You Are the Mountain: Modeling Religious Experience in Light of Cognitive Neuroscience

Bryan Rill (Florida State University)

In recent years insights from cognitive neuroscience have led anthropologists to reconsider constructs of culture and experience. Neuroanthropology now provides evidence that patterned practices have the capacity to recondition the brain, thereby affecting how people not only conceptualize but also experience the world. Such conditioning occurs both in the realm of cognition and in a deeper symbolic substructure. Theorists such as Damasio and Merleau-Ponty refer to this substrate as “core consciousness” or the “pre-objective body,” respectively. The argument for experiential relativity has profound implications for the study of experience, particularly those of ritual and religion. Through patterned practices, embodied symbols reshape perceptual reality both culturally and biologically. In this paper I present a nuanced version of Peircian semiotics to model how deeply conditioned symbols influence and are in turn influenced through experience. As an example, I examine the ineffable aspects of religious experience in Japanese mountain asceticism. By conceptualizing the interaction between symbols, consciousness, and experience as a feedback loop, I show that in the “world” –or phenomenological reality—of religious practitioners, religious or mythological symbols are experienced as very real and immediate. This framework brings new meaning to Malinowski’s assertion that myths are lived realities, and has the potential to help resolve the tension between phenomenology and semiotics in anthropology.   [Originally Published in the AAA 2013 Conference Program]