Review: Inside the Neolithic Mind

David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce’s Inside the Neolithic Mind (Thames & Hudson, 2005) claims to descend into the nebulous world of Neolithic people’s consciousness in order to explain the meaning of religion. They contend that the structures and motifs that we encounter at Neolithic sites are products of interplay between: 1) universal patterns that are neurologically generated during altered states of consciousness, and 2) cultural specifics that shape one’s experience and interpretation of these patterns. The authors argue that Neolithic sites display how neurological structures produced experiences that were religiously interpreted and led to formation of beliefs and practices that masked exploitative social relations.

Lewis-Williams and Pearce define religion as comprising experience, belief, and practice (25). Religious experience is “a set of mental states created by the functioning of the human brain in both natural and induced conditions” (26). Beliefs emerge as people codify religious experiences in specific social circumstances and the codifications become elaborated and independent of the original mental states. Practices are rituals and activities that give access to religious experience and manifest beliefs. They also entail a wide range of social activities (building monuments, waging war, and conducting genocide) that “reproduce and entrench social discriminations” (27).

Their model of religion is further situated within a broader framework of two interlocking “contracts.” One is the social contract, which they take directly from Rousseau: political rule is ratified by the consent of the governed. The second type of contract is what they term the “consciousness contract.”

Analogous to the social contract, people in society assent to a world of beliefs that are rooted in human neurological structures. These beliefs develop from mental experiences of altered states of consciousness. Lewis-Williams and Pearce propose conceiving human consciousness along a spectrum that ranges from rational relationship to the external environment to induced visionary states at the introverted extreme. Induced altered states, the authors assert, are common to a large section of the population across cultures and history. Despite diverse methods of induction, these altered states display striking commonalities in themes and motifs. These commonalities find their explanation in the brain.

The brain is “wired” to produce certain patterns in altered states of consciousness. Drawing from recent neurological research, Lewis-Williams and Pearce identify three stages that people go through as they move into deeper levels of altered states. In the first stage, individuals perceive geometric images such as grids, parallel lines, spirals, and bright dots. As they move into the second stage, they give these images forms that have religious or emotional meaning. A universal motif that emerges from the second stage is the vortex or tunnel with attendant sensations of descent and ascent. After exiting the tunnel in the third stage, people experience hallucinations where they merge with the perceived geometric forms. These images and motifs constitute neurologically based building blocks that different cultures employ to create religious beliefs and practices. These beliefs and practices, moreover, serve as means of social control.

The key idea in Lewis-Williams and Pearce’s argument for a consciousness contract is that religious beliefs are derived from induced altered states of consciousness. People’s experience of altered states led to beliefs in another realm and the possibility of interacting with supernatural beings. People who inhabited this introverted realm more frequently considered themselves to be closer to the supernatural realm. This, the authors argue, subsequently led to controlling access to certain altered states and creating social distinctions between different classes of people. People buy into such beliefs because their experiences of altered states in sleep and dreams offer glimpses into the realms that an elite group contacts through induced states.

According to this model, the Neolithic period saw the rise of shamanic elites who secured religious, political, and economic dominance over the population. Altered states of consciousness became “mental means of production” through which the elites constructed cosmologies and myths and controlled the population (277).

Lewis-Williams and Pearce’s theory of religion pivots on the neuropsychological model. The model seems promising, but its supports are weak. First, the model privileges induced altered states of consciousness as the core experience that generates religious belief and practice. In order to support this, they need to establish that such states are common to a large section of the human population across different cultures. As evidence, they present only eight personal narratives that describe people’s experience of altered states induced by diverse methods. These narratives, however, do not in any way show how representative they are of the general population. They only indicate that people can induce altered states with means other than psychotropic drugs. Yet, from this highly selective sample, they postulate that neurologically generated images and experiences in induced altered states form the basis on which whole cultures and societies develop their religious beliefs and practices.

Second, by privileging a specific type of altered consciousness, the authors have to place shamanic figures at the center of Neolithic society and religion in general. This fits in nicely with their argument that religion becomes a mechanism of gaining power for a select group with access to particular neurologically produced experiences. Yet, they furnish no evidence for this kind of social gradation in the Neolithic context nor do they provide analyses of parallel instances in contemporary societies where shamans play a prominent role. To the issue of how people without such experiences come to adhere to beliefs that “seers” fabricate, Lewis-Williams and Pearce forward the questionable thesis that they infer the credibility of such beliefs through approximate experiences in natural states such as dreams or simply rely on other people’s experiences. Again, they provide little evidence to justify this assertion.

Based on these premises, the authors believe that they are justified in identifying universals in cultures that span the globe and cover the last 10,000 years in order to interpret motifs they discern in Neolithic sites. Apart from the neuropsychological model, they do not articulate any criteria for selecting cultures for comparison. Cultural examples are drawn almost randomly, from the Barasana people of Colombia to the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, without in-depth analysis of the specific cultural contexts and methodological consideration of how they can be related across the chasm of time. Based on a small set of personal narratives and neurological research findings at which they merely gesture, the authors give the impression that they have chosen examples that conveniently correspond to their theory.

Despite their claim to do otherwise, Lewis-Williams and Pearce end up with a reductionist analysis of religion and culture as expressions of narrowly specified brain functions and an equally reductionist notion of society as power politics. With Inside the Neolithic Mind, the promise of a sophisticated, neurologically based structuralist theory of religion remains unfulfilled.

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