Cognition, Cults and Ethnography

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by: danah boyd

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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