There are many ways to see (experience) and to say (express) and therefore many ways of knowing the nature of the world and our place in it. Anthropologist Charles D. Laughlin has drawn on a world of travel, self-conscious studies, and anthropology’s umbrella spread as the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities to apply that principle to the development of what he describes as neuroanthropology. It is a path to knowing through participant observation and the observation of his own participation in that diverse and multi- faceted principle for most of his fieldwork with Africans, Navajos, including several years as a monk in Tibet, and a whole row of personal investments and investigations in the cognitive and neural sciences. It is hard to overestimate the range of his cross-cultural experiences as a traveling self. But the bulk of it is explored for theoretical and methodological implications in his new book, The Contemplative Brain: Meditation, Phenomenology, and Self-Discovery from a Neuroanthropological Point of View. He variously absorbs, expands and criticizes conventional wisdom on Jungian psychology, transcendental meditation, rituals, transpersonal anthropology, altered states of consciousness, consciousness itself, language, art and symbolism, methodological problems encountered by using the brain itself to study the brain, among other topics. The result is a large-minded tome that opens new pathways, or bravely points in their direction, from beginning to end.
One welcome curiosity is opening the book with a critical review by the American psychologist and parapsychologist Stanley Krippner, This is not a study that emulates and embraces in any sycophantic drumbeat the status quo ante of the disciplines and problems it engages. Krippner’s list of questions and doubts shows the breadth and scope of Laughlin’s inquiries and conclusions, all of which can be played out and evaluated in the particulars of their established academic and intellectual domains. Moreover, beyond the theoretical implications of the text, it has all the personal earmarks of a well-reasoned and penetrating memoir in which the experiences reported are strictly Laughlin’s and not subject to debate. Few if any other works in these areas offer comparable innovation or clarity of explanation. Even fewer shed their parochialisms enough to illustrate the power of studies of people, events, thinking, and things from all sides, body interiors and exteriors, dialogues of self and sidekick, deep dives into art and science, and comparative cross-cultural immersion—another hallmark of anthropological methods. Laughlin has kept his original disciplinary profile of interests while fueling it with passionate inquiry and applying the results to rich new opportunities of understanding of what makes us tick as human beings in a complicated sensuous and intellectual world. It’s fair to mark it as a milestone in the anthropology of our ‘selves’.