It is high time that I reviewed some of the main points we have covered so far in this tutorial. I have said that virtually all of the evidence of the neurosciences comes down on the side of the view that our everyday experience is produced by structures in the nervous system. A principal function of those neural structures is to model the world in an adaptively isomorphic way. When models function -- that is, when the living cells comprising the model do their thing -- they produce an experience of the world and our self in the world. Those models do not begin in infancy as blank slates, but rather have an initial organization that is determined by the genes and that provide the "seed" (or neurognostic ) structures upon which development depends. The world of experience is "already there" for the infant, an "already thereness" that is dynamically interactive with the world. The system of models in our brain is called our cognized environment and the real world, including our own being, is called our operational environment .

The operational environment is transcendental relative to the cognized environment. Because of this transcendental disparity between reality and our experience of reality, much of what the cognized environment brings to the unfolding stream of experience is knowledge. Each moment of experience is a reconstructed concatenation (or intentional reorganization) of sensory and cognitive structures that blend their respective functions into a unitary field of dots , most of the patterns of which are rendered redundant by recognition (the symbolic function of the cognized environment ).

Entire strips of experience may be recognized as distinct and categorized as phases of consciousness . some phases are inherently neurognostic -- that is, they are part of the natural daily metabolism of the organism. The most obvious example is the sleep-wake cycle. But other phases of consciousness may be driven by such things as rituals, psychotropic drugs, ordeals, intense concentration, etc. Between phases of consciousness occur warps of consciousness that are typically short in duration, unconscious to the individual, but very efficacious in determining the properties of the subsequent phase. Thus, societies wishing to produce culturally specific phases of consciousness will condition the warp producing the phase with drivers.

Alternative phases of consciousness are usually related by way of interpretation and meaning to a society's worldview. This relationship, called the cycle of meaning , is produced by lodging experience in a negative (sometimes positive) feedback loop with the culture. From the worldview is derived a system of symbolic, ritual and other drivers that produced experiences in individuals. The experiences, or the memory of the experiences, are interpreted in terms of the worldview that initiated the drivers. Thus the experiences verify and bring to life the worldview. The worldview of traditional peoples is commonly a cosmology in which everything in experience, as well as the hidden forces behind phenomena, are related within a single theory of the world, and are understood to be systemically interrelated. The normally hidden aspects and dimensions of reality are made visible via imagination triggered by stories, alternative phases of consciousness and enactment in ritual dramas.

With this review in mind, I want to present a very powerful theory of how the body distributes its energies in such a way that different phases of consciousness make better sense. I am going to do this by referring you to a body of work that few anthropologists pay attention to.


I have always been curious why ethnologists interested in altered states of consciousness and ritual haven't twigged to the significance of Ernst Gellhorn's work on the psychophysiology of consciousness. One reason is obvious from all that I have said in this tutorial: ethnologists typically do not educate themselves in the neurosciences. But another reason perhaps is that Gellhorn concentrated mainly on emotion and only saw the significance of his theory for altered states research rather late in his career. Nonetheless, his model is sufficiently complete to be useful and some anthropologists have applied his work to good effect, especially Barbara Lex (1979; also Davidson 1976; see reference section below), as well as our own works.

Gellhorn's theory of autonomic-somatic integration (Gellhorn 1967, Gellhorn and Loofbourrow 1963) developed out of the earlier theoretical formulations of the great biologist, W.R. Hess (1925). According to Gellhorn's model, the system in our body that controls adaptation and development is actually comprised of two complementary (sometimes antagonistic) systems, each of which organizes functions located at every level of the nervous system. One system is called the ergotropic system and the other the trophotropic system.

The Ergotropic System

The ergotropic system mediates our so-called fight or flight responses; that is, the physiological components of our adaptation strategies to desirable or noxious stimuli in the environment. Anatomically, the ergotropic system incorporates the functions of the sympathetic nervous system (one half of the autonomic nervous system), certain of the endocrine glands, portions of the reticular activating system in the brain stem, the posterior hypothalamus, and portions of the limbic system and frontal cortex. The principle function of the ergotropic system is the control of short-range, moment-by-moment adaptation to events in the environment. It is designed to come into play when the possibility of responding to stimuli arises. It also shunts the body's resources away from long-range developmental activities and into carrying out action in the world directed either at acquisition or avoidance of things of interest to the organism.

Under generalized ergotropic arousal, a number of organic responses may be experienced, including shivering, constriction of the surface veins and capillaries (paleness of the skin), dilation of the pupils of the eyes, increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased muscle tone, decreased salivation ("dry mouth"), constriction of the throat, increased rate of respiration, erection of body hair ("hair standing on end"), and desynchronization of cortical EEG patterns (indicating disordered or disharmonic cortical functioning). These responses, all of which make adaptation possible in one way or another, are commonly associated in experience with positive or negative emotion. Objects or events associated with responses will typically be perceived as desirable or undesirable, attractive or repulsive, friendly or hostile, beautiful or ugly, safe or dangerous. The ergotropic system prepares the organism to obtain objects (like food, water or a mate) required for the continued survival of the organism or species, and to avoid objects (like poisons, enemies and predators) dangerous to survival. A fundamental problem in nature is how to eat without being eaten. The ergotropic system in humans is the product of millions of years of selection for responses that solve that problem.

The Trophotropic System

The trophotropic system is far less dramatic in its activities, but is nonetheless the system responsible for regulating the vegetative functions, such as repair and growth of cells, digestion, relaxation, sleep, and so on. Anatomically, the trophotropic system incorporates the functions of the parasympathetic system (the other half of the autonomic nervous system), various endocrine glands, other portions of the reticular activating system, the anterior hypothalamus, and other portions of the limbic system and frontal cortex. It is the trophotropic system that controls the somatic functions responsible for the long-term wellbeing, growth, development and longevity of the organism. This system operates to maintain the optimal internal balance of bodily functions for continued health and development of the body, and consequently of the mind.

Under the influence of the trophotropic system, a variety of physical and mental responses may be experienced, like warmth and "blushing" at the surface of the body due to release of sympathetic constriction of veins and capillaries, constriction of the pupil of the eye, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, relaxation of tension in the muscles, increased salivation, relaxation of the throat, slowing and deepening of respiration, erection of the penis and clitoris, and synchronization of cortical EEG patterns (indicating harmonized higher cortical functions). Relaxation (reduced arousal) and its concomitant are commonly associated either with disinterest in events in the environment, or with dispassionate concentration upon some object. Judgements as to desirability or undesirability of the object are suspended. The relaxed person is typically experiencing a comfortable, warm, womb-like indifference to the environment. The fundamental function of relaxation is perhaps less obvious than that of ergotropic arousal, but is nonetheless crucial to the survival of the organism. It is mainly during relaxation, and particularly during undisturbed sleep, that the body processes nutrients and uses these to repair and grow. In other words, when the body is not finding food and avoiding becoming food ( ergotropic reactivity ), it is reconstructing and developing itself ( trophotropic reactivity ).


The ergotropic and trophotropic systems have been described as "antagonistic" to each other. This means that the increased activity of the one tends to produce a decreased activity in the other. This is the case because each system is physically designed to inhibit the functioning of the other under most circumstances. If a person gets excited about something (angry, anxious, afraid, strongly desirous, etc.) the ergotropic system not only produces the requisite physiological, emotional and behavioral responses, it also puts a damper (via reciprocal inhibition) on the trophotropic system which was previously subserving digestion and other metabolic activities. Likewise, when a person relaxes (say, after a heavy meal), the trophotropic system actively dampens the activity of the ergotropic system.

The relationship between the two systems would be better described as complementary, rather than antagonistic, for each serves the short and long range wellbeing of the organism. It is really a matter of a balance of functions, the trophotropic system maintaining the homeostatic balance so necessary for health and growth while the ergotropic system facilitates the moment-to-moment adaptation of the organism to its environment. As such, they are not anatomical mirror images of each other. The "wiring" of the ergotropic system is designed to arouse the entire body for potential response to threat. Under normal conditions, when the ergotropic system is activated, the entire body/mind become aroused. Properly functioning, it is a turned on - turned off kind of system. By comparison, the trophotropic system is "wired" for the fine tuning of organs in relation to each other as the demands of internal maintenance shift and change. Its resources can be activated for one organ or body part, or it can turn on globally as during sleep when the entire skeletal musculature is "turned off".

If this complementarity sounds vaguely familiar to you, just think back to the Day One discussion of Piaget's "conservation" and "adaptation." What I am describing here is the probable mechanism for Piaget's fundamental polarity.

The point to emphasize is that whereas the trophotropic system is designed for continuous activity, the ergotropic system is designed for sporadic activity. We are "wired" for short, infrequent bursts of adaptive activity interspersed with relatively longer durations of rest, recuperation and growth. Prolonged ergotropic reactivity may cause depletion of vital resources stored up by the trophotropic system in various organs, and may cause fatigue, shock, body damage, and in extreme cases, death.


The particular balance of ergotropic and trophotropic activities under particular environmental circumstances is susceptible to learning and there is evidence that their characteristic balance under stress is established in early pre- and perinatal life. The learned (conditional) ergotropic- trophotropic balance relative to any environmental stimulus is called tuning (Gellhorn 1967: 110ff). When we say that someone "gets up-tight around authority figures," we are referring to a discrete ergotropic-trophotropic tuning relative to people perceived to be in authority. Or when we say that someone "chilled-out when he got a back-rub," we are referring to a different discrete tuning relative to being stroked.

A learned change in the characteristic ergotropic- trophotropic balance relative to a stimulus is called retuning (Gellhorn 1967). Events like football games, childbirth, rock concerts and combat patrols that previously elicited excitement (ergotropic reactivity) may after returning be met with a relatively relaxed response (trophotropic reactivity). Some researchers have argued that ritual control of ergotropic-trophotropic balance forms a basis for primitive healing techniques and for evoking alternative phases of consciousness (Gellhorn and Kiely 1972, Lex 1979, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990).

It should be obvious now that we can integrate what we have earlier learned about ritual drivers (see Tangent on drivers) with the model of ergotropic-trophotropic tuning and retuning. Discrete phases of consciousness may be brought about by retuning the balance of ergotropic and trophotropic functions in the body. And retuning may be driven . Actually, phases are driven in everyday circumstances. We see a snake and we experience fear. The image of the snake drives the autonomic, limbic and endocrine systems that mediate our sense of fear. Driving involves a series of somatic links from the systems mediating perceptual images to the many other systems in the body involved in mediating "flight" responses. Well, societies can position drivers in rituals in such a way that the balance of ergotropic and trophotropic functions may be affected. Driving is a particular case of the more general process of symbolic penetration.


In summary, what I like about Gellhorn's view is that:

It is holistic. It is easy to see that Gellhorn's theory of metabolic integration presents a holistic view of neurocognitive and somatic functioning. Metabolic activities do not occur solely from the neck down, but operate at every level of the body and the nervous system up to and including the brain and its cortex.
It avoids mind-body dualism. Thus, the theory allows us to avoid mind-body dualistic formulations that may for instance treat altered states of consciousness as though transformations of somatic systems were not entailed.
It explains the use of ritual. Moreover, the theory is a powerful explanatory device for understanding how certain, cross-culturally common ritual activities produce transformations of both body and mind by driving discrete patterns of tuning.
It is praxis oriented. The perspective is ready-made for incorporation into the more praxis oriented theories of social action, for it demonstrates how the whole body as a unified system becomes organized around action involving operations at every level of the organism, as well as behavior in, and feedback from the environment.

The trouble with Gellhorn's theory, as well as other such somatic theories of "cultural" processes, is that it is hard to operationalize in the field. It is based primarily upon experimental research that correlates measures of ergotropic- trophotropic tuning with psychological reports. Thus far the sufficiently portable equipment necessary to unobtrusively measure tuning among participants in rituals has not been developed. When we finally do have such portable machines, it will go a long way toward integrating psychophysiological and cultural variables into a single perspective. In other words, ethnographers will have even less excuses available for forgetting that the mind is a function of the body.

A list of relevant references may be found below. You can pick those up and then move on to Day Nine, or you may wish to return to the tutorial index and return at another time.


Davidson, J.M. (1976) "The Physiology of Meditation and Mystical States of Consciousness." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 19:345-379.

Gellhorn, Ernst (1967) Principles of Autonomic-Somatic Integrations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gellhorn, Ernst and W.F. Kiely (1972) "Mystical States of Consciousness: Neurophysiological and Clinical Aspects." Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases 154: 399-405.

Gellhorn, Ernst and G.N. Loofbourrow (1963) Emotions and Emotional Disorders. New York: Harper and Row.

Hess, W.R. (1925) On the Relations Between Psychic and Vegetative Functions. Zurich: Schwabe.

Kiely, W.F. (1974) "Critique of Mystical States: A Reply." The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 159(3):196-197.

Laughlin, Charles D., John McManus and Eugene G. d'Aquili (1990) Brain, Symbol and Experience. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lex, Barbara (1979) "The Neurobiology of Ritual Trance." In The Spectrum of Ritual (ed. by E.G. d'Aquili, C.D. Laughlin and J. McManus). New York: Columbia University Press.