Thursday, January 17, 2013

#146. The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual

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This post, #146, is a recent (January, 2013) attempt on my part to provide a summary of Chapter 5 of the Biogenetic Structuralist 1979 text, The Spectrum of Ritual, A Biogenetic Structural Analysis (Columbia University Press). The principal authors are Eugene d'Aquili, Charles Laughlin and John McManus.


The main point of this highly significance chapter is the presentation of an understanding of how and why myth and ritual go together. It makes good sense, but it's complicated: there are many aspects that need to be considered.

Earlier chapters describe forms of animal ritual seen among canines, cats, monkeys and chimps. While human ritual shares much in common with the ritual of animals, what distinguishes human ritual is myth. There's no religious or cultic ritual that is not set in a mythic context.

From a neurobiological point of view, the myth-connected ("cognitive matrix") aspects of ritual are thought to have originally evolved separately, and only later did they become linked up with ritual behavior.


A basic note about animal ritual: All animal behavior has evolved for adaptive/survival advantages. One of animal ritual's primary functions is to overcome the normal adaptive separation ("distancing") usually found in all animal species; its purpose is to promote needed cooperative-communal activity. Mating is the most obvious example.

In general, "intra"-group distancing and aggression needs to be overcome and would often, although not necessarily, involve "inter"-group uniting against others-- for, for example, access to, and the exclusion of others from, the limited resources of a specific environmental niche.

All animal and human ritual works to overcome "intra" distancing and aggression; it does it by influencing the brain structures of those involved-- via rhythmic repetitions.


A basic note about myth: Humans, no less than other animals, are at the mercy of the forces of nature; but we also have a drive to make sense of the world; the biogenetic structuralists call this drive a "cognitive imperative." We need to understand reality.

"Myth," meaning explanatory stories in the broadest sense, arises from this need to make meaningful sense of all that threatens and which we would like to control. Via elaborate stories, the cosmic powers and forces of nature are usually expressed in the form of personal agents-- the "spirits" of Paleolithic traditions, the "gods" of many religious traditions, the "angels" of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

The cosmic energies are always expressed in terms of pairs of complimentary (not mutually exclusive) opposites or polarities. Here, too, mating is a fundamental image: "resolution" of the tension of the opposites via their union.


An interesting side note about cultural myths: For any given myth, the basic structure remains constant over time, although the details of the myth continually grow-- until they are exhausted. [Looks like we are at a time when many traditional religious myth-stories have become exhausted, something which Jung was saying around a century ago!]


An important note about the polarity issues expressed via myth: The tensions of the opposites only get resolved via existential (i.e., personal) experience of that resolution-- which is what happens in ritual.

(The ultimate pair of opposite polarities is each vulnerable human being on one side and the ultimate cosmic force/power/dynamis on the other. The ultimate resolution is their coming together. [In perhaps more familiar terms, Bulgakov's human-divine sophia and Panikkar's cosmo-the-andric unity.])


About myth: A major question from a neurobiological perspective is how myth arises from (or in) the central nervous system. Myth involves concepts, causes and polarities (i.e., named categories of objects, sequential linkages, and opposite di-poles).

All of these aspects of consciousness come from the same area of the brain called the "parietal lobe" or "inferior parietal lobe." It is "an association area of association areas," made of the overlap of those three areas which involve sensitivity to body, sight and sound. (Evidence for this is that injuries to the parietal lobe prevent a person from comparing things-- such as "smaller than", "larger than," "better than"-- or naming the opposites of things.)

The early evolution of this area of the brain-- of conceptualization, sequential thinking, language and opposites-- can be "traced" (i.e., described); these authors did this in their earlier book, Biogenetic Structuralism. The development of the parietal area in mammals and primates is what led to the coming of "man the culture bearer."

It is the last area to myelinate [mature in some sense] in humans, and its maturing corresponds to some extent to the development of Piaget's "formal operations"-- the 7-year old's ability to reason logically and the adolescent's ability to think about thinking.

The very earliest humans, Australopithecus, had a larger parietal lobe area than did the earlier primates, and so despite having a fairly small brain that were probably capable of abstract thought, causal and opposites thinking-- the minimum needed not just for ritual but for culture.

Because they lacked developed speech, however, they probably didn't have too much by way of myth or ritual.

But homo erectus did. And those humans were strongly lead by the "cognitive imperative"-- the universal adaptive drive [the drive to understand for sake of survival]-- to observe and try to control the forces of nature. Humans universally ask about an unknown stimulus, "What is it?" Emotional-affective responses are secondary.

But if the parietal area is chemically inhibited from functioning, the result is guilt, feelings of unworthiness, worry about the future, sense of loss of mastery over the environment, and thus depression. When that area's functioning is chemically enhanced, the result is euphoria.

And so we today cannot do otherwise than try to understand the world around us. And if we lack an explanation, we make up one. This is where science differs from myth.

Science accepts as valid only those explanations which are derived or inferred from observed data, but mythological (story) explanations don't. Whenever real understanding is lacking, our minds automatically make up explanations; they spontaneously personify the powers of nature.


About ritual in contrast to myth: Humans can't resist acting-- "doing something"-- about every problem. "Ritual" is the name we give to the "motorized conceptualization" of myth.

But ritual by itself doesn't solve the problems expressed by the myths.

Myths are the stories made up to explain problems caused by opposites (basically, the polarities of life and death) and ritual is action stimulated by the problems.The actual (if temporary) resolution of the tension of the opposites results from ritual's impact on the emotions of participants.

When ritual works, it results in a "beyond-words" (i.e., ineffable) affective experience of unity to the group and its individuals. Ritual has been doing this for many thousands of years, but a scientific understanding of it in terms of activities of brain structures dates only to the late 1960s and the early 1970s, when the so-called "non-dominant" side of the brain began to be considered of importance.

Because the dominant side of the brain is known to be where language, logic and abstract thought takes place, prior to that time the non-dominant side had almost been considered a vestigial organ. [This is yet another example of the focus on Sensing and Thinking (matter & time) in patriarchal culture; and the long-term result of (in the perspectives of Henri Corbin) the "loss of angels" that took place in 13th c with the affirmation of Averroes over Ibn Sinna.]

Today (say the authors, writing in the late 1970s), we know that that the non-dominant side is also important. It has to do with visual-spatial relationships, perceives wholistically, and is responsible for creativity. [In the quaternary language used in many posts in this blog, vision and spatial relations are (Jung's) Intuition and Feeling, energy & space (in science's basics of matter, time, space and energy), and Black Bear of the west & Green Mouse of the south on the Medicine Wheel. Additional names for wholistic perception and creativity (besides Jungian Intuition) are Steven Gallegos' Imagery and H. Corbin's Imaginality].

Wholistic perception is especially important for this discussion of the neurobiology of myth and ritual. The two sides of the brain are understood to operate alternatively, flashing on and off repeatedly. The authors note that variations are what account for personality styles-- from extremely analytic to extremely synthetic , "scientific" to "artistic" [i.e., from Sensing-Thinking to Intuitive-Feeling].

The two systems are either energy-expending or energy-conserving, called "ergo-trophic" and "tropho-trophic." The combination of these complimentary opposite systems, when operative simultaneously (referred to as their "tuning"), results in unitive experience.

To greatly oversimplify: When both systems (sides of the brain) operate at max at the same time (due to ritual rhythms, meditation, etc.), the result is those experiences traditionally described as the oceanic feeling, the conjunction of opposites, the marriage of heaven and earth, and mystical (meaning "beyond words" and "difficult to talk about") experience.

It's the maximum functioning of both the Intuitive-Feeling side of the brain and the Sensing-Thinking side together. (And so is, indeed, "difficult to talk about"!)


The long term practice of meditation results in similar experiences; a very interesting distinction is made between the similar experiences which result from meditation in contrast to those from ritual: The meditation-sourced experience persists much longer while the ritual-based experience is more fleeting (but may be repeatedly experienced in a short amount of time).

Also especially significant is the fact that ritual works more easily for people in general than does meditation experience-- which may take years of highly disciplined practice.

In either case, however, the result is not only a sense of union of opposites but also of harmony with the universe and a lack of fear of death. And, the authors observe, it is no wonder that ritual is such a universally pervasive human activity. No culture lacks it.

[From a very basic religious-spiritual perspective, this sense of union of opposites, harmony with the universe and a lack of fear of death resulting from meditation and ritual is the source of that basic trust in reality which is the original meaning of "faith"-- before it came to mean intellectual assent to conceptual statements.]


The authors' sum:
         1) We humans need explanations of our problems and so construct them ("myths").
         2) We, like all animals, attempt to solve our problems-- to master the environment-- by motor actions (including ritual).
         3) Ritual works as one of the few mechanisms that can solve the ultimate polarity problems.
         4) Ritual takes different forms in different contexts, but is so important to society's well-being that it is unlikely ever to lapse into oblivion.

The authors also add a fifth point: that ritual also helps to 'structure' (produce) ordered authority and things like the distribution of necessities in times of scarcity. These sociological 'uses' of ritual are discussed in four later chapters.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great summary, i'm trying to find this article in university libraries in finland, but didn´t remember the books name. So i happened to find your blog. Thank you :)