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The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience
by Benny Shanon
Publisher:
Oxford University Press 
Year:
2002 
ISBN:
0199252920 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Thomas B. Roberts, 3/30/2008

Someone casually glancing at Antipodes’ subtitle — Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience — might mistakenly suppose this is yet another collection of the I-drank-ayahuasca-and-saw-jaguars ilk. Few things could be further from the truth. This is the first professional study of ayahuasca from the perspective of cognitive psychology, and so far as I know, it is the most academically sophisticated example of how the cognitive sciences might approach other diverse mindbody states too. In data collection, detailed interpretation, and theoretical grounding, Antipodes sets a standard that future cognitive psychologists will strive to live up to.

As Shanon points out, his intent is to “present the case for the cognitive-psychological study of Ayahuasca,” (page 13) and at the same time “…the visions and other non-ordinary experiential phenomena that Ayahuasca induces present a new, uncharted natural cognitive domain. Since the number of natural domains is very small, this makes the Ayahuasca experience of paramount interest for the student of the mind.” (pages 34 – 35) Thus, he is constructing a two-way bridge between cognitive studies and consciousness research. Each, he claims, can inform the other for their mutual growth.

Does Shanon hold the professional credentials to design this intellectual architecture? A Stanford Ph.D. and professor of psychology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem since 1976, Shanon has held visiting professorships in France, England, the US, Poland, Italy, Brazil, and the Netherlands. He served as an associate editor of New Ideas in Psychology, and Pragmatics and Cognition. He has reviewed articles for over two dozen journals; those most immediately germane to Antipodes are Consciousness and Cognition and the Journal of Consciousness Studies. Along the way he has written over 100 professional articles and presented papers at half again as many meetings.

Recently there as been a swarm of books about people’s experiences with ayahuasca, most of them based on a few sessions. Many are fun to read in the nature of a tourist’s impressionistic travelogue, but most lack the intellectual depth that comes with repeated experience and carefully considered analysis.

One of Antipodes’ strong points is the number of ayahuasca experiences in Shanon’s sample. Over a period of 10 years he “actively participated” in more than 130 sessions, including some in the Amazonian regions of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia as well as in some private settings outside South America. Added to this, in both structured and unstructured interviews, Shanon questioned 178 people: 16 indigenous or of mixed race, 106 residents of urban South America, and 56 people residing outside of South America, totaling approximately 2,500 sessions. This is likely to be the largest number of ayahuasca-experiences ever studied scientifically and may even top the total of all previous scientific reports together.

In the first 3 chapters, Shanon describes the general background of this study, its theoretical foundations, and methodology. Chapters 4 – 17 present his phenomenological observations and typologies. And in 5 concluding chapters on theoretical issues, he reflects on some implications of consciousness studies for cognitive studies and for broader philosophical issues. Detailing his data, informants, main findings, and codification schemes, the appendix, “Quantitative Data,” sets a high empirical standard for subsequent consciousness researchers to meet.

Given Shanon’s goals, his professional qualifications, and the breadth of his data, what does he foresee from hybridizing cognitive studies (psychology in this case) with consciousness studies (ayahuasca-induced in this case)? Organized descriptive typologies are one goal. After dividing visualizations into eyes-opened vs. eyes-closed, he proposes a systematic typology of their structural types, noting 7 major categories with several subcategories: Visualizations without Semantic Content, Primitive Figurative Elements, Images, Scenes, Virtual Reality, Visions of Light, and Visual Style (pages 86 – 98).

Many readers of this journal will be especially interested in the two chapters on consciousness. “Consciousness I” sketches this task:

The great potential contribution of the study of non-ordinary states of consciousness to the scientific understanding of the mind lies precisely in their rendering the parameters of the cognitive system apparent and in their revealing the various possible values that these parameters may take. (page 196)

Shanon identifies 11 structural parameters of consciousness and some of the unusual values they can take: (pages 198 – 98)

•Agenthood — experiencing thoughts as not being one’s own
•Personal identity — personal identification with whatever one is looking at, a sense of unity with the other
•Unity — being oneself at the same time being someone or something else
•Boundaries — erasing the boundary between inner and outer reality
•Individuation — self transcendence but with consciousness still maintained
•Calibration—change in perceptions of one’s size, weight, posture, etc.
•Locus of consciousness —consciousness located outside one’s physical body
•Time—variations in time, including its speed or even feelings of eternity
•Self-consciousness —a “residue” of the normal self after other facets of consciousness are completely altered
•Intentionality — no object to which thought is being directed and no content entertained by the mind, often leading to a sense of “the Void” or “pure consciousness.”
•Connectedness, Knowledge, and the Conferral of Reality — a noetic feeling that one is privy to true knowledge.

Just as William James’s and Ralph Hood’s descriptors of mystical experience advanced studies of those states, Shanon’s parameters offer parallel advances for studying other non-ordinary states. Impressively, this typology is just one of Antipodes’ descriptive categorizations of non-ordinary states. Antipodes illustrates a paradigmatic blueprint that future consciousness researchers might follow whatever their favorite mindbody psychotechnologies. This book is as much about methods for future consciousness research as it is about its ayahuasca-specific findings. I can well imagine a graduate seminar using Antipodes first as a text then as a model for students to follow in their own cognitive-consciousness research projects.

In “Consciousness II,” his second chapter on this topic, Shanon considers independent issues that relate to consciousness: paranormal experiences, spiritual and mystical experiences, sanity and madness, and awareness and reality judgments. These lead him to wonder about the comprehensiveness of our usual Western scientific approach.

I hope scholars of cognitive studies will follow Shanon’s pioneering work and take the opportunity for expanding their specialties into the underdeveloped state-of-consciousness lands across the cognitive-consciousness bridge. As Shanon challenges in Antipodes’ last sentence: “Yet, from a cognitive-psychological point the moral of the story is clear: The Antipodes of the mind reveal a geography that is much more amazing, much more wondrous than most, if not all, contemporary cognitive scientists seem to surmise.” (page 402)

Similarly, I hope anthropologists of consciousness will increase their attention to the cognitive aspects of their investigations. Shanon’s Antipodes of the Mind enriches the anthropology of consciousness by reminding anthropologists to ask questions from cognitive studies: How does cognition vary from state to state? How do perception, learning, intelligence, and development vary from state to state? What thinking processes lie across the cognitive-consciousness bridge in the far — and not so far — antipodes of the mind?

Originally Published In : Anthropology of Consciousness
Other Reviews of this book:

2 Comments »

  1. The book that should be included on your site is, “Swish: Maria in the Mourning,” which chronicles a mother’s process of mourning after losing her only child to a heroin overdose at 23. This non-fiction literary narrative has 25 five-star reviews on Amazon, and is an emotional and literary masterpiece.

    Comment by Frances Guardino — 6/13/2008 @ 8:02 pm

  2. I am interested in ayahuasca and am grateful that someone has looked deeply and analytically at the experience. I am a man of Faith who has experienced many promptings from The Unconscious. The descriptions of ayahuasca experience seem to describe a journey into that space that we are not aware of on the surface.I have often wondered where the visions come from and if ayahuasca induced visions are as real as sober visions seem to be. It will be interesting to read “Antipodes”. Thank you for this review.
    Sincerely, Tony

    Comment by Anthony — 1/24/2009 @ 10:12 pm

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