Biogenetic structuralism

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Biogenetic structuralism is a body of theory in anthropology. The perspective grounds discussions of learning, culture, personality and social action in neuroscience. 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 and culture, 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 the authors preposterous that the invariant patterns of behavior, cognition and culture being discussed in various structuralist theories in anthropology, psychology and literary criticism 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 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. In other words, no explanatory account of culture is complete without encompassing what we know about the structures in the nervous system mediating culture—for example, music, which is a cultural universal mediated by demonstrable neurophysiological structures (see Biomusicology).

This project had to be lodged within an evolutionary frame due to: (1) 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 (see Evolutionary neuroscience). Biogenetic structuralism explores 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 (see Human Evolution).

Neurognosis and the cognized environment[edit]

The group's first book presented some general concepts which were later refined and used in other studies. One important concept was neurognosis, a term coined to label the inherent, rudimentary knowledge available to cognition in the initial organization of the pre- and perinatal nervous system (see Pre- and perinatal psychology). 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. This network of neural models in each individual is called the cognized environment, contrasted 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). The notions of cognized and operational environments were borrowed by the biogenetic structuralist group from Roy Rappaport who coined the terms in his 1968 classic, Pigs for the Ancestors (see Rappaport 1968, 1979, 1984, 1999). The perspective began to take on a more developmental perspective as it incorporated the works of Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget and others. Biogenetic structural theory now holds that not only the initial organization of the baby's cognized environment is essentially neurognostic, but so too is the course of development of those models and patterns of entrainment of models—a view not dissimilar to Carl Jung's notion of archetype (see Laughlin 1996 on archetypes and the brain).

Ritual and symbolic function[edit]

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) the group 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. The general model was used to examine formalized behavior among animals generally, then specifically among mammals, primates and finally humans. They also 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 the group's work (see also d'Aquili 1983, d'Aquili and Laughlin 1975, Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin 1988c) because of ritual's ubiquitous nature and its role in controlling cognition and experience.

Another major focus of biogenetic structural analysis has been what the group calls the symbolic function—that is, the process by which meaning and form are integrated to become symbols in the brain (see Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Laughlin and Stephens 1980, MacDonald et al. 1988, Young- Laughlin and Laughlin 1988). The group has been particularly interested in how sensory stimuli as symbols are able to penetrate (i.e., find their way) to those neurocognitive models mediating meaning and signification, and how models express themselves in symbolic action and cultural artifacts. Among other things, the biogenetic structuralists 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).

Recent trends in biogenetic structural theory[edit]

There have been several recent trends in biogenetic structuralism that are of interest to anthropology:

Transpersonal experience[edit]

One trend is toward a greater attention to transpersonal experience (see also transpersonal and transpersonal anthropology) as data relevant to the study of ritual; that is, to extraordinary experiences and states of consciousness, and the relation of these to 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). Taking their inspiration from William James, the group has tracked the greatest range of human experience and related this to transformations in neurocognitive, autonomic and neuroendocrine entrainments. By expanding their scope to include all possible human experience, they hope to understand:

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

Pre- and perinatal anthropology[edit]

Another trend in biogenetic structural theory has been to extend the age at which society influences neurocognitive development back into very early life. 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. The methodological import of this view is that anthropologists and others interested in the ontogenesis of cognitive systems and cultural patterns need to look more carefully at how society conditions the environment of the human being during that early formative 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 often considered to be antithetical to the anti-introspectionist bias of positivist science, and particularly to some schools of cognitive science (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). Phenomenology (à la Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Aron Gurwitsch, and others, as well as eastern mystical and cross-cultural shamanistic traditions) is the study of the invariant processes of consciousness (i.e., essences) by the practice of 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 group exemplify this merging of contemplative and neuroscientific perspectives. One study discusses the wired-in intentionality of consciousness (noted in fact by all phenomenologies) in terms of a systemic dialectic between prefrontal cortex and sensory 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).

Contributions to cyborg anthropology[edit]

Since biogenetic structural theorists have rejected conceptions of consciousness as a disembodied occurrence, they consider the brain central to any investigation of symbolic culture. Using information from developmental and evolutionary sciences, such theorists study the relations between information processing technologies (e.g., computers) and cognition, especially the use of machines for the propagation of direct brain-computer interfaces. Their considerations relate to areas of study in both cyborg anthropology and cyberculture, which ultimately derive from the writings of NASA scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline (1960), whose studies have suggested that advantages might be gained in space exploration if human bodies were altered using available technologies. "Cyborg" is a shortened version of their phrase"cybernetic organism," which refers to a being that is partly a biologically reproduced individual and partly a technological machine (see Gray 1995).

Biogenetic structuralists have grounded their cyborg research in modern neuroscience, which itself requires the assumption that all human consciousness and all its immense varieties of symbolic culture are themselves functions of one biological capacity, the human nervous system. This conception dovetails brain functions with other systems of the human body: symbolic culture and consciousness are functions of the nervous system, just as digestion relies upon the stomach, or grasping is a function of the hand, etc. This line of reasoning and research has begotten accounts for cyborg evolution that trace the interface between the human body and technology over time, beginning with biological peripheries and moving toward the nervous system's core. Replacement and supplementation begins with skeletal structures (prosthesis, orthotics, dentures, etc.), followed by muscular alterations (mechanical prosthesis, thoracic valves, stents), and then by changes in the nervous system's peripheral, autonomic, and endocrine functions (bionic appendages, pacemakers, automatic biochemical pumps, etc.) The final projected stage, which has not get been attained, involves tinkering with the central nervous system itself and its rudimentary processes, e.g. sight, which fully automated would require production of a "mechanical eye" or a fiber optic nerve.

This model emphasizes that cyborg evolution, conceived as a process, involves progressive penetration of mechanical inventions into the human body, which in turn is altered, since biological structures that mediate human realities are replaced in favor of mechanics and computing-based supplementations and replacements. It follows that cognitive attributes, which have heretofore relied upon non-technological properties, will evolve, along with emotion, modes of sensation, imaginative speculation, rational thought, and the organization of intentional acts, to name a few. According to thoughts of Laughlin et al., technology's progressive penetration into the cortex of the brain will inevitably result in the technical alteration of human consciousness on the whole (1997), including its functional optimality and its development during childhood (Laughlin 2000).

Quantum brain[edit]

Biogenetic structural theory was expanded in the 1990s in order to account for how the human brain and mind may interact directly with the quantum universe. This step was an attempt to resolve anomalous evidence developed by a few scientists in quantum physics, parapsychology and the ethnology of altered states of consciousness—evidence that is claimed to mean that human consciousness is capable of producing causation at a distance and communication through telepathic means (see e.g., Radin 1997). One proposal to answer to these anomalous experiences is that the human brain may operate somewhat as a quantum computer and is able to translate patterned activity in the quantum universe into information, and conversely to transform information into patterned activity in the quantum universe (see Laughlin 1996, Throop and Laughlin 2001). However, there have been no convincing hypotheses on the physics of how quantum states might be sustained, and decoherence avoided, in the "messy", high-temperature environment of the brain. (See Max Tegmark's, paper in Physical Review E,[1])

Cultural neurophenomenology[edit]

The group's most recent work has focused upon developing a cultural neurophenomenology (see Laughlin & Throop 2001, 2006, 2007, Throop & Laughlin 2002, 2003). Cultural neurophenomenology is the view that the most productive research strategy for discovering the invariant properties of consciousness is trained introspection. After all, they argue, our own experience and awareness are the only ones we have direct access to. Anti-introspectionist positions in science are claimed by its adherents to be primarily due to pre-scientific cultural hangovers from Church rulings against direct spiritual exploration—stemming historically from the so-called gnostic heresy. They consider behaviorist reaction to Wilhelm Wundt's introspectionism in psychology to be merely a legitimation of these cultural attitudes.

Edmund Husserl taught a different approach to the study of consciousness. He argued that in order to differentiate in experience between what is given by the world and what is added by our own minds in the constitution of experience, we must cultivate a trained introspection. When we do so (in Husserl's terms, when we master the "phenomenological reduction") we discover there are invariant properties of mind that condition and order our experience. For instance, we generate a sense of time by retaining recently past experience ("retention") and anticipating the near future ("protention") and combining these with the actual, on-going "now point" arising and passing in our sensorium. Once we come to understand that this is how our mind works, the question then naturally arises, what is "real" time in the sense of time existing in extramental reality, independent of our experience and our knowledge? Also, how does the structure of our nervous system mediate this time sense, and how does culture impact upon our interpretations of temporality?

The group is now examining a variety of issues regarding experience. Thus far they have utilized this framework to explore the cross-cultural and neuropsychological factors in the experience of emotion, including the emotional aspects of higher states of consciousness, the role of myth and cosmology in "trueing-up" the relationship between experience and reality, the importance of altered states of consciousness in bolstering the veridicality of experience, the interpenetration of experience and extramental reality, and a modern re-interpretation of Émile Durkheim's "collective effervescence."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tegmark, M. (2000). "Importance of quantum decoherence in brain processes". Phys. Rev. E 61 (4): 4194–4206. arXiv:quant-ph/9907009. Bibcode:2000PhRvE..61.4194T. doi:10.1103/PhysRevE.61.4194 


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