Sunday, May 4, 2008

Crisis on the Planet of the Hairless Apes (Part IV): Mind-Body Dualism and the Denial of Death

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity - designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.

Ernest Becker

There is another serious problem hairless apes have in understanding their brainworlds. They persist in wanting consciousness to be in one way or another separate from the body. When folks ask the question, "What is the relationship between the mind and the body?" – and some of the more philosophical folks in all societies do that – their answer almost inevitably posits some degree of duality between their conscious minds and their physical beings. This is called the mind-body problem in Western philosophy, and a virtual library of learned tomes has been written trying to solve the problem in one way or another.

Why should I want to spend time talking about this age-old problem here? Just cause it’s intriguing? Not a bit of it. I want to examine it in detail because in my opinion the methods we are using here to advance our understanding may be able to shed light on the cause of the illusion of mind-body dualism, and even more importantly, the tendency to hive the mind off from the brain and body participates directly in producing The Crisis, and in failing to perceive its solutions. Take for example the belief system of religious fanatics who care nothing about dying by suicide bombing and taking other folks with them because they are absolutely certain that they will be rewarded in the afterlife. They steadfastly believe, with no empirical evidence, that while the body may be blown to bits and decay, their consciousness (soul, spirit, essence, karma, whatever) will survive and be transfigured into a spiritually glorious place.

What I want to do in this post is explore what I believe to be the very heart of the dualistic illusion. It is an intractable problem facing our self-awareness partly because its real cause is unconscious to people. Yet, because we CDL/BS blog readers are armed with the methods of neurophenomenology and mature contemplation, the existential roots of mind-body dualism be laid bare to rational scrutiny. When these roots are revealed to direct perception, setting aside dualistic beliefs and assumptions not only becomes necessary, but it is in fact easy to accomplish and makes a lot of common sense. Once we have exposed the roots of dualism, I will explain the inevitability of the illusion by way of neurophysiology, and show that this existential split is to some extent universal to humans in all cultures because all human beings face the same experiential conundrum. I will share with you the results of a cross-cultural study showing that most peoples believe to some extent in mind-body dualism, and will describe how some of these cultures make sense of the brain in their particular world view.

SPOILER ALERT!!! Beware! Many folks require the illusion of a continuing immortal soul or the transmigration of consciousness after their physical death. In fact, as friends of mine can tell you, I have avoided talking about this issue for fear that I might inadvertently harm someone who needs religious dogma of this sort in order to face their own inevitable death, or the death of loved ones. I can understand and respect this need, so if you are one of these people, perhaps you may wish to skip this post. It is not essential to following the general chain of arguments that lead me to such great concern about The Crisis.

OK. You’ve been warned.


We will begin our exploration of mind-body dualistic beliefs by doing some mature contemplation, and applying what we have learned in earlier posts to look at dualistic experience. It is my contention that the belief in dualism is so persistent because there is something about our experience that invites it. You might want to go back and refresh your memory on "mature contemplation" in the post above. It is important that you renew your understanding of "reduction," for what we will do here is set aside our preconceptions and certainties and begin with the structures of experience themselves. We want to avoid our "natural attitude" about things mental and physical, and just pay attention to our own experience.

Phenomenology of Grasping

Let’s call this exercise the "phenomenology of grasping." Although the same lessons can be learned from studying the acts of walking or blinking your eyes, grasping has a special significance because of the common use of the word "grasping" as a metaphor for coming to know something – e.g., we "comprehend" something (the root "prehend" means "to grasp"), we "get it," the answer is "within our grasp," he was "grasping at straws," "hang on to that idea,"so-forth.

The exercise is best carried out with your arm and shoulder bare so you can see your skin, and what is happening under your skin. Let me suggest that you sit comfortably with your arm resting palm upward on a table. Let your arm relax and your mind be as calm and thought-free as you can manage. Doing calming exercises before doing any such "reduction" exercise is preferable. When you are chilled out and focused, then slowly flex your fingers, bunching them into a loose fist. Focus alternately on the external image of our hand grasping and then the internal feeling of your hand grasping (remember, your body is the only thing in the whole world you can experience from the outside-in and the inside-out at the same time). Look at your arm and feel the movement, and see how much of your arm is involved in the process of grasping (or clenching your hand). Then close your eyes and just feel the process from the inside using your inner senses alone – your sense of touch and your somesthetic (meaning "body-feeling") senses, the kinesthetic sense that tells you about the position of your muscles and joints, and your cutaneous senses that inform you about what’s happening on your skin. Notice that with your eyes closed, you always know where your hand is in the process of grasping – you don’t have to open your eyes to know whether your hand is clenched or open. Also, feel where movements in your hand and arm begin and end. Then, while closing and opening that hand, use your other hand to explore the various muscle movements up your arm as you make a fist. How far up your arm can you feel the activity of your muscles using all the visual, somesthetic and tactile information available to you? If you are not moving your forearm and upper arm while grasping with your fingers, then you will probably conclude that the act of grasping involves your fingers, hand and forearm – that the act of grasping disappears somewhere around your elbow.

Do this exercise slowly for a period of time and become familiar with the physical processes that combine to produce the act we call "grasping." Explore the limits of your awareness of that activity. For instance, flex each finger independently and in combination with other fingers. Notice the different muscle movements that produce each combination. Also note that you cannot make a fist in the opposite direction; that is, toward the back of your hand instead of toward the palm. You cannot will the hand to do what it is structurally incapable of carrying out, and if you do try this hard enough, you will feel strain, and maybe even pain. If you were to super glue your thumb to your palm (please, don’t try it!), this would impose new limitations upon your ability to grasp, would it not? There are clear limits to the grasping movements you can make, and these limits are determined by the structure of your hand and arm.

When you have explored the physical act of grasping to your satisfaction (or more professionally until no more novelty pops up), shift your awareness to the act of willing your hand to grasp. Relax your fingers and then "make" them grasp, as you have already been doing. In the first place, notice that your conscious awareness is like a glittering sphere of sensory experience (you already know this to be a pixelated field) sitting atop your shoulders. You are experiencing your hand within that radiant sphere of awareness. You gaze at your hand and will it to grasp and virtually simultaneously with the intention, your hand moves. Your consciousness is that radiant sphere of sensory experience within which the experience of your body is occurring. Yet just where are "you" in that sphere? Notice that "you" are an observational standpoint at a distance from your hand. There is "you," the watcher, and "your" hand. Play with this relationship for a while. Do the same things your were doing before, only pay more attention to the relationship between "you,"the watcher, and "your" wilful act of grasping. Do it with your eyes open and your eyes closed. Explore each of the senses, seeing the hand grasp, feeling the fingers touch the palm and visa versa. Feel the changes in the cutaneous sensations from the skin as the hand changes position, the pressure of the arm on the table top. And now notice that whichever sense the watcher attends, there is always an experienced distance between "you" the watcher and that which is being watched.

Now reflect upon the linkage between your will to grasp that arises within your sphere of awareness and the physical act of grasping by your hand. You have already ascertained that the physical act of grasping occurs out at the end of your arm. You have seen that the grasping action stops somewhere between your hand and your shoulder – perhaps at the elbow. Note that there is no obvious physical link between "you" the watcher and the physical act of grasping. And yet every time you will the act to occur, it does so, as if by magic. Let us call the lack of any discernable linkage between your mental act of willing (what philosophy calls "intentionality") and the physical act of grasping the mind-body gap. If you will extend the exploration to other physical activities, you will discover that this mind-body gap is apparent in every one of them, from walking to opening and closing your mouth to blinking your eyes and typing on a keyboard. "You" the watcher are a standpoint within the radiant sphere of consciousness sitting atop your shoulders, and are always at a remove, at a distance, from the physical act "you" have willed.

Invisibility and the Illusion of Mind-Body Duality

We have been focusing upon the conscious act of grasping. But you know of course that your hand can grasp things unconsciously. If something suddenly frightens you, your hands may wrap around something until your knuckles turn white. In fact we are born grasping, and we can do things with our hands unconsciously while our awareness is involved with other things. We can be engrossed in reading a book and drink coffee at the same time. The physical act of grasping the cup and transporting it to our lips is easily accomplished unconsciously – almost like our body is a kind of robot programmed to do our bidding. Indeed, this is one of the first tricks we develop as a child. Watch an infant grasp things and put them in his mouth, an act he practices over and over again. This fundamental act is "wired in" and genetically determined, and only requires development to become refined. Considerable development has gone on in the interim to allow you to do the remarkable things you can do with your hands. Perhaps you play the piano or can do slight of hand magic, take a radio apart, pitch a curve ball, or fly a plane. These are activities based upon this fundamental, genetically programmed grasping ability – in other words, we hairless apes evolved to grasp things. Moreover, we are also designed to lose track of our physical abilities once we have learned them. When techniques and skills are accomplished, they tend to fade from our awareness and become relegated to unconscious processing – to the robot -- a cybernetic property of our body that further exacerbates the sense of a mind-body gap.

If you have done this exercise with sufficient concentration – and let me assure you that like any other phenomenological exploration, you really have to do it to understand it fully, and to escape the trap of your own conditioned "natural attitude" – you have probably come to realize the significance of the mind-body gap, and it is this experienced gap that provides part of the riddle behind the illusion of mind-body duality. We become aware that although we have the freedom to will our hand to move, we cannot be aware of the exact causal mechanisms between our willful watcher and our grasping hand. In other words, the causal link between our mind and our body is invisible to us.

Of course, being Westerners, we all know something about this invisible linkage. We know intellectually that our body comes equipped with a nervous system that connects the higher brain functions mediating our sphere of awareness and the muscle groups that move our limbs. But be careful here! Our knowledge of the internal physiology of the body is part of what we have bracketed and disattended – and for good reasons. In the first place, we Westerners take this physiological information so much for granted that it may well get in the way of exploring the mind-body gap in direct experience, and may even inhibit our intuitive comprehension (Ahem! No pun intended) of the gap itself. We may naively project the information we have learned about anatomy and physiology into our experience of our own mind-body relationship and fail to appreciate the lack of an experienced link between our will and our grasping – thus missing the crucial fact that the linkage is always invisible, no matter how much or little we know about the nervous system. In the second place, few of us have ever seen a nervous system, and know about the brain and nervous system only because we watch TV programs, or have read articles about it in Discover magazine. We certainly are unable to empirically observe our nervous system intervening between willing our hand to move, and the hand actually moving. And in the third place, as we shall soon see, most traditional peoples do not know much about physiology, especially about the neurophysiology of the human body, and though they may have anatomical information about nerves, they have virtually no way to discover the function of nerves.

So, if you do the above exercise while dropping any and all preconceptions, and, as Husserl taught us, if you "return to the things themselves" (return to what is, and only what is presented in direct experience) with perpetually fresh eyes, then this experiential gap becomes obvious, and you can better appreciate why I have suggested that this phenomenon is so fundamental to our accurate self-awareness. It is so fundamental because it presents us with the problem of modeling the causal relations that exist between our mental and our physical acts. As you can now appreciate, the only way you can bridge the willing mind and the grasping hand is by some theory that explains the invisible linkage between mind and body.

Neurophenomenology of Grasping

Let’s explore the neural correlates (NCC) of the experience of the mind-body gap, which are very straightforward. They also contradict our commonsense experience of the mind-body gap – and that’s the most important point. We see and feel our hand by way of sensory cells in our eyes, joints, muscles and skin that send electrochemical signals up to the brain by way of nerve tracts (neurophysiologists call this inward movement of neural signals "afference"). We cannot see or feel the nerve tracts do their thing, because they don’t move (they don’t ripple the skin when they work), and we are not wired-up to track their activities – part of the transcendental nature of our own real being. These sensations come together in our sensorium (remember, our brainworld’s total conscious sensory system) which is part of the cortex of our brain. The watcher is mediated by an organization of cells within the prefrontal cortex of our brain (just above and behind our eyes, the part that makes our foreheads bulge outwards) and it is in the dialog between our prefrontal watcher and the sensorium that the radiant sphere of our consciousness situated on our shoulders is generated – what Antonio Damasio (1999: 160) calls the "single Cartesian theater" of our conscious experience. Again, we cannot see or feel our cortex. The brain itself cannot sense anything about itself – believe it or not, it cannot even feel pain. When you have a headache, it is caused by pressure in the skin-like covering of your brain, not the brain itself. That is why brain tumors are so dangerous. You can’t feel them til they press on the outer covering of the brain and cause pain, or disrupt brain functions.

Now, as to our intentions and movements, we were born with the neural wiring necessary for grasping (remember neurognosis = wired-in knowledge), and that wiring developed during our childhood within cells of what is called the premotor cortex (just under the top of your forehead) and other areas or our brain. Our automatic motor sequences, like sucking, grasping and walking, are mediated by networks of hundreds of thousands of cells. When we will our hand to grasp, it is this premotor area that sends electrochemical signals down through nerves that end up stimulating our muscles (signals going out to the muscles are called "efference"). And once again, we cannot see or feel those nerves doing their thing. The entire process of afference-efference is invisible to us, as are the neural processes that produce the experience of a watcher. All that we are aware of is the product of brain functioning, not the brain itself. We are aware of watching and intending our hand to flex and then relax, not the wiring that makes all that happen. Because most of the body processes involved in the act are themselves invisible to our scrutiny, this produces the experienced illusion of a gap between our intending ego and our physical body (= there’s "me and then there’s "my body"). The only way we can learn about the wiring invisibly connecting watcher and hand is by use of complex techniques and technologies that have been developed in neurobiology over generations of research. These researches are available to us, if we care to learn the language of neuroscience, but they are never available to us in immediate experience. Even a professional neuroanatomist experiences the mind-body gap. The only difference between her and the rest of us is that she may interpret the experience differently than we would out of our culturally-loaded, natural attitude. The point to retain from all this is that to our direct experience, there exists a mind-body gap between the our watcher and the activities of our body, while from the view of neuroscience, there is really no gap at all.


Imagine you are a primitive hunter-gatherer. One day you call out to your usual companion, Joe, and ask him to join you in a hunt, but he does not respond in the usual way. You walk over to him and see him lying motionless. (He is dead.) You call him again; he does not answer. You shake his arm; it moves but falls limp as soon as you let go. Obviously some change has come over Joe. What might strike you is that compared to the day before, he is completely motionless; he initiates no movement, not even breathing. Since his body still looks the same, but no part of it moves, you may imagine that he has lost some kind of a motion-producing force or spirit. Now if, a few days later, when scavengers have demolished the corpse, you see Joe in a dream, you may reason that Joe’s spirit still exists – independently of his body. You would then have invented animism, the idea that an immaterial, impalpable, motion-producing spirit with an independent existence can enter and leave bodies (stones, trees, animals, man), and thus make those bodies capable or incapable of movement; this is animism in the simplest, most undifferentiated form.

Dalbir Bindra (1980:7-8)

The mind-body gap is thus the way we all experience a fundamental schism between our experience and how things really are, regardless of our cultural heritage. Ironically this control system is both adaptive in our day-to-day existence, and erroneous in that it systematically distorts the real nature of our physical being by rendering causality within our body invisible to us. This invisibility is produced by two attributes of the nervous system: In the first place, as I have said, nerves do not move like muscles do. Hence, we cannot perceive their activity. In the second place, the nervous system tends to relegate and lose track of processes that need not be conscious in order to be carried out. Physical movements like grasping utensils, walking or tying our shoes are learned with great attention in childhood, and then attention moves on to other more important things. What is essential is that the brainworld can recognize and track objects and events in the environment and control physical responses to events in the world. To accomplish this, it is not necessary for the brainworld to track the mechanical links between the watcher and the muscle groups carrying out movements. Actually, if the brainworld had to track all of these connections, it wouldn’t be able to single out and focus on objects of adaptive importance in the real world. As adaptive as this system is for responses to the external environment, it also produces a systematic bias, and impedes our experience and comprehension of a fully embodied mind.

The Mind-Body Gap in Other Cultures

Let’s not make the mistake of assuming that the mind-body gap is in any way unique to people raised in our culture. True, materialist cultures are more likely to exaggerate mind-body dualism – conditioned as we are to pay more attention to the external world than toward the inward experiences of our own being. But the mind-body gap is more or less universal to humans everywhere, and each culture will face the problem of mind-body relations within its particular world view. What differs among societies is the kind of intellectual/imaginative model developed to interpret invisible causation. There is an empirical problem faced by all traditional peoples when (and if) they try to puzzle out mind-brain relations. This factor is represented by a wonderful quote from a Jivaro Indian: "The people who say that we think with our heads are wrong because we think with our hearts. The heart is connected to the veins, which carry the thoughts in the blood through the entire body. The brain is only connected to the spinal column, isn't it? So if we thought with our brains, we would only be able to move the thought as far as our anus!" (Brown 1985:19). The Jivaro are a people who have developed considerable expertise in anatomy, as this quote evinces – and in particular neuroanatomy. But their neurophysiology sucks – it is both empirically wrong due to the lack of the technologies required to track neural functioning, and inextricably blended with mythological and cosmological stories. Let us look at a few examples of mind-brain accounts from other peoples:

1. The Ancient Greeks. Although our English word "brain" probably derives from the Greek word for the front part of the head, the very early Greek (as well as later Roman) notion of "mind," or thymos, was centered in the chest area, associated with the lungs, breath and speech, and included the unified functions of thought, feeling (including love and desire) and action . Thus one could be "inspired" by the breath of the Gods, and could have thoughts "blown into" the mind. Divination was due to the Gods breathing into the prophet's thymos. Speech was conceived as the transmission of knowledge from lung to lung via breath -- the breath passing to the ears, then through the pharynx to the lungs. The unconscious "soul," or psyche, was located in the head and was what passed on after death. The psyche was thought to sleep during the mind's waking period, and to awake to produce dreams while the mind was asleep -- this being a similar belief to that of the Ancient Hebrews whose Kabbalah also held that the spirit resides in the head. The head was associated with the divine while the body (that which carries the head) was associated with the mundane mind. The brain and fluids in the head (together called enkephalos) was conceived as a continuation of the spinal cord, and both with the "marrow" of the bones and the semen. Only later in classical Greek times did the notion of mind and soul, chest and head, merge to form more of an interactive consciousness.

2. The Desena. The empirical problems of constructing an accurate understanding of mind-body relations is repeated in many other cultural traditions. One of the better ethnographic descriptions among non-Euro-american-aussie cultures is that of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1981) on the Desana people of Amazonia. The author describes how the Desana, being "passionate hunters," have the opportunity to examine the anatomy of animals in great detail while butchering their kills. Shamanic knowledge is based upon these anatomical explorations and includes careful distinctions pertaining to the development of the body through the stages of gestation. This developmental knowledge includes an interpretation of the emergence of consciousness associated with the development the various senses. Due to their anatomical explorations during hunting and warfare, the Desana have acquired a good deal of anatomical information about the brain of both humans and animals. They make a point, for example, of the similarity between the brains of monkeys and human beings. They know from accidental head injuries among humans, and the observation of animals with head injuries, that certain kinds of brain damage will influence behavior. Their word for brain, dihpu ka'i, glosses "head-mind," and incorporates the root ka'i, "essence of awareness." The convolutions (kae) of the cortex are conceived as distinct compartments, and the brain as the sum of these compartments which also make up the mind. The metaphors they use are a crystal made up of many smaller crystals and a honeycomb containing many cells. However imagined, the different compartments are associated with the different qualities and functions of mind for which they are named (e.g., "the yellow place," "the place of rough stones," etc.) and are connected by "threads" that transmit energy from compartment to compartment. Desana shamans are very aware of the two hemispheres of the brain:

“The two hemispheres are said to be essentially [anatomically] symmetrical; in Desana, the terms "right" (diaye) and "left" (kupepe) have little or no directional importance, but imply hierarchy. Thus, what we call the left hemisphere is called "side one" and is more important than "side two," or our right hemisphere. The great fissure is seen as a deep riverbed; it is a depression that was formed in the beginning of time (of mystical and embryological time) by the cosmic anaconda. Near the head of the serpent is a hexagonal rock crystal, just outside the brain; it is there where a particle of solar energy resides and irradiates the brain. The fissure can also be seen as a stream, a current of boga, or cosmic energy. In many shamanic images human existence is compared to a river, and the great fissure is this life-giving and orienting stream... ."

The left lobe is considered superior to the right, but each operates as a mirror image of the other. Each hemisphere carries out different, but complementary functions (ibid:84). The left hemisphere is associated with solar energy, the colors, male, shamanic knowledge and techniques, divine laws, music, dreams, visions, geometric patterns, abstract thought and intuition. The right hemisphere is associated with female, subservience, putting into practice judgements made by the left hemisphere, practical affairs, customary laws and rituals, animals and plants, illness and death, biological processes, pictorial imagery, skill and know-how. The left harbors the ideal, while the right the practical and active. The left is abstract, the right existential. The left decides what must be done and the right carries it out.

Desana understanding of neurophysiology is thoroughly cosmological. The brain is a microcosm of the longhouse, the longhouse in turn is a microcosm of the environment, and the environment is a microcosm of the cosmos. The celestial sphere is likened to an enormous brain with the Milky Way equated with the great fissure and the hemispheres with various constellations. The complementarity of consciousness and the cerebral hemispheres is operating at every hierarchical level of the cosmos and is symbolized by two intertwining snakes, the one male and the other female, which lie within the central fissure of the brain (ibid:87). The interaction among the various compartments and the two hemispheres is used to account for a welter of experiences, many of them phenomenologically astute, encountered under the guidance of shamans, or during bouts of illness.

3. The Navajo. Traditional knowledge of anatomy is also reasonably complete among the Navajo people of the American southwest. There are names in Navajo for all of the major body parts, including the brain. The word for "brain" is ats'iighaa', probably a combination of the roots atsii, "hair" or "head," and ghaa', "top" or "summit." However, as with most peoples, traditional knowledge of physiology is poor, especially when it comes to the functions of the nervous system. Like the Desena, Navajo theories of consciousness are oriented toward cosmology and symbolic healing rather than physiology. Everything in the world, including the human body, has an outer and an inner form -- the inner form called nilch'i, "Wind." And all of the Winds in all the many things in the world are part of the one great Holy Wind. Thus, although the human life-force -- or nilch'i hwii'siziinii, "the Wind within one" -- is located throughout the body, and enters the body at conception and leaves the body at death, it cannot be considered as a "soul" somehow distinct from the cosmic Wind. The human life-force is considered a part of the great Holy Wind, and is never separate from it. Winds of various sorts influence one's every thought and behavior throughout life. Winds may enter or leave the body at any of the "doors" provided by the swirls on the digits, cowlicks, etc. Physical and mental diseases are diagnosed as the influence of spirits of various kinds, and healing rituals are geared to eliminate those influences and return the patient to a state of balance with the cosmos.

Thought (ntsahakees) is located in the head -- more specifically where the eyebrows come together above the bridge of the nose (the eyebrows and eyelashes are referred to as "the wings of thought") -- but one thinks from the heart, lungs and other organs. The connection of thought with the functioning of the brain is actually quite vague. It is relevant here that the Navajo do not make a clear distinction between nature and culture, between body and Wind, or between thought and action. Rather, the human is both body and Wind, and both are an inextricable part of the cosmos. Thought is a manifestation of Wind and develops through life in a series of stages. At death the pure, untainted Wind returns to the cosmos while the evil parts of the human spirit remain with the dead body as a somewhat malevolent ghost.

Our Cross-Cultural Survey

Of course it is easy to pick and choose among the 4,000+ cultures on the planet to find examples that fit the argument. But once upon a time some students* and I did a more rigorous study of mind-brain relations using a large sample of societies. I won’t bore you with the methodological niceties here – I will just run through some of our findings as they bear on our main topic.
We found overwhelming evidence that most societies do not equate the mind and body. To some extent at least, part of the mind is not associated with the body, or the mind may at times be separated from the body (as in the case of "soul loss" causing disease or death). There appears to be more of a balance in the distribution of societies that understand the mind as a unified monad, and those that understand the mind as fragmented into two or more elements, like a thinking mind and a soul.

Of the societies for which there was enough information to answer our questions, part or all of the mind is located in the head in a large percentage, while for many other societies no portion of the mind is located in the head. A large majority of societies seem to locate all or a portion of the mind in various body parts, including the head). Some societies associate all or a portion of the mind with bodily functions like the breath, sweat or saliva, while many do not. Of those 77 societies for which there were enough information, only 5.2% located the mind solely in the head, while 31.2% distributed the mind in the head and other body parts and functions, and 22.1% limited the location of the mind to the body below the head. The rest (32, or 41.5%) locate the mind in the body, but the data do not allow us to ascertain the precise location of the mind.

Another relevant question had to do with whether societies acknowledged "out of body experiences." Such experiences were considered evidence of some degree of mind-body separation while folks are alive if the mental entity that left the body possessed any of the attributes of mind. Turns out that belief in out of body experiences had in dreams, drug trips and other alternative states of consciousness is quite common cross-culturally. But it would be a bad mistake to assume that belief in out of body experiences would signal an extreme mind-body dualism, for many of these societies conceive of the mind and body as unitary, except in circumstances that separate the two – say at time of death.

The final variable examined in our survey was the presence or absence of a concept of an afterlife. Belief in an afterlife involves the immortality of one or more elements of the mind which survives after the death and dissolution of the body. A corollary question we asked was whether one or more of the surviving mental elements remains in the same environment as the living, or do they all pass on to a separate "afterworld." Of those cases where there was sufficient information on both mind-body identity and elements remaining after death in the same environment as the living, only one case was coded as having both variables present, while 21 cultures (11.3%) exhibiting mind-body dualism believe some mental element remains in the world of the living and 35 cultures (18.8%) believe the whole mental entity passes to another domain.

There were a lot of problems we faced in doing this survey, primarily because of the sptty nature of the ethnographic record, but what we did find out tends to confirm the impressions obtained from reading those few ethnographic and historical studies that have explored the relationship between consciousness and the brain more fully. It seems likely that most cultures have a concept of the brain, but many of those who do may not understand the anatomy of the brain in any detail, and probably few have any idea of the anatomy of the nervous system as a whole. Even among those societies that do have a good grasp of neuroanatomy, few, if any, have an accurate body of neurophysiology -- that is, peoples generally have at best a very inaccurate idea of how the brain works compared with modern, technologically sophisticated neuroscience.


...the essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.

Ernest Becker

In this post I have shown that the root of mind-body dualistic beliefs is to be found in everyday experience. Because we cannot perceive nerves doing their thing, we experience ourselves as a sphere of consciousness that is in a sense disconnected from our body. Our mind wills the body to move and it moves. We can see and feel our muscles and bones doing their respective thing, but not the tissues that connect our brainworld to our body. Hence the experience, constantly reinforced in daily experience, of the mind-body gap. We may be sophisticated intellectuals and know very well there are nerves connecting everything, but that knowledge does not manifest as actual sensory experience – which is primordial.

Also, we have seen that virtually all people face this experiential dilemma, regardless of the culture in which they are raised. Hence the tendency to at least partially hive consciousness off from the body is universal. People everywhere get it wrong, even when they may have a fairly precise knowledge of anatomy. And because they get it wrong in a systematic and self-reinforcing way, it means that hairless apes continue to labor under the illusion that there is a part of themselves – their spirit, their soul, their Wind, their best part, their karma, their consciousness – that somehow is able to transcend death. Thus a phenomenological error is elevated to a virtually universal existential error – that is, a self-perpetuating distortion of the reality of the human condition. This existential error is the virtually universal denial of death about which the great anthropologist, Ernest Becker wrote in his 1973 book of that title. Becker argued that hairless apes are unable to face the consequences of acknowledging their own "creatureliness." In order to escape the possibility that they inevitably die (which is an empirical fact obvious to all peoples) and that nothing of themselves survives after death (acknowledged by very few, if any cultures), they create fictions about the here-after, the after-life, happy hunting grounds, reincarnation, re-entering the Great All, or whatever. And these fictions are fundamentally supported by the everyday experience of the mind-body gap.

At the very least, this existential distortion of the human condition muddies the waters in our understanding of our Self, and The Crisis. It is one thing to figure that "Hello, I may blow it down here, but when I get to the Hereafter, everything is going to be all milk and honey," and quite another to acknowledge that I am an animal just like all the other animals on this planet, and when I die that’s the end of it for "me" just like it’s the end for my dog Toby and my friends the birds who pester me for seeds all winter. Think of all the soldiers in all the various wars (all tolled, an estimated 200 million soldiers and civilians died in 20th century wars alone!) that have died fervently believing they were headed for a better place ("no atheists in a foxhole") – into the arms of Jesus, Mohamed, Krishna, Guido, Fannie, whoever. Sorry Sergeant York, but you’re just dead, that’s all. No land of milk and honey, no honor roll in Heaven. Think too of the crazy Islamic martyrs (mimicking the crazy Christian martyrs of the various Crusades) who daily blow themselves and others up, fervently believing that Allah will honor them as soldiers of jihad, and reward them with 72 virgins in the afterlife. Sorry Ahmed, no virgins, no honor from Allah, no rewards at all. Just bloody pieces of dead people you killed in your stupid, deluded, hateful cause. And oblivion of course. Don't forget the oblivion. You bought into a really dumb ideology and now have paid the price.

And also think of all the people who work to get brownie points (merit, good karma, dispensation for sins, etc.) with the gods, ancestors, prophets, priests, archetypal heros and such. Statistically it is the case that most people on the planet buy into whatever ideology they are taught, and have little or no urge to test those beliefs in an effort after truth. We hairless apes are a clannish lot, and quite naturally separate our group ("us") from other groups ("them"). And part of the symbolic distinctions we make between "us" and "them" have to do with religious ideologies – which in turn have to do with how different peoples answer all those nagging existential, "ultimate concern" questions, foremost being questions about death and the afterlife.

As I have said, ideologies are the bane of truth. And systematic existential delusions, like the mind-body gap, serve to distort our understanding of our Selves, our human condition and our impact on the planet. Thus it is part of the root of The Crisis. It increases the likelihood that we will fail to recognize The Crisis for what it is, and fail to perceive the window of opportunity that may allow our species to participate in the grand diaspora of sentience moving outward into the cosmos. But more on this in a later post. Can one be religious (or spiritual) without being trapped by ideology? Yes. Most certainly. But only if the effort after truth is unfettered by dogma – if there are no taboo questions or ready-made answers that block questions. Remember, the pursuit of knowledge is a dialog between the efforts after truth and meaning. Nothing must stand in the way of truing-up meaning – save of course for compassion. Compassion should trump cruelty every time.

Well, we have proceeded quite far in our understanding of the various factors that contribute to producing The Crisis. We have explored the fine structures of consciousness, we have seen what truth and truing are all about, and we have shown in this post why mind-body dualism distorts our experience of reality. The next post will continue to build on this perspective and examine how technology extends and alters consciousness, transforms our encounter with reality, and both exacerbates and presents opportunities with respect to The Crisis.

* The students involved in the cross-cultural study were: Mike Brown, Glenn Edwards, Jessica Fraser, Pat Grant, Olaf Krassnitzky, Debbie Lozner, Rob MacLeod, Jo-Anne McCadden, Grant Myers, Llew Priestley, and Tom Rorke. Many thanks for your efforts guys!


Becker, Ernest, 1973. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.

Bindra, Dalbir, ed. (1980) The Brain’s Mind: A Neuroscience Perspective on the Mind-Body Problem. New York: Gardner Press.

Brown, M.F., 1985. Tsewa's Gift: Magic and Meaning in an Amazonian Society. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Crane, Tim, 2001. History of the Mind-Body Problem. New York: Routledge.

Crick, Francis, 1994. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Damasio, Antonio, 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt.

McNeley, James K., 1981. Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Onians, R.B.,1973 [1951]. The Origins of European Thought. New York: Arno Press.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, G., 1981. "Brain and Mind in Desana Shamanism." Journal of Latin American Lore 7(1):73-98.

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