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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.



Ed Norton & Brad Pitt in "Fight Club"
Ed Norton's character in "Fight Club" has dissociative identity disorder (DID), & Brad Pitt is actually one of his alters. This movie is an example of what I refer to as DID being the contemporary deus ex machina, wherein it swoops in & resolves otherwise inextricable plots. In all fairness though, it's based on a book I have yet to read, which I'm told is better.

Dissociation is the main focus of this series. Dissociation is a filtering, compartmentalizing, or apportioning of consciousness or awareness. I've called dissociation 'partitioning of awareness' (2005). This essentially means we can compartmentalize aspects of awareness from each other in our mind. It's the psychological state shared among shaman when they travel mentally to other realms, when initiates leave their bodies & are replaced by deities or spirits, or when you seem to be under the spell of someone else during hypnosis (not really, but bear with me). It's what is going on in Fight Club when Edward Norton alternates himself as Brad Pitt or is simply the zoning out you're doing right now if your eyes are reading these words, but your mind is thinking about something else.

It can be useful to understand the context of a theoretical model. I've just spent a few days reading about how Darwin's thinking about transmutation over many years & various pursuits led to his dawning realization of his conceptualization of natural selection. I'm certainly no Darwin, but in the spirit of a history of science--my own history & the science I do--I owe my interest in dissociation to two people really, my wife & Professor John Beatty.

Professor John Beatty
Professor John Beatty is a linguist but blew my mind with his True Renaissance Man Anthropologist resume: His father was Mohawk, mother was German. He grew up half on the rez in upstate NY, half in Brooklyn. He speaks fluent Mohawk & often curses at students in Mohawk. His father later remarried a Kiowa-Apache woman, & he learned to speak that too. His family adopted two Cantonese boys when he was growing up, & he learned to speak some Cantonese thru them. He has done fieldwork in Ireland, Mexico, & Japan & speaks Japanese, some Totonoc. He taught in Germany. Before becoming an anthropologist, he was an opera singer, an actor, a baker, a sailor, an Army Intelligence Officer, a NY City Police Detective, & some other stuff. He's written books on intercultural communication, runs several museums, consults for the NYPD on occult-looking stuff, & does pro bono PI work. He helps run a silent film festival & currently adjuncts in the Department of Film after he quit the BC Anthro Dept the day before the semester began. And he had his front teeth knocked out by Washoe the chimp when he was a linguistics grad student.

I began to be interested in dissociation when I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. I was taking a really fascinating course called "Cults, the Occult & Secret Societies" (yes, Anthropology really is simply the coolest major in college) with Professor John Beatty. As a quick aside, I owe Prof. Beatty much, as from the very beginning, he let me take the graduate-level course  for honors credit because I worked during the day & couldn't take the undergraduate course. He would spend 2 hours with me in the hallway after a 75 minute class talking about topics related to the course (which I scarcely understood & am still, to this day, finally making connections with what he said then). He made many special accommodations so I could take his courses despite conflicts with work or other courses, &, despite being a linguist with expertise in Native American languages & film, he saw what attracted me & pointed me in the direction of sociobiology, psychological anthropology, & medical anthropology. During the year when I was teaching at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum because I could not get funding for the PhD or Master's programs I'd been admitted to & then became an imminent father of triplets (Prof Beatty, in his typical cantankerous way & as an avowed lifelong bachelor, encouraged me to sell them on eBay & make a tidy profit), Prof Beatty pointed me toward museum studies (he ran several small museums out of Brooklyn College & a local bank), helped out with our Intrepid Museum programming, & suggested I look outside anthropology in programs that could fund me for the expertise I desired. I got admitted to an online museum studies program & was all ready to enroll when I got the call from the University at Albany (SUNY), offering me a full teaching assistantship, & where I had made contact with evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, Jr., who devised the mirror test that is the basis for much of the self-awareness & theory of mind research over the past 40 years.

In Prof Beatty's "Cults, the Occult, & Secret Societies," I had to do a research paper for my honors project & had become interested in similarities I noted between readings about Vodou (in yet another class that had a module on Caribbean culture--this was very relevant, as Brooklyn College sits in the largest Caribbean community in the world outside the Caribbean), shamanism (which seems to come up in every cultural anthropology course, so I had probably noted it in the intro to four-field anthropology I had taken the previous semester with Prof. Beatty), & the field of Dance/Movement Therapy my wife, Loretta Lynn (when we first met, my wife said, "You know, if we got married, I'd be 'Loretta Lynn' [like the famous country singer for those of you not following along]--that I wasn't scared off by that was her sign to go full bore ahead!), was studying in a master's program at Pratt Institute in NY. Dance/Movement Therapy is a non-verbal approach to psychological analysis & mind/body integration.

I was editing papers my wife was writing for her studies in Creative Arts Therapy generally & Dance/Movement Therapy specifically. The Pratt program is based in Freudian & Jungian psychoanalysis, but the ability of therapists to "read" clients' movements & to help them through getting them moving in rhythmic & group-oriented ways resonates strongly with cross-cultural shamanic-possession ethnomedical modalities. My wife worked in Woodhull Medical Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in in-patient psych. Bed-Stuy is a relatively poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn with an appreciable immigrant population. Patients my wife worked with were largely mentally ill & homeless. Many of them also didn't speak English, so there were numerous barriers to verbal therapy. They were the lowest of low-functioning, in many ways. Because this was a non-verbal therapy (& because my wife hates writing), she convinced her advisers that it made more sense for her to compile a video thesis instead of a written one. So, as I sat watching video of her sessions with patients, where they would gather round a parachute & use it as a pivot to facilitate group movement, I had two epiphanies:

  1. The social movement integration that she was facilitating was the same type of behavior that ethnographic films of Haitian Vodou or !Kung Bushmen depicted except the pivot was a fire or something similar--the non-verbal approach to social integration was similar.
  2. The important component to facilitating better functioning is not self-reflection or awareness--it is social skills. These therapeutic interventions helped people function better socially. You can be a total mess in your mind, but you won't be institutionalized unless it's a social problem. Similarly, you can go to see a Vodou mambo or priest for personal issues, but the cure or the therapy is inevitably social.
Mama Lola. Photo by Claudine Michel.
Mama Lola. Photo by Claudine Michel.

Another quick aside that reinforced this analogy for me & a thread I still regret not following up on. Upon graduating the Pratt program, my wife continued working at Woodhull, &, in my interest in Vodou, I read Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Recall that the largest Caribbean community in the world outside the Caribbean is in Brooklyn, so many of my wife's co-workers were Haitian, including relatives of Mama Lola. Mama Lola was still there practicing (& I think still is) &, were I not an undergrad at the time, I may have had the chutzpah to look her up. As it was, my wife & I discussed Dance/Movement Therapy with Mama Lola's relatives, who were Vodou practitioners & affirmed similarities. Furthermore, when my wife & I started trying to have children & realized were suffered fertility issues, one of those relatives brought us Mama Lola's phone number, so we could try that therapeutic invention. Ultimately, we decided it was too sensitive & painful an issue for us to subject to cultural tourism (especially after we unsuccessfully tried Chinese medicine), stuck with our own biomedical cultural model, & went to a fertility clinic for intrauterine insemination (& successfully produced triplet boys, who are 10 years old now!).

I was interested in the common thread & noted, additionally, similarities with other similar phenomena & spent the semester writing an exhaustive paper on shamanism, possession trance, hypnosis, multiple personality/dissociative identity disorder, & demonic possession.

Mirrors and Compasses: An 85th Birthday Symposium for Erika Bourguignon
Erika Bourguignon. Photo taken by Melinda Kanner at Mirrors and Compasses: An 85th birthday Symposium for Erika Bourguignon, held at The Ohio State University on Friday, February 20, 2009.

Two books formed the spine of that investigation & my foundation in studying dissociation for several years. I stumbled on Felicitas Goodman's How About Demons? Possession & Exorcism in the Modern World (1988), which led me to Possession (1976) by Erika Bourguignon. Erika Bourguignon is a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology from Ohio State specializing in psychological anthropology.  Possession is an ethnology, or cross-cultural investigation & comparison, that examines possession states. It is based specifically on her work in Haiti studying Vodou possession trance (which differs from mere possession, because of the dissociative trance that is described as a displacement of self &, in theory, has neurological correlates) but compares such possession trance to shamanic spirit journeys, demonic possession, multiple personality, or other types of possession around the world. Besides the ethnology Possession, Bourguignon is notable & continually cited for her 1968 ethnologic analysis of the appearance of altered states of consciousness as normal parts of cultural practices.

Felicitas Goodman, now deceased, was a student of Bourguignon's. Her story is interesting, as she came to anthropology later in life, focused on the ethnology of glossolalia (speaking in tongues), & went on to found a New Age facility called the Cuyamungue Institute, dedicated to rediscovering trance as a form of everyday relaxation through ritual postures. Goodman's early work & dissertation, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (1972), are really phenomenal, as she was the first to conduct neuroanthropology among Apostolic Pentecostals. She worked in Indiana & Mexico, conducting ethnography of tongue-speaking & recording glossolalia to test the hypothesis that it has universal features. She found, in brief, that while there are dialectic differences among groups, there are universal aspects of glossolalia that suggest it is not faked but is something else entirely (whether or not it is truly God's voice is not the question, as there have been non-Christian glossolalists as well). Goodman's later work tended to be less ethnographic than historical & experimental. Her more famous work is the The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (2005), which analyzes the German demon possession case upon which The Exorcism of Emily Rose (U.S., 2005) & Requiem (Germany, 2006) films are based. She also began collecting prehistoric & historic depictions of postures that she suspected were, like yoga postures, meant to induce altered states of consciousness. She conducted several studies using college students to simulate the postures & measure physiological responses to them. This work is outlined in Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences (1990)  & Ecstatic Trance: New Ritual Body Postures: A Workbook (with Nana Nauwald, 2003). How About Demons? picks up where Bourguignon's Possession left off, comparing contemporary forms of dissociation cross-culturally, including her own studies of glossolalia, faith-healing, demon possession, & experimental work.

I tried some of the trance postures published in The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys (2009) by Belinda Gore, who took over the Cuyamungue Institute when Goodman died. Here is the fish woman pose with Douglas Weathers simulating it.
I tried some of the trance postures published in The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys (2009) by Belinda Gore, who took over the Cuyamungue Institute when Goodman died. Here is the fish woman pose with Douglas Weathers simulating it.

This all led me to studies of Pentecostal glossolalia, self-deception, & other forms of trance, which I'll be writing about in future posts. These posts are drafts of what I hope will become my "position paper" toward informing my tenure & promotion committee reviewers how all my research fits together (along with the rest of the academic community, who might read it) &, ultimately, a book. I'm posting these drafts in the course blog for "Primate Religion & Human Consciousness" because the course follows my exploration & thinking for the book.  This semester is the 4th time I've taught the course, & it has changed somewhat dramatically each time. It has provided me an opportunity to integrate my interests in biopsychology with anthropology of consciousness. The first semester we read Julian Paul Keenan's The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness (with Gordon Gallup, Jr. & Dean Falk, 2003), a series of articles, & conducted numerous in-class activities & in-class research projects. The next time I taught it, we read Barbara King's Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (2007), David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, & the Nature of Society (2002), & the 2nd volume of Michael Winkelman & Etzel Cardena's Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (2011), articles, & conducted in-class activities & out-of-class research projects. Last year we read Evolving God, Darwin's Cathedral, & Joseph Bulbulia & colleagues' The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques (2008); & I encouraged students to take up Wilson's challenge of a church-by-church ethnography toward testing his multi-level adaptationist model, which has since blossomed into the Religious Ecology Study (aka Belongingness Ecology Study). After giving two talks last year (one for the Tuscaloosa Humanist Society & another for the American Anthropological Association) that integrate all of my projects within one cohesive theme, I revamped this course to follow the outline of those talks & expand on that material.  Currently, we are focusing on specific readings that inform each slide from those talks (& their accompanying Powerpoint slides), trying to include author biographies to put this research into a historical & disciplinary context, & always developing more experiential activities to facilitate "embodied" learning.

I hope that all of this will find form to make for a compelling read & provide avenues by which others, whether scientists or no, can appreciate the point I'm exploring--that our "consciousness" has mechanisms that, by design, curtail awareness. I think this is fairly intuitive to most people, but there is an interesting contrast when we talk of seeking to expand our consciousnesses or for higher consciousness as some natural progression of humanness that I think may be an artifact or by-product of other cognitive functions. And even as I write this, I feel my awareness of exactly what I'd like to say hiding in the murk of my mind, murkiness I hope both to see through yet leave in place, if that makes any sense.


Have you ever been so absorbed in a video game that you lose track of time? One moment its noon and the next thing you know the moonlight is shining through the windows. This is not uncommon to many, our lives are filled with all sorts of video games, from the Sims to World of Warcraft. In fact, several researchers studied the positive and negative effects video games, in particular World of Warcraft, had on gamers. Apparently getting immersed in such a visually stimulating game as WoW can have both good and bad impacts on health. Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, Michael G. Lacy, H.J. Francois Dengah II, Jesse Fagan, and David E. Most studied the dissociation or immersion of those playing WoW.

What's really going on in our brains while playing?

Snodgrass and friends identify absorption as becoming unaware of the environment around them and time perception maybe altered. According to Snodrass it is commonly accepted that being absorbed in something is healthy. Most people become absorbed in things on a daily basis, for example reading a good book.

On the other hand there is the extreme version of this absorption called dissociative identity disorder or DID. This extreme detachment from the real world combined with amnesia, depersonalization, and de-realization have caused some scholars to diagnosed DID as a mental disorder. It is common for many people to become absorbed in things that give relief from the stresses of life. Except those that have DID use absorption to avoid stress.

Snodgrass goes on to describe the ways in which researchers are reacting to the good feeling benefits of dissociation. One such approach is looking at the neurobiology involved, which in lay man’s terms means examining the brain’s lack of attention to the world around it. Then measuring the reactions of the stressors to the environment in relation to health benefits. An example of this is meditation. Another belief is that being in these “feel-good” states releases endorphins. Other researchers have focused on the effects dopamine (which is connected to the brain’s reward system) and stress have on addictions to harmful subsistences. They study the amount of stress hormones such as glucocorticoids cortisol have in short-term and long-term situations. The results showed that with short-term stress an increase in dopamine allowed people to feel focused and alert. While in a long-term situation it led to an opposite effect. Causing those under chronic stress to need more feel-good activities and becoming more susceptible to subsistences abuse.

Snodgrass's Angle

Snodgrass hypothesized that those who became absorbed in WoW could show the same mental states as other dissociates. He believes that those who become dissociative show both good and bad mental health depending on the players’ stress levels.

Research and Methods

Snodgrass and Co. used several methods for collecting data, they played the game, watched and interviewed other players. Three of the researchers hung out and played WoW excessively so as to better understand the effects of the game’s environment on their surroundings. They discovered that at some points it was a source of stress relieve while at other times it was the source of stress. They interviewed 30 gamers and split their data into three groups. One focused on the individuals’ motivations and goals, favorite and less favorite aspects of the game. Then gamers further described their positive and negative experiences when playing WoW. The third part was the cultural success in the both the game world and the real world.

In addition, Snodgrass conducted a Web Survey with three scales. The first measured individuals’ levels of absorption using the Tellegen Absorption Scale and the Dissociative Experience Scale.They were asked to describe to what extent they became absorbed into the world of WoW. The second part measured how playing WoW negatively impacted their real-world lives. The last part asked the gamers to measure the extent WoW added to their happiness.

Table 2 shows that 30% became so absorbed in the game that they blocked out the world around them. While, two-thirds said that losing track of time was also common, but that the virtual world of WoW felt real to them. In fact, many believe that the happenings in this fictional world were more memorable than events in their actual lives. Some even feel as though they truly are their characters.

Table 3 focuses on the effects WoW has on players. Half of those surveyed said that the game actually increased their happiness. Many more found that the game was relaxing and helped release stress, increasing their life satisfaction. Oddly, most of those surveyed said that WoW didn’t increase stress, but one-third did agree that to a degree it did add to stress. Half did admit to being addicted to the game.

Pretty eh?

While doing research Snodgrass observed that many players found the world to be visually pleasing, vivid, and even seemed real. Many people, including the researchers preferred to be called by their character’s name while playing. In fact, the researchers found themselves unconsciously referring to each other with these made up names outside of playing WoW. Many of the players experienced the good benefits from being absorbed in a game. The researchers interfered that these players achieved positive dissociation from moving away from their stressors. Some even reached a meditative state.

At the opposite spectrum the game was creating stress for some players.While many players started playing to avoid stress, yet found themselves being so immersed that they neglected every day responsibilities, creating more stress. Over time these players needed to spend more and more time in this fictional world to get the “good-feelings” from the game.


Dissociation in WoW leads to both positive and negative mental wellbeing. Some people find WoW to be therapeutic, contributing to their over-all happiness and mental health. While others become so addicted to the game and found themselves unable to leave the game. Snodgrass believes that over-all playing WoW is not necessarily a bad thing and that it can actually be a healthy thing, relieving stress for most players.


Studying the Stone Age is almost so boring that it’s rude, right? Researcher Yulia Ustinova has the right idea (second only to studying history while actually stoned) by approaching ancient peoples specifically to find out what type of mind-altering shenanigans they were into back then.

Her research focuses mainly on the role of Greek religion within society, and her current project is entitled “Mania: Altered States of Consciousness and Insanity in Ancient Greece.” Sounds entertaining to say the least. Among a ton of papers and chapters in collective volumes, Ustinova has written two books entitled: "The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom: Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God" and "Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth." She currently teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but has also taught in London and Chicago and conducted research in Leningrad. Suffice it to say she’s pretty legit.

Her article “Consciousness Alteration Practices in the West from Prehistory to Late Antiquity” gives an overview of the people, practices, and potentially harmful substances we can study beginning with the Stone Age. The specific stories she mentions can be understood outside of their cultural context, making them easy for us uncultured swine to understand what they’re all about.

So let’s rewind a few years.

Not your average refrigerator art

PREHISTORY: What a mystery

Because humans in the Stone Age didn’t communicate with writing, we are left with their art, i.e. cave paintings, for clues about their experiences with altered consciousness. We have vague ideas that they did indeed have these experiences, because their drawings tend to mimic certain visual hallucinations like zigzags, grids, and dots. Some consider these images “embodied metaphors expressing subjective feelings of death” which describe an individual’s experience of altered consciousness. In the Neolithic period, art started resembling certain visual phenomena like spirals, which according to modern shamans may represent doorways between dimensions. From Paleolithic to Neolithic eras, people began using various other methods of altering their consciousnesses, including:

  • Music and Dance- Picture lots of repetitive stomping and banging on things.
  • Psychoactive plants- While there is little hard evidence that hunter-gatherers used them intentionally, it's highly likely they were aware of the plants' effects, because, c'mon.
  • Opium- Accounts surfaced in the Neolithic era.
  • Alcohol- Accounts showed up in the 4th millennium in eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

It's likely that all of these were used in a religious context.

PROTOHISTORY: Or as I like to call it, Brotohistory

Protohistoric peoples are less mysterious because they began leaving texts giving us the dirty details. Herodotus gives the first account of a “purification rite” involving hemp seeds as a hallucinogen. This showed that in Iranian-speaking cultures, hallucinogens were used in religious ceremonies, and that other Europeans used hemp as a psychoactive substance. Also, accounts from this time period give us more information about the Germans, Celts, and a few other peoples beginning to use alcohol in their cultures.

File:Levant (orthographic projection).png
Geographical reference

ANCIENT NEAR EAST: Things get interesting

In the Ancient Near East, which Ustinova clarifies as being “part of the West because the Mediterranean world has always served as a bridge between Northern Europe and the Levant,” we find more of these kooks using opium and other plants like water lilies for mind-altering. In several cultures such as Minoan and Egyptian, opium and other plants were most likely used specifically to alter states of consciousness. They also used beer and wine in social and ritual contexts. Around this time period, people started believing that altered states of consciousness were linked to prophesy giving. The Mari texts from 18th century BCE give counts of men and women “possessed” by spirits and they named them ecstatics or respondents. These texts detail the culture's perception of prophetic moments. Furthermore, in ancient Israel, what they called “inspired prophecy” played a huge role in the culture. For example, Ezekiel’s vision in the Old Testament gives a primary recollection of altered consciousness. His experience takes on several hallucinatory forms: visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, and kinesthetic. This may have been some form of synesthesia.

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg
His beard is full of secrets.

ANCIENT GREECE: The really good stuff

In Ancient Greece, some versions of this “madness” were sought and revered, and others were looked down upon. States of altered consciousness were viewed as a blessing if "the divine" had inspired them. Plato named four different types of “god-induced frenzy”: prophetic, initiatory, poetic, and erotic. In Greece, someone had to be possessed by a god to gain inspiration—an inspired person was seen as a medium between two realms. The terms used for these experiences were “enthousiasmos” or “mania.”

  • Prophetic: There were many methods seers or prophetic priests used to induce this state of prophetic “enthousiasmos”: drinking sacred water, dipping feet into sacred water, shutting themselves in a temple, mounting sacred structures, fasting, seclusion, and many more. People involved in these frenzies were disposed to hallucinations because of their lifestyles and the rituals they underwent in preparation. One example of this was the “Daimonion of Socrates” by Plutarch. This detailed an out-of-body experience of a man who, in a “prepared” state, enters an oracular crypt and experiences some larger-than-life sensations, leading him to profound conclusions about his mortality. Such mystery rites were directly relevant to the individual, and were aimed to influence that person’s attitude toward life and death.
  • Initiatory: The most important objective of Greek initiations was to make participants live through a certain experience; they
    Eleusinian Mysteries

    had to be inducted into a certain state of mind to achieve it. Ustinova asks us to consider the questions: what was the nature of the experience, and what methods were used to make the initiated “fit for the purpose”? The pay off for this ritual was that the individual gained peace of mind and acceptance of death. They were essentially forced to endure death and learn not to fear it. This mirrors modern individuals who experience life threatening situations (such as a heart attack or trauma injury) and come back from the experience with a whole new personality or outlook on life.

  • Poetic: Lastly, in this era it was believed that poetry and prophecy sprung from the same source and that poets inspired by muses must "celebrate past and future."

The Greeks studied many ways to liberate their souls from their bodies at will, including meditation, bringing themselves to the verge of death, welcoming possession, and so on. They viewed this separation of the body and soul as the ultimate way to gain wisdom--a wisdom that was not attainable when the soul was restricted by the body.

ROMAN EMPIRE: Basically copycats

Goddess Isis

Lastly, Ustinova examines the Roman Empire, which essentially adopted the consciousness-altering practices of the Greeks when the Greek and Near East cultures flooded theirs. This led to mysteries such as the Greco-Roman Mystery of Isis; initiates were made to feel the anguish of the goddess Isis and live through it. They approached the "threshold of death" and experienced contact with the divinity. The Roman Empire also birthed Plotinus, the Father of Wetstern Mysticism.




From the Stone Age to Late Antiquity, individuals definitely experienced and experimented with altered states of consciousness. As time passed, accounts and records became more specific, individualized, and culturally relevant. These events and people have extreme influence in the development of human history, and the study of such practices is still very relevant today.

So the next time you're bored in history class, wondering how it's possible that at one point the Austrian army actually attacked itself to the point of self-inflicted decimation, just remember it could be due to the fact that they were probably high on opium. #history.