Tuesday, June 03, 2014


The human brain is capable of deep ceremonial feeling because of evolution, which created a cumulative set of subdivisions capable of supporting each other, as well as doubling back synergistically to create new abilities.  The physical structure of this sequence that reaches back to paleo dawn-time is based on the upright spine where at the top of the vertebrae is balanced a heavy head between two shoulders that enable the movement of arms to throw, to cradle, to lift.  (Under where shoulders meet arms is a furry place where human pheromones accumulate.  Smell as identity and emotion.  A product.  A sensorium loop.)

The top of the spine, the “BRAIN STEM” has three parts which go back to reptile days.  The three parts are the “Midbrain”  (basic vital life functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure),  the “Pons” (sleep, hearing, posture, movement), and Medulla (breathing and heart rate).

The “LIMBIC SYSTEM” is the mammal part where the emotions are rooted and contains  four main parts: 
the Thalamus (Axons from every sensory system (except olfaction) synapse here as the last relay site before the information reaches the cerebral cortex)
Hypothalamus (homeostasis, emotion, thirst, hunger, circadian rhythms, and control of the autonomic nervous system. In addition, it controls the pituitary).  
Amygdala (involved in memory, emotion, and fear. This is a component of the limbic system.), and 
Hippocampus (converts short term memory to more permanent memory, and recalls spatial relationships in the world about us)

The CEREBRUM looks like a shelled walnut.  It is in halves.  Each half has four “lobes” which are named for location: front, back, top, sides, 
 Frontal Lobe- associated with reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving
Parietal Lobe- associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
Occipital Lobe- associated with visual processing
Temporal Lobe- associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech

The NEOCORTEX is the “rind” of the cortex and has six layers, labelled from the outer layers in, I to VI. In humans, the neocortex is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and language.  These layers are the location of consciousness, both one’s ability to feel like oneself, to introspect, to know where you are, to remember consciously, to reflect and reason.

It now becomes clear that the prefrontal neocortex, behind and above the eyes, contains specialized cells.  We don’t know what they all do, but they most crucially enable empathy, which is our access to communication and community with other living beings.  Von Economo neurons are spindle shaped cells found only in humans, primates, dolphins and elephants.  There are not many but they are found in the anterior cingulate cortex (the part that wraps around the corpus callosum that connects the two brain lobes) and the frontal insula.   These cells monitor, edit, and respond to perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, interpersonal experience, pain, hunger, realizing a mistake, empathy, trust, guilt, embarrassment, love, responding to infants, recognizing and reading faces, “gut” feelings (intuitions), itching, temperature discomfort, “sense of humor,” and other human “feelings.”   This area has something to do with schizophrenia.

Allman, a researcher, says that it's the link between self-monitoring and awareness of others that makes it possible for us to understand the feelings of other people. "The basic proposition that I'm advancing is the notion that self-awareness and social awareness are part of the same functioning.”  These functions are the crux of what religious institutions try to touch and mold into the institution’s basic understanding of the culture.

But my understanding of the design of deep ceremony is not interested in an institutional point of view.  What this theory of deep experience revolves around is the use of the senses and the neocortex to affect the unconscious parts of the brain and body as it interacts with its surroundings, both taking in information and creating responses. When the conscious, the unconscious, and the entire body is in harmony, then the experience registers deeply.

The chief method of thought in the six layers of the neocortex is metaphorical.  There are two “maps” inscribed on the layers.  One is a simulacrum of the human body with the distortion being that areas that get the most use have acquired the most neurons, most thickly connected, and are represented by being much larger on this mental map.

The other is a kind of GPS system that monitors our orientation in space: up, down, moving forward, going sideways, tipping over, and so on.  It records connections between bits of information.  Most thought metaphors are geometrically organized.  People sketch out little diagrams of their ideas.  Metaphor study is separate from brain anatomy and it is metaphors that are most crucial in the organizing of a ceremony.  (See the work of Lakoff and Johnson).  To make good sense, metaphors depend upon the skillful handling of sense memory and spatial relationship.  

The Gungan Sacred Place on Naboo

The most common deep metaphor (unconscious) for ceremony in Western anthropological terms is that of the Space.  A ceremony is like a room, a place, where it is safe enough to be vulnerable, to share, and to change.  For Victor Turner, whatever is used to take the person’s consciousness into that “space” is a threshold (a limen).  When you go over it, the “space” or “sanctuary” is felt.  (See Eliade, “The Sacred and the Profane”)  Ideally, the physical enclosed space of a church, a temple, or other holy physical place would coincide with the “felt” sacrality of the person’s frame of mind (connectome among the responding neurons).  

If the person visits this “place” regularly -- either as a physical location or as a mental state -- the threshold will be helped by habit, which is a memory function.  Some people simply never manage to achieve this “frame of mind” and will not be able to understand those who do.  Whether this is an unlearned skill or some kind of anatomical defect cannot be known because it is so subtle and so dispersed throughout the brain structures.  But it can be achieved by surprise if the environment, including other people, evokes that “frame of mind.”  This is where the stream of consciousness flows, and it is almost hydraulic in its nature.  Sometimes sheer intensity, as in combat or other moments full of adrenaline (which is a very powerful drug) will push (or pull) people over the limen.  It is linked to intimacy.

Thresholds vary according to culture and also respond to individual experience and temperament.  The task of ceremonial design is to find the triggers that open the doors.  The “deeper” one can empathize with the people present, the more likely to find the assumed, unconscious, ingrained, sense and metaphor triggers that will take the group across the threshold.

Now we can talk about communion, it’s origin and enactment.  You’ll notice that it’s a word similar to community, and therefore depends upon a shared metaphor that is very basic, that of eating and drinking together.  What that shared metaphor means to the persons involved and what they are actually consuming will be linked by their daily lives.  The liturgist who can use that as a poet will be able to touch hearts.  No divine intervention is necessary.

No comments: