I’ve been trying to research the psycho-cognitive aspects of mythology.

(And by trying, I mean frequently and with increasing frustration, pounding various permutations of decreasingly relevant keywords into Google Scholar. Symbolism? Metaphor? Allegory? Paramnesia? Empathy? Cognitive Synaesthesia? Auratic perception? That which evokes the transcendental by seeming to possess elements of timelessness?)

There are plenty of lyrical inspiring quotes regarding myths, dreams, metaphor, and meaning (see: Josopeh Campbell and Claude Levi-Strauss) but, whether it be a mythology personal, historical, or cultural, all I can find is the descriptive. Although mythology is a long-standing interest of anthropology, its (at worst) seen as mere folklore or (perhaps most often) relevant as socio-psychological commentary, and (at best) a curious and powerful facet of the mind-body-spiritual complex, treated with some awe and respect.

Forgetting, for the moment, what makes something archetypal – or even what the selective pressure was that lead the human species to be such metaphorical creatures – I’m curious as to whether there is something about the perception of it. What is involved in the feeling of, the recognizing, the perceiving, the mental “making” of the mythological?

After all, we’ve managed to make some headway on understanding déjà vu. (Either, it’s about our preferential recognition of objects rather than scenes/settings – you see an object, you know you know it; see a familiar layout or tableaux, you get a vague sense of familiarity – or it’s something to do with misfiring in the brain in which the seeing-visual gets processed before the perceiving-visual. Oh, and electrical stimulation of the brain can invoke it. And epilepsy! Hey – I didn’t say we had it figured out, just that we were making some headway.)

I’m going to keep googling. And google-scholar-ing.

In the meantime, here’s few things I’ve found that seem worth sharing:

James Geary “Metaphorically Speaking” – TED 2009

Apparently, the proper translation of “cogito ergo sum” is “I shake, therefore I am”.

Carl Jung’s Red Book

Image from the Philemon Foundation‘s Red Book Preview (pdf).

[….] between the book’s heavy covers, a very modern story unfolds. It goes as follows: Man skids into midlife and loses his soul. Man goes looking for soul. After a lot of instructive hardship and adventure — taking place entirely in his head — he finds it again.

Some people feel that nobody should read the book, and some feel that everybody should read it. The truth is, nobody really knows. Most of what has been said about the book — what it is, what it means — is the product of guesswork, because from the time it was begun in 1914 in a smallish town in Switzerland, it seems that only about two dozen people have managed to read or even have much of a look at it. [….] So for the better part of the past century, despite the fact that it is thought to be the pivotal work of one of the era’s great thinkers, the book has existed mostly just as a rumor, cosseted behind the skeins of its own legend — revered and puzzled over only from a great distance.

[….] Working at Zurich’s Burghölzli psychiatric hospital, Jung listened intently to the ravings of schizophrenics, believing they held clues to both personal and universal truths. At home, in his spare time, he pored over Dante, Goethe, Swedenborg and Nietzsche. He began to study mythology and world cultures, applying what he learned to the live feed from the unconscious — claiming that dreams offered a rich and symbolic narrative coming from the depths of the psyche. Somewhere along the way, he started to view the human soul — not just the mind and the body — as requiring specific care and development, an idea that pushed him into a province long occupied by poets and priests but not so much by medical doctors and empirical scientists. [….]

What happened next to Carl Jung has become, among Jungians and other scholars, the topic of enduring legend and controversy. It has been characterized variously as a creative illness, a descent into the underworld, a bout with insanity, a narcissistic self-deification, a transcendence, a midlife breakdown and an inner disturbance mirroring the upheaval of World War I. Whatever the case, in 1913, Jung, who was then 38, got lost in the soup of his own psyche. He was haunted by troubling visions and heard inner voices. Grappling with the horror of some of what he saw, he worried in moments that he was, in his own words, “menaced by a psychosis” or “doing a schizophrenia.”

He later would compare this period of his life — this “confrontation with the unconscious,” as he called it — to a mescaline experiment. [….]

Had he been a psychiatric patient, Jung might well have been told he had a nervous disorder and encouraged to ignore the circus going on in his head. But as a psychiatrist, and one with a decidedly maverick streak, he tried instead to tear down the wall between his rational self and his psyche. For about six years, Jung worked to prevent his conscious mind from blocking out what his unconscious mind wanted to show him. [….] Jung sat in a book-lined office on the second floor of his home and actually induced hallucinations — what he called “active imaginations.” “In order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me ‘underground,’ ” Jung wrote later in his book “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” “I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them.” He found himself in a liminal place, as full of creative abundance as it was of potential ruin, believing it to be the same borderlands traveled by both lunatics and great artists.

Jung recorded it all. First taking notes in a series of small, black journals, he then expounded upon and analyzed his fantasies, writing in a regal, prophetic tone in the big red-leather book. The book detailed an unabashedly psychedelic voyage through his own mind, a vaguely Homeric progression of encounters with strange people taking place in a curious, shifting dreamscape. Writing in German, he filled 205 oversize pages with elaborate calligraphy and with richly hued, staggeringly detailed paintings.

[emphasis mine] from Corbett (2009) “The Holy Grail of the Unconscious”, The New York Times Magazine

Ananda Shankar Jayant fights cancer with dance, TED 2010

Auratic perception: the sense of atavism

Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that anthropology has handed off so much of the fun stuff to literary criticism and all various post-modern variants of cultural studies?

Walter Benjamin coined the term “auratic perception”. When he used it, he was making a point about what modernity has lost – but, as I’d like to use it, stripped of any political intention, it’s the perception and feeling of the allegorical. Mythologizing.

[Benjamin] believed that Bachofen’s attempt to rehabilitate myth was crucial for modernity because, much like dreams, hypnotic trances, feverish attacks, or drug hallucid-gene-flow-what-is-a-paleogenetrung) of the individual, mythology seemed to offer alternative perspectives on the social-historical experience of entire nations and civilizations. Thereby they revealed certain aspects of their histories which otherwise remained hidden–“forms of experience” which have been repressed, forgotten, or dismissed as unreasonable by our modern, all too modern, civilization. “But it is precisely modernity that is always quoting primeval history” (Urgeschichte), he observed, and made clear why. The reason was that the gradual emancipation from mythological beliefs and truths was not really a process of enlightenment (as Kant would have it); rather, it was a process of vulgar trivialization and profanization, a mere “disenchantment of the world,” whereas what modern civilization needed–and what Benjamin sought–was a “re-enchantment” of the world, albeit by new modes of aesthetic perception which he ultimately defined as “auratic.” The auratic perception consists of the apprehension of deeper temporal and spatial dimensions in the object, “the unique appearance of a distance, however close it may be,” as in a work of art which generates these mythic associations through its mystic images and cultic uses.

[…..] Benjamin was aware of the potential fallacies and dangers in such modes of auratic re-enchantment. As McCole has rightly emphasized, “auratic perception has something literally atavistic about it.” It implies “that atavistic, mythic compulsions continue, unrecognized, to dominate the forms of perception and experience throughout modern society.”

[emphasis mine] from Mali, Joseph. “The Reconciliation of Myth: Benjamin’s Homage to Bachofen.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 60.1 (1999): 165-187.