Friday, February 18, 2011

Shamanism As Evolutionary Medicine


Although it appears that our paleo ancestors inhabiting temperate and tropical ecosystems had no modern diet-related diseases, they did suffer dis-eases, and universally had "medicine men," also known among anthropologists as "shamans."   As a medical system, shamanism maintains that many apparently physical dis-eases have spiritual causes.  Indigenous/shamanic tribal cultures “believe” that spirits exist and play roles in individual, tribal, and ecological health. Shamanic interventions address traumas affecting the soul/spirit through direct interaction with the spiritual realm, achieved through altered states of consciousness that provide entrance to a non-ordinary reality.

All this talk of spirits certainly makes anxiety for modern “scientific” atheists and some Judeo-Christian religionists alike.  The former will dismiss such talk as mumbo-jumbo without empirical basis, a threat to rationality and logic.  They will tend to dismiss shamanism as dealing with non-existent “supernatural” entities.  Some of the latter believe that for some odd reason the One True God chose to reveal himself and the Rules for the Right Way of Life only to the members of several middle Eastern desert tribes, leaving everyone else in the dark. Some of these also believe that their God gave these chosen people not only the right but the duty to convert all other tribes to their faith and way of life, if not by persuasion then by force, perhaps basing their belief on some passages in the Bible such as these found in Deuteronomy 12:1-4:

"1-These are the statutes and judgments, which ye shall observe to do in the land, which the LORD God of thy fathers giveth thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth.

"2-Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree:

"3-And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place."

These people call non-believers by various names like heretic, infidel, heathen, pagan, and so on, and some of them have called shamanic culture "demonic." 

In either case, shamanism directly competes with the “authorities.”  Atheists may consider shamans a threat to the authority of "reason," science, and scientists, and some religionists certainly consider shamans a threat to the authority of their faith, dogma, and priests.  Shamanism comes from non-hierarchical tribal culture in which no one has ultimate authority over another, and thus it conflicts with civilization and all types of authority.

To illustrate the modern discomfort with shamanism, in 1892,  in a speech at the Smithsonian Institution, John Bourke called shamans “an influence antagonistic to the rapid absorption of new customs”  and said “only after we have thoroughly routed the medicine men from their entrenchments and made them an object of ridicule can we [whites] hope to bend and train the minds of our Indian wards in the direction of civilization.” 

Shamanism as Experimental Science

Khakas Shaman. Source:  Wikipedia
Shamanism refers to a universal conceptual framework found among indigenous, uncivilized (i.e. politically unstratified), tribal humans.  It includes the “belief” that nature (the world) has two aspects, the ordinary world,  accessed through ordinary consciousness, and the spiritual world, accessed through an altered state of consciousness, or “trance,” induced by shamanic practices such as repetitive drumming, fasting, or herbal drugs.   According to shamanic theory, the spiritual and ordinary worlds interact continuously, and a shamanic practitioner can gain knowledge about how to alter or to guide interaction with ordinary reality by taking direct action in the spiritual aspect of the world.

Importantly, according to the shamanic perspective, the spiritual realm is NOT what both atheists and theists would call "supernatural."  The spiritual realm described by shamans does not lie outside of nature or experience.  On the contrary, just like gravitational force and the subatomic realm of quarks and photons, also invisible in ordinary states of consciousness, the shamanic spiritual realm occurs as part and parcel of nature.

I put the words “belief” in quotation marks because, unlike modern religious beliefs, the shamanic “belief” in a dual aspect world is not faith-based.  Rather, it arises from direct and replicable experiences induced by specific, repeatable procedures.  That makes it an experimental science, not a faith system.

To wit, the indigenous belief in a spiritual realm and spiritual entities is no more “mystical” than the belief that the typical modern educated individual has in quarks and other subatomic particles.  In fact, it may be less so. 

The typical modern person’s belief in subatomic particles is based on hearsay and authority, not on direct experience.   To get anything like a direct experience of subatomic particles, you have to go through a certain procedure.   You have to complete adequate training in the conceptual framework known as modern physics, which will prepare you to perform certain types of experiments and supply you with the conceptual tools you will need to interpret certain types of data (e.g. particle movements in a cloud chamber) as evidence of the existence of quarks.  Very few people have completed the required training and experiments, which makes modern physics a type of non-ordinary knowledge of a non-ordinary reality accessed directly by only a few people, the high priests of physics.  The rest of us accept their description of subatomic worlds on faith.

In contrast, the typical tribal human’s belief in a spiritual realm inhabited by spiritual entities is based on personal direct experience of that realm and those entities by following certain experimental procedures, i.e. inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness using shamanic techniques such as repetitive drumming, fasting, vision quests, dreams, or herbal drugs. Thus, we should not confuse neolithic religious belief with paleolithic religious experience. The average modern believer in God does so not based on experience, but on doctrine or hearsay.  In contrast, shamans don't "believe" in spirits, they actually know and work with them directly in altered states of consciousness.

I want to emphasize that the shamans' claims about a spiritual realm are as scientific as the physicists' claims about quarks.  They are open to confirmation by experimental procedure.  If you have not performed the experiments yourself, you really are not in a position to deny the claims of the shamans or the physicists.  Similarly, if you want to confirm (or dispute) the claims made on basis of these experiments, whether shamanic or modern physics, you will have to do the conceptual training and the experiments yourself.

The rub here is the personal difficulty and discipline involved in replicating shamanic experiments compared to physics experiments.  I mean, performing basic physics experiments does not involve anything as physically or mentally arduous as extended fasting, vision questing, or controlled entrancement.  But you can't be an armchair shaman any more than you can be an armchair subatomic particle physicist. 

Although called by some “trance,”  I put the word “trance” in quotation marks because it is typically taken to imply a “false” state of mind, when it does not.  In fact, people enter “trances” regularly as a part of ordinary life.  If you have found yourself so engrossed in an activity that you had an altered perception of time, you have been in trance.  If you have ever driven somewhere, then, upon arriving, wondered at how you did not remember doing the driving, you were “entranced” during that drive.  If you have ever experienced “the zone” of peak performance, you have been entranced.

In fact, shamanic "trance" differs from the usual "trance" in that the practitioner must tread into "trance" territory without losing control of his intent.  It is this need to harness the ordinarily quite restless mind that makes shamanic experimentation with "trance" more difficult and arduous than physical experiments which require control only of isolated physical events.

Shamanic Experiences Versus Cognicentrism

In fact, we have absolutely no way of determining which of the many waking states of consciousness we experience is the "real” state.  Michael Harner, an anthropologist who specialized in studying shamanism, wrote a book  The Way of the Shaman in which he discussed the hostility that 'authorities' express toward shamanic knowledge of alternate realities such as presented by Carlos Castaneda in his series of books reporting his experiences under the tutelage of don Juan, a Yaqui “sorcerer:”

"To understand the deep-seated, emotional hostility that greeted the works of Castaneda...one needs to keep in mind that this kind of prejudice is involved. It is the counterpart of ethnocentrism....But in this case it is not the narrowness of someone's cultural experience that is the fundamental issue, but the narrowness of someone's conscious experience. The persons most prejudiced against the concept of nonordinary reality are those who have never experienced it. This might be termed cognicentrism...." 

Natural Selection of Shamanic Practices

Using the principle of natural selection as a guide, Harner also addresses the prejudice that the ordinary state of consciousness (OSC) is real reality, while the altered shamanic state of consciousness (SSC) is illusion:


"Some might argue that the reason we spend most of our waking lives in the OSC is that natural selection intended it that way because that is the real reality, and that other states of consciousness, other than sleep, are aberrations that interfere with our survival.  In other words, such an argument might go, we perceive reality the way we do because that is always the best way in terms of survival. 

But recent advances in neurochemistry show that the human brain carries its own consciousness-altering drugs, including hallucinogens such as dimethyltryptamine.  In terms of natural selection, it seems unlikely that they would be present unless their capacity to alter the state of consciousness could confer some advantage for survival.  It would appear that Nature itself has made a decision that an altered state of consciousness is sometimes superior to an ordinary state. 

We are only beginning in the West to start appreciating the important impact the state of mind can have on what have previously been too often perceived as questions of purely 'physical' capability.  When, in an emergency, and Australian aborigine shaman or a Tibetan lama engages in "fast traveling"--a trance or SSC technique for running long distances at a rapid rate--that is clearly a survival technique which, by definition, is not possible in the OSC."


Since shamanic practices and knowledge are human universals, I conclude that evolution by natural selection favored the survival of shamanism.  In other words, the fact that shamanism occurs in all tribal cultures indicates that it enhances survival.   If shamanism didn't enhance survival then the people who relied on shamans would have died out, not spread universally.  As a corollary, shamanism must tell us something important about the constituents of the world/nature, or it wouldn’t have survival value.  

On the same evolutionary basis that we expect ancestral diets to have therapeutic effects for diet-related diseases, we can expect ancestral medicine--i.e. shamanism--to have strong clinical efficacy when appropriately applied.  This would also apply to interventions having strong similarities to shamanic practices, such as hypnotherapy, biofeedback, and other psychophysiological interventions exploiting the mind-body relationship.

Shamanic Intervention Clinical Trial

Shamanism maintains that physical dis-ease may arise from disturbances of the spirit, and consequently that by addressing the traumas affecting the soul/spirit through direct interaction with the spiritual realm, we can restore health.   If efficacious, this would make it an important medical method to apply in cases that do not respond to dietary, physical, or chemical treatment.

According to shamanism, dispiritedness can cause dis-ease.  In case an individual exhibits signs of dispiritedness, a shaman will take steps to restore the spirit through shamanic interventions including direct interaction with non-ordinary reality. 

Vuckovic et al  decided to put the shamanic perspective to the test.  They recruited 23 women suffering from temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) who had not responded to conventional treatment.  They randomly assigned each woman to 1 of 4 shamanic practitioners.  Each woman attended 5 shamanic healing sessions.

The team evaluated the outcome using several measures  including change from baseline to posttreatment in diagnosis of TMDs by Research Diagnostic Criteria (RDC) exam and participant self-ratings on the "usual" pain, "worst" pain, and functional impact of TMDs subscales of the RDC Axis II Pain Related Disability and Psychological Status Scale.  They performed evaluations at 1, 3, 6, and 9 month follow-ups.

As a result of this intervention, of the 23 women who started the study, only 4 had a clinical diagnosis of TMD at the end of the study, an 83% cure rate.  Self-rated usual pain and worst pain declined by about 50%, and functional impact of the pain declined by about two-thirds.   

Keeping in mind that these individuals did not respond at all to conventional medical therapies for TMD, shamanic intervention had an astounding cure rate. In fact, given that most of conventional medicine only achieves chemical management or surgical removal of a diseased process or tissue, not cure, this shamanic intervention may actually have greater therapeutic power than the conventional approach focused on 'physical' reality.  Its like the difference between managing diabetes with medications, and curing it by use of a paleo diet.   

Thus, it appears that shamanic practices, like paleo diet, may qualify as evolutionary medicine, that is, the medicine to which humans are naturally adapted.