Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Looking At Things from a Biogenetic Stucturalist Point of View

Biogenetic structuralism ("BS" for short – chuckles can be heard in the background) is a theoretical school of thought and an approach to doing research that my late friends, Eugene G. D'Aquili and John McManus and I developed back in the 1970s to integrate what we in science know about human consciousness, culture and neurophysiology in a unified perspective – a single scientific story if you will. This is not the venue to go into the theory in technical detail cause you may not be interested in all that. If you are, then there is a self-guided tutorial on the BS web site designed to take you through the more technical language and systems from which we built up this story. In addition, you may wish to visit Sam Mackintosh’s blog. Sam understands BS better than most and has some interesting things to say about the implications of the theory for philosophy and theology.

What I will do here is summarize the perspective – the story – and then in future blogs discuss some of the implications and practical applications of the perspective. It is rather pointless for us social scientists to build theories of humanity, society and consciousness that have no practical value -- that give nothing back to the society that begot the social sciences in the first place. What I want to do is offer you the benefits of nearly a lifetime's exploration of the human condition, and raise questions that about our collective future and our destiny and particularly the crisis in which we find ourselves as hairless apes stuck here on planet Earth.


There is a three pound (more or less) mass of tissue between our ears we call the "brain." It is the organ with which we think, imagine, intuit, experience, plan, create, formulate speech, remember, feel and act. Every happening we experience is mediated by that organ. If we are watching TV, we are actually watching pictures in our head stimulated by the TV. If we hum a song, that song is in our head and our brain is causing our mouth to hum. When we gaze lovingly at our spouse, friend, pet or vintage '78 Trans Am, we are projecting an image and feelings about that image outward from within our brain. Putting this in a different way, there is no such thing as our entertaining a thought that is not mediated by our brain. No brain, no thought. Same for feelings. When we feel, our brain (and other parts of our body) is doing the feeling. No brain, no feeling. Again, the same for imagination. If we imagine the smell of a cup of coffee, or the vision of George Bush struggling to appear sincere, it is our brain that is producing these images. No brain, no images. If we intentionally do something like lift a cup, or walk out the door, or drive our car, it is our brain that is intending the act. Thus, once again, no brain, no intentional act. So, this brings us to our first Fundamental Proposition:

Fundamental Proposition 1. Every act of consciousness is mediated by an organization of cells and processes within the brain. Conversely, there is no act of consciousness that is not mediated by the brain.

There are all sorts of notions about the relationship between consciousness and the body (and its brain). Some people believe that the brain is like a radio and consciousness is like a program that is broadcast from somewhere else and is registered by the brain. Other people, while accepting that the more mundane acts of consciousness, like picking our nose or reciting the ABC backwards, are mediated by the brain, but when it comes to "higher" acts like spiritual experiences, consciousness "transcends" the body and brain into a realm of "pure" consciousness for which there are no neurophysiological correlates. Lots of folks will say, well, if we have out of body experiences (OBEs), and many people around the planet report these, then obviously our consciousness cannot be "in" our body. And of course there are those "idealists" who believe that all that really exists is consciousness and that our bodies and brains are an illusion. Some of these folk further believe that the whole universe is conscious, and that our individual consciousness is but a part of the one great universal consciousness.

Biogenetic structuralism rejects these beliefs as overly simplistic and scientifically naive. This is because every time we look for the brain organization mediating some act of consciousness, we find it – depending of course upon whether we have the technology in place to measure the requisite brain activity. Moreover, consider this – the only consciousness you can experience directly is your own. You cannot experience my consciousness directly, and I cannot access yours directly. I can empathize with you, understand you, chat with you. But the only consciousness you and I can access directly is our own. And we are embodied. That is, you have never accessed your consciousness without your having a body (and a brain). Now, I assume you are conscious because you are like me. That is, you are embodied like me. We look alike. We recognize each other as "people." And we can communicate. Some of us will extend the presumption of consciousness to other animals – our pet dog or cat or parrot – although likewise we cannot access their consciousness directly. But there are many in science and philosophy for example who would deny that animals other than hairless apes are conscious. We should thus ask ourselves, if the only conscious beings that we have ever encountered in our life (including our self) also have bodies, why on earth would anyone presume there is such a thing as consciousness with no body or brain? So, until I encounter a disembodied consciousness, I will stick with Proposition 1.

Moving forward (love it when politicians say that), our brain is an organ made up of a vastly complex system of cells – in fact the human brain is by far the most complex system in the known universe! And just like the rest of our body, it emerged out of our development as an embryo and fetus in our mother’s belly. Long before we are born, our brain is mostly complete, and the organization of our brain in utero is largely determined by our genetics. Hence, Fundamental Proposition 2:

Fundamental Proposition 2. At no point in its development from conception onwards is the brain a "blank slate." Put another way, the brain is exquisitely ordered at each and every stage of its development. Hence, there is also no point in development when consciousness is a "blank slate," chaotic, random or unstructured.

We are born with a complex brain that knows in an inherently human way. Some of the ways we know are very, very old, mediated by deep structures inside our nervous system that emerged in the course evolution when our ancestors walked (four footed) with the dinosaurs. There were no monkeys or any other primates then. But we inherit neural structures similar to those that mediated the consciousness of the reptiles. Other ways we know derive from more advanced structures that we inherit from the generalized mammalian brain. Likewise we inherit structures from the ancient primate brain that mediate experiences similar to those had by both ancient primates and other living primates today. Finally, we also know by way of structures that evolved during the course of homination; that is, the evolutionary process by which we hairless apes became distinctly human. Thus, all of evolution is implicit (is represented) in the development of each and every one of our very human brains.

In biogenetic structuralism we use a special term for the genetically inherited structures of knowledge that we humans all share, regardless of culture or history. We call those structures neurognosis, or neurognostic structures (or neurognostic models). Pardon the jargon here, but we found we needed to call these inherited structures of consciousness something. Why? Easy. Because it is so important to an understanding of who we are – plus, most anthropologists and other social scientists in the latter decades of the 20th century, blinded by the excesses of "postmodernism," made the unwarranted assumption that a baby is born with a wee "blank slate" mind and infinitely plastic structures, and all that is required is for its culture to mold its mind into that desired by the society – fill the baby’s little head with culture, as it were.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Babies are born actively conscious and already knowing their world mediated by these neurognostic structures. These structures develop more or less rapidly according to genetically determined growth patterns, and the development is influenced in the babies’ daily interactions with both the physical and social environments. A Oaxacan Indian baby born in southern Mexico will develop along the same lines (influenced of course by the availability of proper nutrition) as a baby born to a family in the Scottish Highlands. But the environments will be significantly different for the two children. The social environments will be extremely different, so that gradually (beginning at least as early as 5 months in utero) the babies’ ways of knowing will become culturally diverse. Each child’s development will be a dialog between the inherent, neurognostic structures of its brain, and the information each assimilates from interacting with its physical and social environments. Thus, we might say, paraphrasing the great psychologist Henry A. Murray, "In some ways all humans are alike, in some ways some humans are alike and in some ways no humans are alike." Which brings us to Fundamental Proposition 3:

Fundamental Proposition 3. All learning is the result of an interaction between neurognosis (genetically determined organizations of nerve cells) and the world. In other words, the inherent neural structures – the organizations of cells within the brain – grow, become modified and influenced in their development during the course of interaction between the growing child and the world. This interaction causes the development of neurognosis to gradually diverge from its inherited organization, producing both culturally and individually distinct patterns of consciousness. This is the great power of the human brain, to change its internal organizations in order to adapt to different environments.

Anthropologists call the process by which society influences the development of the child’s brain enculturation. This is similar to what sociologists like to call socialization. By influencing the learning process, inherent processes of development, like learning a language, walking, using the hands to make things, eating solid foods, become adjusted in adaptively useful way. The Oaxacan child learns to speak Oaxacan and perhaps later Spanish, while the Highland child learns Scottish English, and perhaps even Gaelic. What anthropologists and sociologists usually fail to consider is that all enculturation/socialization has to do with influencing the development of the child’s brain. And herein lies the problem with the social sciences generally in confronting the great crisis faced by hairless apes on planet Earth. I will have a lot to say about this crisis in later blogs. Right now however I am laying the foundations for a common understanding between you and me as to where these ruminations are coming from.

OK. So far I have summarized the basic views of biogenetic structuralism, and have formalized them into three fundamental propositions: to wit, (1) Every act of consciousness is mediated by an organization of cells and processes within the brain; (2) At no point in its development from conception onward is the brain a "blank slate," but rather it is neurognostically structured; and (3) All learning is the result of an interaction between neurognosis and the physical and social world surrounding the child. These propositions are not just philosophical points of view. They are supported by much of the relevant science. Virtually all of neuroscience comes down on the side of the notion that there are always neural correlates of consciousness (or NCC). The NCC are the systems of brain cells that mediate acts of consciousness.

So far, so good. Biogenetic structuralism links consciousness (or mind, or psyche) and culture with the brain. No brain, then no consciousness. No brain, then no "culture-bearer" or "tradition-bearer." There are so many cool tangents we can go off on, and many will be addressed in these blogs – stuff like: What happens after death? What happens when you drop acid, ecstacy or ayahuasca and everything changes? What about my pet dog, she’s got a brain, so is she conscious? What is the nature of evil and good? How can one know the truth? But first things first. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. It is one thing to build a theory, it’s another to apply it to actual problems and interesting questions. So, how have we used this perspective? What are the methodological implications? How do we actually go about it?


First and foremost, because we insist that the brain is implicated in any and all acts of consciousness, whether those acts be common to all human beings, cultural (limited to a social group) or individual (or psychological), we require that we always address what is known about the neural systems mediating those acts. We won’t allow ourselves to ignore the biology and neurobiology of a problem. In fact, the neurosciences are our first stop after clarifying our problem. Now, right here we are way different than most anthropologists and sociologists who know next to nothing about the brain and neuroscience. This is the first of two great weaknesses of anthropology and allied approaches, so we try to buoy-up this weakness by forcing ourselves to look at the neurobiology involved before we get too bogged down in the ethnography of the problem. We neither treat the brain as a "black box" (Get real! There’s nearly 150 years of neuroscience to sink our teeth in!), nor do we ignore the brain as most social scientists do. Rather, we go to the body first – consciousness is ALWAYS embodied, right? – and we ask of the relevant neurosciences what they can tell us about our particular problem (e.g., dietary wisdom, empathy, sexual attraction, the social need for a leader, kinship alliance, the effects of hallucinogens on the experience of time, whatever).

Second of all, we do not forget that our interest is in people and how people interact. People with embodied, brain mediated experience. Society is an abstraction, you see; so is culture. "Society" and "culture," and even "group," or "club," or "church," are just concepts – abstractions about certain kinds of social arrangements people make. What is real is individual, experiencing people who are often interacting in a socially meaningful and efficacious manner. Fundamental to each and every person we study as social scientists is experience – or if you prefer, consciousness. Experience and consciousness are also real – indeed, you can’t get "realer" than your own on-going flow of experience, right? So, if you are studying a group of 20 people, then you have 20 brains mediating 20 experiencing consciousnesses, and the social scientist, a person with his or her own brain and consciousness is trying to understand something about these 20 other consciousnesses. Simple as that. No great mystery. Twenty-one folks with brains, all experiencing from their own, brain-mediated point of view. And this is the second great weakness of anthropology and allied disciplines – namely, poor phenomenology.(i.e., the systematic study of experience). You will find many books and articles written by ethnographers about the significance of the use of ayahuasca, peyote, datura, or some other psychotrope in aboriginal religious rituals, but very few of those ethnographers have ingested those substances numerous times and can be considered authorities on the phenomenology of the experiences associated with hallucinogenic substances.

Third, in the course of our various researches, we have emphasized both the neurological and the phenomenological aspects of problems we have studied. And we keep in mind at all times that abstract concepts like "society" and "culture" are only useful as abstractions and theoretical terms, and that they should never be reified (considered to be real when they are not). What is real is what one can experience. Everything else is conceptual. That is the empirical way. The reason we need theories is because we very often cannot experience the causes of the things we experience. We can experience a lunar eclipse directly, but we cannot experience the cause of the phenomenon directly. That is why there have been so many different explanations of eclipses throughout history and across cultures. Your brain is a fact – each and everyone of us has one neatly tucked between our ears. So is your ongoing experience – each and every one of us is conscious and knows it. And the correlations between the two are supported by libraries full of evidence. But theories are required to account for the hidden bits – the invisible causality linking brain happenings and acts of consciousness.

We have applied this approach to numerous problems over the years. We have been particularly keen to understand aspects of human experience, behavior and sociality that appear to be universal to hairless apes everywhere. One of our first projects was to study the evolution, structure and significance of ritual behavior cross-culturally. Not only is ritual common to all human societies, ritual is also common among non-human animals, particularly those with advanced brains. We have also studied myth, cosmology, psychopathology (d’Aquili was a psychiatrist by trade and McManus was a social psychologist), social responses to periodic resource deprivation, symbolism, the use of masks in ritual, dreaming, symbolic exchange and gift giving, shamanic practices and experiences, the transpersonal aspects of cultural practices, how societies enculturate babies, time perception, the fuzziness of natural categories, and so forth. If you care to visit the BS web page, you will find many downloadable articles and even books that will carry you further into the technical study of BS theory and methods.

How Do We Do It?

So, given all this, how do we go about designing a research project in a BS way? Or. Less formally, how do we think about things in a BS way? Very simply put, the stages of a serious inquiry go something like this:

1. Clarify the problem so that it can be answered empirically. The question or problem you wish to explore has to be defined in a way that it can, in principle at least, be approached in an empirical way – plus, data must be available for both the experiential/behavioral aspects of the problem, and the physiological and neurobiological aspects of the problem.

Asking a question like "does God exist?" is not an empirical question. There is no research project you can design that has a hope of answering it. But if you change the question to something like "many people claim they have had divine experiences, so what can we make of that?" then we are able to think up an approach that incorporates both descriptions of experiences, the cross-cultural study of interpretations of such experiences, and strategies for getting at what is happening inside the brain and body of people having those experiences. And of course this research is actually being done.

2. Demarcate the range of experiences/behaviors under consideration. When you are dealing with cross-cultural issues, you may find that a common phenomenon may be hidden within an apparent diversity of form. You must be able to parse out the underlying essential elements of the phenomenon in which you are interested.

Human ceremonial rituals are both universal to human societies, and extremely varied in their forms. Some peoples may use elaborate masks in their ceremonies, others may take on the form of a parade, some may incorporate music and rhythms, while others may not. So, how you define your question about ceremonial rituals must parse out the common elements, the essential elements of the phenomenon – elements like formalized behaviors, association with mythic stories, use of psychological drivers like rhythm, flickering lights, hallucinogenic concoctions, sleep deprivation, fatigue, fasting, and so forth. By doing this you begin to strip away the culture-specific details and get at the fundamental, universal structure of ceremonies. You are then able to see that the phenomenon may be as diverse as a Catholic Mass and a political rally.

3. Ascertain what physiology and neuroscience is available to allow you to examine the physiological and neural correlates of the essential range of experiences and behaviors.

This is a crucial step in designing any BS project. Your problem has to be defined in such a way that it is possible in principle to examine the physiology underlying the behavior and experience that is your central interest. If you cannot find any physiology and neurobiology related to your focus, then a BS project is not possible, even though it may be valid in principle, if only someone had done the lab or clinical studies you need. But nowadays it is virtually impossible to focus in on some behavior or experience for which there exists no neuroscience whatever. There is nearly always some research available in the literature, and of course you could team up with researchers who would like to cooperate in your project.

One of my friends and colleagues, Dr. Jason Throop (anthropologist at UCLA), and I have done a number of projects like this over the last few years. One of the most interesting has been on the issue of time consciousness. Anthropologists in years gone by wrapped themselves up in all kinds of weird and wonderful knots over the issue of time. A common view was that while modern society experiences time as a lineal duration, traditional peoples experience time in cycles. Just one more way that "primitive" people are supposed to be different than "civilized people. And of course, none of these authorities bothered to look at what neuropsychology had to say about time perception. Of course there wasn’t much neuropsychology of time perception available before a generation or so ago. But had there been a literature, these anthropologists would not have thought to consult it, even as those who came later have failed to consult the rich science literature available to them. A notable exception is Warren TenHouten’s analysis in his book, Time and Society. Warren is a neurosociologist. Well, what we find when we integrate the anthropology/phenomenology of time consciousness and the neuroscience of time perception, we discover that all human beings process time in the same way, but may focus on one or another aspect of time in their interpretations and their cosmologies.

So, what biogenetic structuralism amounts to is a set of theoretical tools, and a set of research strictures that forces the researcher to examine phenomena in a way that she (1) does not forget to embody the phenomenon being explored, (2) never forgets that what is real are people doing things, having experiences and interacting with each other, (3) does not forget to look for the NCC wherever these are available in the neuroscience literature.

I hope this introduction to BS was not as dry as toast for you. I did want to let you know where I am coming from in the blogs to follow. I approach the truth of things scientifically and empirically. In the next discussion I want to jump right into the central concern of this blog site -- the crisis I mentioned above, namely the plight of we hairless apes living here on our lovely planet Earth.


Calvin, William H. 1996. The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press [Calvin is one of the most interesting writers on the brain and consciousness. Have fun!]

Changeux, Jean-Pierre, 2002. The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [One the best discussions of brain and consciousness by one of the leading neuroscientists.]

Donald, Merlin (1991) Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press [A well written and excellent discussion of the cognitive models in our brains, and how they are influenced by culture.]

Koch, Christof, 2004. The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Englewood, CO: Roberts. [Read about the evidence in favor of looking for the NCC for all acts of consciousness.]

Laughlin, Charles D., McManus, John and d'Aquili, Eugene G., 1990. Brain, Symbol and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press [The single best introduction to biogenetic structuralism, written by its three founders. It is heavy going at times. You can often get a soft cover cheap on the Internet. I just googled it on and there are used copies from $15. If you ain’t got a copy, you ain’t got an excuse.]

Laughlin, Charles D. and C. Jason Throop, 2008. "Continuity, Causation and Cyclicity: A Cultural Phenomenology of Time-Consciousness." Time & Mind 1(2): 159-186 [Our recently published (June, 2008) study of time consciousness which is a good single example of how a BS project is designed and expressed.]

TenHouten, Warren D., 2005. Time and Society. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. [One of the world's few neurosociologists analyses time consciousness and integrates neuroscience into the bargain.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not dry toast...plenty of butter & jam! k8