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Thinking of office cubicles in the brain may help us imagine how dissociation might work & even be a great metaphor when we start suggesting that sometimes there is a jerky boss in our heads who comes out & barks at employees then cloisters himself away & a whole host of employees sitting in their cubicles with the various personalities that resemble aspects of ourselves that manifest under various circumstances. But this model doesn't really explain what dissociation is. Another way of viewing dissociation is simply as a psychological construct.  Dissociation isn't a specific thing, like love or stress are not specific things. A construct is something that exists in the mind but can't be localized to only one physical object. Dissociation is not the office walls or the computers in the cubicles or even the office flirt; it's the totality of everything & how information flows & is gated in the office of your brain. Dissociation is a concept. This means it can't be nailed down to any specific psychocultural behavior or affect or any neurological underpinnings.

This is important because we describe many different behaviors and activities as dissociative.  Shamanic spirit journeys are dissociative & supposedly involve leaving the corporeal body to commune with spirits on the astral plane (cue the Modern Lovers) or something.

Possession trance is dissociative but involves invading spirits displacing or pushing aside the self & memory of the experience (check out Maya Deren's classic Divine Horsemen).

Zoning out while playing video games may be dissociative if the house is falling down around you & you fail to notice. I used to joke that if Law & Order was on TV across the room, I could dissociate my wife talking to me & the kids fighting in between--I would not even notice them, transfixed as I was on the story-line of the show.

Dissociative Identity Disorder like that portrayed in Sybil or Three Faces of Eve or Fight Club or name-your-DID-movie portray people whose psyche is carved up; some of their "alters" know what other alters are up to, some don't. Intuitively, it would seem these states could not possibly harness the exact same neural hardware, but they do involve similar states of focused awareness, albeit for different reasons.

These are a few of the forms of dissociation that first caught my attention. Many people find the term "dissociation" confusing, &, I agree, it's one of those jargony terms that we could do without. But what other term would apply to all of these states? The obvious response to that, probably, is a question--why do we need one term to describe them all? On the one hand, these states are all historically particular--they are culturally relative & arise due to relatively unique ecological circumstances, as critics of ethological approaches like mine point out.

Spirit journeys, possession trance, DID, & extreme zoning do, however, share some psychological qualities; they partition aspects of awareness to filter, reduce, or moderate stress. So, rather than switch terms every time I discuss the cognitive mechanisms that filter, reduce, or moderate stress, I use the blanket term dissociation, which I picked up from reading Erica Bourguignon & she picked up from smarter people than me before her.

There are only two decent alternatives to the term dissociation that I can think of, both of which I do use, as I'll discuss in depth later, one of which is more straight forward, while the other is way more jargony. The term "trance" seems the obvious alternative, but I argue that it connotes an appearance & is best reserved for dissociative states that are visible to others. The other term, "deafferentation," is one of those cool words you invoke at parties to look like a bookish tool & really should be avoided but has such precise & flexible meaning with regard to neural systems that I feel it shouldn't be avoided under the circumstances.

The best way to understand a concept is to invoke an example. One type of cultural dissociation reputed to enable individuals to transcend the self that is particularly interesting to me is possession trance, & one purported form of possession trance takes place around speaking in tongues.  I say "purported" because speaking in tongues is not universally agreed upon as taking place in a trance state or dissociation, &, based on my observations, sometimes tongues are dissociative & sometimes they're not.  But it usually is, I believe, and its characteristic form--what I call the "excited Holy Ghost" type--almost certainly does.

If dissociation is necessary to limit the costs of self-awareness, as I suggested in Part 2, it is because these costs cause problems, are stressful, & therefore dissociation can be construed as an aspect of our allostatic stress response system.  Allostasis is homeostasis or equilibrium but through change. The concept of homeostasis got marred in misunderstanding, as some static state our body always strives to return to. We immediately recognize, however, when we think about the changes we must go through as we grow, age, become pregnant, modify our bodies through diet & exercise, among other normal habits, that there is no way our bodies could maintain one state throughout our lives. So homeostasis was reconceptualized as allostasis, which essentially means changing stability. The set-points at which things like stress response are triggered change as our bodies change. In theory, as I practice meditation & become more Zen (ha!), the threshold at which I lose my temper goes up, but there is a trigger, & once I've yelled at my kids & see they're sufficiently remorseful (again, ha!), my blood pressure drops back below the threshold & stops boiling. Yes, I am mixing metaphors, but I think it conveys the principle of allostasis.

Allostasis is a concept that is generally applied to stress physiology, but we could think of our behaviors that purposefully moderate dissociation as a "behavioral allostatic system." In other words, we have cultural practices that, whether we are conscious of it or not, moderate the threshold of our tempers & stress response. For my doctoral dissertation research, I suggested that speaking in tongues was a "behavioral homeostat." In stress physiology jargon, homeostats are the individual mechanisms of homeostasis, such as the hormones cortisol & epinephrine that increases blood pressure or the glucose that is released to increase energy. In this case, speaking in tongues is a behavioral homeostat because it is a mechanism that hypothetically moderates stress response. It plays a role in moderating awareness of stressors. While people are speaking in tongues, they are focused on God. In fact, according to practitioners, God has pushed them aside in their minds & is speaking through them. There literally is no room to think about anything else. If you're thinking about your bills, God won't come in. So, your worries are dissociated or partitioned from awareness at the moment you are speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues itself is not the dissociation but what happens instead of the worry or the worldly thought or whatever; it is a mechanism or part of the system though not a direct mechanism.

This system is allostatic in that, I believe, practicing it leads to an increase in daily dissociation. By engaging in ritual dissociation, you train your body to raise the threshold of stress response. The set-point for freaking out on your kids (or whatever) is raised because you're more chill, more zazen. It's no different than exercising so you have more energy--you change the set-points for when you're exhausted & gasping for air & pooping out & having a heartache on your front lawn while mowing the grass.

Okay, so this is a nice theory & all (actually a hypothesis, but that's not the expression), but what about the data? To test this, in 2008-09 I compared the overall rates of speaking in tongues among participants in a couple Apostolic Pentecostal churches in New York to biomarkers of stress response using saliva samples collected across a day of worship and a day of non-worship.  I asked them how many times they'd spoken in tongues in their lifetime to get at that idea of practicing something to change the allostatic set-points. Then I divided the folks in my study into high-tongue speakers (21+ lifetime experiences--most had so many they were off the chart) & low-tongue speakers (0-20--most had never experienced tongues).

If we compare them using just the better understood stress hormone cortisol (I also analyzed alpha-amylase, about which we understand less, but you can read my analyses here and here), we found that high-tongue speakers had significantly higher cortisol across the worship day (suggesting they were more active during worship) & significantly lower cortisol during parts of the non-worship day (interpreted as being potentially less reactive to daily stressors).  This is consistent with studies of long-term meditators, whose cortisol levels indicate less daily stress reactivity (i.e., they are generally more chill).

So, based on one study of one religious group, culturally-mediated dissociation seems to influence stress. This needs to be followed up & replicated, which I'm in the process of doing (over a longer course of study this time), but religion is not the only behavioral allostatic system. What about all those religion haters out there who shout about their equal claims to relaxation? Okay, well, maybe they're making my point, but there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, gamers, & just plain non-religious-non-intellectual-about-the-whole-thing people out there doing yoga & aerobicizing & whatever to relax. Are they getting the same benefits from dissociation?


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.