I believe a year ago was the first official contact I’d had with academic study of consciousness. I’ve been immersed for the last three days in an interdisciplinary conference on consciousness and thus have had quite the education. The conference atmosphere was congenial; for that I am pleased to have attended. I connected with new people, mostly strong women fighting academia to legitimize their research and for jobs. I also know that what grounds my understanding of reality (my ontology) is very different at times than some metaphysical discourses I encountered this weekend. Here’s a taste of the presentations and papers I heard:
- One presentation was similar to this article on the “discoverer” of nitrous oxide. There were a couple examples of psychedelic studies, intellectualizing subjective experiences of drug use.
- A professor of writing spoke on the change in consciousness of students when forced to undergo a “digital detox,” setting a restrictive goal on use of electronic technology to rediscover a connection to the natural worlds around us.
- A visual neurophysicist (studying the physics of optics as expressed in humans’ brains) took us through how our brains cannot be fully conscious to all of the signals recognized by our senses; our brain skips information, suppresses others, and fills in gaps to make us think we’re seeing a perfectly solid 3-D view.
- An ecopsychologist spoke on the animal use of substances to alter their mental states, such as catnip for cats, fermenting plants fruit for elk/reindeer and elephants, and bark-living bugs for South African monkeys, etc. Perhaps watching jaguars’ reaction to consuming vines of ayahuasca (a highly studied hallucinogenic plant in northern Peru used in shamanic rituals) led the Amazonian peoples to also begin experiencing altered states of consciousness.
- My advisor spoke on her research into Western appropriation of indigenous traditions – both in Peru, where Westerners experience ayahuasca and “become shamans”, and in Greece, where a group adheres to the ancient Greek religious tradition of Zeus. Appropriation isn’t benign, furthering the romanticization and power inequality of colonization.
I could go on, including more presentations in which I found no empirical evidence and few attempts to make intelligible: I overheard a conversation in which a tenured professor claimed to have made himself invisible! As suggested by the majority of my examples, this anthropology conference was extremely interdisciplinary. Attending was enjoyable – I learned new things, saw the world from different perspectives, reflected on my understanding of reality, and went on adventures outdoors; in sum, I explored several new places. Although the conference wasn’t what I’d expected, I’m glad I went.