The evolutionary neuroanthropology of consciousness : exploring the diversity of conscious states across cultures. An interview with Michael Winkelman, Michael Winkelman & Martin E. Fortier, 2019

The evolutionary neuroanthropology of consciousness : exploring the diversity of conscious states across cultures. An interview with Michael Winkelman.

Michael Winkelman & Martin E. Fortier

ALIUS Bulletin, 2019, 3, 45-97.

doi : 10.34700/krg3-zk35



In this interview, Michael Winkelman and Martin Fortier discuss the extent to which consciousness is grounded in deep evolutionary mechanisms and can be enculturated. First, the main tenets of two neuroanthropological approaches to consciousness and culture are outlined. Next, the upsides and downsides of evolutionary psychology are examined; the fruitfulness of this approach in the study of cultural phenomena such as shamanism is debated. The authors then discuss the promises of the “big data” approach to the study of religion as well as evolutionary puzzles about religion. Turning to issues bearing on the taxonomy of consciousness, the interview explores how consciousness should be individuated and especially how many “modes” of consciousness should be identified based on what we know of the biology and phenomenology of altered consciousness. Winkelman’s concepts of the “integrative mode of consciousness” and “psychointegrators” are subsequently examined. Next, the interview addresses both how alterations of consciousness are universally similar (the perennialist view) and can also be enculturated (the constructivist view). Finally, the authors discuss issues around the
cultural use of hallucinogens (a.k.a. visionary plants): what is the best method to study them? And for how long have humans used them?

keywords : altered states of consciousness, enculturation, evolutionary neuroanthropology, hallucinogens, shamanism.


Your work is very multidisciplinary and spans several fields (at least the following: cultural anthropology, neuroanthropology, neurotheology, cognitive science of religion, evolutionary anthropology, medical anthropology and evolutionary psychology). What was your training like ? Who were the most important inspirational figures in your intellectual development ?

I wandered from psychology to anthropology to cross-cultural psychology and crosscultural studies (ethnology, holocultural studies) to Buddhist psychology, then the neurosciences and neuro-phenomenology and evolutionary psychology in the search of a method for understanding the biological bases of spiritual phenomena. My training was eclectic, largely self-driven; I went to graduate school at the School of Social Sciences, University of California, but most of my coursework was independent study. I was in search of the next paradigm, so the current paradigms seemed little relevant. But there were some important figures along the way. Intellectually, I was inspired by the work of Charles Laughlin, especially his coauthored Brain, Symbol and Experience (Laughlin, McManus, & D’Aquili, 1990) which set the foundation for the neurophenomenological approaches. Unfortunately, I did not grasp the full significance of Laughlin’s co-authored The Spectrum of Ritual (D’Aquili, Laughlin, & McManus, 1979) when I first read it, but this too eventually influenced my work.

Most of your research work tackles topics in neuroanthropology. Importantly, the field of neuro-anthropology is split, as it were, between two distinct schools. The first coincides with the biogenetic structuralist approach as defined by the seminal work of Charles Laughlin and colleagues (Laughlin & D’Aquili, 1974; Laughlin et al., 1990). According to this school, the brain is endowed with many innate and universal neural (or “neurognostic”) structures that explain behaviors and beliefs observed across the world. The second school is more recent and is best epitomized by the volume edited by Daniel Lende & Greg Downey (2012), The encultured brain, and by work in cultural neuroscience conducted by Joan Chiao and colleagues (2016). The work of Andreas Roepstorff and coworkers (2010) also belongs to this approach. In contrast to the first school of neuroanthropology, the second one stresses the plasticity of the brain and argues that many neural structures can be shaped and influenced by idiosyncratic cultural patterns.

It seems that your own work belongs to the first school of neuroanthropology. What makes you think the human brain is best described as endowed with innate and fixed structures rather than plastic ones? Your writings speak very highly of the biogenetic structuralist school, but what is your view on the “culturalist” school of neuroanthropology ? Is your theoretical approach completely at odds with the latter or do you share at least some of their views ?

First I would say that the cross-cultural principles, even universals, of magicoreligious practices, especially shamanism, speak to some underlying biological factors that produce these similarities. Certainly the physical and social environment provide influences, but I think the notion of cross-culturally distributed principles of shamanism, religion, meditation and spirituality speaks strongly to the underlying biological bases as the structural foundations.

In terms of the neuroanthropology traditions, my work has been largely focused within the first school, understanding religious and spiritual universals within the biogenetic structuralist and neurognostic approaches. But I also think it abundantly clear that the brain is a highly plastic organ. At the same time, what is subject to plasticity are the innate tendencies, the extent to which they are elicited, suppressed or developed. So to me they are not opposing ideas, but different points of departure. The innate modular structures are part of our deep primate heritage, their slow manifestations across the primate and hominid and hominin lines speaks to accretion.

While I have primarily focused on the first neuroanthropology approach as a tool to explain universals, my own work has also addressed this notion of cultural and social effects on plasticity. This is exemplified in my research (for a summary, see: Winkelman, 2018b) on the sociophysiological and psychological dynamics of possession states. In this context I have made my clearest statements regarding the roles of social circumstances in shaping plasticity of the brain into a very specific alteration of consciousness found cross-culturally and subsumed under various forms of possession. Some of my earliest research reflects concerns with the social effects on plasticity of innate responses. In a study of the effects of formal education on extra sensory perception and of the effects of socialization on the manifestations of psi (Winkelman, 1982), I address issues related to how socialization affects experience and awareness of the world, very much concerned with the plasticity of innate capacities.

So this plasticity is why cultural spiritual traditions are so important. They can take various disturbances in life, such as illness, injury, abandonment, being orphaned, etc. and shape the body-mind response, using the consequences of these disturbances to alter the overall normal cognitive-emotional developmental trajectory of the person. Such disturbances, especially illness, are used in the traditions of shamanism and meditation, taking the disturbance in normal development to enable one to engage our innate structures and develop and associate them in different ways than that normally intended by the unfolding of our nature and the cultural evolution of our varied capacities. The shaman is a master in engaging, combining, integrating the various modular structures, while the meditator is adept at stimulating, totally isolating and disenabling innate mental structures, leading to experiences of pure
light, love and joy, or void/nothingness.

A good example of your biogenetic structuralist take on various cultural phenomena is your theory of shamanism. According to you, the main features of shamanism are to be understood in terms of innate neurobiological structures (“neurognostic structures”) present in every human: “The cross-cultural manifestations of basic experiences related to shamanism (e.g., soul flight, death-and-rebirth, animal identities) illustrates that these practices are not strictly cultural but are structured by underlying,
biologically inherent structures. These are neurobiological structures of knowing that provide the universal aspects of the human brain/mind” (Winkelman, 2010a, p. 38; and also: Winkelman, 2002b, 2002a). Yet, drawing upon Åke Hultkrantz’s work you also acknowledge that shamanism arises out of environmental adaptations: “The worldwide similarity in shamans derives from the psychobiological bases of human consciousness and its adaptation to social and ecological conditions of hunter-gatherer societies” (Winkelman, 2010a, p. 64).

Regarding the study of shamanism, is the model you endorse one in which neurognostic structures directly cause specific cultural traits to emerge, or one with an interactionist twist where cultural traits emerge from the interplay of neurognostic and environmental constraints ?

All of genetics and innate capacities unfold in interaction with the environment. I see the foraging band structure with a fission-fusion dynamic as the environment in which shamanism emerged, something deep in hominin prehistory (Winkelman, 2010b). These ideas about the commonalities in chimp and hominin rituals emerged in my work circa with the second edition of Shamanism (2010a). These ancient ritual structures reflect what is at issue in the first statements you review.

The second issue about the effects of foraging environments on the manifestation of shamanism is more related to the contrast with other kinds of magico-religious practitioners (Winkelman, 1990). I think that many of these same capacities at the core of shamanism are manifested in the experiences and behavior of possession cult mediums, whose distinctive features emerged from the formative influences exerted by the oppressive societal dynamics of social stratification and political integration, probably exacerbated by patrilineal social structures and compromised nutrition.