Recursive Knots of the Mind

In listening to the news media, there is often very little news being reported. It’s not for a lack of interesting stories and important issues to be reported upon. There is more than enough material to fill up the 24/7 news cycle without any repetition. On a particular news outlet, there was a panel discussing one of the many topics used to induce viewer outrage and hence advertizing engagement (i.e., profit), but it’s not relevant exactly what they were saying. Over the entire segment, there was mostly opinionating and speculating, as expected. There wasn’t much susbstance. What was interesting is how the media personalities wielded rhetoric.

The closest the viewer got to actual information was a quote that was given no context or additional support. The quoted material, taken in isolation, was immediately submitted to an interpretation that was an accusation of ill-intent and taken as having proven guilt. Then that was repeated, such that the interpretation came to be treated as an established fact that stood in place of the quote. The quote itself, that could’ve been interpreted variously, had been reduced and then expanded upon. The result was a declarative set of claims and conclusions, without any need for further evidence. The quote was discarded for it was never relevant in the first place. With belief-claim established as pseudo-fact, an entire narrative was spun as melodramatic infotainment.

What stood out was how most statements made were broad, sweeping generalizations and absolute assertions without any sourcing, argument, or qualification. Is that news? Not really. Rather, these agents of corporate media were, step by step, walking the viewers through the social construction of an ideological reality tunnel. The indoctrinated viewer could now re-create the ideological worldview as needed and teach others to do the same. It was fascinating to watch, as it was impressive in its own way. Yet it’s not as if there was anything brilliant or unusual about that ‘news’ segment or the hacks doing their job. It was all workmanlike but, nonetheless, highly effective in manipulating and moulding the audience. It served its purpose.

I’m not sure why that particular segment caught my attention. It was some random thing playing on the television in the background as I was passing by. But something about it caused me to stop and perk up my ears. It got me thinking about the power of language. The thing is this act of rhetorical manipulation wouldn’t be possible in all languages, although it’s a common feat in the global written languages that have had centuries to be adapted to literacy and the modern media environment. One common feature of the major languages is recursion. It’s so common that some took it as a universal trait of language, based on the assumption that it was built into a language module, a physical structure located somewhere in the human brain. Basically, the theory has been that we humans have a genetically-determined instinct for linguistic recursion, one of the building blocks of rhetoric that allows for these sometimes complex language games of persuasion.

That is the theory based on the linguistic cultures, primarily the United States, in which linguistic studies developed. “We tend to speak in sentences of multiple clauses,” writes Samantha Harvey, “not in clauses that have been separated out. Noam Chomsky has called these multiple clauses instances of recursion, and he thinks they’re what define human language. They reflect our unique ability to position a thought inside a thought, to move from the immediate to the abstract, to infinite other places and times. A circle in a spiral, a wheel within a wheel; a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own. In theory, an infinitely long, recursive sentence is possible, says Chomsky; there is no limit to the mind’s capacity to embed one thought inside another. Our language is recursive because our minds are recursive. Infinitely windmilling” (The Shapeless Unease, A Year of Not Sleeping).

This is, it turns out, not true for all cultures; or so one side has agued in an ongoing debate. With that possibility in mind, Julie Sedivy suggests that, “the languages that many of us have grown up with are very different from the languages that have been spoken throughout the vast majority of human existence” (The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence). Take the example of the Piraha. Their language lacks any evidence of recursion. That isn’t to say the Piraha are incapable of recursive thought, but that is not the same thing as recursive language and what it makes possible. Before exploring linguistic recursion, let’s establish what is the non-linguistic recursion. “If you go back to the Pirahã language,” writes Daniel Everett, “and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story” (Recursion and Human Thought). Such basic recursive thought is true of all human societies and might be the case with some non-human species (Manuel Arturo Abreu, Organisms that do not exhibit recursion in communication still have the capacity for recursion).

There is much debate about who has recursion and who lacks it. Leading experts across numerous fields (linguistics, biology, mathematics, etc) have yet to come to a consensus on defining recursion, much less agreeing about its universality. Yet others point to the diverse ways recursion might show up: “[W]hen deer look for food in the forest,” Everett mentions “they often use recursive strategies to map their way across the forest and back, and take little side paths that can be analyzed as recursive paths.” But speaking of early hominids, Everett suggests that, “it would not have been necessary for them to have recursion to have language, at least according to the simple idea of language evolution as a sign progression and supported by some modern languages.” (How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention). That is to say, language was an early evolutionary development as was non-lingistic recursion, whereas the combination of the two was a much later cultual development. Linguistic recurson takes a cross-species neurocognitive ability and hijacks it toward advanced cultural ends.

This simple observation that syntactical recursion is culturally-structured, not genetically-determined, has been treated as if radical and heretical. “The dispute over Pirahã is curious in many respects, not least with regard to the fact that Everett is not the first linguist to claim that a language lacks embedded clauses and therewith recursion,” writes Robert D. Van Valin (Recursion and Human Thought). “In a series of important papers published in the late 70’s, the late MIT linguist Kenneth Hale argued that certain Australian Aboriginal languages lack embedding of the type found in Indo-European languages in their complex sentences and furthermore that one of them, Warlpiri, has a completely ‘flat’ syntactic structure. The latter claim was amended somewhat in the published version of the paper, but the point about the complex sentences remained valid. In the mid-1980’s, William Foley, a linguist at the University of Sydney, described Iatmul, a language of Papua New Guinea, as having non-hierarchical clause combining, i.e. no embedded of clauses in complex sentences, hence no recursion in the syntax.”

Beyond a total lack of recursion, there are plenty of other cultures where it’s severely restricted, of which Julie Sedivy gave some examples, from linguist Marianne Mithun, by way of contrast with English: “In English, 34 percent of clauses in conversational American English are embedded clauses. In Mohawk (spoken in Quebec), only 7 percent are. Gunwinggu (an Australian language) has 6 percent and Kathlamet (formerly spoken in Washington state) has only 2 percent. An English speaker might say: Would you teach me to make bread? But a Mohawk speaker would break this down into several short sentences, saying something like this: It will be possible? You will teach me. I will make bread. In English, you might say: He came near boys who were throwing spears at something. A Kathlamet approximation would go like this: He came near those boys. They were throwing spears at something then.”

So the question arises,” asks Van Valin, “given that such claims go back a good thirty years, and the most important of them was from a former colleague of Chomsky’s, why has Everett’s claim engendered such controversy?” We don’t need to answer that question here, but it’s good to be reminded that this kind of thought about the power of culture, similar to lingistic relativity, is not a new insight. Everett was far from alone in noting the lack of recursion in some culture. Yet he was viciously attacked by Chomsky and his acolytes. They tried to destroy his reputation. The sense of animosity remains in the field, as it was a fight for control and dominance. It wasn’t only about an obscure theoretical issue but an entire paradigm in framing human nature and the social condition.

What, you might wonder, is this recursion that has become the subject of an academic turf war? Why is it so important and what does it do? Through subordinate clauses with embedded phrases and qualifications, syntactic recursion makes possible the hierarchcial ordering of value and meaning. Without it, all that is available for human communication are simple declarative statements, what is called parataxis as opposed to hypotaxis. Hypotactic communication, particularly as develped in written language, allows an immense complexity of linguistic structure and thought-forms, an extension of hypothesis and speculation. Recursion spirals out into entire fanasy worlds of ideological realism that are reified into a perception of supposed objective reality (what Everett calls dark matter of the mind, what Robert Anton Wilson calls a reality tunnel, and what anthropologists call a cosmology), in which we lose the ability to distinguish between the communication and what is communicated. There is the idea that the medium is the message — well, this puts a hurricane-level wind into that sail. This is language as advanced social construction, the foundation upon which are built vast civilizations and empires.

Paratactic speech, on the other hand, hews more closely to direct experience and so keeps the individual grounded in immediate and present reality. This is why Buddhists use paratactic language, in eschewing recursion, as a mindfulness practice to dismantle the imagined boundaries of the ego-mind. They do this by describing experience in the simplest of terms, such as “anger is arising here and now” and not “I’m angry, as happens every Friday, because the boss always finds a way to give me work for the weekend, even though I told him I had family visiting, and any of my coworkers could do this work but the boss always expects me to do it.” The Buddhist rhetorical practice eliminates the interpretation, such as in English, of subject-action-result. Anger is not a thing or an event. It is simply an experience that passes.

This might relate to why, in lacking linguistic recursion, the Piraha appear less likely to get stuck in states of stress and worry, while less likely to suffer from mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, not to mention suicide being entirely unknown. There aren’t even what we might consider fundamental stages of development, in our speaking about the terrible twos and teenage angst. Piraha go from toddlerhood to being weened and then basically they’re a part of the adult world at that point with little fuss or frustration. And as adults, they get along well, such as apparently not holding onto anger with resentment and grudges.

This was exemplified by an incident that Daniel Everett recorded: ““I mean, what are you going to do to him for shooting your dog?” “I will do nothing. I won’t hurt my brother. He acted like a child. He did a bad thing. But he is drunk and his head is not working well. He should not have hurt my dog. It is like my child.” Even when provoked, as Kaaboogí was now, the Pirahãs were able to respond with patience, love, and understanding, in ways rarely matched in any other culture I have encountered” (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes).

The same easygoing attitude was demonstrated in how they deal with a diversity of difficulties and conflicts, such as their informal process of ‘divorce’ where the abandoned partner grieves loudly and publicly for a few days but is perfectly fine when their former spouse returns to the village with a new spouse. Their serial monogomy, by the way, in such small tribes means that the majority of Piraha have had sex with the majority of other Piraha at some point — they are a close community. Maybe their language has much to do with their being able to simply experience emotions and then let them go. The lack of recursion might disallow them from easily getting stuck in constructed narratives and it could be noted that, although familiar with stories told by outsiders that they occasionally repeat, they do lack a native storytelling tradition. This might indicate a close connection between recursion and narrative.

But recursion, for all the attention it gets, is only one aspect of this far different cultural mindset. In making this point, Arika Okrent writes: “Ironically, in the 2005 article that began the whole Chomsky/Everett debate, Everett barely touched on the notion that the Pirahã’s lack of recursion might challenge the theory of universal grammar. Instead, his aim was to show that the Pirahã cultural commitment to immediate, concrete experience permeated the very structure of their language: not embedding one phrase inside another was just one of the many ways that the Pirahã prioritised the here and now. Other evidence he adduced for this priority included the simplicity of the kinship system, the lack of numbers, and the absence of fiction or creation myths” (Is linguistics a science?). It’s an entire cultural worldview.

Another linguistic factor is that it’s required one speaks very specifically in describing truth claims and attributing their source. The Piraha don’t and, according to the limits built into their language, can’t speak in broad generalizations and abstractions. Their knowledge, although encyclopedic in relation to the world around them, is limited to what they have directly experienced, what they can deduce from what they have drectly experienced, or what someone they personally know has directly experienced. They don’t even have any equivalent to ancestral or mythological knowledge about a perceived distant past. Everything is referred to in relation to its proximity to the broad here and now of living memory. This greater concrete specificity is observed among some other hunter-gatherer languages, such as the Peruvian Matses studied by David William Fleck (A grammar of Matses).

Such highly qualified but non-recursive language can also affect how one orients within time and space. We Westerners are used to the egoic perspective because it is built into our language, including referencing direction according to our individual view of the world. In giving directions, we’ll speak of turning left or right and going straight. But some tribal cultures like the Australian Guugu Ymithirr, as described by Guy Deustcher, express their sense of place according to the cardinal points in relation to the sun’s path in the sky. For another Australian Aboriginal group, the Pormpuraaw, cardinal directions also determined the perception of how time flowed or else how events are spatially related (see Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby’s work, Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community). Yet time and space to the Piraha can seem even more radically alien to Western understanding, as space-time collapses into an all-purpose sense of transience with phenomenal experience flickering in and out of perceived reality — as explained by Samantha Harvey:

“There is a Pirahã word that Everett heard often and couldn’t deduce the meaning of: xibipiio. Sometimes it would be a noun, sometimes a verb, sometimes an adjective or adverb. So and so would xibipiio go upriver, and xibipiio come back. The fire flame would be xibipiio-ing. Over time Everett realised that it designated a concept, something like going in and out of experience – ‘crossing the border between experience and non-experience’. Anything not in the here and now disappears from experience, it xibipiios, and arrives back in experience as once again the here and now. There isn’t a ‘there’ or a ‘then’, there are just the things xibipiio-ing in and out of the here and now.

“There is no past or future tense as such in Pirahã; the language has two tense-like morphemes – remote things (not here and now) are appended by -a and proximate things (here and now) by – i . These morphemes don’t so much describe time as whether the thing spoken about is in the speaker’s direct experience or not. The Pirahã language doesn’t lay experiences out on a past–present–future continuum as almost every other language does. In English we can place events quite precisely on this continuum: it had rained, it rained, it has rained, it rains, it is raining, it will rain, it will have rained. The Pirahã can only say whether the rain is proximate (here) or not” (The Shapeless Unease, A Year of Not Sleeping).

Anything more convoluted than that is, to the Piraha mind, unnecessary or maybe just unimaginable — not even requiring color terms, numbers, and quantifying words like ‘many’, ‘most’, ‘every’ or ‘each’. Their kinship terminology is limited as well, such as a single word for mother and father. And they have the simplest pronoun inventory ever recorded. Unsurprisingly, their lexicon for describing time is sparse.

“Time leaks everywhere into English,” Harvey writes, “some ten per cent of the most commonly used words are expressions of time. The Pirahã language has almost no words that depict time. This is all of them: another day; now; already; day; night; low water; high water; full moon; during the day; noon; sunset/sunrise; early morning, before sunrise. Their words for these are literally descriptive – the expression for day is ‘in sun’, for noon ‘in sun big be’ and for night ‘be at fire’.” Time, like color and much else, is described by the Piraha in practical terms by association or comparison to something in their everyday lives. There is no abstract notion of 3:30 pm or blue — such concrete thought creates a different mentality (see the work of Luria and Lev Vygotsky, as related to the Flynn effect).

The only temporal sense that can be expressed by the Piraha is in speaking of the immediately observable natural environment and it can’t be extended very far. Maybe this is because nothing they do requires much time and so time is as bountiful as the jungle around them. They don’t travel much and rarely over long distances. The food and materials they need are easily obtained near where they live. The practical application of time is barely relevant and they probably don’t perceive time in the way we do, as a finite resource and linear construct. Even the cyclical time of the mytholgical worldview would likely be unfamiliar to them.

Time is more similar to the flickering candle, such that it nether goes anywhere else as a trajectory nor repeats, simply shifts in the expansive and inclusive present moment. Experience comes and goes without any need to speculate and posit lines of causation or greater patterns and cycles. Time doesn’t need to be controlled or measured. The Piraha even lack the obsession some premodern people have had with astrology and calendars, as they would serve little purpose for them. Even seasonal changes are limited and don’t have much practical implication. There is no time of the year that changes from cold to hot or from wet to dry. So, the main foods they eat are available year round.

Their lifestyle remains constant, as does the surrounding nature within their traditional territory. These optimal conditions might approximate the stable environment for much of hominid and human evolution in Africa. Look at another unique example, the Pygmy tribes, some of which are the only surviving human populations with 100% homo sapiens genetics. The Pygmy live where human evolution began and one can see similarities to the Piraha. Both tribes, living in equatoral rainforests, have a simple culture that has been resistant to outside influence, even though each tribe has been in contact with foreigners for centuries.

This social solidarity and cultural resilience is impressive. Writing about the Piraha, Danel Everett said that, “My evangelism professor at Biola University, Dr. Curtis Mitchell, used to say, “You’ve gotta get ’em lost before you can get ’em saved”” (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes). The problem for a missionary is that tribes like the Piraha and Pygmies aren’t prone to feeling lost and maybe, at least in the case of the former, it’s partly their language that offers protection against evangelical rhetoric. Prosyletyzing becomes impossible when there is no recursive and abstract language in which to communicate theology, mythology, and history — all that is required to translate a written holy text like the Bible.

Unfortunately, the study of traditional Pygmy languages appears to be limited, but there is plenty of interesting anthropological evidence. C. M. Tumbull, in 1961, observed a BaMbuti Pygmy who became disoriented in seeing open grasslands for the first time and thought distant buffalo were insects (Some observations regarding the experiences and behavior of the BaMbuti Pygmies). Distance perception and size constancy aren’t major factors if one has never stepped outside of the visual enclosure of thick jungle.

So, environment would likely be an influence on the immediacy principle since, in a dense forest, one cannot see very far. And that would surely become built into the native language. Another telling detail, similar to the Piraha, is that these BaMbuti lacked their own concepts about witchcraft and what Tumbull described as the ‘supernormal’, something they associated with outsiders such as the neighboring Bantu. As there is no distant visual space to a forest dweller, neither are there distant spiritual realities. With trees mostly blocking out the sky, maybe people have less tendency to ponder heavenly bodies and speculate about heavenly worlds.

There is some information about particular Pygmy tribes that maintained their traditional languages. If not entirely innumerate as the Piraha, the BaMbuti can only count up to four. As for what both BaMbuti and Piraha entirely lack, they have no terms for colors and so are forced to describe them by comparison. Also, beyond the simplest of decorations, these tribes don’t make visual art nor make much use of color as dyes. Rather than a focus on the visual, Tumbull states that, “the Pygmy has the most complex music in the whole of Africa.” In an environment that constrains vision, the auditory is so important that these Pygmy will even aim their hunting arrows by sound. This auditory orientation would strengthen the affect of oral culture and it’s accompanying mindset. Being so reliant on info from sound would emphasize the animistic sense of a world alive with voices. Indeed, rainforests are dense with noisy life.

This is hard for the modern Westerner to grasp, as we are immersed in a hyper-visual culture where non-human sounds of nature have been almost entirely eradicated. Also, as an agricultural civilizaton, the experience of open spaces and distant vision is common, even for urbanites. We value our large grassy lawns and parks, and we enjoy vacations to vast landscapes of oceans and lakes, mountains and canyons. This is particularly true of the United States where most of the population lived in farm communities until a few generations ago. Open fields and open sky have been common. Even with the increase of audio in new media, the visual still dominates. And the sounds that new media brings are detached from the sensory percepton of the environment we inhabit.

For the Piraha, it’s not that the visual is unimportant. Rather, it’s significance is transformed. They are obsessed with certain kinds of visual experiences but of a far different quality. The visual environment of agriculture and urbanization is largely static and inanimate, surrounded as we are with manmade objects and architecture with only an occasional intrusion by wildlife or stray animal. The Piraha, on the other hand, have to be constantly hyper-aware of other living beings as food sources but mostly as potential threats. Predators and poisonous creatures abound in the jungle.

Vision is central, even as it is constrained by the density of foliage. This surely shapes their amorphous sense of time, as shown in their language. They have a fascination and obsession with a certain kind of visuo-temporal phenomenon described by the aforementioned term ‘xibipiio’ that has no equivalent in English. The concept behind it is demonstrated by their habit of staring at flickerng flames, as they also enjoy watching people appear and disappear wiithn their visual field, such as around the bend of a river. This liminal quality is key to understanding their worldview and mindset. There is no time continuity of perception, no objective constancy of beingness.

This is felt in quite personal ways, as Piraha identity can flicker like a flame. There is something akin to spiritual possession in Piraha culture, although to their perspectve it isn’t possession. When the spirit is present, the former person is simply absent. When asked where the person is, the simple answer will be given that they are not there. This identity shift sometmes can be permanent. In the forest, a visitation by a spirit might lead to a complete change of identity along with a new name. The previous identity is no longer existing and will not return. This is an attribute of the bundled mind, a fundamental tenet of Buddhist thought as well. Buddhists seek to regain some essence of what for the Piraha is the social norm of lived reality.

This goes back to the non-recursve and paratactic quality of Piraha language. The shifting fluidity of perception and identity can’t be generalized nor extended beyond the known and experienced specifics. And this has social consequences. Maybe we have much to learn from them. Their apparent invulnerability to the highly developed rhetoric of prosyletyzing missionaries is admirable. That is a nifty linguistic trick that we could adopt as a tool in the development of our intellectual and psychological defenses. We don’t have to become like the Piraha, but it could be useful to develop this skill as a discipline of the mind.

When finding ourselves pulled into some linguistic manipulation or trapped in a rhetorical framing, we can stop and turn our attention to language itself. How are we speaking and how are others speaking to us? Then we can bring our language back down to grounded reality by speaking simple statements, as the Buddhists do with their mindfulness practice. Slowly, we can learn how to untangle the recursive knots of the mind. It might have the added benefit, as seen with the Piraha, of developing some immunity toward the alluring mind virus of authoritarian thought control. The social hierarchy of power is dependent on the conceptual hierarchy of recursive rhetoric. This might explain the memetic pull of the reactionary mind and might demonstrate how we can use linguistic jujitsu to rediirect these psychic energies.

What if authoritarianism doesn’t begin in the external world through distant institutions of power but instead begins in our minds, in the way we relate and communicate, as it shapes how we think and forms our identities at an unconscious level? Recursion is not only about the structure of language and the structure of thought. As a tool of rhetorc, recursion is how hierarchies are built. From kulturCrtic, here is a great explanation of the relevance by way of the distinction between hypotaxis and parataxis:

“In short, recursion enables the construction of complex hypotactic language units rather than just simple paratactic ones. Parataxis, as I am sure you are all aware, is when each of your sentences in a larger grammatical unit carries equal weighting. Paratactic units usually have few, if any clauses, and more importantly, none of the clauses are subordinated one to another in a hierarchical scheme. Hypotaxis, on the other hand, occurs when clauses in sentences, or in larger grammatical wholes, are subordinated to one another, focusing attention on what is considered of greater importance or value within the semantic, syntactic, or larger logistic unit. In other words, recursion, by means of subordination, allows for the rudimentary and foundational element of hierarchization. Hierarchy, socio-economic and political, we might here add, is also one of the hallmarks of post-traditional societies […]

“As cultural historian Marvin Bram contends in The Recovery Of The West, “Parataxis suggests coordination more than subordination, and any number of sequences rather than a single correct sequence. Parataxis de-hierarchizes the world,” where the flat, coordinate, and non-orderliness of a paratactic world seems rather primitive or prosaic to the ever more civilized and tightly structured hypotactic logistic” (The Politics of Recursion: Hypotaxis, Hierarchy, and Healing).

Parataxis versus hypotaxis is egalitarianism versus hierarchy, coordination versus subordination, participatory versus disconnecting. In our modern sophistication, we take the latter way of being as normal, even inevitable. How could humans be otherwise? Our assumption is supported by our WEIRD bias, as nearly all alternative possibilities in the Western world have been eliminated, as have most other cultures that could challenge this false and illusory belief. The Piraha are one of the few remnants of a different way of being. They are part of an animistic world that is alive with psychic presence that is intimately a part of their shifting and extended identities.

There is an odd element about this other way of being that could be easy to overlook as incidental. The paratactic is repetitive, rhythmic, and resonant. Without recursion to create hierarchical orders of value, of meaning and significance, there are other ways to emphasize what is being said and so direct focus. There can be a musical or poetic quality to languages that make use of this style of speaking, such as meter being much more important to ancient storytelling. To return to the Piraha, they don’t only speak their language as they also can whistle and hum it, depending on context, but it cannot be written. A sing-song quality to spoken language might have been much more common prior to widespread literacy, particularly as it is a useful tool for oral traditions of mnemonics.

The closest the modern mind gets to this is through psychedelic use. “Hashish, then, is an assassin of referentiality, inducing a butterfly effect in thought. In [Walter] Benjamin, cannabis induces a parataxis wherein sentences less connect to each other through an explicit semantics than resonate together and summon coherence in the bardos between one statement and another. It is the silent murmur between sentences that is consistent while the sentences continually differentiate until, through repetition, an order appears” (Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, p. 107; see full passage as quoted in Psychedelics and Language).

This might not be a coincidence. The past three millennia of post-bicamreal civilization has been a gradual replacement of non-addictive psychedelics by addictive substances, in particular stimulants (Agricultural Mind & Diets and Systems). These various plant-based drugs may have fundamentally altered the human mind at multiple points in human evolution. There are those like Terence McKenna that go so far as to suggest that psychedelics were at the origin of consciousness and language, but we don’t need to speculate about that here.

It should be noted that the Piraha aren’t known to use any drugs or at least none recognized by outsiders. Still, the human brain seems to have co-evolved with plant substances like the psychedelic DMT. There is evidence that our bodies produce DMT, maybe in the pineal gland, and so even the Piraha have DMT coarsing through their brains (Eric W. Dolan, Study provides evidence that DMT is produced naturally from neurons in the mammalian brain). Importantly, there might be various ways other substances, diet, cultural practices, etc affect DMT levels. The Piraha do have experiences such as contact with intelligent beings (i.e., spirits) that is common for those who imbibe DMT.

DMT is structurally similar to serotonin and melatonin, all of which is derived from tryptamine. Like serotonin and dopamine, DMT is a monoamine compound and DMT shares receptors with both. DMT causes the body to produce more serotonin and increases the release of dopamine. We all carry DMT in our brains. It may play important roles, such as how DMT allows the body to operate at lower oxygen levels. Other psychedelics that we imbibe also use the serotonin receptor.

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Below is part of the post that is a work in progress:

hierarchicy, egaltarianism, partcipatory reality and social order, organic, anarchy, democracy,

rhetorical strategies, social construction, ideological realism, symblic ideology, symbolic conflation, metaphor, metonymy, locking mechanism, visceral/embodied,

narrative loops, counter-narratives, polarization, outrage

Joe, obsessing over the perfect pick-up line, had not asked out the cute girl at work.
Joe, having not asked out the cute girl at work, obsessed over the perfect pick-up line.
Joe, having been disfigured in accident, had not asked out the cute girl work.
Joe, having not asked out the cute girl at work because of his fear of rejection like happened last time he had a crush, became nervously obsessed with the perfect pick-up line as a distraction, the kind of obsession he had since he was disfigured in the accident, but he didn’t want anyone’s pity, especially not her pity, the one thing he dreaded more than rejection.

Take the example used by Everett: John’s brother’s house. This is a simple form of recursion and can be extended infinitely: John’s brother’s sister’s mother’s friend’s house. But the Piraha must state each noun phrase separately: ‘John has a brother. This brother has a house.’ Each additional noun phrase would be another sentence and so complicated thoughts could quickly become linguistically unwieldy. So, thinking complicated thoughts is, if not entirely precluded, strongly disincentivized by the structure of the language. The Piraha languge is a finite language, in the way chess is a finite game, but that still leaves much capacity for communication. In fact, the strict limitations allows for kinds of thoughts that aren’t possible in highly recursive languages, and this could shape kinds of behaviors, perceptions, and identities that would be alien to the literary mind.

Cultural tools such as linguistic recursion are like scaffolding that can be used to build structures according to various designs and for various purposes: cathedrals, apartment buildings, monuments, etc. But once construction is finished, the scaffolding can be removed and the structure will hold itself in place without further use of scaffolding, other than occasional need for maintenance, repairs, and renovations. With a lifetime of mental habits developed from reading and writing, speaking and hearing recursive language, it is built into our neurocognitive-cultural substructure and built into the institutions and systems we are enmeshed in — as part of what Everett calls “dark matter of the mind”. Recursive language, for the average person, is only used selectively and subtly such that it is rarely noticed, if noticed at all. But we are all intimately familiar with it in our experience. It slips past our guard.

One might qualify the role of syntactic recursion by acknowledging that other cultural tools might be able to achieve the same or similar ends. “Some oral languages do regularly embed clauses,” points out Julie Sedivy, “suggesting that writing is not necessary for complex syntax. But, as can be seen in a number of indigenous languages, longer and more complicated sentences often emerge as a result of contact with a written language.” The point remains that the most convoluted sentence structures all come out of literate and literary societies. Recursion remains the ultimate cultural tool for this purpose, but obviously no cultural tool is used in isolation. These highly developed cultural tools are primarily used in writing, not speech: “In current English, writing uses more varied vocabulary than conversational speech, and it uses rarer and longer words much more often. Certain structures (such as passive sentences, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses) appear more often in written than spoken language. Writers generally elaborate their ideas more explicitly through syntax whereas speakers leave more material implicit.”

Language is never static, though. These cultural tools are adapted to changes in media. “In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.”

third man, ghost voice/note, repetition-compulsion, addiction, egoic consciousness, rigid boundaries

paratactic animal speech

writing as transformational: Julian Jaynes, Marshall McLuhan, WEIRD

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The Politics of Recursion: Hypotaxis, Hierarchy, and Healing
by kulturCritic

In short, recursion enables the construction of complex hypotactic language units rather than just simple paratactic ones. Parataxis, as I am sure you are all aware, is when each of your sentences in a larger grammatical unit carries equal weighting. Paratactic units usually have few, if any clauses, and more importantly, none of the clauses are subordinated one to another in a hierarchical scheme. Hypotaxis, on the other hand, occurs when clauses in sentences, or in larger grammatical wholes, are subordinated to one another, focusing attention on what is considered of greater importance or value within the semantic, syntactic, or larger logistic unit. In other words, recursion, by means of subordination, allows for the rudimentary and foundational element of hierarchization. Hierarchy, socio-economic and political, we might here add, is also one of the hallmarks of post-traditional societies […]

As cultural historian Marvin Bram contends in The Recovery Of The West, “Parataxis suggests coordination more than subordination, and any number of sequences rather than a single correct sequence. Parataxis de-hierarchizes the world,” where the flat, coordinate, and non-orderliness of a paratactic world seems rather primitive or prosaic to the ever more civilized and tightly structured hypotactic logistic.  Bram continues:

Parataxis is concerned with the concrete thing itself, the local and contained, and the moment, rather than with relationships among abstract things and over-arching spatial and temporal schemes… Paratactic space and time make dramatic antitheses to their hypotactic counterparts.10

For example, a person walking down a forest path seeing paratactically will see much more than a person looking hypotactically along the same path but only seeing what is of interest to him.  The paratactic visual space will be fuller. As Bram concludes,

This phenomenon of paratactic persons taking in more of the world, living in a fuller world than hypotactic persons, has been reported time and time again by (hypotactic) travelers among (paratactic) traditional peoples. 11 […]

Yet, there was also born regret for the past poorly lived and anxiety over a future still uncertain, in short, the terror of an historical consciousness, and the realization that ‘one-day I too will die.’ As Bram reminds us,

In paratactic time there is little past because there are no complete logistic structures to be sought there, and there is little future because there is no need for a place in which to complete incomplete logistic structures.  There is certainly a present, gathering to itself much of the energy that hypotactic persons give to the past and future, and inhabited by full persons and full objects: a full present.  The present of hypotactic time often enough takes third place behind the past and the future, depleted of energy: an empty present. 12

But, what was lost in this transformation to the hypotactic word, in the subordination of thought and speech within the apparently universal grammar of literacy, univocity, and its newly appropriated voice – the sterile logic of syllogism and, finally, of mathematics?

The Shapeless Unease, A Year of Not Sleeping
by Samantha Harvey
pp. 42-51

Think of a sentence:

One day I’d like to write a story about a man who, while robbing a cash machine, loses his wedding ring and has to go back for it because his wife, a terrifying individual whose material needs have driven him to crime, will no doubt kill him if the ring is lost.

A sentence with multiple clauses, one clause buried within another like Russian dolls. If we take each doll out and line them up we get:

One day I’d like to write a story.
The story is about a man.
A man robs a cash machine.
A man loses his wedding ring.
A man goes back to the cash machine for his wedding ring.
A man has a wife.
The wife is terrifying.
The wife has many material needs.
The man is driven to crime by his wife.
The ring must not get lost.
The wife could kill the man.

We tend to speak in sentences of multiple clauses, not in clauses that have been separated out. Noam Chomsky has called these multiple clauses instances of recursion, and he thinks they’re what define human language. They reflect our unique ability to position a thought inside a thought, to move from the immediate to the abstract, to infinite other places and times. A circle in a spiral, a wheel within a wheel; a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own. In theory, an infinitely long, recursive sentence is possible, says Chomsky; there is no limit to the mind’s capacity to embed one thought inside another. Our language is recursive because our minds are recursive. Infinitely windmilling.

But then came studies on the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon, who do not make recursive sentences. Their language doesn’t permit them to make the sentence I made above, or even something like When it rains I’ll take shelter. For the Pirahã it would have to be It rains. I take shelter. They don’t embed a thought inside a thought, nor travel from one time or place to another within a single sentence.

When it rains, unless I take shelter, I get wet.
Unless I want to get wet, I take shelter when it rains.
So that I stay dry when it rains, I take shelter.

For the Pirahã tribe there are no sentences like these – there is none of this restless ranging from one hypothesis to another. Instead, It rains. I take shelter. Or, I take shelter. I don’t get wet. Or, I take shelter. I stay dry.

The Pirahã seem incapable of abstraction. They seem literal in the extreme – their ability to learn new grammar rules through a computerised game, by predicting which way an icon of a monkey would go when a type of sentence was generated, was thwarted in almost every case by their inability to see the monkey as real, and therefore to care what it would do next. They became fascinated and distracted by the icon, or by the colours on the screen. One of them fell asleep in the middle of the test. ‘They don’t do new things’ was the repeated assertion of Daniel Everett, the only westerner who has ever got anywhere near knowing and understanding the Pirahã language and culture. They don’t tell stories. They don’t make art. They have no supernatural or transcendental beliefs. They don’t have individual or collective memories that go back more than one or two generations. They don’t have fixed words for colours. They don’t have numbers.

Yet they are a bright, alert, capable, witty people who are one of the only tribes in the world to have survived – largely in the jungle – without any concession to the modern world. A meal might involve sucking the brains from a just-killed rat. A house is fronds of palm or a piece of leather strung over four sticks in the ground. They have no possessions. Their language might involve speaking, but it might also occur through whistling, singing or humming. And their experience of the present moment is seemingly absolute. ‘The Pirahã’s excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe,’ Everett writes. ‘They see this almost as travelling into another dimension.’ 6

[6 This and every of Everett’s quotations here is from his paper ‘Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã’.]

There is a Pirahã word that Everett heard often and couldn’t deduce the meaning of: xibipiio. Sometimes it would be a noun, sometimes a verb, sometimes an adjective or adverb. So and so would xibipiio go upriver, and xibipiio come back. The fire flame would be xibipiio-ing. Over time Everett realised that it designated a concept, something like going in and out of experience – ‘crossing the border between experience and non-experience’. Anything not in the here and now disappears from experience, it xibipiios, and arrives back in experience as once again the here and now. There isn’t a ‘there’ or a ‘then’, there are just the things xibipiio-ing in and out of the here and now.

There is no past or future tense as such in Pirahã; the language has two tense-like morphemes – remote things (not here and now) are appended by -a and proximate things (here and now) by – i . These morphemes don’t so much describe time as whether the thing spoken about is in the speaker’s direct experience or not. The Pirahã language doesn’t lay experiences out on a past–present–future continuum as almost every other language does. In English we can place events quite precisely on this continuum: it had rained, it rained, it has rained, it rains, it is raining, it will rain, it will have rained. The Pirahã can only say whether the rain is proximate (here) or not.

They can then modify a verb to qualify the claims they make about it. If they say ‘It rained in the night’, the verb ‘rain’ will be modified by one of three morphemes to convey how they know it rained, i.e. whether they heard about it (someone told them), deduced it (saw the ground was wet in the morning), or saw/heard it for themselves. The Pirahã language and culture is not only literal but evidence-based. How do you know something happened? If the line of hearsay becomes too long, involving too many steps away from experience, the thing is no longer deemed to be of any importance to speak or think about. This is why they don’t have transcendental beliefs or collective memories and stories and myths that go back generations.

What a thing this is, to be so firmly entrenched in the here and now. What a thing. We are, I am, spread chaotically in time. Flung about. I can leap thirty-seven years in a moment; I can be six again, listening to my mum singing while she cleans the silver candelabra she treasures, that reminds her of a life she doesn’t have. I can sidestep into another possible version of myself now, one who made different, better decisions. I can rest my entire life on the cranky hinge of the word ‘if’. My life is when and until and yesterday and tomorrow and a minute ago and next year and then and again and forever and never.

Time leaks everywhere into English, some ten per cent of the most commonly used words are expressions of time. The Pirahã language has almost no words that depict time. This is all of them: another day; now; already; day; night; low water; high water; full moon; during the day; noon; sunset/sunrise; early morning, before sunrise. Their words for these are literally descriptive – the expression for day is ‘in sun’, for noon ‘in sun big be’ and for night ‘be at fire’.

Are there whole slices and movements of time that the Pirahã people don’t experience, then? If they can only speak in terms of ‘another day’, do they not experience ‘yesterday’ and ‘a year ago’ as different things? If something doesn’t exist in a language, does it also not exist in the minds of those who speak the language?

I wondered that when I tried to teach the perfect tense to Japanese students; there isn’t a perfect tense in Japanese. When I taught the sentence I have eaten I got blank looks, incomprehension. Why not just say I ate? Why say I have been to Europe when you could just say I went to Europe? I tried to illustrate: I ate (before, at some time you need to specify – this morning, all day yesterday); I have eaten (just now, I’m still full). Blank looks, incomprehension. In the perfect tense a period of time opens out, the past, not as separate from the present, but running up to and meeting the present. I have eaten; we’ve danced all night; it’s been a year. Do the Japanese not experience that segment of time? Or is it that they deal with it in other linguistic ways, or by inference and context?

Everett described the Pirahã’s mode of being as ‘live here and now’. If you live here and now, you don’t need recursion in language because there’s no conceptual need to join together ideas or states according to their order in time, or in terms of which causes which, or in terms of hypothetical outcomes. You don’t need a past or future tense if you’re living only now. You don’t need a large stock of words that try to nail down instances of time along a horizontal continuum from the distant past to the distant future, a continuum that also has an enormous elastic stretch into the vertical planes of virtual time, time as it intersects with space, time as happening elsewhere, real or imagined.

What would it be like to be a person of the Pirahã tribe? How would it be to not experience that continuum? For one’s mind to not be an infinitely recursive wheel within a wheel? It feels in some ways a relief, even to imagine such a mode of living, but it feels almost non-human too. And yet there the Pirahã are, as human as human can be. I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine being anything but submersed in time, it ticking in every cell. […]

As for the continual vanishing of the now, well, here is also the continual birth of the now. A live birth, from a living now; there are no deaths, there’s no hiatus. It seems to me that now is the largest, most predictable and most durable of all things, and that the question isn’t so much: what is time but a set of nothings? But more: what is time but an indomitable something? An unscalable wall of now. When I think of the Pirahã I don’t imagine them cresting the brink of a collapsing moment, each step bringing an existential vertigo. I imagine them fishing, skinning animals, drinking, painting their faces, building shelter. It rains. We stay dry. Their here and now seems as solid to me as one brick – it rains – laid on another – we stay dry.

What would it be like to live and think like the Pirahã? For the world to be continually xibipiio-ing? No mad spooling out of events through time, all chain-linked and dragged each by the next, one event causing another, one event blamed for another, one past pain locked into a present pain to cause future pain; no. No things crossing the boundary from experience to non-experience. Just things disappearing and reappearing around the bend of the river. […]

[The author watched a digital clock while in an altered state from sickness. The numbers…] bore no relationship to me. They weren’t tugging in a forwards direction, they were just things gently changing, rearranging, in the same way that the clouds rearrange, and they were rearranging in a vast stillness. They were xibipiio-ing. Only: here I am. Then: here I am. Then: here I am. Is that akin to the Pirahã’s experience of time?

Is that where the dance is, the dance T. S. Eliot told us about when we read Four Quartets as uncomprehending teenagers? At the still point, there the dance is.

Cultural Body-Mind

Daniel Everett is an expert on the Piraha, although he has studied other tribal cultures. It’s unsurprising then to find him make the same observations in different books. One particular example (seen below) is about bodily form. I bring it up becomes it contradicts much of the right-wing and reactionary ideology found in genetic determinism, race realism, evolutionary psychology, and present HBD (as opposed to the earlier human biodiversity theory originated by Jonathan Marks).

From the second book below, the excerpt is part of a larger section where Everett responded to the evolutionary psychologist John Tooby, the latter arguing that there is no such thing as ‘culture’ and hence everything is genetic or otherwise biological. Everett’s use of dark matter of the mind is his way of attempting to get at more deeply complex view. This dark matter is of the mind but also of the body. But he isn’t the only person to make such physiological observations.

The same point was emphasized in reading Ron Schmid’s Primal Nutrition. On page 57, there are some photographs showing healthy individuals from traditional communities. In one set of photographs, four Melanesian boys are shown who look remarkably similar. “These four boys lived on four different islands and were not related. Each had nutrition adequate for the development of the physical pattern typical of Melanesian males; thus their similar appearance.” This demonstrates non-determinism and non-essentialism.

* * *

How Language Began:
The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention

by Daniel L. Everett
pp. 220-221

Culture, patterns of being – such as eating, sleeping, thinking and posture – have been cultivated. A Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that their minds have been cultivated – because of the roles they play in a particular set of values and because of how they define, live out and prioritise these values, the roles of individuals in a society and the knowledge they have acquired.

It would be worth exploring further just how understanding language and culture together can enable us better to understand each. Such an understanding would also help to clarify how new languages or dialects or any other variants of speech come about. I think that this principle ‘you talk like who you talk with’ represents all human behaviour. We also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, etc. We take on a wide range of shared attributes – our associations shape how we live and behave and appear – our phenotype. Culture affects our gestures and our talk. It can even affect our bodies. Early American anthropologist Franz Boas studied in detail the relationship between environment, culture and bodily form. Boas made a solid case that human body types are highly plastic and change to adapt to local environmental forces, both ecological and cultural.

Less industrialised cultures show biology-culture connections. Among the Pirahã, facial features range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian, to Native American. Differences between villages or families may have a biological basis, originating in different tribes merging over the last 200 years. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty) – usually found occupying a single village – are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two centuries ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different – broader noses, some with epicanthic folds, large foreheads – giving an overall impression of similarity to East Asian features. ‡ Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are, or were when I worked with them, uniformly 27 inches (68 cm), their average height 5 feet 2 inches (157.5 cm) and their average weight 55 kilos (121 pounds). The Pirahã phenotypes are similar not because all Pirahãs necessarily share a single genotype, but because they share a culture, including values, knowledge of what to eat and values about how much to eat, when to eat and the like.

These examples show that even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behaviour can be summed up in the slogan that ‘you talk like who you talk with’ or ‘grow like who you grow with’. And the same would have held for all our ancestors, even erectus .

Dark Matter of the Mind:
The Culturally Articulated Unconscious

by Daniel L. Everett
Kindle Locations 1499-1576

Thus while Tooby may be absolutely right that to have meaning, “culture” must be implemented in individual minds, this is no indictment of the concept. In fact, this requirement has long been insisted on by careful students of culture, such as Sapir. Yet unlike, say, Sapir, Tooby has no account of how individual minds— like ants in a colony or neurons in a brain or cells in a body— can form a larger entity emerging from multi-individual sets of knowledge, values, and roles. His own nativist views offer little insight into the unique “unconscious patterning of society” (to paraphrase Sapir) that establishes the “social set” to which individuals belong.

The idea of culture, after all, is just that certain patterns of being— eating, sleeping, thinking, posture, and so forth— have been cultivated and that minds arising from one such “field” will not be like minds cultivated in another “field.” The Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that his or her mind has been cultivated— because of the roles he or she plays in a particular value grouping, because of the ranking of values that her or she has come to share, and so on.

We must be clear, of course, that the idea of “cultivation” we are speaking of here is not merely of minds, but of entire individuals— their minds a way of talking about their bodies. From the earliest work on ethnography in the US, for example, Boas showed how cultures affect even body shape. And body shape is a good indication that it is not merely cognition that is effected and affected by culture. The uses, experiences, emotions, senses, and social engagements of our bodies forget the patterns of thought we call mind. […]

Exploring this idea that understanding language can help us understand culture, consider how linguists account for the rise of languages, dialects, and all other local variants of speech. Part of their account is captured in linguistic truism that “you talk like who you talk with.” And, I argue, this principle actually impinges upon all human behavior. We not only talk like who we talk with, but we also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, and so on. We take on a wide range of shared attributes; our associations shape how we live and behave and appear— our phenotype. Culture can affect our gestures and many other aspects of our talk. Boas (1912a, 1912b) takes up the issue of environment, culture, and bodily form. He provides extensive evidence that human body phenotypes are highly plastic and subject to nongenetic local environmental forces (whether dietary, climatological, or social). Had Boas lived later, he might have studied a very clear and dramatic case; namely, the body height of Dutch citizens before and after World War II. This example is worth a close look because it shows that bodies— like behaviors and beliefs— are cultural products and shapers simultaneously.

The curious case of the Netherlanders fascinates me. The Dutch went from among the shortest peoples of Europe to the tallest in the world in just over one century. One account simplistically links the growth in Dutch height with the change in political system (Olson 2014): “The Dutch growth spurt of the mid-19th century coincided with the establishment of the first liberal democracy. Before this time, the Netherlands had grown rich off its colonies but the wealth had stayed in the hands of the elite. After this time, the wealth began to trickle down to all levels of society, the average income went up and so did the height.” Tempting as this single account may be, there were undoubtedly other factors involved, including gene flow and sexual selection between Dutch and other (mainly European) populations, that contribute to explain European body shape relative to the Dutch. But democracy, a new political change from strengthened and enforced cultural values, is a crucial component of the change in the average height of the Dutch, even though the Dutch genotype has not changed significantly in the past two hundred years. For example, consider figures 2.1 and 2.2. In 1825, US male median height was roughly ten centimeters (roughly four inches) taller than the average Dutch. In the 1850s, the median heights of most males in Europe and the USA were lowered. But then around 1900, they begin to rise again. Dutch male median height lagged behind that of most of the world until the late ’50s and early ’60s, when it began to rise at a faster rate than all other nations represented in the chart. By 1975 the Dutch were taller than Americans. Today, the median Dutch male height (183 cm, or roughly just above six feet) is approximately three inches more than the median American male height (177 cm, or roughly five ten). Thus an apparent biological change turns out to be largely a cultural phenomenon.

To see this culture-body connection even more clearly, consider figure 2.2. In this chart, the correlation between wealth and height emerges clearly (not forgetting that the primary determiner of height is the genome). As wealth grew, so did men (and women). This wasn’t matched in the US, however, even though wealth also grew in the US (precise figures are unnecessary). What emerges from this is that Dutch genes are implicated in the Dutch height transformation, from below average to the tallest people in the world. And yet the genes had to await the right cultural conditions before they could be so dramatically expressed. Other cultural differences that contribute to height increases are: (i) economic (e.g., “white collar”) background; (ii) size of family (more children, shorter children); (iii) literacy of the child’s mother (literate mothers provide better diets); (iv) place of residence (residents of agricultural areas tend to be taller than those in industrial environments— better and more plentiful food); and so on (Khazan 2014). Obviously, these factors all have to do with food access. But looked at from a broader angle, food access is clearly a function of values, knowledge, and social roles— that is, culture.

Just as with the Dutch, less-industrialized cultures show culture-body connections. For example, Pirahã phenotype is also subject to change. Facial features among the Pirahãs range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian to American Indian (to use terms from physical anthropology). Phenotypical differences between villages or families seem to have a biological basis (though no genetic tests have been conducted). This would be due in part to the fact Pirahã women have trysts with various non-Pirahã visitors (mainly river traders and their crews, but also government workers and contract employees on health assistance assignments, demarcating the Pirahã reservation, etc.). The genetic differences are also partly historical. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty)— usually found occupying a single village— are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two hundred years ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different— broader noses; some with epicanthic folds; large foreheads— giving an overall impression of similarity to Cambodian features. This and other evidence show us that the Pirahã gene pool is not closed. 4 Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are or were uniformly 83 centimeters (about 32.5 inches), their average height 157.5 centimeters (five two), and their average weight 55 kilos (about 121 pounds).

I learned about the uniformity in these measurements over the past several decades as I have taken Pirahã men, women, and children to stores in nearby towns to purchase Western clothes, when they came out of their villages for medical help. (The Pirahãs always asked that I purchase Brazilian clothes for them so that they would not attract unnecessary stares and comments.) Thus I learned that the measurements for men were nearly identical. Biology alone cannot account for this homogeneity of body form; culture is implicated as well. For example, Pirahãs raised since infancy outside the village are somewhat taller and much heavier than Pirahãs raised in their culture and communities. Even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behavior can be summed up in the slogan that “you talk like who you talk with” or “grow like who you grow with.”

Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature

“I is another.”
~Arthur Rimbaud

I was listening to the audio version of Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. It’s less than five hours long and so I listened to it multiple times to get a good sense of it. I’ve read plenty about the topic and I’m already generally familiar with the material, but it was still helpful getting an overview.

One part that interested me was about split brain research, something that always interests me. The roles of and relationship between the hemispheres indicates much about how our minds operate. Blackmore discussed one often referenced study where split brain patients had information given separately to each hemisphere in order to see how the individual would explain their behavior. As the left hemisphere typically controls linguistic communication, individuals couldn’t give accurate reasons for what was done by their right hemisphere.

The author wrote that (pp. 72-3),

“In this way, the verbal left brain covered up its ignorance by confabulating. It did the same when the other half was shown an emotional picture – making up a plausible excuse for laughing, smiling, blushing, or whatever emotional reaction had been provoked. This might help to explain how these patients can appear so normal. But it should also make us wonder about ourselves. Our brains consist of lots of relatively independent modules, and the verbal part does not have access to everything that goes on, yet it frequently supplies convincing reasons for our actions. How many of these are plausible confabulations rather than true reasons, and can we tell?

“From these experiments, Sperry concluded that his patients had two conscious entities in one head; each having private sensations and free will. In contrast, Gazzaniga argued that only the left hemisphere sustains ‘the interpreter’, which uses language, organizes beliefs, and ascribes actions and intentions to people. Only this hemisphere has ‘high-level consciousness’, leaving the other hemisphere with many abilities and skills but without true consciousness.”

She points out that there is no way to resolve this issue. We can’t prove what is really going on here, even as it touches upon our most personal experience. But she adds that, “Bundle theory does away with the problem altogether. There is neither one self nor two selves inside the split brain; there are experiences but there is no one who is having them” (p. 74). What this means is that our experience of an egoic consciousness is overlaid on the entire experiential field, one experience presenting itself as all experience. Or else an interpretation of experience that alters what we experience and how we experience it. The self as coherent individuality is a mirage. That isn’t to say it is meaningless. Our minds naturally look for patterns, even or especially within our own minds. Meaning is always what we bring to our experience.

As for actual reading, as opposed to listening to audiobooks, my focus has still been on Daniel Everett’s recent publication, Dark Matter of the Mind. It is a difficult read in many parts because much of the linguistics scholarship goes over my head and the academic language can get tiresome, but I’ve been determined to finish it and I’m now near the last chapter. Parts of it are quite interesting, such as his mentioning the theory that “gestures and speech were equally and simultaneously implicated in the evolution of language” (Kindle Location 5102). He then details the relevance of gestures and the embodied communication (Kindle Locations 5108-5111):

““Mead’s loop,” wherein one’s own gestures are responded to by one’s own mirror neurons in the same way that these neurons respond to the actions of others, thus bringing one’s own actions into the realm of the social and contributing crucially to the development of a theory of mind— being able to interpret the actions of others under the assumption that others have minds like we do and think according to similar processes.”

That is what came to mind while listening to what Blackmore had to say about bundle theory of experience. The parts of the ‘self’ don’t form a coherent whole so much as they are involved in intimate contact and communication.

Our experience is social at the most fundamental level, a social phenomenon within each person’s body and social connection to the bodies of others. Our embodied selves are shifting realities with blurred boundaries, out of which forms patterns of social order and social identities. As others have argued, we develop a theory of mind within ourselves by first sussing out a theory of mind about others. So, our sense of self is built on our sense of others, which is to say we understand the relationships between experiences within own embodied minds as an inseparable understanding of our relationships with the larger world.

It’s hard to get at what this might mean. But one important factor is that of language. As Julian Jaynes argued in his book about the bicameral mind, “language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication” (p. 50, Kindle edition). Perception is always embodied. In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist offers a summary that resonates with what I shared above by Everett (pp. 122-123):

“language originates as an embodied expression of emotion, that is communicated by one individual ‘inhabiting’ the body, and  therefore the emotional world, of another; a bodily skill, further, that is acquired by each of us through imitation, by the emotional identification and intuitive harmonisation of the bodily states of the one who learns with the one from whom it is learnt; a skill moreover that originates in the brain as an analogue of bodily movement, and involves the same processes, and even the same brain areas, as certain highly expressive gestures, as well as involving neurones (mirror neurones) that are activated equally when we carry out an action and when we see another carry it out (so that in the process we can almost literally be said to share one another’s bodily experience and inhabit one another’s bodies); a process, finally, that anthropologists see as derived from music, in turn an extension of grooming, which binds us together as physically embodied beings through a form of extended body language that is emotionally compelling across a large number of individuals within the group.”

Both Everett and McGilchrist are concerned with the evolution and development of language. They see it as inseparable from the embodied mind and the enculturated self. As Everett discusses the importance of gesture, McGilchrist explores the role of music and poetry. There is a strong argument that non-linguistic communication (gesture and/or poetry-music) was well established and highly effective among the earliest hominids, including pre-linguistic homo sapiens. It seems likely that this was the base upon which was built language as we know it.

Jaynes argues that written language was one of the factors that weakened the bicameral mind, a particular pre-egoic bundle theory. Prior to that, oral culture dominated; and in oral culture, language is intertwined with other aspects of human experience and behavior. Some of the evidence supporting this is how ancient humans sometimes spoke of body parts as having their own minds (a way of talking that continued into late Axial Age such as the New Testament canon, such that hands and eyes aren’t necessarily considered part of an integrally whole self; and it should be noted that the New Testament tradition was passed on orally for a number of generations before being written down). This is an experience still spoken of by some of those with schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Even otherwise normal people will have voice-hearing experiences where the voices heard aren’t located in the head, sometimes in or around other parts of the body.

Most of human cognition and behavior is unconscious. The same goes for most of human communication and much of that non-conscious communication is also non-linguistic. This is the bodily or embodied unconscious. This relates to the social nature of our psyches, as with rapport where people mimic each other unawares (gestures, posture, breathing, etc) along with how yawns and laughter can be contagious. What I’m wondering about is how does the body-mind create rapport with itself in order to coordinate its vast multitudinous complexity.

Because of hemispheric divisions, for example, parts of the mind act rather independently. The corpus callosum doesn’t just allow the hemispheres to communicate for it also inhibits and restricts that communication, in ways and for reasons we don’t yet fully understand. Even when the corpus callosum is entirely cut making direct neurological communication impossible, the two hemispheres are able to coordinate behavior such that a person appears normal, even as two separate minds seem to be operating within the skull. Without directly communicating with one another, how do the hemispheres accomplish this?

The simplest answer is that both hemispheres have access to the sensory organs on the opposite side of the body and so can indirectly observe what the other hemisphere is doing (and, in the case of the left hemisphere, hear it’s explanations). But interestingly the two divided hemispheres can come to different conclusions based on different their separate input and processing. They can also act independently, a literal scenario of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Here is a different kind of example from Everett (Kindle Locations 5071-5076):

“At age nineteen, IW suddenly lost all sense of touch and proprioception below the neck due to an infection. The experiments conducted by McNeill and his colleagues show that IW is unable to control instrumental movements when he cannot see his hands (though when he can see his hands, he has learned how to use this visual information to control them in a natural-appearing manner). What is fascinating is that IW, when speaking, uses a number of (what IW refers to as) “throwaway gestures” that are well coordinated, unplanned, nonvisually reliant, speech-connected gestures. McNeill concludes that at a minimum, this case provides evidence that speech gestures are different from other uses of the hands— even other gesturing uses of the hands.”

So, gestures are connected to speech. And gestures happen spontaneously. But even without proprioreception, other senses can be used to bridge the gap between conscious and unconscious expression. There are clearly different areas of behavior, cognition, and communication that relate in different ways. We are embodied minds and we know our minds through our bodies. And most of what our mind does is never accessed or controlled by consciousness. As research has shown, consciousness often only plays a role after behavior has already been initiated (less a power of will than a power of won’t).

So, what kind of mind is it that we have or rather that has us?

What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?

In Dark Matter of the Mind, Daniel Everett contrasts Plato and Aristotle. He sides with the latter, specifically in terms of a blank slate view of the human mind. But most people wouldn’t understand what is meant by a blank slate in this context. He explains that (Kindle Locations 1140-1143),

Like Aristotle, Locke did not believe that the absence of knowledge on a tablet means that the tablet has no other properties. It has the capacity to receive and store information and more. Neither philosopher thought of the tabula rasa as devoid of capacity to be written on, not even of capacity to write upon itself. In my reading, they meant by tabula rasa not that there were no innate abilities, but that there were no innate specific concepts.

This is hard to grasp the exact distinction. It’s not an argument that nothing is preexisting. All that it means is nothing is predetermined, as already formed (i.e., Platonic forms). So, what exactly might be already present at birth and innate to all human minds?

I’m still not entirely sure about Everett’s answer to that question. He is critical of someone like Jung, based on the claim of Platonic error or overreach. Here is his description (Kindle Locations 971-973):

Jung (1875– 1961), another of the leading dark matter theorists in the Platonic tradition, was the founder of “analytical psychology” (Jung [1916] 2003). Fundamental to this form of therapy and the theory behind it was, again, Bastian’s elementary ideas, which Jung reconceived as the “collective unconscious,” that is, innate tacit information common to all humans.

It’s the last part that is relevant, “innate tacit information common to all humans”. But is that an accurate interpretation of Jung? Let’s turn to Jung’s explanation of his own view (“Concerning the Archetypes with Special Reference to the Anima Concept”):

It is in my view a great mistake to suppose that the psyche of a new-born child is a tabula rasa in the sense that there is absolutely nothing in it. In so far as the child is born with a differentiated brain that is predetermined by heredity and therefore individualized, it meets sensory stimuli coming from outside not with any aptitudes, but with specific ones, and this necessarily results in a particular, individual choice and pattern of apperception. These aptitudes can be shown to be inherited instincts and preformed patterns, the latter being the a priori and formal conditions of apperception that are based on instinct. Their presence gives the world of the child and the dreamer its anthropomorphic stamp. They are the archetypes, which direct all fantasy activity into its appointed paths and in this way produce, in the fantasy-images of children’s dreams as well as in the delusions of schizophrenia, astonishing mythological parallels such as can also be found, though in lesser degree, in the dreams of normal persons and neurotics. It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.

Everett says that Jung is claiming “innate tacit information” and speaks of this in terms of Bastian’s “elementary ideas”. That seems to be the same as inherited ideas. If so, Jung is denying Everett’s allegation before it ever was made. “It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.” That doesn’t sound all that different in how Everett discusses the topic (Kindle Locations 349-355):

The theses of learned tacit knowledge and nativism need not be opposed, of course. It is possible that both learned and innate forms of tacit knowledge are crucially implicated in human cognition and behavior. What we are genuinely interested in is not a false dichotomy of extremes but in a continuum of possibilities— where do the most important or even the most overlooked contributions to knowledge come from?

I am here particularly concerned with difference, however, rather than sameness among the members of our species— with variation rather than homeostasis. This is because the variability in dark matter from one society to another is fundamental to human survival, arising from and sustaining our species’ ecological diversity. The range of possibilities produces a variety of “human natures”

That in turn sounds much like Jung. A variety of “human natures”. Well, Jung developed an entire theory about this, not just a variety through archetypes as inherited possibilities but more specifically a variety of human personality types (i.e., “human natures”). The potentials within humanity could constellate into many patterns, according to Jung. And his book about personality types was directly influential on anthropology in developing a modern understanding of the variety of cultures, of which Everett writes much about.

So, if a supposedly Platonic thinker like Jung can make a basic argument that isn’t necessarily and clearly distinct from a supposedly Aristotelian thinker like Everett, then what precisely is the distinction being proposed? How does one differentiate innate ideas and innate possibilities of ideas? Is anyone “genuinely interested in… a false dichotomy of extremes”?

Dark Matter of the Mind

The past half year has been spent in anticipation. Daniel Everett has a new book that finally came out the other day: Dark Matter of the Mind. I was so curious to read it because Everett is the newest and most well known challenger to mainstream linguistics theory. This is only an interest to me because it so happens to directly touch upon every aspect of our humanity: human nature (vs nurture), self-identity, consciousness, cognition, perception, behavior, culture, philosophy, etc.

The leading opponent to Everett’s theory is Noam Chomsky, a well-known and well-respected public intellectual. Chomsky is the founder of the so-called cognitive revolution — not that Everett sees it as all that revolutionary: “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Kindle Location 306). That brings into the conflict issues of personality, academia, politics, and funding. It’s two paradigms clashing, one of the paradigms having been dominant for more than a half century.

Now that I’ve been reading the book, I find my response to be mixed. Everett is running headlong into difficult terrain and I must admit he does so competently. He is doing the tough scholarly work that needs to be done. As Bill Benzon explained (at 3 Quarks Daily):

“While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them [4]. These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.”

This explanation points to a fundamental problem, if we are to consider it a problem. Earlier in the piece, Benzon wrote that, “OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.” Basically, Everett struggles with a limited framework of terminology and concepts. But that isn’t entirely his fault. It’s not exactly new territory that Everett discovered, just not yet fully explored and mapped out. The main thing he did, in his earliest work, was to bring up evidence that simply did not fit into prevailing theories. And now in a book like this he is trying to make sense of what that evidence indicates and what theory better explains it.

It would have been useful if Everett had been able to give a fuller survey of the relevant scholarship. But if he had, it would have been a larger and more academic book. It is already difficult enough for most readers not familiar with the topic. Besides, I suspect that Everett was pushing against the boundaries of his own knowledge and readings. It was easy for me to see everything that was left out, in relation to numerous other fields beyond his focus of linguistics and anthropology — such as: neurocognitive research, consciousness studies, classical studies of ancient texts, voice-hearing and mental health, etc.

The book sometimes felt like reinventing the wheel. Everett’s expertise is in linguistics, and apparently that has has been an insular field of study defended by a powerful and entrenched academic establishment. My sense is that linguistics is far behind in development, compared to many other fields. The paradigm shift that is just now happening in linguistics has been for decades creating seismic shifts elsewhere in academia. Some argue that this is because linguistics became enmeshed in Pentagon-funded computer research and so has had a hard time disentangling itself in order to become an independent field once again. Chomsky as leader of the cognitive revolution has effectively dissuaded a generation of linguists from doing social science, instead promoting the hard sciences, a problematic position to hold about a rather soft field like linguistics. As anthropologist Chris Knight explains it, in Decoding Chomsky (Chapter 1):

“[O]ne bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]

“So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.”

This makes Everett’s job harder than it should be, in breaking new ground in linguistics and in trying to connect it to the work already done elsewhere, most often in the social sciences. As humans are complex social animals living in a complex world, it is bizarre and plain counterproductive to study humans in the way one studies a hard science like geology. Humans aren’t isolated biological computers that can operate outside of the larger context of specific cultures and environments. But Chomsky simply assumes all of that is irrelevant on principle. Field research of actual functioning languages, as Everett has done, can be dismissed because it is mere social science. One can sense how difficult it is for Everett in struggling against this dominant paradigm.

Still, even with these limitations of the linguistics field, the book remains a more than worthy read. His using Plato and Aristotle to frame the issue was helpful to an extent, although it also added another variety of limitation. I got a better sense of the conflict of worldviews and how they relate to the larger history of ideas. But in doing so, I became more aware of the problems of that frame, very closely related to the problems of the nature vs nurture debate (for, in reality, nature and nurture are inseparable). He describes linguistic theoreticians like Chomsky as being in the Platonic school of thought. Chomsky surely would agree, as he has already made that connection in his own writings, what he discusses as Plato’s problem and Plato’s answer. Chomsky’s universal grammar are Platonic in nature, for as he has written such “knowledge is ‘remembered’” (“Linguistics, a personal view” from The Chomskyan Turn). This is Plato’s ananmesis and alethia, an unforgetting of what is true, based on the belief that humans are born with certain kinds of innate knowledge.

That is interesting to think about. But in the end I felt that something was being oversimplified or entirely left out. Everett is arguing against nativism, that there is an inborn predetermined human nature. It’s not so much that he is arguing for a blank slate as he is trying to explain the immense diversity and potential that exists across cultures. But the duality of nativism vs non-nativism lacks the nuance to wrestle down complex realities.

I’m sympathetic to Everett’s view and to his criticisms of the nativist view. But there are cross-cultural patterns that need to be made sense of, even with the exceptions that deviate from those patterns. Dismissing evidence is never satisfying. Along with Chomsky, he throws in the likes of Carl Jung. But the difference between Chomsky and Jung is that the former is an academic devoted to pure theory unsullied by field research while the latter was a practicing psychotherapist who began with the particulars of individual cases. Everett is arguing for a focus on the particulars, upon which to build theory, but that is what Jung did. The criticisms of Chomsky can’t be shifted over to Jung, no matter what one thinks of Jung’s theories.

Part of the problem is that the kind of evidence Jung dealt with remains to be explained. It’s simply a fact that certain repeating patterns are found in human experience, across place and time. That is evidence to be considered, not dismissed, however one wishes to interpret it. Not even most respectable nativist thinkers want to confront this kind of evidence that challenges conventional understandings on all sides. Maybe Jungian theories of archetypes, personality types, etc are incorrect. But how do we study and test such things, going from direct observation to scientific research? And how is the frame of nativism/non-nativism helpful at all?

Maybe there are patterns, not unlike gravity and other natural laws, that are simply native to the world humans inhabit and so might not be entirely or at all native to the human mind, which is to say not in the way that Chomsky makes nativist claims about universal grammar. Rather, these patterns would be native to to humans in the way and to the extent humans are native to the world. This could be made to fit into Everett’s own theorizing, as he is attempting to situate the human within larger contexts of culture, environment, and such.

Consider an example from psychedelic studies. It has been found that people under the influence of particular psychedelics often have similar experiences. This is why shamanic cultures speak of psychedelic plants as having spirits that reside within or are expressed through them.

Let me be more specific. DMT is the most common psychedelic in the world, it being found in numerous plants and even is produced in small quantities by the human brain. It’s an example of interspecies co-evolution, plants and humans having chemicals in common. Plants are chemistry factories and they use chemicals for various purposes, including communication with other plants (e.g., chemically telling nearby plants that something is nibbling on its leaves and so put up your chemical defenses) and communicating with non-plants (e.g., sending out bitter chemicals to help inform the nibbler that they might want to eat elsewhere). Animals didn’t just co-evolve with edible plants but also psychedelic plants. And humans aren’t the only species to imbibe. Maybe chemicals like DMT serve a purpose. And maybe there is a reason so many humans tripping on DMT experience what some describe as self-replicating machine elves or self-transforming fractal elves. Humans have been tripping on DMT for longer than civilization has existed.

DMT is far from being the only psychedelic plant like this. It’s just one of the more common. The reason plant psychedelics do what they do to our brains is because our brains were shaped by evolution to interact with chemicals like this. These chemicals almost seem designed for animal brains, especially DMT which our own brains produce.

That brings up some issues about the whole nativism/non-nativism conflict. Is a common experience many humans have with a psychedelic plant native to humans, native to the plant, or native to the inter-species relationship between human and plant? Where do the machine/fractal elves live, in the plant or in our brain? My tendency is to say that they in some sense ‘exist’ in the relationship between plants and humans, an experiential expression of that relationship, as immaterial and ephemeral as the love felt by two humans. These weird psychedelic beings are a plant-human hybrid, a shared creation of our shared evolution. They are native to our humanity to the extent that we are native to the ecosystems we share with those psychedelic plants.

Other areas of human experience lead down similar strange avenues. Take as another example the observations of Jacques Vallée. When he was a practicing astronomer, he became interested in UFOs as some of his fellow astronomers would destroy rather than investigate anomalous observational data. This led him to look into the UFO field and that led to his studying those claiming alien abduction experiences. What he noted was that the stories told were quite similar to fairy abduction folktales and shamanic accounts of initiation. There seemed to be a shared pattern of experience that was interpreted differently according to culture but that in a large number of cases the basic pattern held.

Or take yet another example. Judith Weissman has noted patterns among the stated experiences of voice-hearers. Another researcher on voice-hearing, Tanya Luhrmann, has studied how voice-hearing both has commonalities and differences across cultures. John Geiger has shown how common voice-hearing can be, even if for most people it is usually only elicited during times of stress. Based on this and the work of others, it is obvious that voice-hearing is a normal capacity existing within all humans. It is actually quite common among children and some theorize it was more common for adults in other societies. Is pointing out the surprisingly common experience of voice-hearing an argument for nativism?

These aspects of our humanity are plain weird. It was the kind of thing that always fascinated Jung. But what do we do with such evidence? It doesn’t prove a universal human nature that is inborn and predetermined. Not everyone has these experiences. But it appears everyone is capable of having these experiences.

This is where mainstream thinking in the field of linguistics shows its limitations. Going by Everett’s descriptions of the Pirahã, it seems likely that voice-hearing is common among them, although they wouldn’t interpret it that way. For them, voice-hearing appears to manifest as full possession and what, to Western outsiders, seems like a shared state of dissociation. It’s odd that as a linguist it didn’t occur to Everett to study the way of speaking of those who were possessed or to think more deeply about the experiential significance of the use of language indicating dissociation. Maybe it was too far outside of his own cultural biases, the same cultural biases that causes many Western voice-hearers to be medicated and institutionalized.

And if we’re going to talk about voice-hearing, we have to bring up Julian Jaynes. Everett probably doesn’t realize it, but his views seem to be in line with the bicameral theory or at least not in explicit contradiction with it on conceptual grounds. He seems to be coming out of the cultural school of thought within anthropology, the same influence on Jaynes. It is precisely Everett’s anthropological field research that distinguishes him from a theoretical linguist like Chomsky who has never formally studied any foreign language nor gone out into the field to test his theories. It was from studying the Pirahã firsthand over many years that the power of culture was impressed upon him. Maybe that is a commonality with Jaynes who began his career doing scientific research, not theorizing.

As I was reading the book, I kept being reminded of Jaynes, despite Everett never mentioning him or related thinkers. It’s largely how he talks about individuals situated in a world and worldview, along with his mentioning of Bordieu’s habitus. This fits into his emphasis on the culture and nurture side of influences, arguing that people (and languages) are products of their environments. Also, when Everett wrote that his view was there is “nothing to an individual but one’s body” (Kindle Location 328), it occurred to me how this fit into the proposed experience of hypothetical ancient bicameral humans. My thought was confirmed when he stated that his own understanding was most in line with the Buddhist anatnam, ‘non-self’. Just a week ago, I wrote the following in reference to Jaynes’ bicameral theory:

“We modern Westerners identify ourselves with our thoughts, the internalized voice of egoic consciousness. And we see this as the greatest prize of civilization, the hard-won rights and freedoms of the heroic individual. It’s the story we tell. But in other societies, such as in the East, there are traditions that teach the self is distinct from thought. From the Buddhist perspective of dependent (co-)origination, it is a much less radical notion that the self arises out of thought, instead of the other way around, and that thought itself simply arises. A Buddhist would have a much easier time intuitively grasping the theory of bicameralism, that thoughts are greater than and precede the self.”

Jaynes considered self-consciousness and self-identity to be products of thought, rather than the other way around. Like Everett, this is an argument against the old Western belief in a human soul that is eternal and immortal, that Platonically precedes individual corporality. But notions like Chomsky’s universal grammar feel like an attempt to revamp the soul for a scientific era, a universal human nature that precedes any individual, a soul as the spark of God and the divine expressed as a language imprinted on the soul. If I must believe in something existing within me that pre-exists me, then I’d rather go with alien-fairy-elves hiding out in the tangled undergrowth of my neurons.

Anyway, how might Everett’s views of nativism/non-nativism been different if he had been more familiar with the work of these other researchers and thinkers? The problem is that the nativism/non-nativism framework is itself culturally biased. It’s related to the problem of anthropologists who try to test the color perception of other cultures using tests that are based on Western color perception. Everett’s observations of the Pirahã, by the way, have also challenged that field of study — as he has made the claim that the Pirahã have no color terms and no particular use in discriminating colors. That deals with the relationship of language to cognition and perception. Does language limit our minds? If so, how and to what extent? If not, are we to assume that such things as ‘colors’ are native to how the human brain functions? Would an individual born into and raised in a completely dark room still ‘see’ colors in their mind’s eye?

Maybe the fractal elves produce the colors, consuming the DMT and defecating rainbows. Maybe the alien-fairies abduct us in our sleep and use advanced technology to implant the colors into our brains. Maybe without the fractal elves and alien-fairies, we would finally all be colorblind and our society would be free from racism. Just some alternative theories to consider.

Talking about cultural biases, I was fascinated by some of the details he threw out about the Pirahã, the tribe he had spent the most years studying. He wrote that (Kindle Locations 147-148), “Looking back, I can identify many of the hidden problems it took me years to recognize, problems based in contrasting sets of tacit assumptions held by the Pirahãs and me.” He then lists some of the tacit assumptions held by these people he came to know.

They don’t appear to have any concepts, language, or interest in God or gods, in religion, or anything spiritual/supernatural that wasn’t personally experienced by them or someone they personally know. Their language is very direct and precise about all experience and the source of claims. But they don’t feel like they’re spiritually lost or somehow lacking anything. In fact, Everett describes them as being extremely happy and easygoing, except on the rare occasion when a trader gives them alcohol.

They don’t have any concern or fear about nor do they seek out and talk about death, the dead, ancestral spirits, or the afterlife. They apparently are entirely focused on present experience. They don’t speculate, worry, or even have curiosity about what is outside their experience. Foreign cultures are irrelevant to them, this being an indifference and not hatred of foreigners. It’s just that foreign cultures is thought of as good for foreigners, as Pirahã culture is good for Pirahã. Generally, they seem to lack the standard anxiety that is typical of our society, despite living in and walking around barefoot in one of the most dangerous environments on the planet surrounded by poisonous and deadly creatures. It’s actually malaria that tends to cut their lives short. But they don’t much comparison in thinking that their lives are cut short.

Their society is based on personal relationships and “do not like for any individual to tell another individual how to live” (Kindle Locations 149-150). They don’t have governments or, as far as I know, governing councils. They don’t practice social coercion, community-mandated punishments, and enforced norms. They are very small tribe living in isolation with a way of life that has likely remained basically the same for millennia. Their culture and lifestyle is well-adapted to their environmental niche, and so they don’t tend to encounter many new problems that require them to act differently than in the past. They also don’t practice or comprehend incarceration, torture, capital punishment, mass war, genocide, etc. It’s not that violence never happens in their society, but I get the sense that it’s rare.

In the early years of life, infants and young toddlers live in near constant proximity to their mothers and other adults. They are given near ownership rights of their mothers’ bodies, freely suckling whenever they want without asking permission or being denied. But once weaned, Pirahã are the opposite of coddled. Their mothers simply cut them off from their bodies and the toddlers go through a tantrum period that is ignored by adults. They learn from experience and get little supervision in the process. They quickly become extremely knowledgeable and capable about living in and navigating the world around them. The parents have little fear about their children and it seems to be well-founded, as the children prove themselves able to easily learn self-sufficiency and a willingness to contribute. It reminded me of Jean Liedloff’s continuum concept.

Then, once they become teenagers, they don’t go through a rebellious phase. It seems a smooth transition into adulthood. As he described it in his first book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 99-100):

“I did not see Pirahã teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Pirahã sense of productivity (good fishermen, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and o ther aspects of the physical survival of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Pirahã youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.

“Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you. I asked the Pirahãs once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. “You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.” That was and is the Pirahãs’ perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against.”

The most strange and even shocking aspect of Pirahã life is their sexuality. Kids quickly learn about sex. It’s not that people have sex out in the open. But it’s a lifestyle that provides limited privacy. Sexual activity isn’t considered a mere adult activity and children aren’t protected from it. Quite the opposite (Kindle Locations 2736-2745):

“Sexual behavior is another behavior distinguishing Pirahãs from most middle-class Westerners early on. A young Pirahã girl of about five years came up to me once many years ago as I was working and made crude sexual gestures, holding her genitalia and thrusting them at me repeatedly, laughing hysterically the whole time. The people who saw this behavior gave no sign that they were bothered. Just child behavior, like picking your nose or farting. Not worth commenting about.

“But the lesson is not that a child acted in a way that a Western adult might find vulgar. Rather, the lesson, as I looked into this, is that Pirahã children learn a lot more about sex early on, by observation, than most American children. Moreover, their acquisition of carnal knowledge early on is not limited to observation. A man once introduced me to a nine- or ten-year-old girl and presented her as his wife. “But just to play,” he quickly added. Pirahã young people begin to engage sexually, though apparently not in full intercourse, from early on. Touching and being touched seem to be common for Pirahã boys and girls from about seven years of age on. They are all sexually active by puberty, with older men and women frequently initiating younger girls and boys, respectively. There is no evidence that the children then or as adults find this pedophilia the least bit traumatic.”

This seems plain wrong to most Westerners. Then again, to the Pirahã, much of what Westerners do would seem plain wrong or simply incomprehensible. Which is worse, Pirahã pedophilia or Western mass violence and systematic oppression?

What is most odd is that, like death for adults, sexuality for children isn’t considered a traumatizing experience and they don’t act traumatized. It’s apparently not part of their culture to be traumatized. They aren’t a society based on and enmeshed in a worldview of violence, fear, and anxiety. That isn’t how they think about any aspect of their lifeworld. I would assume that, like most tribal people, they don’t have high rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Everett pointed out that in the thirty years he knew the Pirahã there never was a suicide. And when he told them about his stepmother killing herself, they burst out in laughter because it made absolutely no sense to them that someone would take their own life.

That demonstrates the power of culture, environment, and lifestyle. According to Everett, it also demonstrates the power of language, inseparable from the society that shapes and is shaped by it, and demonstrates how little we understand the dark matter of the mind.

* * *

The Amazon’s Pirahã People’s Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future
by Dominique Godrèche, Indian Country

Being Pirahã Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
by Christopher Ryan, Psychology Today

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion
by Suzanne Calulu, Patheos

The Suicide Paradox: Full Transcript
from Freakonomics

The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

I was talking to someone the other day who was telling me about a recent family visit (by the way, her telling of it reminded me of the type of story David Sedaris writes).

It was her older sister who was visiting and they were discussing the past. The older sister claimed that she used to go for rides on a pony that a neighbor had. The neighbor gave pony rides somewhere for money and would allow the sister to ride the pony home. However, the older sister also claimed that this pony owner also owned an elephant who would also sometimes follow along. The woman I was talking to didn’t believe her sister’s story about the elephant and so investigated by asking other family members and some old neighbors from the area. No one else remembered the elephant, but the older sister was absolutely certain about the elephant’s existence. It was real in her mind.

I find that amusing. None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story. I mean it’s logical that where there is a pony there might be an elephant. Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.

We all live in our own private fantasy worlds. I’ve been drawn to this idea. I think I first encountered it with Robert Anton Wilson’s writings about reality tunnels. It’s not just individuals but whole societies that get caught up in reality tunnels. In the case of personal memories, another person who knows us can offer a reality check. A collective reality tunnel is different because everyone within the society will reinforce the shared view of reality. Our collective retellings are rituals that remake the world in the way the Australian Aborigines remake the world by retracing the pathways of the gods. What if there is some truth to this? Maybe scientific laws and evolution are simply forms of collective memory.

This avenue of thought is explored in great detail by Philip K. Dick and by those influenced/inspired by PKD (for example: Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon and Ursula K. Leguin’s The Lathe of Heaven). I just finished reading PKD’s Eye in the Sky. I was mostly reading that novel while at work which led me to contemplate the world around me. I work late at night and staring into the concrete interior of a parking ramp (where I work) offers an interesting opportunity for contemplation.

My job at the parking ramp is cashier. In the large picture, it’s kind of a pointless job. With developing technology, it’s almost obsolete for all practical purposes. I sometimes envision myself working there in the future after the robots have taken over the job and my only purpose will be to wave and smile at the customers as they drive out. My job is merely representative of most of the pointless work humans occupy themselves with… but is it really pointless? Or is there some purpose being served that is less than obvious? Work is a ritual that sustains our society, the reality tunnel of our culture, of our entire civilization. From a practical perspective, most jobs could be eliminated and many things would run more smoothly and effectively without all the wasted effort of keeping people employed. But if all the pointless jobs were eliminated, there would be chaos with the masses of unemployed. Employing the mindless masses keeps them out of trouble and keeps them from revolting. Make them think their life actually has purpose. Still, a purpose is being served even if it’s simply maintaining social order. My point is that social order is merely the external facet of any given collective reality tunnel.

In PKD’s stories, the protagonist is often faced with a true reality that is hidden behind an apparent reality. This true reality isn’t somewhere else but is instead all around us. This is a gnostic vision of the kingdom on earth. PKD had a few spiritual visions which inspired his theologizing and his fiction writing. I too have had some visions that have made me question the status quo of normal reality.

In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?

“As long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild.”
~  J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur