Date: February 14, 2018 3pm-4:30pm

Location: Dunton Tower: Room 2203

Title: Cultural Neurophenomenology of Experience Framing

Speaker: Samuel Veissière – Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry

Abstract: Cultural neurophenomenology is an ambitious project.  It has been defined (why not?) as ‘a theory of the experiential and neurobiological aspects of cultural activity’ to create a ‘neural theory of culture and a cultural theory of the brain’ (Dominguez, 2012).

Placebo Sociality properly understood is a pleonasm: culture by definition produces placebo effects. What we believe and expect, as the well-known story goes, affects how we feel, and can produce all kinds of improbable – at times near-miraculous – physiological effects.

When members of the same species develop group-specific ways of feeling and doing things, we can speak of culture. Sociality, in turn, refers to our species-specific ability to form joint goals and engage in large-scale, coordinated, meaningful action. This is an old puzzle: How and why do people who mostly don’t interact with one another in the flesh develop standardized, scripted ways of being that feel so real and personal to them? How and why do cultural differences take hold with such strange phenomenal (“what it feels like”) stability? Why is this process largely unconscious for humans? What are the limits and extent to the species-general, group-specific experiences that human sociality afford?

In this talk, I present an overview of ‘strange’ ways of being and feeling that arise through the cognitive mechanisms that underpin cultural forms of life. I take the example of tulpamancy – an online subculture in which young people conjure imaginary friends that they experience as friendly auditory hallucinations that improve their quality of life – as a case in point to describe how sociality affects inner experience. After a detour through cyberchondria, recent experiments in culturally-assisted placebo treatments, and other examples in which collective beliefs produce unusual physiological responses, I turn to the general question of wellbeing and ask how the current idioms of ‘mental health’ many of us now take for granted affect human wellness.


Kirmayer, L.J., Gomez-Carrillo, A., Veissière, S. (2017),  Culture and depression in global mental health: An ecosocial approach to the phenomenology of psychiatric disorders, Social Science & Medicine

Ramstead M, Veissière S, and, Kirmayer L (2016) Cultural Affordances: Scaffolding Local Worlds Through Shared Intentionality and Regimes of Attention. Front. Psychol. 7:1090. *

Veissière, S. (2017). Cultural Markov Blankets? Mind the Other Minds Gap! Physics of Life Reviews

Veissière, S. (2016) ‘Varieties of Tulpa Experiences: The Hypnotic Nature of Human Sociality, Personhood, and Interphenomenality’. In. Amir Raz and Michael Lifshitz (eds) Hypnosis and meditation: Towards an integrative science of conscious planes. Oxford University Press.

Veissière, S. & Gibbs-Bravo, L. (2016). ‘Juicing: Ritual, Purity and Placebo Sociality in a Community of Extreme Eaters’. In. Cargill, K.. Food Cults. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Domínguez D, J. F. (2012). Neuroanthropology and the dialectical imperative. Anthropological Theory, 12(1), 5-27.


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