Got Absorption? Toward a Neuroanthropology of Ritual and Play
By Neely Myers
-Cross posted with Somatosphere–
On Thursday, Nov. 17th at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Montreal, Canada, I attended a double panel of neuroanthropologists hosted by the Society for Psychological Anthropology. Organized by Christopher Dana Lynn (University of Alabama) and Jeffrey G. Snodgrass (Colorado State University), the panel was entitled “The Neuroanthropology of Embodiment, Absorption, and Dissociation: Research in Ritual, Play, and Entertainment.”
So, I will begin with a warning – this is a pale attempt to summarize the ideas of 12 people plus various discussion questions and theorists mentioned by presenters. With that in mind, let’s get an overview of what happened, which was immensely interesting.
This group of scholars, who call themselves neuroanthropologists, distinguishes themselves from biocultural anthropologists by grounding themselves in rich ethnography, and then using this ethnography to launch dialogues with neuroscience methods in ways that advance both the scientific and anthropological approaches to the study of human adaptation in context.
Part I. The Papers.
First up was Christopher Lynn, University of Alabama, whose Groucho Marx mustache is unforgettable. Chris reported on two studies, which I admired for their innovation and simplicity. First, Chris undertook research on the interaction of salivary cortisol levels (a stress hormone that seems to elevate in the body in the presence of social stressors) and glossolalia (speaking in tongues). While measures of salivary cortisol are limited in the kinds of claims that can be made about them, the study was certainly innovative and speaks to the understudied intersections of religion, brain and behavior.
Chris found that Pentecostals with relatively greater lifetime glossolalia experience compared with Pentecostals with less glossolalia experience had less stress on a non-religious service day than on the day of Sunday service. This suggested that there is a possibility that stress may be reduced or prevented by the days in which people did attend services and allowed themselves to experience “culturally-mediated dissociation” in the form of glossolalia.
Chris also discussed a fireside study that compared a simulated electronic fire, and electronic fire with noise (for a more multi-sensory approach), and a blank TV screen showing fuzz. Chris found reduced blood pressure with the fire, which was enhanced by the multisensory fire. Further data involving EEG patterns and skin conductance are pending data collection. Chris suggested that his findings may have implications for addiction interventions.
The fascinating suggestion that “trance” or dissociative states may biologically help people to cope with stress was compelling. Chris drew upon neurotheologist Andrew Newberg and Luhrmann, Nusbaum and Thistead (2010) to make his claims. Luhrmann, for example, posited that “God” may replace the self in the brain during religious experience. This is perpetuated, Luhrmann argued – and Chris reminded us – by a proclivity to absorption (as measured by the Tellegen Absorption Scale), having a particular cognition on which to focus (insert ritual here, e.g., glossalalia) and then lots of practice.
Next up was Edwin Zehner, who discussed Thai Buddhist practices using visualization. Dissociation, he argued, is dys-functional while absorpotion is eu-functional. A useful Venn diagram (with dissociation in one circle and absorption in the other) showed how dissociation and absorption might overlap to create prophetic or visionary experiences in Thai meditation practice. Those who experience absorption and dissociation, such as prophets and mediums, may become overwhelmed by this experience and become unstable. He provocatively asks – how do we know what is absorption and what is dissociation? Often, he explains, we do not.
But he makes some useful distinctions. Absorption is scale-able and divisible and can be measured in degrees, whereas dissociation is one overriding level of experience and cannot be broken down. In addition, though absorption is marked by a certain trainability, people who have the strongest levels absorptive ability (such as prophets and others likely to have high TAS scores) often resist social manipulation.
The next speaker was H. J. Francois Dengah who is doing his NSF-funded dissertation research in Brazil on a group called Espirito Santo. In this church, which appeared to be very popular from the photos shared, baptism by Holy Spirit was a part of well-being. To welcome the Holy Spirit, ES practitioners used dissociative rituals that foster hypersuggestive states like hypnosis. Dengah admitted that he just went ahead and dissociated along with the rest while he was in church – otherwise, there would be nothing to do!
He argued that these “hypersuggestive states” carry cultural meanings that then shape the interpretation and appraisal of life events. In this case most life events were attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the church also helped people liberate the self from demons so regularly that exorcisms were described as “quotidian.”
Dengah also argued that Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD) was changing the religious marketplace in Brazil as it circulates to over 6 million households. He plans to make other arguments about spiritual experience and health measures like perceived stress, depression, and blood pressure, when he is done collecting his data! He also had a fascinating model of the ways absorption and embodiment interact to produce dissociation and well-being, so if this is your line of interest you should beg him to share.
Focusing a Thousand Miles Distant: Enskilling Gongfu through Taijiquan’s Martial Training Techniques
In the next talk, Adam Frank presented his viewpoint of a Tai Chi and martial arts technique that he had recently presented at an Oxford Symposium. I admit at this point I tried to find the original talk, which distracted me from the demonstration he was giving of the practice. But he was using Tim Ingold’s idea of “enskillment” as an organizing principle, while looking for ways to go beyond it. He said that approaches like Ingold’s look at natural ecology in which culture may have its origins, and that this was not a new position but one that Ingold and Changizi and David Abram are advancing.
Changizi, for example, claims that culture has shaped itself to be like nature in order to reshape ancient brains so that they are more capable of thriving. In this kind of model, shamanic madness is a hyper-receptivity to the larger, more-than-human field. Enskilment is a receptivity to the meaningful interpretation of the exercise.
Frank is asking not a question of dissociation or absorption but rather a pedagogical question – how are practices taught. If we take this as a moment, then how is it felt or understood by the practitioner? Frank argues that bodily memory aligns with practice when the practitioner is training with his teacher and he finds a moment of peace. Frank gives an ethnographic example of a teacher who continually overcomes the charge of a larger, stronger, younger man on a nice spring day outdoors. When asked how he manages this, the teacher explains that he can “hear” the student’s movement before he begins to execute the movement.
Frank found himself feeling skeptical – was what he saw real? He turned to Marcel Mauss’s Techniques of the Body and Tim Ingold’s enskilment and decided that the novice’s observation of accomplished practitioners is perceptually grounded in his surroundings – in the whole sphere of bodily experience. Knowledge of these techniques is passed on generationally by repeatedly exposing novices to surroundings in which there are selected opportunities for attention and action. Bodily experience, then, is related to social life and engagement but moves beyond, Frank argues, the acquisition of technique. There is a body-environment spatial connection that exists beyond the body, he concludes.
Looking at the Legacy of Trance and Possession by Tracing Our Understanding of Dissociation
In the following talk, Patricia Lerch opened with a discussion of the demonic possession described by Felicitas Goodman in the Exorcism of Analiese Michelle. In this case, there were doubts about demonic possession and the cure of exorcism – perhaps, they asked, she should see a psychiatrist? Spirit possession, then, may be approached medically as needing therapy or understood contextually in its social milieu.
Lerch herself works with people of the Umbanda religion of Brazil. She has used Erika Bourguignon’s work on possession trance in which she wanted to get at an individual belief system. She then offers an overview of trance and possession studies since 2000, which I am probably going to butcher here. But there are correlations, she argues, between trance and social marginality and rigid social hierarchies. And there is a local social context from which embodied meanings of gender, power and resistance may be drawn. Winkelman offers an integration of cross-cultural studies of shamanism and neurological perspectives and leads to the conclusion that shamanism constitutes humanity’s first theological and spiritual system.
There are therapeutic aspects of dissociation for shaman and patient, suggesting a clinical utility for what otherwise might be known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Relational personhood, they might argue, gives power to people, spirits and animals. Such spiritual communication may also have the power to influence human behavior in everyday life. There are myriad ways people endeavor to change self and world through storytelling, spiritual forms, and the genius of the shaman’s therapy is that it is an invocation of triggers pejoratively dismissed as placebo effects in western medicine.
In this case, Rebecca Seligman’s (2010) concept of self – making and unmaking as essential to cure of embodied suffering in mind-body healing becomes helpful. In trance rituals, Lerch explains, there is a self-regulatory mechanism that has failed in the devotee that must be recreated to bring one’s body back into control and help a divided self that needs healing. For a person experiencing trance rituals, then, for example one who is becoming possessed by an Orisha (a term referring to a broad class of spiritual entities), the possessing spirit becomes part of the self-concept and the feeling of being divided is fixed.
Lerch concludes that there is a universal human capacity for absorption and dissociative “disorders” and that ethnographic data about dissociation is rich with information on the ways people use this capacity to heal through meaning-making, mind-brain-body connections, and the intertwining notions of self, gender, and relationships. This claim provocatively suggests that dissociation is not a disorder, but rather, an adaptive mind-body-culture pathway for healing by a re-ordering of the self through ritual.
Matthew Amster’s presentation on “Tripping through Time” focused on the immersion of Civil War re-enactors and Vikings in battles to the point where they lose their connection with reality. He presents the similarities of these groups as those of camaraderie and an appreciation of history. However, the groups also have differences. Civil War re-enactors reminisce about rare and magical moments like “civil war-gasms” or “going into the bubble,” which are very intense and brief moments of being transported into the past. Amster describes these as positive dissociative experiences.
These dissociative experiences are more common in the early years of re-enacting until people become more experienced and habituated and the surreal becomes less frequent. I am not sure how this aligns with Luhrmann and Nussbaum’s model of proclivity, practice and outcome, though.
Amster notes that re-enactors become caught up in such moments and report a temporary loss of orientation as they taste the chaos and confusion of what happened during real battle.
In contrast, Amster found that the Vikings did not desire extreme mental states. They had real weapons like hatchets and wanted to try and stay in the moment so they would not hurt people. They wanted to take a step back from the “frenzy” of acting, and so they frame their involvement in regular training like a martial art rather than in terms of authenticity as the Civil War re-enactors did.
Some people do occasionally freak out among the Vikings, Amster noted, but there are rules about what you can and cannot do. The hard part, for them, is not hurting each other. But both groups must learn to keep focus – to remain immersed in and transformed by the enactments while keeping one foot in the every day. During questions following his paper, it was discussed how Amster and others might link ethnography to structured measures like oxytocin and attention (and a host of other measures that I did not document clearly enough to repeat here).
Part I. Discussion
In the discussion that followed, someone asked if the coupling of ethnographic findings with biological measures meant that neuroanthropology might somehow be privileging science? In connecting the brain to experience, for example, by trying to image cultural phenomena, how do we not privilege science? I might add – why can we not just trust our ethnographic data?
It was suggested that rather than experimental design we can use experiments to get at what we think is going on the brain, but unfortunately the fMRI is not particularly portable. Nor, I might add and Daniel Lende mentioned, does it capture more than the “tip of the iceberg” because it documents the combined brain activity of a composite group of humans and so captures the most prominent mental activity across people and throws away the rest (Lende suggested 85%) away. For anthropologists who want the variation, then, the rest of the iceberg is hidden. Lende also talked about using experiments, for example, Greg Downey was trying to use portable imaging devices to avoid the artifacts of imaging studies and capture “cognition in the wild.” Other audience members argued that heart rate and other physiological data might be more useful than scanning.
Next, Sidney Gellendorf asked if neuroscientists have any interest in cultural variability. Will they be willing to begin to step back and realize that cultural variability plays a significant part and throw it into the Hopper? Another good question.
Well, someone said, we have to start somewhere.
Part II. The Papers
In the exciting second half of the panel, Jeffrey Snodgrass opened the conversation. A recent article by Kuhn et al. in Translational Psychiatry (“The neural basis of video gaming,” (2011) e53, doi:10.1038/tp.2011.53) compared the brains of frequent and infrequent video game players. They found a higher volume of left striatal grey matter in the brains of frequent players. This is a part of the brain known to be connected to addiction. There is thus some hope that his work might help identify core candidates for addictive behaviors.
Snodgrass uses two scales, absorption and immersion. He made up the immersion scale, which looked pretty useful as an addiction measure to me. In this case, dissociation occurs when you get too “into” character. In this case, dissociation leads to an embodiment that perpetuates a loss of higher self-monitoring. For example, not being able to turn off the game. Here, Snodgrass delved into myriad details talking about various parts of the brain and their correlations with gaming so you should really look at his panel paper or at his recent publications for more details.
Snodgrass moves from his analysis to policy questions – a move that I appreciated. Is there such a thing, he asks, as internet addiction or is it a moral panic? Neuroanthropology will be an important tool for answering these questions. Neuroanthropologists are uniquely equipped to direct part of their critical gaze more towards objects like stress and relaxation systems, as they exist in particular cultural contexts, rather than just brain structures.
Ben Campbell and Thomas Malaby then offered a joint presentation on massive multi-player online games, which they seek to understand anthropologically because, they argue, the “game” is a cultural form. For example, Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind lists games as a serious ritual. Campbell and Malaby will be situating cultural-historical games in cultural-historical moments.
In this case, online games are complex, implicit conditions. Their research looks at the ways the dopaminergic system is implicated in gaming. Citing work by neurophysiologists, they note how dopamine re-establishes the cue and reward until the brain experiences a dopaminergic firing in expectancy of the reward – one example of learning and relearning in a contingent world.
There is also a hedonic value of rewards, they argue, which links various aspects of the attention and brain (that is again beyond my ability to recount properly) to make an emotionally compelling game. In other words, they explain, playful attention is coaxed from us by a good game that strikes a balance between randomness and challenge to keep us engaged. Marshall Sahlins speaks of this as fragile reciprocity at the edge of the social during which socially contingent circumstances become situations in which networks can form or fall apart.
In this case, researchers are discussing the “social brain,” which maps onto the human brain but appears to arise out of what generated the brain in the first place (presumably, experience). In the social brain, there are two systems – one is slow, deliberative and cognitive. The other is fast and emotional (the anterior cingulated cortex). These two systems combine so that we might imagine the self or another and their actions. In the social brain, then, embodied emotional salience is the most important for learning and cooperation.
[Neely stepped out and missed this fine presentation by Grant]
Peter Stromberg then presented his own work on reading fiction. He claims that we have episodes of experiential engagement- play and ritual performance. Absorption also has a role in play and pathology. One may experience a strongly focused attention – as with any external absorptive activity – that diminishes one’s sense of time and self as the person “becomes one” with activity.
In this case, the lapse in a sense of agency is “the most salient subjective sub-component.” Something is happening to replace agency. Automaticity and imitation leads to a lapse in sense of agency during a wide range of phenomena, for example, reading literature. It is easiest, Stromberg argues, to become caught up in the formulaic. But why is beach reading such an appropriate vehicle for absorption?
He argues that this activity is similar to games and rituals and characterized by awareness and predictable patterns of action. Conscious control, he explains, is cognitively expensive, but we can assign any familiar situation to automation.
Absorption itself is a highly developed physical skill requiring a focused attention and process of engagement. This is an important first step toward understanding absence of or lapse of agency when reading formulaic fiction.
Imitation is also a basic component of human functioning (a discussion of mirror neurons then occurs, and I encourage you to look these up for more info).
In research on language processes, neurons are grabbing and grasping – the body understands a term before the mind does. Empathy and recognition of a person’s actions, Stromberg argues, are the same as a mirror – mental processes instantiate neural patterns that mirror interlocutor’s goals – independently of the self.
Remember? Culture unites us and culture divides us. There are states in ritual and play that can enhance our understanding by looking at component processes. Automatized behaviors thus work together to produce some of what we call absorption. The brain, Stromberg suggests, may be primed to perform great tasks – creativity from extensive practice. For some, he adds, this process may lead to anxiety instead of to flow.
Lightness of being: dark play at Burning Man
Next, Megan Heller (UCLA) gave a compelling presentation about “play” at Burning Man where she conducted her field research. Burning Man is a festival in the Nevada dessert that is widely unregulated and where people build a temporary community for seven days each year where, for the most part, anything goes. Heller describes this as “free play” because it is freely chosen and directed by participants. This is rare, she finds, in the U.S. and is pursued for its own intrinsic value. At Burning Man, Heller claims, cultural scripts and models can be ignored and satirized and players proceed uninterrupted even when they are posing a danger to themselves or others.
Heller sees “play” as a mood characterized by lightness, freedom, and an intense focus on the present – elaborate local worlds and psychocultural practices designed to create and sustain pleasure. When at play, she wonders, are more brain pathways open?
Certainly children use play as part of their social and emotional development, suggesting a certain plasticity in the process. At play, we shed habitual responses and experience a reprieve from fears of injury or death. People, Heller explains, forget selves, censorship, and concerns as they become absorbed in their playscape.
Heller describes dark play, specifically, as play that may be dangerous or cruel. In the dominant capitalist culture, one risks being labeled irrational or insane when they play. They may earn or lose social capital in the process. Dark players thus require more help to get caught in play. Play is like a trance within a playscape.
Part II. Discussant
At this point, Daniel Lende began his discussion with a pitch for the new book, The Encultured Brain, due soon from MIT Press, which is a product of their 2009 conference of the same title at University of Notre Dame. Lende encourages future and current neuroanthropologists to mix things together and look for commonalities across topics.
Neuroanthropology, he reminds us (and many agree) is a new synthetic effort of a holistic anthropology. Neuroanthropology uses biological anthropology and the classic ethnographic comparative method of cultural anthropology to investigate the underlying mechanisms and processes of human adaptation. In the process, we examine the psychological relation between individual and environment while also adding the layer of neuroscience. Neuroanthropology thus offers insight into social processes, the brain and the world, thereby creating an opportunity for both applied and critical perspectives on neuroscience as a new metaphor of the self, pharmaceuticals for the changing the brain, and so on.
Most importantly, Lende explained, neuroanthropology – as opposed to the older biocultural anthropology -is grounded in ethnography. Without ethnography, it is hard to imagine how lived experience, cultural variation, and human variation in the brain interact. This is a new and different approach to both anthropology (culture as it is taken into and shaped by the brain) and neuroscience (the encultured brain), it seems.
Part II. Discussion
Question 1. How do you turn this into a research strategy?
Answer 1. We need to break processes down to a neural level – there are different processes at play. This is where a comparative process helps. Look across games and dissociation. Processes can work at different levels, which lends dynamism to this approach. We engage in experience but there is also an automaticity that takes care of experience. We need to understand automaticity at the level of cultural rules.
Question 2. What is process of being controlled by story? Of being pulled along?
Answer 2. Went step by step, which was good. Flow is presented as naturalized rather than something that is being socialized. How does this happen in the wild? Not just flow as internal sense but flow in context. Challenge-skill balance.
Looking at ethnography, the danger is to naturalize – keep coming back to the idea that these things happen socially. Social things drive neural plasticity.
Question 3. I am intrigued by idea of play as mood. Public space, public mood, public play – the idea that participants forget themselves. How do we develop this?
Answer 3: Emphasize arousal and context and neuronal mirroring. Neuroscience is hard but not fruitful. Studying up – recreate what neuroscientists do – video game designers, for example. Offer a critical perspective on how to change it. Culture is structuring stuff. How patterns of brain activation work. Culture can drive the patterning. What are the patterns of connections? What does our ethnography reveal?
References Cited (that I recognized)
Luhrmann, T. M., Nusbaum, H. & Thisted, R. The Absorption Hypothesis: Learning to Hear God in Evangelical Christianity. American Anthropologist 112, 66-78, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01197.x (2010)
Seligman, R. The Unmaking and Making of Self: Embodied Suffering and Mind Body Healing in Brazilian Candomble. Ethos 38, 297-320 (2010).