Shamanism and Neuroscience – June 2009

Shamanism and Neuroscience

By Ronald A. Barnett


2007_shamanThe term “shaman” comes from a Siberian complex of languages and signifies ‘one who knows.’ As a form of religious or magical ecstasy found in many parts of the world it is one of the earliest forms of religion. Shamanism involves an out-of-body experience in which it is believed a male or female practitioner enters the spirit world and returns with a message for the people. The shaman receives instructions from the spirit world through dreams, visions, and trances. In order to make contact with the appropriate spirits the shaman makes magical journeys in the spirit to the “real” world of the supernatural beyond this ordinary world of cause and effect. Hallucinogenic drugs or trance states may sometimes be used to help achieve the desired result.

A shaman is thought to be in direct contact with the spirits and able to influence them either for good or for evil. A shaman may function as priest, healer, and counsellor. Diseases are believed to be caused by the presence of evil forces that separate the sick person from society. It is the job of the shaman to restore the equilibrium of the patient. The curative value of various forms of traditional medicine has been well-established, especially with those who believe in the power of the shaman as medicine man.

Several different classes of healers or shamans still practice in Mexico. Curanderos (“healers”) use a wide variety of herbal remedies, with or without magical accoutrements. Brujos and brujas (“Wizards and Witches”) may practice white or black magic.

Neuroscience is the study of the relationship between the mind as mental phenomenon and the brain as the physical basis of mind. By placing electrodes on certain parts of the brain in order to evoke specific subjective experiences, such as feelings, emotions, and concepts, scientists believe that they can prove that the mind and the brain are identical.

If so, then all subjective mental states, including feelings of religious transcendence and the out-of-body-experience of the shaman, can be reduced to that pulsating mass of nervous tissue we call the brain. This effectively does away with the belief that God, spirit, soul, whatever you will, somehow “exist” outside this material world. Some scientists claim that all supposedly subjective states of mind can be explained solely in terms of these physical functions of the brain.

Attach the electrode to the right spot in the brain and PRESTO we have a born-again Christian, or a shaman. This is an over-simplification but does the scientist really know which neurons are firing up in his or her own brain at the moment of attaching the electrodes to the subject’s head and eliciting the expected response? Or why this happens at all?

I once attended a Huichol curing ceremony. The patient was a woman attended by a marakame or Huichol shaman-priest and his assistant. The head shaman began chanting in Huichol while holding his muwieris, the sacred prayer arrows, by the side of his head. He was communicating with the spirits. Then the woman sat on a mat and the shaman brushed the muvieries over her entire body. The assistant shaman, who spoke Spanish, explained to us that the marakame was turning over the pages of the life history of the patient searching for the cause of the illness. When he found it he sucked the top of the patient=s head, removed the evil particle that had made the woman ill, and ceremoniously dropped it in the fire, thus consuming the evil and freeing the woman of the illness.

The head shaman insisted we all take part. As I sat on the sacred mat and the shaman waved the magic prayer arrows over me I passed from objective observer to subjective participant. I felt as if I had been born a Huichol. I did not try to analyse my feelings or state of mind, I was floating in that “collective consciousness” of the human race that transcends Darwin and his devotees. Afterwards I did not enquire after the woman patient but we all left with a soothing sense of well-being. A regular priest could have done no more.

What would a behaviourist psychologist have made of the “publicly verifiable empirical evidence” of my inner mental state? If we can infer another person’s state of mind only through objective observation and interpretation of outward signs and behaviour, then obviously we cannot fully participate in the subjective experience of another person. Did the shaman’s spirit leave his body and ascend to the spirit world or did a fortuitous series of neurons in the shaman’s brain propitiously fire up simultaneously producing the “illusion” that he apparently experienced? You would have to ask the shaman.

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