#33 Cognitive versus cultural neurophenomenology of psychedelics

You see, this is why we must read! Had I not read this article I would not have known some things about the field neurophenomenology or Francisco Varela, the presumed originator of neurophenomenology.

To sum up very briefly, Laughlin, McManus, and d’Aquili wrote a book in 1990 detailing how neurophysiology and phenomenology might be fused to create a neurophenomenology. As well, Varela attended a conference in Japan where Laughlin presented a paper about the same topic. According to Laughlin and Rock (2013), the article I read and am discussing today, Varela not only “appropriated” the concept and approach of neurophenomenology but gave no mention or credit to Laughlin and his colleagues for coming up with the term. Not only is plagiarism potentially at play here, Laughlin and Rock say that this created a divide in the neurophenomenological literature separating researchers into “cognitive neurophenomenologists” and “cultural neurophenomenologists.” I have written extensively on these so-called cognitive neurophenomenologists (see my previous streams in the Neurophenomenology Category drop down list on this blog) and personally would gravitate toward this camp; however, the cultural neurophenomenologists’ research interests and angles are equally as interesting and should be looked at.

Laughlin and Rock (2013, 265) say cultural neurophenomenologists “are mainly anthropologists working in the areas of dreaming, the senses, medical anthropology, symbolism, and of course transpersonal anthropology.” Furthermore, and I just need to get rid of all these quotes here so I can stream more fluidly, “cultural neurophenomenology … is an approach that integrates the results of neurophenomenological analysis into a cross-cultural perspective—an approach that requires a confluence of at least three skill sets: (1) a working knowledge of neuroscience, especially neurophysiology, (2) post-epoché, mature contemplation, and (3) a working knowledge of comparative ethnology (Eggan, 1954) … and is capable of incorporating both the neurobiological and cultural influences upon individual experience” (Laughlin & Rock, 2013, 271).

I think cognitive neurophenomenologically leaning researchers should pay attention to this notion of cultural neurophenomenology. As Laughlin and Rock say, part of what must be bracketed is one’s taken-for-granted culture and worldview, as any Husserlian would agree. Traditional and Western psychedelic users undoubtedly will bracket different factors that make up their world; it is impossible to bracket everything; some things will be easier for traditional users to bracket than Western users and vice versa. But this still falls under the heading of phenomenology of psychedelics. In order to experience the phenomenology of a psychedelic, one must bracket out their taken-for-granted culture, customs, their everything, as best as possible to get at the raw experience of a phenomenon’s givenness to consciousness. How then do we make the leap to a cultural neurophenomenology of psychedelics? Off the top of my head, what a traditional psychedelic user and a Western psychedelic user will try to bracket out will be different; as important are the phenomena that each chooses to entertain during the psychedelic experience that refuse to be bracketed or are somehow transcendentally beyond any kind of bracketing, for one can only bracket what one knows, not what one doesn’t know, i.e. unknown unknowns.

Ok, just had an idea that might make this clearer for you and I: if cognitive neurophenomenology, the standard concept of neurophenomenology that we know, is say more quantitative because it seeks neurophysiological markers i.e. from the brain to compare subjective experience, then, a cultural neurophenomenology is say more qualitative because it seeks neurophysiological markers i.e. from the brain to compare the subjective experience from a particular cultural perspective. For example, if I want to know how conditions of readiness, semi-unreadiness, and complete unreadiness to perceiving an object look like in the brain (see Lutz et al, 2002), a cultural neurophenomenological study might ask how the same readiness conditions to perceiving an object look like to a member of a particular culture, how those subjective experiences register in the brain and how they differ among cultures.

Another example: Richard Noll’s (1985) concept of “mental imagery cultivation” might give us insight into this matter. Noll says that novice shamans train to see the vividness of mental imagery by blocking out—one could argue, non-essential—external stimuli, a kind of bracketing of one’s physical world, while allowing known and unknown phenomena from psychedelic Other Worlds to present themselves to the shaman. Once the shaman learns to “see” these images that correspond with his or her spiritual cosmology (or doesn’t correspond yet but eventually will be folded into such a cosmology), Noll hypothesizes that repeat exposure to these phenomena and being able to see them more clearly allows the shaman to exert some level of control over them. The reason I bring this up is this: does a person’s subjective experiences, filtered through cultural upbringing, have a direct impact on his or her neurophysiology and thus neurophenomenology? Is the shaman that practices mental imagery cultivation under the influence of psychedelics using parts of his brain that most Western psychedelic users do not? The opposite argument can also be made: How are cognitive maps of physical and nonphysical realms, likely handed down by culture, impacting one’s neuronal circuitry, if at all? Are traditional psychedelic users’ brains more adept, bigger, smaller, more complex, or under-developed because of the ways their culture has instilled in them to think about the world?

This: “All humans may experience sensory time-consciousness in the same way, but just which objects and events receive one’s awareness will vary from person to person and from group to group. How the sense of temporal continuity and cyclicity is integrated will be informed from personal history and a particular society’s worldview” (Laughlin & Rock, 2013, 272).

Now this: I italicized the word “integrated” in the above paragraph because I too wonder how one’s culture and worldview and which objects specific peoples choose to focus on during psychedelic experiences affects neuronal circuitry. I’m at a bit of a loss for more words on this topic because I don’t know what the answer is to the questions I raise above. I also don’t know for certain whether I fully grasped the subtlety of Laughlin and Rock’s (2013) nuance regarding the difference between cognitive neurophenomenology and cultural neurophenomenology, although I think I’m close to target. It’s fair to say that cognitive neurophenomenologists, according to Laughlin and Rock, ignore the potential cultural imprint upon one’s neurophysiology, and in considering such effects we might grasp a richer picture of one’s subjective experience, especially on psychedelics.

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

Laughlin, C. D., & Rock, A. J. (2013). Neurophenomenology: Enhancing the Experimental and Cross-Cultural Study of Brain and Experience. In H. R. Friedman & G. Hartelius (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, (261-280). Wiley-Blackwell.

Noll, R. (1985). Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism. Current Anthropology, 26(4), 443-461.

Addendum (immediately after I posted the above)

The first time I learned about Laughlin et al’s (1990) book was when I began my literature review on neurophenomenology. Like most early steps, I typed “neurophenomenology” on Amazon.com in search of a how-to guide. There is no such guide or set of guidelines in book form. (Hello people, opportunity here, someone write this book!) What I did see was Laughlin et al’s book, and I remember looking at its publication date, several years before Varela’s famous text from 1996. Then I remembered, after streaming my last text on Michael Winkelman’s paper (2018) about the ontology of psychedelic entities, that he referred to Laughlin et al’s book a couple times and no mention of the neurophenomenologists I know of, that is to say, cognitive neurophenomenologists as Laughlin and Rock call this camp, with which I’m familiar. So, after going back through Winkelman’s text again, I noticed that he mentioned Laughlin et al’s (1990) work only once directly and once indirectly to cultural neurophenomenology.

Explicitly mentioned by Winkelman: “Cross-cultural homologies in forms or functions of cognition involve what Laughlin, McManus, and d’Aquili (1992) call neurognostic structures, the neurobiological structures of knowing that provide the universal aspects of the human brain/mind. These neurophenomenological relations involve inherent knowledge structures of the organism that mediate the organization of experience into certain forms; these inherent structures underlie concepts such as archetypes, which are conceptualized as an ancient mode of organization of the experiences of the collective unconscious” (Winkelman, 2018, 7).

Read the above quote again. Read it again now! What is homology? Homology is like looking at a particular bone or limb like a hand in different species and realizing this biological feature likely came from a common ancestor and one can see how over millions of years this biological feature changed over time. What Winkelman claims in the above quote through Laughlin et al’s work is this mind-blowing idea: that different cultures’ cognitions from around the globe, stemming from a common source, have branched off of each other to create different modes of “knowledge structures,” all with the same root but slightly different depending on the culture, AND, that which is represented in the neurobiological structures of the brain. Shiiiit. This is a bold claim. Is anyone reading this, is anyone processing what I am processing right now! “Neurognostic” essentially means neurological representations of modes of knowing. Therefore, even though all humans have a once-shared neurological structure, each culture’s structure, according to Laughlin et al and Winkelman, might have differing sub-neurological structures that allow individual cultures to experience reality differently in addition to experiencing psychedelic-induced Other Worlds differently.

Indirectly mentioned by Winkelman: “But why should psychedelics so powerfully elicit these kinds of experiences of the alien other, whether in the shamanic or modern context? The answer must be sought in the approaches of neurophenomenology that examine the relationship between brain operation and experience. Neurophenomenology examines how the structure and content of phenomenal experience can be related to functions at the neurological level (Laughlin et al., 1992)” (Winkelman, 2018, 14).

What Winkelman implicitly suggests here is that different cultures are going to have different experiences of psychedelic/visionary phenomena, such as experiencing entities, because their particular culture has in some way co-shaped the neurological structure of their brain.

Just as I say above in the original stream, cultural neurophenomenologists “are mainly anthropologists working in the areas of…”, and one of those areas is dreaming, exactly how psychedelic experiences are being conceived of today, as “oneirogens.” See Timmermann et al’s (2019) latest work on this. Iboga, for example, is said to be like a waking dream state, as per traditional Bwiti practitioners in Gabon claim this substance does to one’s consciousness. We do not all dream the same. Some dream little or not at all. Additionally, we’ll most likely dream about something that we have knowledge of, according to some inclination of a conception of what is possible dependent upon which worldview we operate within. An iboga user in Gabon will likely dream and psychedelically dream (read: experience visionary phenomena) differently than a Westerner because the cultures are different. The hypothesis that the above claim is imprinted on our neurological structure is blowing my mind right now. A human brain is a human brain. So, what are the differences between brains of different cultures? What is so different from an American brain and a Gabonese brain that would essentially effectuate a different perception of reality simply because each brain operates with different cultural cues? How do those cultural cues leave a physical imprint on one’s neurobiology? If this is so, then each culture is going to experience very different psychedelic entities and visions, all rooted by a common denominator or root entity because of a common human ancestor (read: neurological homology) thousands or millions of years ago. Just think about the above claims and what this means. What does it mean? Right, I’ve gone way too deep for my own good, the rabbit can no longer fit through the rabbit hole unless it digs, and I’m a bit tired of digging at the moment.

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