Dennis McKenna is currently Assistant Professor in the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. His research has focused on the interdisciplinary study of Amazonian ethnopharmacology and plant hallucinogens. He has conducted extensive ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon, recently completing a four-year project investigating Amazonian ethno medicines as potential treatments for cognitive disorders in schizophrenia.
His doctoral research (University of British Columbia, 1984) focused on the ethnopharmacology of Ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, two tryptamine-based hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon.
Dr. McKenna completed post-doctoral research fellowships in neurosciences in the Laboratory of Clinical Pharmacology, National Institute of Mental Health (1986-88), and in the Department of Neurology, Stanford University School of Medicine (1988-90).
He joined Shaman Pharmaceuticals as Director of Ethnopharmacology in 1990, and subsequently joined Aveda Corporation as Senior Research Pharmacognosist. He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute. He was a key organizer and participant in the Hoasca Project, the first biomedical investigation of Ayahuasca used by the UDV, a Brazilian religious group. Dr. McKenna is author or co-author of two books and over 40 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. He is the younger brother of Terence McKenna.
Consciousness is something that most people know from subjective experience, but might find difficult to define. There is a general consensus that being conscious involves being awake, aware, and having a subjective sense of self-hood. Introspection, which implies an internal state of awareness, seems to be an essential element of consciousness, as does the ability to apprehend the external world through sensory receptors and to interpret that information in a way that is meaningful, and that fits within some kind of conceptual framework of self-awareness. Another characteristic of consciousness (and perhaps the most essential one) is the ability to generate and comprehend abstractions or symbols, and to relate them meaningfully to what is experienced via sensory channels, and to fit them into our conceptual framework of self-hood. Consciousness is at least all of the above; and may be much more but this will serve as a working definition.
While the definition of ‘consciousness’ remains a slippery concept, there seems to be little doubt that artistic expression – the ability to project abstract or aesthetic concepts into the real world -- is critically dependent on consciousness. Only conscious beings create art. So when it comes to addressing the question, ‘how old is consciousness?’ it seems that the only way to even hope to answer this question is to examine the oldest known evidence for human artistic expression. My talk will focus on some of the most ancient examples of human artistry that have been found in the archaeological record, and will seek to examine this evidence to shed light on the antiquity of human consciousness.