My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Cognition, cults and ethnography

One of the goals of ethnography is to understand cultures on their own terms, from the perspectives of the people living them. Spending so much time thinking this way makes me really good at making sense of two people fighting – i’m able to see both sides of an argument and how different psychological frames lead to different impressions of a situation. (Of course, playing relationship therapist is not one of my favorite roles.) Over time, i’ve also gotten a lot better at understanding disparate political ideologies and other systems differences. Of course, it often bugs me that i can easily see the world from a conservative frame or from the position of big business. I prefer to stay meta where i think those frames are culturally devastating. But it is useful to be able to see the world from a different POV. And then there’s religions and cults.

In trying to analyze religion and cults, i find that i can never truly understand the experience from the POV of the people experiencing them. I am always meta, analyzing the effects and practices from a safe distance. Part of this is that i’m scared of getting too deeply embedded. So then i started thinking about what i’m afraid of.

One of the things that intrigues me about both religion and cults is their use of DMT in their rituals and initiation rites. DMT is produced by your brain when under great stress, during sleep deprivation, fasting and meditation. (It can also be synthetically introduced.) When experiencing heightened DMT production, people are very vulnerable, very open. This is critical for communing with God, but it can also be easily manipulated. Given the practices of many self-help cults, it is not surprising to me that many self-help attendees come out thinking that they’ve found the path to improving their lives. They’ve just gone through an intense experience where they’re stripped of control (must ask to go to the bathroom), sleep depped, food controlled, and pushed to reveal their deeply buried demons to a group of strangers who challenge them and push them further. This tightly bonds you with the strangers, with the ideas. This is coupled with a change in language thought to be needed to help understand the deeper truths, but in fact, used to help mark inside/outside positioning. The moves are brilliant and it’s not surprising that there are different degrees of cult-ness, but that’s a different post.

Both religion and cults change worldviews. One could say the same about politics but i don’t know if it’s the same. I started wondering about the effects of DMT production on this process. Most likely, given its hallucinogenic properties and other research on hallucinogens, DMT production results in an altering of synaptic connections. In other words, when you’re producing a high level of DMT, you can build strong synaptic relationships between previously unrelated ideas (apophenia). Given the rapid language transitions i’ve seen in people, i feel like there has to be a neural effect of cult participants, probably because of DMT. (Is there? Chemists?)

This then puts me into an interesting bind as an ethnographer trying to make sense of these things. If there are changes to the neural processes, are there ways to see practitioners on their own terms? Is it possible to understand the cultures there without experiencing the effects that the rituals are meant to bring on? I have to imagine that anthropologists studying religion and religious practices went through some of this. (Anyone?)

This then cycles back. What are the cognitive/neural pathway differences between different cultures based on their practices and belief systems? We usually get at this through the differences in language with metaphors being a very notable synaptic difference. But what else is going on? Who studies the cognitive/neuro models of culture anyhow? Hmm…

(Caterina: this one is for you.)

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21 comments to Cognition, cults and ethnography

  • Dan

    This bothers me a bit.

    The only thing that stops this from being outright torture is that the participants “choose” to the be there, and I would imagine that this choice is coerced to some degree. Regardless, this seems to have the same effect as torture: you do what people tell you to do until you say what they want you to say or think how they want you to think, and then you get to go (physically but not mentally). Is this too objectivist? Is there something to it that I’m missing?

    What I find particularly problematic is:

    “This is critical for communing with God, but it can also be easily manipulated.” – from what I can tell the former is the euphemism and the latter is the fact.

    “Who studies the cognitive/neuro models of culture anyhow?”

    I wish I had cites on hand, but Aaron Swartz could talk your ear off about this. Before his last blog was fried he had a few posts on prisoner/guard studies that often hit upon the ideas you put forth.

    So yes, it is a massive jump, but perhaps the prisoner/torture/religion/cult connection may answer your larger question as to how to properly ethnograph (?) a given population in an altered DMT ridden state: you don’t. If the people in question are under such extreme duress then the common perspective is in fact that dictated by those in charge.

    Jeez, it always comes back to Plato, doesn’t it?

  • dear, this is fascinating, but what is DMT?

  • Howard Rheingold

    I think Michael Harner still lives in the SF Bay Area. Take a look at his book “Hallucinogens and Shamanism.”

  • So culture equals cutting different paths through the forest…to use a metaphor…and there are many ways this could be done, but in my group, whatever that is, I don’t step off the existing paths, at least not very often, and I am really in when I have a transcendent experience of the primal validity of these paths. I understand them as self-referencing truth and they are my “magic.”

    It’s great to think we can be truly meta, but it’s not that easy. In American culture, we adhere to individualist notions of freedom, but this very sense of individuality also represents a form of conformity. We don’t conform unless we are individuals. This is a classic, “Oh Shit!” in which we visit our contradictions and discover how easy it is to appeal to our sense of individuality as simply a stepping stone on the way to cultism. Welcome conservatives everywhere.

    Brain chemistry is probably both a cause and a reflection, inextricably tied together. And what gets us to meta anyway in this hall of mirrors? Nothing so much as seeing the whole landscape, criss-crossed as it is with habitual thought patterns, different forms of science and religion, nuances of language, structural similarities and dissimilarities in the stories we tell…and this…ah!… real appreciation for the wildness that surrounds us!

  • Michael Chui

    museumfreak >

    I Googled it, and the first result was out of Google Desktop (a page I visited in the past with the term). What I got was the Wikipedia entry for Chakra, which proceeded to point me to:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethyltryptamine

  • Kath

    As an ethnographic sociologist of religion, it pains me to read such misuse of terms. Cults are simply religions the people using the term don’t like. Or if one wants to be more precise, they are often first generation faiths, still focused around charismatic leaders. But please, don’t buy into the media hyped ‘brainwashing’ thing. People convert to new religions just as they convert to any other faith — they are not different! Education is for breaking down stereotypes, not continuing them. This is one you need to learn.

  • Howard Rheingold

    Also look at some of the work of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerardo_Reichel-Dolmatoff

  • Howard Rheingold

    Look at Michael Harner’s “Hallucinogens and Shamanism”

    Also look at some of the work of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerardo_Reichel-Dolmatoff

  • That’s a very big question, not just limited to culture. Can you understand anything without having first hand experience?

    You can catalogue, examine, comment on, dissect, and even alter ‘it’, though that does not mean you understand ‘it’.

    Take for example, language. A human learned skill. You can study language as a Linguist, but be completely unable to communicate (just read some of the books linguists write ;-). When I was in China, I spoke with an Ex Pat that has a PhD in Chinese (Cantonese IIRC). When he got off the plane in China the first time, he was unable to communicate. It took him 6 months to relearn 7 years if higher education.

    Secondly, polyglots experience life differently. They have two or more methods/neural pathways to make sense of the world. Some have even commented that colour is different depending on what language they use. Yet they are not ‘trapped’ by either (as a counter example to irreversible religion/cult conditioning).

  • “Who studies the cognitive/neuro models of culture anyhow?”

    Interdisciplinarians of cognitive neuroscience; like me. That’s my future.

    Also, I have been in a cult too, but only for 9 months.

  • if

    “… If there are changes to the neural processes, are there ways to see practitioners on their own terms? Is it possible to understand the cultures there without experiencing the effects that the rituals are meant to bring on?”

    i’m no anthropologist, but whatever would you want to do that for?

    and i’m no cognitive scientist either, but i remember bradd shore writing about analogical schematization, and this sounds about the right place to use that angle.

  • Zac

    Forgive my ignorance, but can anyone give me an idea of the timeline for the emergence of Friendster and, subsequently, Myspace, and the demise of the former? I seem to have been under a rock for some significant period of time spanning roughly spring 2003 – spring 2005.

  • Zac

    Ignore the above comment. That was supposed to go on the Myspace/Friendster post…

  • from: “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” by Steven C. Hayes

    “Unfortunately… some methods of avoiding pain are pathological in and of themselves. For example, dissociation or illegal drug use may temporarily reduce pain, but will come back stronger than ever and further damage will be caused…”

    Pain in a certain sense is ubiquitous. And there are myriad ways in which one may seek respite. One way is through organized religion, through groups of people coming together for the purpose of communing; also for the purpose of, hopefully, embracing life more fully. It is when that kind of embracing becomes dissociative that it becomes dangerous. If your belief system provides you with certain tools to help you become more satisfied with your life, wonderful. But if in the process you lose the meta perspective discussed above then your belief system has failed because it has failed to recognize that your humanity and spirituality is inextricably bound up in everyone elses. So there are certain practical, valuable lessons to be learned by engaging in religion, as there are certain practical, valuable lessons to be learned by taking drugs. The challenge with both religion and drug usage is to apply what is learned through the participation with them and the use of them to the everyday, sober life.

    Psychotropic drugs indeed provide some immediate gratification, but i agree with Hayes, that they are distructive. I say that with the belief that they are destructive in an important, perhaps good way. They rip your conception of reality from you, stomp in it, and replace it with a new way of seeing and experiencing; and in turn, both create and devestate. Most religions embrace this paradox, albeit with different language and constructions.

  • from: _Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy_ by Steven C. Hayes

    “Unfortunately… some methods of avoiding pain are pathological in and of themselves. For example, dissociation or illegal drug use may temporarily reduce pain, but will come back stronger than ever and further damage will be caused…”

    Pain in a certain sense is ubiquitous. And there are myriad ways in which one may seek respite. One way is through organized religion, through groups of people coming together for the purpose of communing; also for the purpose of, hopefully, embracing life more fully. It is when that kind of embracing becomes dissociative that it becomes dangerous. If your belief system provides you with certain tools to help you become more satisfied with your life, wonderful. But if in the process you lose the meta perspective discussed above then your belief system has failed because it has failed to recognize that your humanity and spirituality is inextricably bound up in everyone elses. So there are certain practical, valuable lessons to be learned by engaging in religion, as there are certain practical, valuable lessons to be learned by taking drugs. The challenge with both religion and drug usage is to apply what is learned through the participation with them and the use of them to the everyday, sober life.

    Psychotropic drugs indeed provide some immediate gratification, but i agree with Hayes, that they are distructive. I say that with the belief that they are destructive in an important, perhaps good way. They rip your conception of reality from you, stomp in it, and replace it with a new way of seeing and experiencing; and in turn, both create and devestate. Most religions embrace this paradox, albeit with different language and constructions.

  • Paige

    Thank you for the work you are doing! I’m so excited to find it. I would strongly recommend you check out ethnomusicologist Katherine Hagedorn’s phenomenal book “Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santeria” (maybe you’ve already encountered it? it recently won the Allen Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology). The work is intimately informed by her own experiences learning sacred bata drumming and becoming initiated into the religion (a requirement to learn). She directly deals with the questions you are raising.

  • Dan – we are always being influenced by societal and cultural forces. This is not torture, so much as a part of everyday life.

    DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is a natural chemical that your brain produces under certain states (including stress, exhaustion, hunger, etc.). It can be synthetically introduced but that is not what i’m talking about here.

    Kath – i would argue that cults encompass a larger body of social structures including communities that are not invested in seeking primary religious experiences, but in offering ways to live life. I’ve never heard the latter groups call themselves religious groups, but i do know what you mean by certain religions being called cults inappropriately. I am also not trying to talk about “brainwashing” in that scary hyped media sense. Your brain is always being altered by the stimuli around you, by media, by social interactions, by everything. People call it brainwashing when they disagree, but there are certainly effects introduced by intense social structures that affect people and those are what i want to talk about. In other words, i am curious about the root of the stereotype because i do believe that it is based on something real.

    Michael – i’d agree… that’s the problem. I don’t know that i can understand China from afar. And that’s core to ethnography – participate actively in the relevant culture.

    I should note that this is not work i’m doing, just something i’m toying with and curious about. I am sooo not an expert in this area and people are right to critique my musings on this because i’m just being curious, not trying to speak with authority.

  • Erin

    I am quite enthused by this entry. Mostly because you referenced “linguistic relativity,” “linguistic determinism,” “sapir-whorf hypothesis.” Whatever you want to call it, you presented it as viable and a real thing not just a theory to be validated and pondered over while the applications are denied and circumvented. Where are more scholars like you?

  • danah said: “Given the rapid language transitions i’ve seen in people, i feel like there has to be a neural effect of cult participants, probably because of DMT. (Is there? Chemists?)”

    danah- I don’t need to remind you that every psychological effect is also a neurological effect, given that the mind arises from the brain. Neuroscience may have something to say about cult programming, though probably not as much as psychology and sociology do. (Tom at the Mind Hacks blog might even accuse you of neuroessentialism.)

    Even in terms of neurotransmitter and hormone regulation, I’m skeptical that DMT would be the main culprit. There would also be changes in dopamine, serotonin, etc. I consulted Rick Strassman, one of the few doctors ever to do DMT studies in humans, and he refused to speculate on whether endogenous DMT upregulation was a significant factor in cult programming. “Someone needs to develop a super-sensitive DMT assay and address these issues,” he said.

  • I most definitely think that other fields has something to say about cult or group activities. I hope I didn’t come off as saying cognitive neurosci. is the answer, since most of the article look-ups I do cover philosophy, anthro, evolution, psychology, psychiatry, cognition, math, etc. as well as neuroscience. But anything we do affects our brains, depending on context and scope; experience of the organism interacting with the environment is so complex and dynamical…

    I would think DMT is one of *many* responses of the brain.

    🙂

  • Richard Evan Schultes should help.