At play in the fields of the lord: the role of metanoia in the development of consciousness

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[Revised 3 May 1990]



Charles D. Laughlin*

Abstract: This paper extends the earlier biogenetic structural theory of play and games to account for playfulness in the transpersonal domain of human experience. Theorists are cautioned to pay more attention to the internal structures that produce play. The concept of "metanoia" is defined as the intrinsic loosening of habitual patterns of neurophysiological entrainment, and play behavior is defined as metanoia involving motor activity. Play is discussed in relation to Abraham Maslow's theory of a hierarchy of needs and the Maulavi and Tibetan dream yoga are offered as examples of transpersonal play. A number of conceptual stumbling blocks to a general theory of play are eliminated.

And in any case, I affirm as a theory of cognition and of science ...that at the highest levels of development of humanness, knowledge is positively rather than negatively correlated with a sense of mystery, awe, humility, ultimate ignorance, reverence, and a sense of oblation.

Abraham H. Maslow, The Farther

Reaches of Human Nature

I never metanoia I didn't like.

Sandy Stewart


The task I have set for myself is to extend John McManus' and my earlier theory of play and games (Laughlin and McManus 1982)1 to account for playfulness in the transpersonal domain of human experience -- in the domain described by Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) under the labels "self-actualization" and "transcendence." In the earlier theory we advocated a neurobiological explanation of play and games, and found the anlage of these in the behaviors of non-human animals. In the course of our research, it became evident to us that many of the definitional hassles encountered in the study of play derive from too great an emphasis upon the external (or behavioral) features of play -- what Teilhard de Chardin (1959) called the "without" of phenomena -- and too little a concern for the internal (or structural) processes essential to play -- Teilhard's "within" of phenomena. Our approach is thus in opposition to the more "without" formulations taken by theorists like Huizinga (1970) and more towards the "within" perspectives of theorists like Norbeck (1974, 1979) and Tipps (1981), the latter types usually being more sensitive to the role of play in neurocognitive and spiritual development.

Many theorists systematically miss the boat by linking their interest in play too closely with easily observable patterns of behavior, and not closely enough with the more difficult to observe metanoic2 phases of the internal organization of the nervous system -- metanoia being our label for those phases during which neural structures become relatively free from adaptational press and are more able to develop. I wish to show that metanoic "play" is a characteristic of phases of consciousness at every level of development, from the earliest pre- and perinatal period of growth (Trevarthen and Grant 1980) which may involve behavior a good bit of the time, to the most mature stages for which there may be little or no behavioral concomitants.

While extending the earlier theory, I will endeavor both to examine playfulness in techniques leading to higher phases of consciousness, and to eliminate some of the major conceptual stumbling blocks that have hampered our understanding of play. These stumbling blocks include: the false dichotomy between work and play, the related distinction between what is playful and what is serious, the limiting of our definition of play solely to behavioral phenomena, the relationship between play and dreaming, the uncritical equation of play with flow, the view that play is uncreative and unproductive, the opposing of play and religion, and whether we are to use the term "play" to refer to all forms of metanoia, or only to the behavioral aspects of metanoia.



Experiential reality is a cognitive and perceptual construction produced by the nervous system, and is constrained in its nature by the internal properties of the cognizing organism. Our experience of both the external world and our own organism are essentially produced by the activities of neural models.3 These models exist within the immensely intricate organization of the cells and fibers comprising our nervous system (Davis et al. 1988), especially those comprising the cerebral cortex.4


The course by which the nervous system comes to know about the organism of which it is a part, and the environment within which the organism is ensconced, is a well ordered one from beginning to end. The neural networks comprising our knowledge and experience have their developmental origin in initial (what we call) neurognostic5 structures that are present in the cognitively competent fetus and infant (Spelke 1985, 1988a, 1988b) and that manifest an organization which is largely genetically determined. Although there is remarkable selectivity in the developmental reorganization of these early structures, that selectivity itself is neurognostically regulated. Some potential organizations deteriorate, others become active, and still others remain relatively latent and undeveloped (see Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Varela 1979). This selectivity is one reason why there is such remarkable flexibility in cognitive adaptation to the essentially turbulent and evolving nature of the organism and the world. There is now considerable evidence that environmental enrichment is a major factor in both pre- and perinatal elaboration of neurophysiological processes in both humans and non-human animals (Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988).

The Cognized and Operational Environments

The organism and its environment are inextricably linked in an intricate dance, coupled for a lifetime in an increasingly complex process of mutual adaptation.6 In the process of its self-cognization, the organism becomes a relative abstraction to itself. It will to some extent produce a conceptual and imaginal abstraction of its organism from the matrix of its environment (E.J. Gibson 1969, J. Gibson 1979, Neisser 1976, Varela 1979). The organism's model of itself is defined through the emerging complexity of its own internal organization (Piaget 1971, 1985). The principal attribute of the organism's model of itself (including its "body image;" see Laughlin 1990b) is the production and conservation of this self-organization while simultaneously addressing the demands of adaptation to events in its surround.

The entire system of neural models of self and world is self-generating (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Varela 1979, Maturana and Varela 1980; see also Piaget 1971, 1985), and comprises our cognized environment. While the cognized environment is how we know and experience our organism and our world, the system of neurological transformations that produce the cognized environment is part of the very world (our operational environment)7 within which we are embedded and to which we must adapt in order to survive. The operational environment, including our own organism, may be considered transcendental relative to our cognized environment in the sense that there is always more to learn about the operational environment, or anything within it, than can ever be known. By implication, we are each of us a transcendental being that is forever beyond the grasp of complete self-knowledge.

The cognized environment is to the operational environment as a map is to a landscape. This not a static map, but rather is a living, breathing map produced by transformations in the organization of living cells. At a more molecular level of organization, these transformations have their material reality in patterned coordinations, or entrainments,8 among neurons whose initial forms are neurognostic, whose eventual developmental complexity will be variable and whose evocation may or may not be environmentally triggered.

The Empirical Modification Cycle

The process by which neural models grow into an adaptive configuration relative to the operational environment is termed the empirical modification cycle, or EMC (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974: 84ff; see also Pribram 1971, Neisser 1976, Arbib 1972, Powers 1973, Gray 1982, and Varela 1979 for consonant views). This feedforward process is required for learning, and for transformation of models confronting the flux and ultimately incomprehensible complexity of a transcendental world. This process is one by which models are tested against the operational environment by matching anticipated patterns against those experienced.

Behavior may or may not be a component of the EMC. In some cases the EMC may require physical activity in order to complete its feedback loop; say in learning to play baseball or moving a chess piece. In other cases, the EMC may complete itself without a physical component to the process; say in solving a riddle, willing events in a dream or playing a game of blind chess.9

With respect to the behavioral aspect of EMC operations in general, and play in particular, one of the most important issues we must address is the role of behavior as a phase in the control of perception. William T. Powers (1973) in his book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, has gone a long way in modelling the cybernetic function of behavior relative to perception by showing that, "Behavior is the process by which organisms control their input sensory data. For human beings, behavior is the control of perception" (1973:xi). His thesis is as simple as it is profound, and is worth quoting at length, especially considering its importance to our understanding of play:

All behavioral feedback is negative feedback. Positive feedback models do not behave properly. Negative feedback can be seen as feedback control when the existence of the reference condition [i.e., goal of perception] is recognized, for behavior always tends to resist disturbances of the controlled quantity [i.e., perceptual variable] away from that condition. The reference condition and the controlled quantity can be objectively defined in terms of reaction to disturbances. ...Behavior can be seen as purposive or goal-directed if it is recognized that the purpose of any act is to resist disturbances and that the reference condition describes the goal of behavior. (1973:54)
Behavior is a phase in the neurocognitive loop by which an object of interest is brought before the perceiving subject, and kept there as long as desired despite disturbances produced by other competing objects. It is my claim that this is as true for play behavior as for any other form of behavior. u

Metanoia As Optimization of Development

We are now in the position to say that metanoia may be defined as the subprocess of the EMC by which an organism (1) intentionally enriches its operational environment for the purpose of optimizing the development of its cognized environment, and (2) loosens and expands the range of alternative structures that may eventually produce models. In other words, metanoia is an internally driven enhancement of empirical modification which both loosening the adaptational stability of models and enriches the stimuli with which the models dialogue. The operational environment may be enriched either by increasing the information about it, or by expanding its spatiotemporal range. Incidentally, both ways of enrichment seem to be present and operating by the time of birth in human beings (see Laughlin 1990a).

Thus play behavior, as we commonly use the term, may be viewed as metanoic enrichment of the external operational environment via behavior (Blanchard 1986). Linking play to metanoia allows us to balance our view of play with the recognition of a transcendant context internal to the organism, as well as the more commonly acknowledged Batesonian (Bateson 1972, 1979) "meta-communicational" context external to and between organisms. Metanoia labels the internal frame of reference of play, as meta-communication labels the external frame of reference of play. Certainly one function of the metanoic frame is the "adaptive potentiation" of models to possible future responses to the operational environment (Sutton-Smith 1977).

The enrichment studies noted earlier (Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988) are crucial to our understanding of the mechanisms of metanoia, but these studies tend to emphasize passivity of the organism in selection of the enrichment or impoverishment of environmental complexity (it is, after all, the researcher who manipulates the rats' environment). With play, however, we are dealing with an active control on the part of the organism over the process of enriching novelty in the interests of the organism's internal drive to optimize cognitive complexity (Tipps 1981). It is methodologically significant that the external enriching activity is easily observed, but the internal loosening of adaptive constraints on neurocognitive organization is not so easily observed. Moreover, it must be said that play is not a necessary condition for the development of models or of the entire cognized environment. But play, especially as conceived in our more current formulations below, is a necessary condition for optimal development of models of the operational environment.

Play is characteristic of the EMC in species neurophysiologically complex enough for feedforward cognitive operations to occur beyond the immediate perceptual field (i.e., all mammals, and a few of the more intelligent birds; Wilson 1975; see also Pribram 1971, Count 1973:86). In such species, play opens-up the transcendental possibilities of modelling the physical and social aspects of the operational environment. Internal cellular organizations are loosened10 in order to better model the world, and the transcendental possibilities of the world are opened-up for modelling. Higher species are capable, within their neurognostic constraints, of a more or less flexible cognized environment (see Poirier and Smith 1974). The more complex and predominant the play characteristic of a species, the more complex will be that species' cognized environment (Welker 1956a, Sutton-Smith 1967, Wilson 1975:164). Furthermore, sufficient play in early life among these species seems to be requisite to the construction of an adaptive cognized environment relative to the physical world (Piaget 1952, 1962, Menzel 1968) and the social world (Baldwin and Baldwin 1973, Harlow 1969).11

Play Plus Ritual Equals Game

In our earlier theory, we explained the evolution of games as an amalgamation of play and ritual, both of which had their precursors in phylogenesis.12 To game is to participate in a ritual involving metanoia (Frederickson 1960:433). Just as play provides a "context" (Piaget 1962) or "frame" (Bateson 1972) within which activities may open-up and enrich the operational environment, gaming provides a more complex and socially standardized frame within which participants may optimize the development of social coordination. Thus games may be considered rituals of mastery (or "models of power;" Sutton-Smith and Roberts 1970). In our earlier work (Laughlin and McManus 1982:54-56) we showed that the amalgamation of play and ritual into gaming was likely present in the neurognostic repertoire of the earliest hominids.



What we understand about ourselves and our world is the function of an organization of entrained models that has become developmentally stabilized in the interests of adaptation. But in order for growth to continue in neural models, their habitual patterns of entrainment must become intermittently metanoic -- they must become loosened from the confining strictures of adaptational demands. They must become systematically de-stabilized and open to novel re-entrainments (see Blanchard 1986, Tipps 1981).

This destabilization is actually an enhancement of communication among subsystems within the nervous system, and between the nervous system and other bodily organs. Not only does the organism communicate with other members of the group, there is also within the organism a communication between models entrained to form more molar networks.


As is apparent to the most casual introspection, as well as from a reading of the phenomenological literature, the entrainment of consciousness in either metanoic or adaptational states is essentially intentional in organization. This means that the neural systems producing phenomenal experience13 tend to organize themselves about an object (see Brentano 1874, Husserl 1977, Searle 1983, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). The object of consciousness may be externally perceived (the phenomenon arises in the sensorium due to exteroceptive stimulation; e.g., reading a book), internally sensed (a phenomenon arising in the sensorium due to proprioceptive or interoceptive stimulation; e.g., body posture, pain, hunger, thirst), or internally constituted (imaginal structures produce fantasy, logico-linguistic structures produce thought, limbic structures produce feeling, or attention directed at features of internal processing such as boundaries, movement, color, etc.).

It is now central to our theory that the intentional processes that construct and constellate experience about the object are cybernetic and largely cortical in organization. Intentionality in perception derives primarily from a dialogue between the prefrontal cortex (Fuster 1980, Stuss and Benson 1986) and the sensorial cortex of the brain (see Laughlin 1988 for an elaboration of this portion of the theory). The structures entrained to the experience of the object as a consequence of the dialogue between prefrontal and sensorial processes may be located over a wide expanse of cortical (eg., frontal somaesthetic structures, parietal visual attention structures, right lobe imaginal structures, left lobe language and conceptual structures), subcortical (eg., hippocampal recognition structures, autonomic postural structures, brain stem arousal structures, limbic emotional structures) and endocrinal (eg., hypothalamic and pituitary structures) tissues.

The "fields of the Lord," to which the title of this paper alludes, refers to the vast field of neural entrainments that may potentially produce the range of human experiences of self and world, both at any given stage and in all possible stages in the development of the nervous system. The "play" that occurs within the fields of the Lord is, of course, the metanoic phases of more plastic re-entrainment constellated upon the object of consciousness and upon which optimal reorganization depends.

The architecture underlying the cognized environment consists of an ever-changing pattern of actual entrainment arising within a field of potential entrainments. This field of entrainments is defined by three sets of architectural relations within the nervous system (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:113): (1) the hierarchical organization of the neural structures (see e.g., Gellhorn and Kiely 1972, Lex 1979, Csikszentmihalyi 1975, Turner 1983), (2) the bilateral asymmetry of cerebral functions (see e.g., TenHouten 1978-79, Dobkin de Rios and Schroeder 1979, Turner 1983), and (3) the prefrontal-sensorial intentional polarity discussed above (see e.g., Pribram 1971, Laughlin 1988). All three sets of relations influence the quality and intensity of intentionality; i.e., the precise arrangement of associations and functions linked to the network operating between the prefrontal processes and the sensorial ones.

These three sets of relations therefore impact upon the exact relationship between the cognized and operational environments, and thus upon the precise organization of play. For example, prefrontal involvement in perception may range along a continuum from hypointentionality (weak involvement of prefrontal processes experienced as somnolence, boredom and dulled-out states of consciousness) at one extreme through intentionality (the normal range of attention and awareness during waking consciousness) to hyperintentionality (intense involvement of prefrontal processes experienced as meditative/contemplative states, absorption states, lucid dreaming, etc.) at the other extreme. It is hyperintentionality that produces the experience of flow characteristic of states of intense concentration and activity (Csikskentmihalyi 1975). A word of caution is appropriate here, however. Flow experience is not synonymous with metanoia or play; rather, it may or may not be a symptom of playful hyperintentionality. And, of course, flow may be experienced during non-play activities (Schwartzman 1978:327, Csikskentmihalyi 1981:24).

Cycles of Consciousness

One of the salient characteristics of the cognized environment is that it is experienced as a stream of recurring realities. The pattern of entrainments that mediate the cognized environment tend to cycle in a circadian manner, regulated by internal oscillators in the reticular activating system of the brain stem in interaction with external zeitgebers (i.e., temporal cues in the environment, like night and day, alarm clock, cup of coffee, etc.). Each moment of consciousness is a fresh re-entrainment of the cognized environment, a re-entrainment that is constrained to the general limits of the organism's circadian cycle. Re-entrainment may be experienced as anything from a continuity to a radical transformation of experience. Because the shifting entrainment of the network mediating consciousness manifests recurrent, gross temporal patterns, we may experience "chunks" of the cognized environment which we recognize as distinct.

Phases and Warps of Consciousness

Experience, as we have said, is constructed within the intentional dialogue between the prefrontal processes and the sensorial processes of the brain. The total field of this dialogue is consciousness and awareness of bits of experience is a principle component of this field. Because the definitive characteristic of awareness is recollection, remembering, or recognition of patterns in experience, awareness tacitly connotes a role played by knowledge in the construction of experience. Furthermore, since the recursive quality of experience displays detectable patterns, and may thus be cognized as such, reflexive knowledge about consciousness itself involves knowledge of experiential episodes. If an episode is perceived as a salient unit, then it may be cognized as distinct from other episodes, and perhaps distinctly labelled: for example, I am "awake," "stoned," "depressed," "dreaming," "angry," "out of my body," "playing," etc. These cognized episodes of experience, and their mediating neurocognitive entrainments, we call phases of consciousness. The points of experiential and neurophysiological transformation between phases we call warps of consciousness (Laughlin, McManus, Rubinstein and Shearer 1986, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:140-145).

Phases of consciousness recur on a circadian cycle and operate as a neurognostic alternation between those phases that promote adaptation to the external operational environment (we call these "being awake" in our culture) and those phases that promote mutual adaptation of tissues within the organism (we call these "being asleep"; see McManus, Laughlin and Shearer 1990). The intentionality of consciousness alternates between that organized about perceived objects and relations in the external operational environment, and that organized about imagined objects and relations representing internal processes of accommodation.

Many societies encourage their members to explore multiple phases of consciousness (through dreams, visions, meditation states, drug trips, etc.) and interpret experiences that arise according to culturally recognized systems of meaning. This process of exploring experiences in multiple realities combined with social appropriation of the meaning of these experiences results in polyphasic culture (see e.g., Poirier 1990 among the Australian Aborigines). By contrast, our own society typically gives credence to experiences had only in the "normal" waking phase -- in the phases of consciousness oriented primarily toward adapting to the external operational environment. We thus live in a monophasic culture.


Recognizing the differences between polyphasic and monophasic cultures helps us to dispense with a dualism that has distorted our understanding of play. It is relatively easy for us, belonging as most of us do to a monophasic culture, to see how metanoia involving "play" behavior may enrich perception, but it is as true to say that metanoia during dreaming may enrich experience to the same extent, probably involving many of the same biological structures, and without the behavioral component.14

Play and Dreaming

In this respect we are in agreement with Parman (1979) that play and dreaming are homologous processes for elaborating environmental conditions requisite to development. But we feel these processes have not evolved to avoid what she calls "maladaptive aspects of synchrony" (ibid:29-30), for there are no data to indicate that states producing synchronous EEG are dangerous or maladaptive in the normal healthy brain. There are ample data, however, that enrichment of environmental possibilities produces the conditions requisite for optimal neurocognitive and perceptual development. And both play and dreaming function to enrich the environment (see McManus, Laughlin and Shearer 1990, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:286,291). Perception can be enriched by moving the body in space or by picking up a novel object. Experience may also be enriched by attending to and actively participating in dreaming. For certain types of dreaming, as in waking play, the operations of the neurocognitive system become metanoic in the absence of adaptive pressures. It is significant that not only do newborns and infants play (Trevarthen and Grant 1980), they spend a lot of time in REM sleep dreaming (Roffwarg, Muzio and Dement 1966:608).15 There are good data to suggest that, as with play, dreaming both reflects developmental stages in its structure (Caring 1977, Foulkes 1982) and performs a major role in optimizing neurocognitive development (Hobson 1988).

Play and Play Behavior

Many of the confusions attending the definition of play arise precisely because the commonsense meaning of the term in our society denotes behavior. The question is, then, do we want to continue to use the term ethnocentrically to refer solely to observable behavior, or are we actually interested in understanding the entire range of metanoic processes producing the behavior. Of course, we have no difficulties studying play behavior as long as our interest remains descriptive, but when we attempt to explain that behavior, we run up against innumerable obstacles when we fail to account for the biological processes that produce the play. For instance, Earl Count (1973, 1990) has insisted that behavior is properly considered a "symptom" of biological processes -- strictly speaking, a symptom does not evolve or develop. Rather, it is the biological structures that evolve and develop.

Of course, we could scrap the term "play" altogether, as has been suggested by some theorists (Berlyne 1969, Beach 1945). In my opinion, however, the concept of play is still useful, but only if we are clear about how we are using the term in our theoretical formulations. If I have made my case here, then the term play may validly be used in one of three possible ways: (1) as synonymous with the metanoic processes of empirical modification that may or may not include motor activity, (2) to refer to all metanoic processes that are entrained to motor activity, or (3) to refer solely to the motor aspect of metanoia when that aspect occurs. According to the first option -- the one I happen to prefer -- play refers to the metanoic organization of any phase of consciousness in which the adaptive inhibition upon alternative entrainments is loosened and new patterns of entrainment may be engaged. In this case, we could continue to refer to the motor component of play, when there is one, as play behavior. This would allow us to acknowledge that descriptions of play behavior are possible without reference to the neurobiological processes producing them, but that all explanations of play behavior must incorporate the entire play process (see also Tipps 1981).

Play as Evocation, Fulfilment and Expression

Metanoia is a bidirectional process, for it may be internally initiated or externally triggered. Stimuli in the environment or within the organism itself may evoke any model comprising the cognized environment, or a model may autonomously seek fulfilment in perception. With respect to the play cycle, the presence of a novel object (in the external environment or in a dream or other alternative phase), or a playful conspecific, may trigger exploratory activity on the part of the organism (this is the evocative mode of play; similar to what Piaget liked to call "accommodation;" Piaget and Inhelder 1969:6), or the organism may seek an object or a companion it desires; i.e., a toy, prop, playmate or scenario (the fulfilling mode of play; similar to Piaget's "assimilation"). In addition, play may result in symbolic play behavior which communicates information to others; for example role playing in social play or miming an event experienced in an alternative phase (the expressive mode of play; see Bateson 1972:178, 1978).

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