The Cultural Shaping of Consciousness
Organized by Martin Fortier
23rd Annual Meeting of the
Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC)
Western Ontario University, London Ontario, Canada
Presentation of the symposium
As yet, the scientific study of consciousness has not paid much attention to cultural variables and the field remains largely centered on the study of Westerners. This disregard for culture is unfortunate given that several lines of evidence demonstrate that culture does shape consciousness. E.g., it has been shown that the susceptibility to visual illusions varies across cultures, that sensory integration (the McGurk effect) is affected by culture, that culture interferes in binocular rivalry, etc. Moreover, anthropologists have noticed that some cultures explore a larger repertoire of conscious states than others through the cultivation of unique techniques (hallucinogens, fasting, sleep deprivation, etc.). While “monophasic cultures” are reluctant to induce contents and modes of consciousness that go beyond those experienced ordinarily, “polyphasic cultures” are eager to explore a stupendous diversity of conscious states.
The enculturation of consciousness can take place in three ways:
(1) Ordinary conscious processes can be encultured by ordinary practices. This type of shaping does not result in dramatic transformations, but in moderate contentual changes (as illustrated by visual illusions).
(2) Some cultures use non-ordinary techniques for altering consciousness. In this case the enculturation of consciousness coincides with dramatic changes in the contents and modes of consciousness (as illustrated by hallucinogenic experiences).
(3) Techniques for altering consciousness can themselves be penetrated by ordinary culture. Every type of altered consciousness (e.g., trance) displays some culture-independent features but also some culture-dependent ones.
Each talk of the symposium will discuss one type of enculturation of consciousness. Immordino-Yang will examine with neuroimaging techniques how ordinary emotions are affected by everyday cultural practices. Lifshitz will present phenomenological, psychological and neuroscientific evidence about a non-pharmacological technique – “tulpamancy” – used to induce hallucinations. Finally, Seligman will combine anthropological and neurobiological data to demonstrate how techniques for altering consciousness (specifically, possession trance) can be penetrated by culture.
“The cultural shaping of consciousness: A general introduction”
Martin E. Fortier
(Institut Jean Nicod, EHESS/ENS/PSL University)
This introductory talk presents the main theoretical motivations and lines of evidence calling for a “cultural turn” in the field of consciousness studies. I first make some conceptual clarifications by identifying three ways in which consciousness can be said to be encultured:
(1) Ordinary conscious processes can be affected by ordinary cultural practices. This type of shaping does not result in dramatic changes, but in moderate contentual changes of consciousness.
(2) Some cultures have developed non-ordinary techniques for switching modes consciousness (hallucinogens, fasting, sleep deprivation, etc.). In this case the enculturation of consciousness coincides with dramatic changes in the contents and modes of consciousness.
(3) Non-ordinary techniques for altering consciousness can be penetrated by ordinary cultural processes. The degree to which non-ordinary modes of consciousness can be penetrated by ordinary cultural processes varies from one type of altered state to the other.
Next, I review anthropological, psychological and neuroscientific evidence showing that the enculturation of consciousness occurs in the three ways just defined. Finally, I briefly present each of the three main talks and explain how each of them illustrates one of the three types of enculturation of consciousness.
“Cultural influences on the neural correlates of emotional experiences:
Implications for consciousness?”
(Brain and Creativity Institute, Neuroscience Graduate Program,
University of Southern California)
Brain regions whose activity tracks most closely with consciousness are also involved in experiences of emotion (emotional feelings). This functional confluence is central to modern theories of emotion, but leads to intriguing implications for the nature of human consciousness as well. Interestingly, our laboratory has demonstrated cultural effects on the real-time neural correlates of complex emotional feelings, such as of admiration for virtue and compassion. This talk will explore these cross-cultural findings, and suggest that because these emotions heighten the emoter’s subjective sense of self-awareness, the interdisciplinary study of these emotions may give a unique window into the construction of human consciousness.
“Learning to hear voices:
The phenomenology and cognitive mechanisms of tulpamancy”
(Department of Anthropology, Stanford University;
Culture, Mind and Brain Program, McGill University)
Most of us hear voices in our head all of the time. We ponder our decisions and ruminate over our mistakes, relive the conversations we’ve had and rehearse those we might hope to have. What is more unusual, however, is to have the sense that some of the voices in our head really don’t belong to us. In our medicalized western culture, we usually think of this kind of “not me” experience as pathological, psychotic, or delusional. We tend to say that those who hear voices are mad. And yet, in many cultural contexts around the world, healthy people deliberately train their minds to surrender the feeling of agency over their own inner speech. Tulpamancy is an emergent internet-based community that revolves around rigorously training the imagination to cultivate friendly dialogues with invisible companions called “tulpas”, or thought-forms. In this talk, I will describe preliminary findings from an ongoing multi-methods project that brings together phenomenological interviews, cognitive assessments, and functional neuroimaging to investigate the mechanisms of tulpamancy. This research illustrates how novel cultural forms can open new modes of subjectivity and pattern fundamental domains of human experience, right down to the basic feeling of agency over one’s innermost private thoughts.
“The biology and culture of spirit possession:
An integrative model of dissociation and altered states of consciousness”
(Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University)
Scholarly approaches to dissociation and related altered states of consciousness have been hindered by polemical ‘‘either/or’’ arguments: either such states represent real, spontaneous alterations in brain states that reflect basic neurobiological phenomena, or they are imaginary, socially constructed role performances dictated by interpersonal expectations and cultural scripts. Using a case study of possession trance and spiritual healing practices in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition, I outline an approach to dissociative phenomena that integrates the neuropsychological notions of underlying mechanism with sociocultural processes of cognitive expectancy and narrative construction of self. Via cultural meanings and practices, I argue that individuals learn to actively inhibit or suppress aspects of attention and perception leading to alterations in the experience of conscious self-awareness.