Review by Tim Knepper, 2001
Hunt, Harry T. “A Cognitive Psychology of Mystical and Altered-State Experience.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 58 (1984): 467-513.
Hunt, Harry T. 1985. “Relations between the Phenomena of Religious Mysticism (Altered States of Consciousness) and the Psychology of Thought: A Cognitive Psychology of States of Consciousness and the Necessity of Subjective States for Cognitive Theory.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 61: 911-961.
Harry T. Hunt’s “A Cognitive Psychology of Mystical and Altered-State Experience” presents a cognitive-psychological understanding of altered states of consciousness as “exteriorizations and prolongations (into awareness) of aspects of the normally masked or ‘unconscious,’ ultra-rapid stages of perceptual and affective microgenesis” (496). Exploring a “full range” of empirical reports from mystical-meditational, psychedelic and schizophrenic sources, Hunt develops a cognitive psychology of the abstract symbolic processes underlying such altered states of consciousness (as symbolic re-use and transformation of the visual microgenetic sequence). Hunt then turns to several aspects of altered states of consciousness (tonic immobility, catatonic schizophrenia, the white light of “void realization”) in an effort to answer the question of whether religious-mystical experience should be understood as a cognitive emergent or a regressive, primitive mentality. Siding with the former alternative, Hunt interprets such phenomena as the “consequences of a specifically human creative capacity based on cross-modal translation between touch, vision and audition,” claiming that religious-mystical experience thereby constitutes the full exteriorization and completion of such a cross-modal synaesthetic capacity (465). After considering several “regressive” explanations of religious-mystical experience (fetal, phylogenetic, and ultra-rapid microgenetic/iconic stages), Hunt asserts that only the ultra-rapid microgenetic/iconic stage explanation “is consistent with the abstract cognitive features of such experience and the view that all higher mental processes involve a disassembling and reuse of microgenetically preliminary perceptual and affective patterns” (467). Hunt concludes that altered states of consciousness are a direct exteriorization of the normally masked processes of semantic operation, a “turning around” of the microgenesis of perception and affect that occurs by means of synaestheic cross-modal translations.
Hunt’s “Relations between the Phenomena of Religious Mysticism (Altered States of Consciousness) and the Psychology of Thought” argues against the so-called orthodox accounts of synaesthesias and geometric imagery as “products of perceptual breakdown and fragmentation – the nonsymbolic epiphenomena of ‘stress’ or ‘regression’ or ‘disorganization.’” Hunt’s conclusions are threefold. First, geometric form constants and luminosities, hallucinatory transformations, and synaesthesias from various altered states of consciousness do not describe a level of symbolism that is necessarily primitive in ontogenetic terms. Writes Hunt: “These effects offer the most direct clues to the processes underlying a metaphorical-presentational side of intelligence and developed as such they constitute a separate line of cognitive development whose end point is the cross-culturally common forms of religious mysticism and shamanism” (954). Secondly, “[r]ealms of vision, audition, and touch are incommensurable,” though we experience them “together” through the workings of human symbolic processes (955). This “going-together” happens on two levels, the level of “simple synaesthesias” which appears as ordinary language, and the level of “complex synaesthesias” which appears as presentational symbolism. Thirdly, the incommensurability of the senses and the multiple possibilities for synaestheic fusion help explain some of the features of metaphor (as discussed by Paul Ricoeur). The simultaneous “is-is not” of the metaphor “follows from the infinite multiplicity of ‘embodiments’ of the form of visual microgenesis” (956). Thus, “[i]f the metaphor works by locating common physiognomies and dynamics between medium and referent, complex synaesthesias seem to show this process in situ” (956).