Volume 4, Number 2 Spring, 1991
Editor : Dr. Charles Laughlin, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6, Phone (819) 459-1121, E-mail charles firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITORIAL: WE'RE IN GOOD SHAPE
The neuroanthropology network is in good shape. We have about 28 members, three of whom live in Eastern Europe and are not required to pay dues. The newsletter will continue to go to the members of WESS via e-mail free of charge. By the way, I apologize for the tardy newsletter, but I am on sabbatical leave and just got back from the field among the Navajo.
Let me take this opportunity to encourage you to write pieces for the newsletter. For example, Earl Count is doing a short piece discussing what he thinks are the likely directions that anthropology will take in the next century. I will be doing something soon on rhythmicity of neural processes. Do you have something to contribute? It doesn't have to be a polished piece. It can be a brain-teaser, a piece that shares ongoing work or thoughts. It can be a description of a conference, the abstract of a paper or book you are publishing. It can be anything you want it to be as long as it is of interest to our wee membership. The more you participate actively, the more interesting our newsletter will be. And thanks again for your support of the project.
PROFILE IN RESEARCH: CHARLES LAUGHLIN
Most of my work has revolved around a single question. The question is this: While I intuit with absolute certainty (Husserl would say with "apodicticity") that All-is-One, I routinely experience myself as separate from -- and when I was younger, alienated from -- the All. When I first became conscious (sometime in the early-1960's) of this monadic intuition, I had no language to express that insight. Then I discovered the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, and my rational mind began to catch up to that insight. Process and Reality became my bible -- still is, for that matter, especially in the corrected edition (New York: The Free Press, 1978).
Whitehead gave me the language to talk about the All-as-One and my position within, and as a part of it (an undergraduate paper I wrote on Whitehead got published; see J. of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 9(3): 251-257), but he couldn't explain to me why I continued to experience myself as alienated from the All. However, with the aid of judicious doses of LSD-25, I came to realize that one could bring experience into harmony with the unitive intuition. I learned that my state of mind had a lot to do with my inability to experience connection with the world.
I was a philosophy major then (what else!). But those were the days of avid Kantian transcendentalism, and when I got a B- for doing a paper on Gandhi's philosophy of satyagraha , I became disenchanted with academic philosophy. Then one day a poet friend of mine named Julia Kookin gave me Colin Turnbull's Forest People to read. The book changed my life. A popular and well written account of the author's sojourn among the Mbuti Pygmies of the (then) Belgian Congo, it was for me proof-positive that there are human beings on the planet that routinely experience non-alienated mindstates. Here was genuine UNALIENATED MAN! I changed major and completed a B.A. in anthropology (1966) in just over a year.
It was about this time that I figured out that my mindstates were how my brain experiences itself and its environment. I also became aware that people are walking around unaware that they are mainly nervous systems. It was such a curious form of self-ignorance! It still intrigues me today. People have no trouble with the notion that they digest hamburgers with their stomachs, or that they pump blood with their hearts, but they cannot get their minds around the idea that they think, feel, dream, imagine, experience, intend, act, etc., with their nervous systems. Rather, they do all this with their "mind" which is somehow distinct from (apart from, separate from) their bodies. I sensed there was a mind-body schism working here. Eureka! I began to understand how I, myself, had come to experience myself as alienated from the world. The problem became for me then a developmental neurological one and seems to begin with early conditioning -- the early pre- and perinatal alienation of the mind from the body -- an easy matter to accomplish given our (Euroamerican) obstetrical and parenting cultural patterns.
I got sidetracked doing a Ph.D. at the University of Oregon (1972), and by the time I was ready to go into the field, the political climate in Zaire was such that doing work with the Pygmies was out of the question. Colin Turnbull (with whom I had corresponded since reading his book) suggested a number of possibilities and I chose to do ethnographic fieldwork among the So of northeastern Uganda ( An Ethnography of the So of Northeastern Uganda , New Haven, CT: HRAF Press, 1979).
The brain was never far from my mind, however (ho, ho!) -- even in the midst of doing ethnography -- for the African experience eventually led to collaboration with Ivan Brady on our edited volume, Extinction and Survival in Human Populations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978) which presents a biogenetic structural account of human cultural and psychological responses to resource deprivation -- an interest that continues with my collaboration with Andre Lepage, a Quebec anthropologist (see article below).
I met Gene d'Aquili at a conference in 1972. Gene is a neurologically-trained psychiatrist/anthropologist and we immediately realized we had common interests in the relationship between brain and culture. We collaborated in writing our first book, Biogenetic Structuralism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974). Because the issues we were raising were new to anthropology, we only became aware of the work of the American neuroanthropologist, Earl Count, and the Swiss genetic epistemologist, Jean Piaget, as our book was going to press.
Biogenetic structuralism takes the view that the structures producing universal patterns in culture -- i.e., universal patterns in socially conditioned beliefs, behaviors, techniques, images, thoughts, feelings, experiences, etc. -- are in fact neurophysiological organizations (or "entrainments") that develop during the course of an individual's life, and that have their developmental origin in initial, genetically predisposed "neurognostic models" (or simply "neurognosis"). It is neurognosis that accounts for the regularities in language, dreaming, imagination, intuition, feeling, etc., found cross-culturally and that are ubiquitous to the human species.
After meeting d'Aquili and working on BS together, I realized I needed to re-train myself in the neurosciences, so I applied for a postdoc and became a fellow of the Institute of Neurological Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania under Drs. Richard Sprague and William Chambers. It was in Philadelphia (d'Aquili's home town) that I met John McManus. McManus, trained as a social psychologist at Syracuse, was an expert on Piaget and his critique of biogenetic structuralism quickly forced d'Aquili and I to become more developmental in our view of how the brain works. In addition, studying the writings of Earl Count influenced our understanding of evolutionary processes toward a consideration of what Count calls the "biogram" [see NNN 3(1) and 3(2)].
Biogenetic structural theory has been very much a group endeavour (thanks to Ivan Brady, John Cove, Gene d'Aquili, Andre Lepage, John McManus, Sheila Richardson, and Robert Rubinstein, and has continued to develop over the last couple of decades. We decided early-on that we needed to do a major study of a "universal" cultural institution as a practical example of how biogenetic structuralism could be done. In 1975, the year after the publication of BS , Gene and I teamed up with John McManus and several other specialists in various fields to produce a book-length application of the approach to the evolution of, and neurocognitive structures producing ceremonial ritual ( The Spectrum of Ritual , New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).
As it turned out, the application of biogenetic structuralism to ritual led us to better understand science itself and its profound limitations relative to the study of consciousness. John McManus and I joined forces with Bob Rubinstein to write Science As Cognitive Process (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), a book that explores the neurocognitive foundations of science.
Biogenetic structuralism has become steadily more phenomenological, especially relative to the study of religion, and led eventually to our most ambitious project to-date, Brain, Symbol and Experience (Boston: Shambhala New Science Library, 1990). In this work, John, Gene and I examined the relations between the brain, the inherent symbolic function, and the phenomenology of experience in the study of consciousness. We advocated combining anthropology, the neurosciences and contemplation as the most productive way to explore and model consciousness. During the late-1970's and early 1980's I got involved in researching systems of meditation, particularly those practised by Tibetan Buddhists. I became a monk (or lama ) for seven years and spent a lot of time in Tibetan and other Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, India and elsewhere learning to meditate.
My current projects involve editing the Pre- and Peri-Natal Psychology Journal , the scientific organ of the Pre- and Peri-Natal Psychology Association of North America, and, of course, this newsletter. I have been particularly concerned with mapping the relevance of early fetal and infant brain development for a more realistic anthropological theory of enculturation (see articles in Anthropologica 31:135-178, 1989, and in Human Nature , in press).
I have shifted my ethnographic interest from Tibetan Buddhism to Navajo philosophy and have recently spent a couple of months living with Navajo friends on their reservation in New Mexico. I am particularly interested in getting at the experiences behind their concept of hozho , usually translated as "beauty," but actually nearly impossible to translate succinctly.
I continue my interest in the total range of human experience, including transpersonal experiences such as had during lucid dreaming, meditation, drug trips, etc., as evidence of the full range of entrainments of which the human brain is capable ( Western Canadian Anthropologist 5:29-60, 1988). I've recently completed a book entitled The Mirror of the Brain: A Neurophenomenology of Contemplation which I am trying to publish. This work is in some respects a sequel to Brain, Symbol and Experience in that it explores the relevance of mature contemplation for science.
I have also renewed my interest (begun with McManus) in modelling the role of play in neurocognitive development ( Play and Culture 3(3):173-192, 1990). And I am in the process of writing a monograph for the Institute of Noetic Sciences on causality and meaning. In that piece I am trying to explain why science is so good at producing causal explanations, but is lousy at producing meaningful experience for the people science affects.
NATIVE BRAINS AT RISK
From August, 1990, Andre Lepage , an anthropologist acting as a private consultant (Castonguay, Dandenault et Ass.) has directed a collaborative research study on the sociocultural aspects of the mercury problem in the James Bay area of Northeast Quebec in Canada. The study is the third part of an integrated Mercury Research Program. The first part, now nearly completed, dealt with patterns of bioaccumulation of methylmercury in fish populations of the area, triggered by the inundation of reservoirs designed to fuel hydro-electric power.
The second part of the study is an annual epidemiological survey of current levels of mercury among the native Cree population, as assessed by the analysis of hair samples. That survey has been narrowed to two categories of people "at risk," trappers and their families, and young, potentially childbearing women (19-39 years) whose fetuses are primarily at risk. The survey is a tool for monitoring mercury levels and for identifying individuals for further nutritional counselling or neurological examination.
As a neurotoxic compound, methylmercury can produce a variety of dose-dependent symptoms whose full range has been recognized in relation to major epidemics in Japan and Iraq. These symptoms include, in order of appearance and decreasing generality: constriction of visual field, sensory disturbance, ataxia, impairment of speech, of hearing, of gait, tremor, etc. (Tsubaki and Irukayama, Eds., Minamata Disease , New York: Elsivier, 1977; Chang in Spencer and Schaumburg, Eds., Experimental and Clinical Neurotoxicology , London: Williams and Wilkins, 1980). Most are non-specific as these are produced also by alcoholism, aging, etc., and the whole syndrome becomes distinctive only at higher levels of intoxication. Given the low levels in the Cree population, clinical studies (McKeom-Eyso et al. , Am. J. Epid. 118(4), 1983, and Clin. Invest. Med. 6(3), 1983) have been inconclusive and are likely to remain so.
From a cultural point of view, methylmercury can best be qualified as an invisible environmental threat (Brown, Environmental Threats , New York: Belhaven, 1989), brought by a foreign agency, which however can be controlled by proper restriction of fish consumption. Mercury contamination threatens both health and subsistence fishing pursuits, a major component of the Cree trapper's economy. It is called by the Cree people neemasakusoon , "fish disease." Fish has long been held as an appropriate food for pregnant and postpartum women, and for children after weaning, and used as a means to restore health. It is a potent cultural symbol as is mercury, which evokes a wide range of negative powers that have been brought by hydro-electric plants (Weinstein and Penn, Mercury and the Chisasibi Fishery , Cree Regional Authority, 1987). Preliminary work has been completed and a large scale survey of knowledge and beliefs about fish and mercury and of associated behaviors is under way during summer, 1991.
Current knowledge indicates that risks for human health are now quite low. That reflects the ceiling of fish contamination, the efficiency of the monitoring system, as well as changes in consumption patterns among the younger generations. The custodianship of Cree Health Counsel since 1986 has gone a long way towards bringing trust to scientific information circulated and restoring a sense of mastery of the environment. Over-sensitivity to environmental clues and disorientation of behavior, characteristic of the first period of encounter with the problem (a highly media-driven, "reptilian news" phase, which had a devastating, if temporary effect on the local economy), are now over. But with the prospect of new dams being built, mercury is becoming once again a hot political issue.
A synthesis of fish biological research conducted under the Mercury Research Program is available in English: Brouard et al., Evolution of Mercury Levels in the Fishes of the Hydro-Electric Complex of La Grande, Quebec (1978-89) , 1990, as is an excellent one hour video: Symbol of Life . Please write to Dr. Marcel Laperle, Vice-presidence Environment Hydro-Quebec, 1010 St. Catherine Est, Montreal, PQ H2L 2G3, Canada (free of charge). Epidemiological studies by Dumont et al. can be obtained from Dr. Charles Dumont, DSC, Montreal General Hospital, 980 Guy Street, Montreal, PQ, Canada.
For further information on this research, write Andre Lepage, 431 Richelieu, Apt. 2, Quebec, PQ G1R 1K2, Canada (Ph: 418-647-0382).
Psycholoquy is a peer-reviewed electronic journal that provides a Brain and Behavior Sciences -style open peer commentary at a much faster pace than is possible by paper publication. The journal is sponsored by the American Psychological Association and has been selected as one of the best new magazines of 1990. The journal invites nominations for the Editorial Board, which will cover the same specialties as BBS . Articles will be short, refereeing will be rapid, and the Editorial Board will be large, so no one will be overburdened and the turnaround can be rapid. BBS Associates may nominate themselves, specifying their areas of expertise. Subscription to Psycholoquy is free, but you must have an electronic mail (e-mail) address. To subscribe, send the following one-line message to email@example.com: sub psyc Lastname Firstname (substituting your last name and first name). After signing on, post your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fox, Robin (1990) The Violent Imagination , New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. [we are a species stuck with an upper Paleolithic consciousness; poetry, essays, etc.]
Loye, David (1991) The Sphinx and the Rainbow: Brain, Mind and Future Vision . Boston: Shambhala.
Time-Life Staff (1990) The Brain . Time-Life Books.
Dobbing, J. ed. (1990) Brain, Behavior and Iron in the Infant Diet . Springer-Verlag.
Van Gelder, Nico M. et al. eds. (1990) Malnutrition and the Infant Brain . New York: Wiley.
Pribram, Karl H. (1991) Brain and Perception: Holonomy and Structure in Figural Processing . Erlbaum.