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Shamanism: A look at the Earth’s original neurotheology

In his essay, "Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology," author Michael Winkelman looks at various instances of shamanism across cultures to find similarities that reveal "universals" about the practice.

Dr. Michael Winkelman Associate Professor Arizona State University
Dr. Michael Winkelman
Associate Professor Arizona State University

Winkelman recently retired from his post as an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University to begin studies in Brazil. Winkelman focuses his research on shamanism as medicine, applied medical anthropology, and cross-cultural relations. His knowledge of cross-cultural relations allow him to find these shamanistic "universals" that he argues are the basis of the practice's modern resurgence. After receiving his Bachelors degree from Rice University, Ph.D from the University of California at Irvine, and Masters Degree from the University of Arizona, Winkelman made strides in researching shamanism's ability to heal substance abuse issues as well.

To preface his research, Winkelman starts by noting that shamanism is "humanity's most ancient spiritual, religious, and healing practice" and is currently having a resurgence because it is rooted in the basic functions of the "brain, mind, and consciousness." In the past, this rooting provided shamanism with a functional role in survival and cultural evolution in hunter-gatherer societies. Since shamanistic rituals date back to human prehistory, they produced what Winkelman characterizes as an "evolved psychology" that gives shamanism relevance in a modern society.

In order to have a resurgence however, there must have been a decline somewhere along the line. Confusion about the true nature of shamanism created skepticism because of the variety of shamanistic rituals that span contrasting countries and cultures. Winkelman also adds that the practice's origin outside of the western world and association with altered states of consciousness helped to create a stigma. However, treatments for "spiritual emergencies" and substance addictions have helped prove the worth of shamanistic ritual in modern society.

Modern research, like that done by Winkelman, has helped to empirically prove an association between shamanistic practices and opioid releases in the brain that "enhance serotogenic function." In order to do this, practitioners use a plethora of shamanistic activities and symbols designed to elicit "physiological, psychological, and emotional" responses. When these responses are quantified they form the biological bases of the shamanic "universals." These include shamanistic healers, altered states of consciousness, analogical thought, and community rituals.

Winkelman found in his cross-cultural study that Shamanistic healers are a "universal" in shamanistic  cultures and that they even share many similar characteristics across cultures. The healers share a common background in alternated states of consciousness, which forms the basis for their "universal institutionalization of mechanisms for altering consciousness and healing through integrative brain functioning." Shamans also share many other characteristics such as interpreting illnesses as being caused by spirits, symbolic manipulations for healing, and attributing illnesses to the work of other shamans. Their work focuses on achieving a state of "religious ecstasy" that is a form of altered consciousness. This state causes a natural nervous system reaction that triggers a sense of relaxation and brain synchronization. Lower brain structures are stimulated to create a "synthesis of behavior, emotion, and thought"

Another "universal" in shamanistic healing that has already been mentioned is altered states of consciousness. Rhythmic activities employing music, dance, and mimetic control are frequently used to achieve altered states through theta and alpha wave brain patterns. Rhythmic activities are also beneficial when trying to promote group cohesion. Large groups are able to connect easily through music because it promotes "synchrony, coordination, and cooperation among group members." (Hint: get ready for tomorrow) Visionary experiences are also important in shamanistic healing as the symbolic method as opposed to activity method employed by the rhythmic activities. Winkelman's research finds that these visionary experiences are "a natural brain phenomenon" that occurs when the brain "releases the normal suppression of the visual cortex."

Combining ritual songs and dance is one of the most common ways to achieve an altered state of consciousness
Combining ritual songs and dance is one of the most common ways to achieve an altered state of consciousness

 

Analogical thought is also often present in shamanism as Winkelman finds that innate processing modules for natural history of intelligence nand mental attributions regarding "others" manifest themselves in shamanism through analogs. Animism, animal allies, and examples of self-representational death and rebirth all reflect preverbal brain structures dating back thousands of years. Animism involves the attribution of of human mental and social capabilities to animals, nature, and the unknown. According to Winkelman's research, organisms model their own mental states to other organisms mind and behavior. Animal allies also employ the natural history model that animism employs, but involve representations of "sacred others" and attribute more specific brain capacities to specific animals. Soul Flight as well as death and rebirth experiences are also universally manifested in shamanism. A common example of this is a near death experience where the soul goes on a momentary "journey."

Community rituals are also highly important to shamanism as attachment and affectional bonds are also helpful in releasing the natural brain opiates necessary for healing. These opioids are known for stimulating the immune system, providing senses of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness, enhancing coping skills, maintaining homeostasis, reducing pain, decreasing stress levels, and allowing for greater environmental adaptation. Community rituals are important in treating "soul loss" which is one of the main shamanic illnesses. Shamans also use cultural symbols that the community helps to reinforce in order to manipulate physiological responses. Symbols can manifest themselves unconsciously, allowing shamans to heal through advanced methods of engagement with "neurocognitive structures to produce therapeutic changes."

Can anyone guess what some of these pre-verbal shamanistic symbols are?
Can anyone guess what some of these pre-verbal shamanistic symbols are?

Through these "universal" processes, shamanistic healing allows for the restructuring of ego and identity in the person. The "universals" that Winkelman found in his research also help to create a special mode of consciousness that creates synchronized brain wave discharge patterns. These patterns help to coordinate the hierachical functions of the brain in a more positive manner. Through better coordination of the functional levels of the brain in this state of consciousness, the self is better able to induce personal, cognitive, and social integration as a means of healing.

Overall, the main points to take away from Winkelman's research are...

  • Shamanism has experienced a resurgence in modern society as it reflects basic concepts of human nature
  • Shamanism's healing powers come from creating an altered state of consciousness that release natural opiates stimulating serotonin flow.
  • Shamanistic healing rituals alter physiological, psychological, and emotional responses by using activity (dancing, music) and cultural symbols.