Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Mind? (Part 1 of 2) - Patrick McNamara

Patrick McNamara - Neuroscience

Patrick McNamara

Patrick McNamara is Director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory in the Department of Neurology at the BU School of Medicine and the VA New England HealthCare System.

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Patrick
McNamara

Neuroscientist, BU School of Medicine

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Patrick, in trying to understand the nature of consciousness, one of the ways is we look at altered states of consciousness, different expressions of it, and religious transcendence, or enlightenment of certain kinds of people. As a neuropsychologist, how do you look at some of those altered states?

Patrick McNamara:

Altered states have been looked at in a variety of ways. One of the standard ways is through EEG analysis, you –

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Electro waves.

Patrick McNamara:

Yeah, EEG waves, and look at brainwave activity. And I think one of the reliable correlates of altered states of consciousness is people go into what is very well characterized as a REM state; they essentially go into REM sleep, although they're – they're awake.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

REM sleep being the rapid eye movement period of –

Patrick McNamara:

They have a desynchronized EEG, that's very characteristic of REM sleep.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Which is like our waking state, but [crosstalk].

Patrick McNamara:

It's like hypnosis partially, REM sleep partially, waking awareness partially, lucid dreaming partially. So, it's this hybrid state, but basically, the EEG is desynchronized. But the – the cognitively is where things really matter for an altered state, because cognitively, the identity switches. The normal, everyday identity is overcome by some larger identity. And so, the person feels, okay, I'm now becoming one with the universe, or what have you, you know? But I think that kind of altered state of consciousness is at the basis of religion, because it's being – it's – it's called by anthropologists spirit possession phenomenon, because peoples all over the world have engaged in that kind of altered state of, you know, they put aside the lower, or the old self, the self that's suffering or problematic in some way, and they take on a newer, higher consciousness that allows them to flourish somehow. And that's what every religion promises.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And you're calling that spirit possessions, but you don't mean it in a pejorative or negative sense; you mean it in a factual, empirical sense, and it can be positive, it can be negative. You, you don't make those judgments; you're just saying the person, him or herself, develops, is – becomes a new person, so to speak.

Patrick McNamara:

And they will tell you, in – in positive cases, they will tell you, I now am living out of a different form of consciousness, a higher level of consciousness. A Christian will say, I put on the mind of Christ, and Christ lives in me now, and my old self has died. Saint Paul said that, my old self has died away, Christ lives in me now and I'm living out of the Christ consciousness, so to speak. And you see that in all the world religions, and in all the shamanistic religions, spirit possession was at the center of their – their rituals. They would put on – they would take on the mind, so to speak – of a – of a – animal, a powerful animal, let's say. Then they're able to travel to different spirit realms, and they acquire powers, they bring back the powers, the powers allow them to heal. The most dramatic instances of altered state of consciousness is not really in a religious – well, it is in a religious context, because previous peoples called war religious. And that is the – that is, the individuals that – the berserkers; they were called berserkers. You would be facing a battle, it's so you need to rev yourself up to face this battle, and they would engage in these rituals, be possessed by, you know, a fierce, ferocious animal consciousness, and then they go into battle and, and all the records show, all over the world, century after century, that these guys were the warriors really to be feared. They would go into this state before a battle, and everybody would need to stand clear of them. All the women and children would have to go miles away, because everything in its path, in that individual's path would be annihilated. And this state of – this altered state of consciousness would last for days, sometimes. And they could, they could take on whole armies, it seems. In fact, there are records of battles where one or two berserkers took on – held back whole armies.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So – so, how do you explain that?

Patrick McNamara:

Putting on the mind, so to speak of a ferocious animal, in this case, allows you to – to put on an identity, cognitively speaking. What's going on is, a new identity is now accessing all kinds of areas of the mind brain that were not accessible to every day consciousness. And so, you have unusual powers. Shamans can heal, berserkers can kill, pretty good, and so forth, you know? In a positive case of spirit possession, putting on the mind of Christ, you get what Saint Paul claimed was the gifts of the Holy Spirit: humility, joy, peacefulness, calm, serenity, compassion for others, compassion for yourself. You know, those are pretty serious gifts. Those are pretty wonderful gifts, so this spirit possession phenomenon, I think, is at the core of religion, because it gives you access to power, and that's what religion's about, that access to these capacities.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Certainly, the Eastern traditions, Buddhism, et cetera, use that type of internal meditation as – as ways of recruiting such feelings. They may be different expressions than the Judeo-Christian religions, but they have, at the basis –

Patrick McNamara:

Same phenomena.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Same phenomena.

Patrick McNamara:

Absolutely. Yeah, if you ask Buddhist practitioners about it, that's what they'll tell you. You ask, and – and if you – if – even in Islam and, you know, the Sufi mystics, there's a huge literature on putting away the old self, and putting on this new consciousness. And it's – you see it in every religious tradition, I think, and I think that's – that's not controversial. I think most anthropologists of religion and most historians of religions say, yeah, spirit possession is universal.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Now, there's the negative side of spirit possession.

Patrick McNamara:

Ah, very interesting, yeah.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Which is demonic, and you see that in the New Testament, people possessed by these spirits will – will do terrible things and just, you know, be very crazed, schizophrenia, paranoia, all sorts of things.

Patrick McNamara:

Yeah. Demonic possession is really, really fascinating and it has in common with positive possession access to new powers. So, the person who's demonically possessed, if you look at the historical records, they start speaking unusual languages – all gibberish, of course – but they – but they do, they start speaking unusual languages, they have enormous reserves of energy, and they can engage in unacceptable behaviors, days and days at a time, you know? I mean, really gross and disgusting behaviors, days and days. And they can survive all kinds of extremes in temperature, so on and so forth. They can go without eating. I mean, it's – it's a horrendous – I think it's – demonic possession is a form of suffering that is extreme. When you read these case studies, it's extreme suffering these people are going through.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And what you're doing in understanding spirit possession, both in the positive and the negative, is really a deep probe of what consciousness is – it – in its totality.

Patrick McNamara:

That's the – that's the way I see it, yeah. I – I – I'm interested in spirit possession because it teaches us about religion, of course, but also because it – it teaches us about consciousness. When – when you go – when a person goes into a spirit possessed state, there are cases reported where handedness changes; so, a right-handed person can become left handed, and so forth. You know, or they have at – they – a bilingual has better access to their – their language capacities. So, I think spirit possession tells us something fundamental about consciousness, because what spirit possession involves is the transformation of identity, from one I – from one ego to another, more powerful ego. And, if – if that kind of transformation can occur and can have such drastic effects –

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Positive or negative.

Patrick McNamara:

On the capacities of a human being, then that says that consciousness must involve the I, must depend on identity in a very intimate way. Because you can have dramatic alterations in consciousness when you get the alterations in identity.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And so, therefore, spirit possession shows what happens when that identity changes and – and – and shifts erratically, be it positive in – in becoming a new person and better person, or a negative as in demon possession. But that's – directly affects the consciousness of the individual.

Patrick McNamara:

And it's very dramatic. I think it's one of the best records we have of alterations in consciousness, attested down through the centuries, across cultures, across all kinds of human beings. So, yeah.