I’m way behind on work today, so you will have to settle for a short blog post. You’ll recall that I have frequently referred to the work of South African researcher David Lewis-Williams, who proposed that Paleolithic cave art and the shamanic practices associated with Paleolithic and Neolithic religious expression could be attributed to altered states of consciousness. By extension, this same idea can be applied to modern alien abduction motifs and also provides a reasonable framework for understanding key imagery in ancient mythology.
Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward and Takashi Ikegami have just published a new paper in the Journal of Adaptive Behavior (21, no. 3) that examined cave paintings across 40,000 years in which they essentially concur that the patterns found in cave paintings are indicative of altered states of consciousness. However, the authors are not convinced that this explanation is sufficient to explain why prehistoric people worldwide loved to get high and paint spirals in caves. They specifically take Lewis-Williams to task for an incomplete explanation.
According to an enactive approach, self-sustaining neural dynamics can generate their own intrinsic value in relation to their conditions of self-maintenance, and they can also serve as a neural mechanism by which to decouple autonomous brain activity from the influence of environmentally mediated sensorimotor dynamics. Both of these aspects can help to explain the aesthetic selective biases of the first artists, in particular their interest in inner experience as exemplified by abstract hallucinations and imaginary phenomena, which are not directly related to the demands of their physical environment. We speculate that the self-sustaining dynamics may account for why these geometric hallucinations were experienced as more significant than other phenomena, and that at the same time their underlying neural dynamics may have served to mediate and facilitate a form of imaginary sense-making that is not bound to immediate surroundings.
This is a rather fancy way of trying to square the circle and solve the chicken-and-egg dilemma. According to the authors, the hallucinations came to be seen as valuable because they were experienced during shamanic rituals, rather than rituals emerging to explain the hallucinations. This, they say, explains why people the world over chose the same hallucinatory images to invoke. Later, they discuss the power of such images and how they appear to induce apparently powerful feelings in those that experience them, speaking to the point I recently made in Paranthropology that the intensity of an experience is not related to its objective physical reality.
This allows the authors to dispense with Lewis-Williams’s semi-Marxist idea of a prehistoric class struggle between shamans and the rest of society for control over these hallucinations. Frankly, though, I never thought that was the most important part of Lewis-Williams’ ideas, and I happily jettisoned it myself in my references to his work in Knowing Fear and another work whose details I can’t reveal yet. Lewis-Williams, if I recall correctly, was trying to say that in known cultures shamans acted on behalf of the community as ritual specialists, not that they were in a war with the hunters and the gatherers for control over the supernatural.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Froese et al.’s work. It is certainly extremely rigorous in its analysis, but I’m just not sure it’s all that different from Lewis-Williams’s original idea.
At any rate, the recognition of spiral patterns as indicative of altered states of consciousness counts as a point against the ancient astronaut and alternative history writers, who try to make these into symbols of distant galaxies, worldwide Atlantis cults, or other unsupportable ideas.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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