Brain, Symbol & Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness // Review

By Laughlin, Charles D.; McManus, John et al. | Anthropologica, January 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Brain, Symbol & Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness // Review


Laughlin, Charles D., McManus, John, D'Aquili, Eugene G., Anthropologica


Laughlin et al. show that ongoing experience is mediated by the brain and that competing neural networks are constantly entrained and re-entrained, thereby providing inexact models of ourselves and the world. Phases of "neural entrainments...punctuated by...rapid periods of reentrainments...organized about some object" are the structure of consciousness (neurological factors), while behavioural expressions of consciousness involve manipulation of symbols because society must assure that "proper associations are entrained" (cultural factors). Experiences of consciousness consist of sensations that penetrate neural entrainments thereby reaching consciousness (internal factors, such as altered states and dreams). Rituals and cosmology are "penetration devices" that "stimulate...a...theatre of mind" and provide meaning for individuals (p. 335). Our being, therefore, is "a community of cells" (pp. 34, 334) and we are "symbols to each other" (p. 232).

This brief summary does not do justice to complex ideas. Laudable is the holistic approach the authors advocate and try to achieve. Nevertheless, women's work, experiences, symbols and bodies are consistently ignored and, when gender is discussed, it is from a male perspective. For example, the authors claim that there was no field work before Malinowski (p. 23), but Alice Fletcher and Harriet Martineau were early ethnographers urging field work (S. Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research [Oxford University Press, 1992], pp. 49-50). Patriarchal systems, ideologies and male practitioners are used to illustrate arguments. For instance, male shamans during their magical flight are said to experience a female "psychopomp" (p. 273), but female shamanistic knowledge is left unexplored. Cross-cultural examples mention only one female yogi (p. 311) and the only Western female considered subscribed to a patriarchal framework (p. 307). Discussion of Tibetan Buddhism is also strictly from a male perspective since Tibetan women's views of their wombs, energies and consciousness are not contemplated (pp. 206-210, 351). Male bias is also expressed in interpretations of Tibetan Buddhist art in that the woman is viewed as having intuitive knowledge, as dangerous, as having raw energy and as vulnerable and submissive, while the man is portrayed as having conceptual knowledge, as grounded, non-attached and dependent on her energy (pp. 208, 209). She is said to come from nothingness, to give men energy and to return to nothingness (p. 351). All cosmologies are seen by the authors as somatocentric (p. 225) and through relationships within the body the entire cosmos is supposed to be known (p. 226). If metaphors are based on male bodies only, then the nature of the entire cosmos is now known. Claims to universality are on shaky grounds when women's experiences are ignored, while male knowledge is used to buttress arguments and gender-inappropriate language is employed throughout (pp. 226-341). Although the authors strongly criticize positivism (pp. 338-346) and call for a holistic and experiential science, feminist scholarship that criticizes positivism and supports experiential science is nowhere acknowledged.

While Laughlin et al. attend to culture neurologically, some authors in Schwartz et al. approach the brain culturally. White explores ethnopsychology while D'Andrade, Keller and Holland discuss simplified knowledge structures (schemata) that, according to D'Andrade, provide direct access to psychological processes. As he calls for descriptions of "a people" (p. 56), it seems that schema theory is again an attempt to reduce human complexities to one denominator while re-labelling national character studies. Keller also appears to favour simpler levels, while Holland illustrates that schema theory cannot deal with multiple interpretations, negotiation, conflict, power and cognitive self-censorship. …

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