Neuroscience and Mythology: How do Joseph Campbell’s ideas fit in contemporary neuroscience?

In the explosion of neuroscientific popularity surrounding contemplative traditions and techniques such as Mindfulness, can we begin to look at Joseph Campbell’s work with new eyes?

Joseph Campbell was a 20th century scholar of comparative mythology and religion, who was most famous for his seminal piece ‘The Hero with a thousand faces’, as well as a variety of other published works, taking a metaphorical and poetic view to the great epic tale of humanity that he would call later call our ‘Monomyth’. He has been inspiration for artists such as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, as well as being a central to Geroge Lucas in the creation of Star Wars.

Campbell saw the symbolism and literature of mythology shared between all cultures as a reflection of our own internal psyche and conscious experience, and the process by which humans move from places of restricted consciousness into a transcendent paradigm of liberty, using prominent characters such as Osiris, Prometheus, Jesus, and the Buddha as examples. Campbell saw these individuals irrespective of their religious connotations, but as examples of individuals who had experienced an internal journey to overcome their restricting thought processes, such as fear and desire, into a state of release from behavioural cycles, entering instead into conscious freedom, awareness, and acceptance.

Fear and desire played a central role to Campbell, acting as the ‘gatekeepers’ and central constructs that would prevent those of lesser fortitude from reaching conscious change and transcendent thought. This language was a metaphorical device to Campbell, and indeed Campbell cites many mythological examples as illustration of his theory. Campbell suggested that metaphorical interpretations indeed do point toward an experience in all frameworks and traditions which produce a complete shift in conscious paradigms. Taking this paradigm into consideration, it may match to some degree with our contemporary evidence and thought around contemplative neuropsychology and consciousness, and indeed may parallel what it is to experience the stark nakedness of the moment.

Mindfulness, as an example of contemplative tradition, has seen a huge surge in scientific popularity over the course of the last 25 years since John Kabat-Zinn introduced the concept into the clinical field through the development of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and with quite remarkable results. This, as well as further variations, has provided a bedrock of rekindled interest in our own introspective processes. This has heavily emphasised the experience of being truly aware of any given moment as it arises, with the total surrender and acceptance to whatever it may have in store. This has been immensely aided by the ability to capture experiences and change associated with practices of this nature, with our development of advanced neuroimaging technology.

Tang, Holzel, & Posner (2015) state that the evidence for the neuronal mechanisms underlying positive changes seen in practices such as mindfulness meditation remain unclear and require further research, however brain areas and neural networks associated with positive change after such practices have a healthy and continually developing evidence base.

In summary, during mindfulness practice the areas of the brain responsible for attending to present moment experience (e.g. Anterior cingulate, left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and Insula) increase in activation, and in more experienced individuals, prefrontal areas are thicker in grey matter. Areas associated with raw emotional response, such as the Amygdala, are also modulated through this practice. As a function of present moment awareness, decreases in activation of a communicative pathway in the brain occurs, known as the Default Mode Network (DMN), which references our experience with past and future events. These neurological changes are also concomitant with neurocognitive effects, such as improved scores on tasks such as Go/No-Go trials (a measure of self-control) in experienced meditators compared to non-meditators.

Nothing is innately ‘wrong’ with DMN function, but it can often get in the way of enjoying what is occurring in our present moment because we may be too wrapped up in the presentation we may be giving in the morning. Learning to adapt our conscious mind to this way of thinking has been reported to have profound effects on an individuals’ experience of life. Experience free of judgement and thought enables the input of data being free of any subjective past or future bias, and indeed is something which is sought in contemplative communities.

Coming back to Campbell, on a continuum of present moment awareness vs. past or future awareness, fear and desire would certainly be attributed to the latter. Yes indeed, we may experience fear or desire in a very present moment way, yet these are functions of our mind either anticipating or retrospectively interpreting incoming stimuli and experience. Individuals such as meditators, who are more uncoupled from these processes, have been suggested to possess increased attention (Froeliger et al., 2012). Therefore, the only constructs preventing our consciousness from experiencing the true reality of any given moment in Campbell’s view may be his two gatekeepers of ‘enlightenment’ itself, fear and desire. The achievement of present moment awareness absent of these aspects is, of course, remarkably difficult, and hence the extensive myths, stories, and framework’s built around such phenomena, attempting to capture the experience in colourful and poetic detail.

Therefore, if we match contemporary neuroscientific evidence regarding present moment awareness to Campbell’s monomyth, we can see that his theory may be reflected in the brain to some degree. Of course, evidence and data regarding the exact neuronal mechanism behind such phenomena and experience is yet to be fully fleshed out, and indeed part of the experience of this mystery is free from the concepts of what is logical or illogical, rational or irrational, and indeed is best experienced absent of analytical thought. The duality most ascribed to by our mind is probably best left for another post. However, it is entirely reasonable to speculate that the alterations in our wetware reflect experiences which may have historically produced the need to write such great epics, partly in an attempt to describe that rare and liberating experience of truly sitting in the moment. Of course, evidence also suggests that these epics were also designed for practical, astronomical, cultural, and moral reasoning purposes.

In a clinical capacity, Joseph Campbell may also present evidence toward the nature of the Self, and how rigid senses of identity have been mythologically reported to inhibit our capacity as individuals. Gallagher’s (2000) review into the aspects of the Self describe the temporary and fleeting nature of the ‘narrative self’; a temporal and practical development of the mind which enables us to frame our experience to who we consider ourselves as an individual. However, alongside this narrative self there is also the concept of the ‘minimal self’; a philosophically distinct region which perceives moment to moment experiences independently of who we are. These concepts are suggested to be built upon internal cognitive and neural constructs, and indeed, the inferior parietal lobe has been suggested to be implicated in the perceived sense of intrinsic and individual ‘I’. Mental Illness can indeed be exacerbated by a rigid sense of narrative self, leading to stress and worry to defend this narrative, which have been suggested to lie on the causal pathway to developing symptoms of mental illness. If mythological and spiritual frameworks also point toward the concept to deemphasising the importance of the narrative self, and being more in touch with the minimal self as being the core to conscious liberty and development, clinical practice may also benefit from these concepts by facilitating the emphasis of the minimal self, and detaching our experiences as needing to be ‘in-keeping’ with our individual, fragile narratives. Even in a non-clinical capacity, this shift in paradigm may indeed be the difference between awareness of a new and beneficial experience or not.

Decreases in this sense of narrative self may have been exactly what ancient poetry and mythology may have been pointing at. This concept is certainly nothing new, and has been called many names depending on the framework you ascribe to e.g. Ego, ‘little self’, and persona. In addressing indirectly the concept of narrative and minimal Self, Campbell may be an integral figure in synthesising and presenting evidence addressing the experience of both. Indeed, contemporary spiritual frameworks also emphasise the shift from narrative self to something more fundamental, as do mindfulness techniques indirectly.

In essence, Joseph Campbell provided a colourful and beautiful look at the great mythical frameworks and wisdom traditions of human culture. The synthesised concepts have certainly led to inspired and stimulated thought around what the experience of spirituality is, and Campbell professed with certainty how the liberation and transcendence of such an experience is ubiquitous to all, and privy to non. Modern neuroscience has begun to elucidate our knowledge into the internal neural procedures that may reflect such a shift in consciousness through contemplative practice and spirituality, and indeed we may be stepping closer and closer into understanding how ‘the moment’ may really look like in the brain. This further leads to stimulating thought to how this may have been experienced and described previously in cultural frameworks.

Comparing mythological, spiritual, mystical, and cultural metaphor with modern neuroscience may be like comparing apples and oranges in some ways, but even in modern day, poems about the experience are certainly still being written.



Barnby, J. M., Bailey, N. W., Chambers, R., & Fitzgerald, P. B. (2015). How similar are the changes in neural activity resulting from mindfulness practice in contrast to spiritual practice? Consciousness and cognition, 36, 219-232.

Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin, 132(2), 180.

Campbell, J. (2001). Thou art that: Transforming religious metaphor. New World Library.

Campbell, J., & Kudler, D. (2003). Myths of light: Eastern metaphors of the eternal (Vol. 6). New World Library.

Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces (Vol. 17). New World Library.

Froeliger, B. E., Garland, E. L., Modlin, L. A., & McClernon, F. J. (2012). Neurocognitive correlates of the effects of yoga meditation practice on emotion and cognition: a pilot study. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6.

Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science. Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(1), 14-21.

Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and time: A translation of Sein und Zeit. SUNY Press.

Ivanovski, B., & Malhi, G. S. (2007). The psychological and neurophysiological concomitants of mindfulness forms of meditation. Acta neuropsychiatrica, 19(2), 76-91.

Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225.

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