Remembering Martin Fortier

A scholarly journey

Written by Michiel van Elk and George Fejer (edited by Marco Aqil)

Martin Fortier was an anthropologist by training, but he also had a strong background in philosophy, cognitive science, developmental psychology, neuroscience and psychedelic research. His broad background gave him a perfect overview of different fields and allowed him to approach topics from a variety of different – complementary – perspectives. For instance, his anthropological fieldwork among the Shipibo in the Peruvian Amazona showed that many so-called ‘cognitive universals’  were less universal than mainstream cognitive science had suggested. At the same time, he also had a rigorous conceptual  approach, and was very keen on using clear terminology and aware of cultural biases in scientific research. He tried to ‘carve up reality’, by proposing more ever fine-grained distinctions, for example, when it came to the study of consciousness or psychedelics, to account for the complexity of human experience.

Martin also had a strong interest in the Cognitive Science of Religion, and particularly in the experiential approach of Tanya Luhrmann, who conducted field studies among Pentecostal Christians. Thus, while completing his PhD at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he was also a visiting scholar at Stanford University in the USA. With respect to theories in this field, Martin was specifically critical of the idea of minimally counterintuitive concepts, playing a causal role in the transmission of supernatural beliefs. Martin proposed an alternative approach – in a chapter he co-wrote with Kim Sunae – according to which complexity drops, characterized by a sudden drop in entropy, are at the basis of supernatural attributions and beliefs. Together, Martin and I (Michiel van Elk) set up a cross-cultural vignette study to put these ideas to the test. Next to this, Martin was also the founder of the ALIUS research group to study the diversity of consciousness. He conducted in-depth interviews with some of the most prominent researchers in the field, providing fascinating insight into their thinking and personal lives. As such, the ALIUS Bulletin provides a unique and highly valuable addition to other academic journals. Through his charisma and enthusiasm, Martin has initiated many research projects and collaborations, which are bound to continue: it is fair to say that we are only witnessing the beginning of his impact on academia.

Martin felt strongly about taking as many conceptual levels of analysis as possible into consideration while researching the complex topic of consciousness. This was also reflected in his calls for innovation in the field of anthropology, to incorporate quantitative tools from psychology and neuroscience, but also in the opposite respect, for psychologists and neuroscientists to address phenomena outside the laboratory. As such, Martin’s “neuroanthropological” approach aimed at achieving a deeper integration between qualitative subjective content analysis and quantitative measurements. These endeavours also served the purpose of ensuring that the analysis of subjective content would not biased by cherry-picking those elements that fit a pre-existing narrative framework. For one of his projects, ‘The Neurophenomenology of Hallucinogens’, Martin asked qualitative proof raters to assess subjective reports across different psychological dimensions, and took a systematic inventory of the hallucinatory content. By comparing different substance classes (i.e. serotonergic vs. cholinergic hallucinogens), Martin sought to link distinct structures of the hallucinatory phenomenology to its underlying neurotransmitter systems.

In terms of popular scientific output, Martin served a crucial function towards the psychedelic community. His vast knowledge and scholarly rigor made him a role model for scientists and laymen alike, as he always maintained a skeptical attitude towards unsubstantiated or unfalsifiable claims, and backed up his opinions with thorough lists of references. Such a reflective, critical stance is often lacking within the psychedelic community, and hence deeply necessary to separate the wheat of legitimate psychedelic research from the chaff of pseudoscience. Many of us speak of “ego-dissolution” and “mystical experiences”, but there is often plenty of ego left to uncritically proselytize psychedelics as a cause in and of themselves. Martin’s work is representative of using psychedelics as a tool for science and knowledge, as opposed to using scientific language to promote psychedelics. His open-minded but nonetheless skeptical attitude reflected an authentic interest to investigate consciousness in its full diversity.

 

If you would like to learn more about Martin’s work, in the following links you can find an introductory, non-exhaustive collection of Martin’s popular science output and scholarly articles. An upcoming bulletin by Martin’s co-founded ALIUS group will be dedicated to an in-depth review of his scientific contributions.

 

Shared personal memories

Michiel van Elk:

With the loss of Martin Fortier, we have lost a brilliant scientist, a marvellous colleague and a very great source of inspiration. I came to know Martin in 2017 while we were both working at Stanford University. We first met at the Cupa Café in front of the beautiful library and this provided the starting point for many conversations in the months to come. I was impressed by his enthusiasm, his broad knowledge and his out-of-the-box ideas. He organized journal clubs, lectures, an ALIUS workshop, and he brought me into contact with many interesting people. He always seemed to be moving around the Bay Area and was involved in countless different research projects. During our conversations I often found myself wondering ‘Either this guy is crazy, or he is going to win the Nobel Prize!’. I am sure that he would have qualified for the latter, if he would have been permitted to live longer. I feel tremendously sad and it is difficult to believe that Martin is no longer with us. Our memories of his endless energy, optimism and enthusiasm will remain. As will his research projects that we will hopefully together bring into further fruition. But above all: may his brightness, charisma and the optimism by which he faced life’s difficulties be an example for many.


George Fejer:

It is with grief and sorrow that I share this post, in remembrance of Martin Fortier, one of the dearest friends and contributors within our scientific community. His passing came too soon and will have left a sincere absence in our hearts. I derived a deep sense of belonging to the academic community by knowing Martin and rarely have I met somebody who embodied curiosity-driven research so passionately. For that reason, I would like to acknowledge what his personal acquaintance meant to me, as a friend and as a member of our shared academic community.

I first met Martin when he spoke at the first academic symposium organized by APRA about two years ago. His acquaintance marked a crucial point in my development. Martin delivered a highly engaging lecture about the ‘Neuroanthropology of Hallucinations – From Nativism to Culturalism’, which stood out in its critical stance towards the cultural biases rooted in the field of psychedelic research. Martin had been the first person I met who preferred the term ‘Serotonergic Hallucinogen’ over ‘Psychedelic’, regardless of its negative connotation. He was likewise critical towards the usage of the terminology describing psychedelic experiences as ‘mystical’ and ‘ego-dissolving’, in favor of a more anthropologically informed term such as ‘supernatural’. His critical stance was a refreshing perspective, given that cultural biases rooted in Perennialism are not widely reflected upon. Moreover, I admired the fervor with which he pursued the demarcation of psychedelic pseudoscience. His writings on social media channels and the ALIUS bulletin provided an impressive combination of professionalism and accessible reading. His ideas continue to inspire me, as well as his critical stance towards tackling scientific fallacies. I dearly hope his final works can also see the light of day.

Martin’s demeanor epitomized open collaboration and multidisciplinarity. He offered me a chance to collaborate on his project about the Neurophenomenology of Hallucinations, only briefly after we had met. He immediately offered the second authorship for my efforts. The innovative nature of his ideas spanned many different projects and domains. It was inspirational to see someone take cognitive research outside the lab setting and into the Peruvian rain-forest. We embarked on a further collaboration to extend his line of research by investigating Bayesian Rule-learning and cognitive flexibility related to psychedelic use. Martin provided me with all the necessary resources, instructions and feedback every step of the way. Martin also introduced me to several colleagues and helped me apply for Ph.D. positions across various institutions. He also asked me to collaborate in organizing the next ALIUS workshop with him, which felt like an incredibly empowering opportunity to contribute to his association. From the time he was diagnosed with cancer to the week before Martin transferred into palliative care, he continuously wrote me emails about all these different project ideas. In reflection of his work, it is quite evident that his passion for research was an intrinsic part of his personality.

While working with Martin, I derived a great source of meaning and a sense of belonging with the academic community. His openness to collaborate with other people served as a role model to value science as a societal project. In contrast to those ideals, the world of academia often confronts us with an entirely different mentality. The harsh reality of publish-or-perish is ripe with instances of toxic competitiveness, fraudulent behaviors, and idea-hoarding. The incentive structures in place do not readily prevent these tendencies. For example, it is disheartening to bear witness to a talented colleague who loses their position through no fault of their own. Regardless of their teaching skills, abilities or publications in high ranking journals, if they cannot secure funding. One should hope that these instances do not make a person feel devalued by being rejected from academia. Yet those who are lucky to have found a footing may often derive a sense of worth, by casting off the relevance of the fields above or below their discipline. I only go into such details to emphasize that Martin’s spirit counteracted these types of tendencies. He valued the input and opinions of researchers from so many different positions and fields and brought so much curiosity-driven energy into the community. His interests sprang the self-constructed niche of overspecialization and asked questions that required multidisciplinarity to answer.

The last time I met Martin personally was when one of his chemo treatments was spontaneously canceled and he came down to the World Ayahuasca Conference. At this meeting, he had strong hopes of making a full recovery, but it stood out that he was less interested in attending the lectures than to catch up and meet everyone. In retrospect, I regret not having known Martin more intimately, and I will dearly miss the great discussions we had during the last two years. I consider him to be a crucial figure in our field and I feel grateful to have met him. He connected so many people to one another, exhibited relentless readiness to help others, and a wonderful sense of humor and energy. His passing came too soon, but I am thankful that I could at least convey these thoughts to him before he left. I know his memory will live on in the hearts of those who draw inspiration from his work and continue to embody his mentality. His absence will be felt.


Marco Aqil:

I first came across Martin’s work when drafting a list of speakers for the first APRA symposium in 2018. His name was a suggestion of APRA board member George Fejer. I wasn’t priorly familiar with Martin’s work, but after looking into it, I immediately agreed to invite him as a speaker. He struck me as an amazingly original thinker, always capable of gazing at the moon when most of us would be looking at the finger. His talk at the symposium was memorable, and it allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of neuroanthropology, cultural bias in psychedelic research, and historic use of psychoactive substances. Martin was the rare kind of academic that is not just able to find flaws in existing scientific paradigms, but also to chart the path towards novel discoveries. He was also much more than a brilliant academic. A great sense of humor and good hearted personality made his company deeply enjoyable. After learning about APRA, he immediately expressed an enthusiastic support for our endeavor, which motivated us to keep working and improve further. After the symposium, I kept in touch with him by email and Skype. Several times I asked for his help, whether when creating a course program, or to get his thoughts on an essay that involved some anthropological considerations. Despite his busy academic life and ongoing health issues, Martin never failed to reply with in-depth comments and thoughtful suggestions. I feel terribly at loss knowing that I will not be able to enjoy Martin’s company and wits for many years to come. I will try my best to honor his memory in my work and personal life. I hope to be able to be a bit more like him, as a scientist and as a person.


Hesho Shaweis:

I’m sure anyone who comes across Martin’s work will be inspired by his brilliant mind, yet for the lucky ones who met him and knew him personally can never forget how richly charismatic he was. I was lucky enough to meet Martin through APRA and immediately his energy, his passion and his smile was contagious. He was the type of person who left a lasting impression. Thank you Martin for all you have given. The world is truly at a loss without you.


Max Laansma:

I met Martin at the Amsterdam airport when I picked him up for the APRA symposium back in 2018. I remember trying to familiarise myself with his work in advance so I would be prepared for a more in depth conversation on his research during our train ride. Instead, we actually ended up talking about a whole bunch of other interesting topics. His view on the world was inspiring and definitely has influenced my way of thinking. In this short time, he struck me as a kind, curious, humorous and easy-going person who showed great interest in the people around him. Martin, you will be missed and I am sure that the positive energy and knowledge you shared will continue to inspire people around the world.


Linnea Thomander:

When meeting Martin through APRA in 2018 he made an impression like few others, and it was one that never changed. His charisma and genuine warmth was noticeable even from afar, just like his eye for a neat suit. This truly distinguished him from the many. His ability to communicate his ideas and passionately share knowledge was as captivating as his research. Martin and his scientific contribution will always remain inspiring, impressive, and incredibly meaningful. It is a deep loss that he is no longer with us, and a true gift that he was. Thank you Martin, you are missed.

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