept was neurognosis, a term we coined to label the inherent, rudimentary knowledge available to cognition in the initial organization of the pre- and perinatal nervous system. A human baby was conceived as taking its first cognitive and perceptual stance toward the world from the standpoint of a system of initial, genetically predisposed neurognostic models that come to develop in somatosensory interaction with the world.

The principal function of the human nervous system at the level of the cerebral cortex is the construction of a vast network of these models. We came to call this network of neural models an individual's cognized environment, contrasting this with the actual operational environment that includes both the real nature of that individual as an organism and the effective external environment (see Laughlin and Brady 1978:6, d'Aquili et al. 1979:12, Rubinstein et al. 1984:21, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). Our views began to take on a more developmental perspective as we came to realize the importance of the works of Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget and others. We now understand that not only the initial organization of neural models is neurognostic, but so too is the course of development of those models and patterns of entrainment of models.


The first book-length application of biogenetic structural theory was an account of the evolution and structure of human ritual. In The Spectrum of Ritual (d'Aquili et al. 1979) we generated a theory of ritual behavior as a mechanism by which intra- and interorganismic entrainment of neurocognitive processes are evoked, thus making concerted action among social animals possible. We used the general model to examine formalized behavior among animals generally, then specifically among mammals, primates and finally humans, and finally looked at the various neurocognitive processes mediating arousal, affect, physical and social cognition, etc. As it has turned out, ritual has been a major focus of our work (see also d'Aquili 1983, d'Aquili and Laughlin 1975, Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin 1988c) because of its ubiquitous nature and its role in controlling cognition and experience.

Another major focus of biogenetic structural analysis has been the symbolic function (see Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Laughlin and Stephens 1980, MacDonald et al. 1988, Young- Laughlin and Laughlin 1988). We have been particularly interested in how sensory stimuli as symbols are able to penetrate to those neurocognitive models mediating meaning and significance, and how models express themselves in symbolic action and artifact. Among other things, we have developed a theory of the evolution of the symbolic function that proceeds from primordial symbol, through cognized SYMBOL systems to sign systems, and finally to formal sign systems, any or all of which may operate at any moment in adult human cognition (Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981).


There have been three recent trends in biogenetic structuralism that might be of interest to students of cognitive science. One trend is toward a greater attention to transpersonal experience; that is, to extraordinary experiences and states of consciousness, and the relation of these to invariant patterns of symbolism, cognition and practice found in religions and cosmologies cross-culturally (see d'Aquili 1982, Laughlin 1985, 1988a, 1988c, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin McManus and Shearer 1983, Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1984, MacDonald et al. 1988, Webber et al. 1983). We have tried to track the greatest range of human experience and relate this to transformations in neurocognitive, autonomic and neuroendocrinal entrainment. By doing this we hope to understand:

the maximum potential genetic and developmental limits to patterns of entrainment and therefore to human experience,
the mechanisms by which societies condition patterns of entrainment so as to control (limit or extend) the range of human experience,
the mechanisms by which societies produce recurrent extraordinary experiences in some or all of their members so as to verify and vivify those societies' world views, and
by extrapolation, the possible future limits of human consciousness (Laughlin and Richardson 1986).

Another trend has been to extend the age at which society influences neurocognitive development back into very early life. In our opinion there is now sufficient evidence from clinical psychology and developmental neurobiology that experiences occurring in pre- and perinatal life (in the womb, during birth and during early infancy) are formative on later patterns of neurocognitive entrainment and adaptation. We wish to urge anthropologists and others interested in the ontogenesis of cognitive systems to look more carefully at how society conditions the environment of the human being during that early period (see Laughlin 1989a, 1990).

Another recent interest has been in making a case for the importance of a neurophenomenology to the study of brain, consciousness and culture -- an approach that is antithetical to the anti-introspectionist bias of positivist science, and particularly of some schools of cognitive science (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). Phenomenology (a la Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Aron Gurwitsch, and others, as well as eastern mystical and cross-cultural shamanic traditions) is the study of the essential (invariant) processes of consciousness by mature contemplation. Neurophenomenology is thus the attempt to explain such processes by reference to what is known about the brain. Two recent studies by the author exemplify this merging of contemplative and neuroscientific perspectives. One study discusses the essential intentionality of consciousness (noted by all phenomenologies) in terms of a systemic dialectic between prefrontal cortex and sensorial cortex (Laughlin 1988b). Another study suggests the relationship between invariant temporal patterns of perceptual sequencing and the neuropsychological literature available on "perceptual framing" (Laughlin 1992).

The most recent concern in biogenetic structural theory has been to understand how the human mindbrain may interact directly with the quantum universe. this step has been necessitated by the anomalous evidence in quantum physics, parapsychology and the ethnology of alternative states of consciousness -- evidence that suggests that that human consciousness is capable of causation at a distance and communication through telepathic means. One answer to these anomalous experiences is that the human brain operates somewhat as a quantum computer and is able to translate patterned activity in the quantum sea of energy into information, and conversely to transform information into patterned activity in the quantum sea.

Click here to return to the self-guided tutorial . There follows a bibliography of relevant materials cited in the synopsis above.


D'Aquili, E.G. (1982) "Senses of Reality in Science and Religion: A Neuroepistemological Perspective." Zygon 17(4): 361-384.

D'Aquili, E.G. (1983) "The Myth-Ritual Complex: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis." Zygon 18(3): 247-269.

D'Aquili, E.G. and C.D. Laughlin (1975) "The Biopsychological Determinants of Religious Ritual Behavior." Zygon 10(1): 32-58.

D'Aquili, E.G., C.D. Laughlin and J. McManus (1979) The Spectrum of Ritual. New York: Columbia University Press.

Laughlin, C.D. (1988a) "On the Spirit of the Gift." Anthropologica 27 (1-2): 137-159 (delayed 1985 issue).

Laughlin, C.D. (1988b) "The Prefrontosensorial Polarity Principle: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Intentionality." Biological Forum 81(2):245-262.

Laughlin, C.D. (1988c) "Transpersonal Anthropology: Some Methodological Issues." Western Canadian Anthropologist 5:29-60 .

Laughlin, C.D. (1988d) "Brain, Culture and Evolution: Some Basic Issues in Neuroanthropology." may be purchased as a Departmental Working Papers, Department of Sociology-Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada K1S 5B6.

Laughlin, C.D. (1989a) "Pre- and Perinatal Anthropology: A Selective Review." Pre- and Peri-Natal Psychology Journal 3(4):261-296.

Laughlin, C.D. (1989c) "Ritual and the Symbolic Function: A Summary of Biogenetic Structural Theory." Journal of Ritual Studies 4(1):15-39.

Laughlin, C.D. (1990) "Womb=Woman=World: Gender and Transcendence in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism." Pre- and Peri-Natal Psychology Journal 5(2):147-165.

Laughlin, C.D. (1992) "Time, Intentionality, and a Neurophenomenology of the Dot." Anthropology of Consciousness 3(3-4):14-27.

Laughlin, C.D. and I.A. Brady (1978) Extinction and Survival in Human Populations. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Laughlin, C.D. and J. McManus (1982) "The Biopsychological Determinants of Play and Games." in Social Approaches to Sport (ed. by R.M. Pankin). Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press.

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

Laughlin, C.D., J. McManus, R.A. Rubinstein and J. Shearer (1986) "The Ritual Control of Experience." Studies in Symbolic Interaction (Part A; ed. by N.K. Denzin). Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Laughlin, C.D., J. McManus and J. Shearer (1983) "Dreams, Trance and Visions: What a Transpersonal Anthropology Might Look Like." Phoenix: The Journal of Transpersonal Anthropology 7(1/2): 141- 159.

Laughlin, C.D., J. McManus and C.D. Stephens (1981) "A Model of Brain and Symbol." Semiotica 33(3/4): 211-236.

Laughlin, C.D., J. McManus and M. Webber (1984) "Neurognosis, Individuation and Tibetan Arising Yoga Practice." Phoenix: The Journal of Transpersonal Anthropology 8(1/2):91-106.

Laughlin, C.D. and S. Richardson (1986) "The Future of Human Consciousness." Futures, June issue, pp. 401-419.

Laughlin, C.D. and C.D. Stephens (1980) "Symbolism, Canalization and P-Structure." in Symbol as Sense (ed. by M.L. Foster and S. Brandis. New York: Academic Press.

LeDoux, J.E. and W. Hirst (1986) Mind and Brain: Dialogues in Cognitive Neuroscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacDonald, G.F., J. Cove, C.D. Laughlin and J. McManus (1988) "Mirrors, Portals and Multiple Realities." Zygon 23(4):39-64.

Rubinstein, R.A., C.D. Laughlin and J. McManus (1984) Science As Cognitive Process. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Webber, M., C.D. Stephens and C.D. Laughlin (1983) "Masks: A Reexamination, or Masks? You mean they affect the brain?" in The Power of Symbols (ed. by N.R. Crumrine and M. Halpin). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Young-Laughlin, J. and C.D. Laughlin (1988) "How Masks Work, or Masks Work How?" Journal of Ritual Studies 2(1): 59-86.