Shamanism: A Biogenetic Perspective

Michael Winkelman. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Shamanism refers to a variety of spiritual healing practices found in premodern societies around the world. By the time of the Enlightenment, however, it was viewed as a form of the irrational other. Twentieth-century scholar Mircae Eliade provided a different view of the shaman as someone who entered “ecstasy” to interact with spirits on behalf of the community. Eliade pointed to similar spiritual healing practices in societies around the world. Shamans typically engage the entire local community in all-night ceremonies. The shaman’s dancing, drumming, and chanting are accompanied with a dramatic recounting of mythological themes, struggles with the spirits, and a “soul flight,” a departure of the shaman’s consciousness from the body. In this soul journey into the spirit world, the shaman appears unconscious but is engaged in a dramatic encounter with spirits and natural forces, as well as other shamans and entities.

Shamanic rituals constitute the most important social events in hunter-gatherer societies, structuring the relationships of individuals to the collectivity and cosmology. The shamans’ spirit encounters are basic to their societies’ cosmology, hunting practices, and ecological and community relations and healing. The shaman heals patients through the recovery of their souls or personal power, or by removing negative influences sent by spirits or sorcerers. Shamans are assisted in their professional tasks by their allies and guardians, generally animal spirits acquired during arduous training.

Shamans’ training generally involves a protracted period of isolation from the community, alone in the forest, mountains, or desert. There they engage in prolonged fasts, exhausting exercise, and physical pain. They often ingest powerful plant medicines that produce experiences of the spirit world. During training, shamans go through a process of death and rebirth that instills them with animal spirit powers, the source of shamans’ capabilities. Spirits are controlled with rituals and the shaman’s own personal qualities. These spirits are the basis for healing, divination and clairvoyance, communication with the dead, recovery of lost souls, protection against spirits and sorcerers, assistance in hunting, and determining distant conditions.

Shamanism emerged some 40,000 years ago in the transition to contemporary culture. Cave art illustrates shamanic cosmology and activities and reflects shamanism’s central role in the symbolic productions that gave rise to culturally modern humans. Shamanic practices facilitated adaptation to changing ecological and social conditions, promoting group bonding through rituals that enhanced symbolic identity formation. The practices developed out of a substrate of mammalian and primate ritual, providing mechanisms for the psychological, social, and cognitive integration required by an increasingly complex modular structure of mind and social relations.

Claims to the universal applicability of the concept of shaman have been challenged, but cross-cultural research confirms similarities in the characteristics of the spiritual healers of hunter-gatherer societies worldwide. Among the common characteristics and practices are ecstasy or altered states of consciousness known as a soul journey or vision questing; altered states of consciousness induced with fasting, chanting, drumming, and dancing; initiatory death and rebirth experiences; mediation of community relations with spirits and entry into the spirit world; identity and powers derived from animal spirits and the shaman’s transformation into an animal; healing of injuries, attacks by spirits and sorcerers, and soul loss; use of physical medicine involving plants, massage, and simple surgery; divination, diagnosis, and prophecy through visions; charismatic group leadership; and the potential for malevolent acts such as sorcery.

Shamanistic healers are also found outside hunter-gatherer societies. These practitioners use altered states of consciousness to interact with spirits on behalf of their communities, providing the group with critical healing activities. They can be shamans, shaman/healers, healers, mediums, or similar figures. They vary with respect to the characteristics of the societies where they are found, the spirits to which they relate, their socioeconomic and political status, the selection and training procedures for the profession, the characteristics of their altered states (e.g., soul flight vs. possession), the sources of their power (rituals, mana), and any additional religious activities (e.g., propitiation, fertility rites). The original basis of shamanism in hunting and gathering societies was transformed by sociocultural evolution, which produced other forms of shamanistic healers. Agriculture produces shaman/healers, and political integration and social stratification give rise to healers and mediums.

Neurological Foundations of Shamanism

The universal characteristics of shamanism have foundations in hominid evolution and human biology. The biological bases include neurognostic structures, processes of knowing based in biological structures, the communication functions of ritual and mimesis, and a biologically based sickness and healing response. Humans have innate representational capacities, the ability to create analogic or metaphoric representations of nature, others, self, and society. This helps us process information regarding ourselves, social others, and the natural world, and it provides the basis for shamanistic animism, animal spirits, and guardian spirit allies.

Shamanic Universals as Neurognostic Structures

The universals of shamanism reflect neurognostic structures, fundamental biological and structural features of the brain and consciousness that underlie gnosis, or knowledge. These innate representational modules provide the basis for perception, knowledge, and universal aspects of mind and psychosocial relations, constituting neurological foundations for shamanic universals. Shamanism reflects an evolved or “natural” psychology derived from structures of the brain/mind; practices providing integrative cognitive processing; a natural form of physical, emotional, psychological, and social healing; and the original neurotheology, biologically based spirituality.

Neurognostic structures underlie the ecstasy that shamans use to engage with spirits. This trance state engages fundamental psychosocial structures of consciousness (represented in spirits) and evokes community healing responses (based in the mammalian opioid systems). These shamanistic universals reflect human biological, psychological, and social adaptations involving the effects of altered states of consciousness on mind and body; spirit representations of human emotional dynamics; and the role of social rituals in group communication, bonding, and opioid-based therapeutic processes. Other universals of shamanism—drumming and dancing, visionary experiences, soul journey, animal identities, initiatory death, healing processes—also reflect the operation of innate modules of the brain related to self and other and the metaphoric representations formed with innate representation systems.

Ritual and Mimesis

Shamanic rituals are similar to animal rituals involving group vocalizations, dancing, and enactments used for communication and group coordination and bonding. Animal rituals facilitate the flow of information to coordinate the behavior of members of a group. This ancient channel of communication evolved into a symbolic capacity of mimesis during hominid evolution, and into shamanic practices. The evolutionary basis of shamanic ritual is illustrated by shared features found in human shamanic rituals and animal rituals referred to as formalizations, fixed action patterns, and displays. Animal rituals provide mechanisms for communication and coordinating relations among members of a species by making internal information available to others. The primary biological function of ritual is to facilitate the flow of information to synchronize individual behaviors into group action by coordinating the responses of individuals.

Ritual communication involving group chanting is an expressive community ractice with deep evolutionary roots found in the song, call, and vocal expressive systems of animals. Vocalizations express emotional states, maintain social contact and group bonding, and enhance cohesion and unity of the group. Chimpanzees in territorial groups engage in excited synchronous singing and dancing, behaviors homologous with human rituals. Their activities include panting or hooting, foot stomping, tree hitting, and exaggerated leaps, as well as primitive dancing in a circle, which has been observed in captive chimps.

Shamanic rituals make use of mimetic processes. Mimesis is a prelanguage symbolic system based in bodily enactment, and it makes use of the uniquely human ability to entrain the body to external rhythms. Core to shamanic activity is mime and dancing, ritual enactments of struggles with the spirits combined with chanting, singing, and imitative vocalization. Humans have innate rhythmic modules of the brain that provide an expressive system for communicating emotion. This evolved to enhance social bonding and communication of internal states. Group ritual dances and vocal imitation of animals were among the first of human mimetic activities. Mimesis provides a basis for a shared culture through enacted symbolism, a backbone of ritual behavior and communication. These rituals express fundamental emotions and a mythic ethos that was enacted early in human evolution in activities involving collective participation.

Ritual Healing Responses in Evolutionary Perspective

Ritual healing embodies altruistic and caring behaviors characteristic of primates; it is a genetically based empathetic and emotional response to others’ distress. There is an evolutionary basis for the social institutions concerned with sickness and healing. Common behaviors are used to express and respond to disease and injury. The healing response is a biological adaptation embedded in social behavior involved in supporting others and helping them, an autonomous response of the organism to counteract disease by restabilizing homeostatic balance through innate knowledge about self-healing. This response produces healing through psychosomatic mediation of physiological and hormonal changes.

As Fábrega shows, these healing adaptations reflect an evolutionary trend specialized in the hominid line to enhance harmony when sickness destabilizes social relations. The way chimpanzees respond to the ill, wounded, or dying illustrates that the healing response is a generalized ability within the hominoid lineage (humans and great apes). Fábrega attributes the origins of healing responses to biologically rooted sociality involved in the care of infants and children and helping needy relatives. Healing behaviors reflect the dynamics of parental investment, the care of the young, and self-care activities.

Healing abilities involve a response to emotional displays of others, manifested in expressions of empathy and sympathy. Responding to the pain, suffering, and distress of others draws on one’s capacities of empathy, compassion, and altruism. Healers have the ability to interpret others’ signals to assess their conditions. This engages an innate module, the capacity to make appropriate attributions to others and inferences of their needs. Healing requires awareness of self and others, knowledge of others based on social attributions, and empathic internalizations. Healing abilities involve mechanisms underlying social exchange, sharing, and reciprocity, particularly social bonds among family, kin, and social alliances.

These face-to-face interactions among family and group members contributed to the evolution of spiritual and religious concerns. The innate healing impulses of the human lineage are directly related to concerns involving religiosity. Healing behaviors were necessarily linked to awareness of death, since sickness often ends in death. This linkage of healing and death extends healing relations into care of the deceased and ideas about the afterlife, spiritual domains, and ultimately religion. This dynamic of addressing death was incorporated into the shaman’s role and shamanic healing practices. These adaptations for healing through group ceremonies helped produce a number of levels of integration within the group from biological through social, psychological, and cognitive levels.

The community rituals fundamental to shamanistic healing practices produce psychosocial influences through community cohesion and social support, and biosocial effects involving bonding and attachment mechanisms mediated by the opioid system. Shamanic healing rituals produce a release of endogenous opiates in several ways. The presence of social others with strong affective bonds evokes innate releasing mechanisms, and procedures such as austerities, fasting, water restriction, strenuous exercise, and hyperstress of emotions evoke the opioid responses. Opioid release enhances affective bonding and produces psychobiological synchrony within the group.

Ritual evocation of the opioid release and the enhanced social bonding produce emotional and physiological associations with ceremonial symbols. These simultaneous associations produce cross-conditioning of symbolic and biological systems, linking physiological, mythological, and personal levels of the organism and providing mechanisms for symbolic elicitation of physiological responses. Opioids provide healing through stimulation of the immune system, enhanced psychosocial bonding, and benefits of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness. Opioids also enhance coping skills, maintenance of bodily homeostasis, pain reduction, stress tolerance, environmental adaptation, and group synchronization at biological levels.

Shamanism and the Triune Brain

Shamanic practices integrate what MacLean calls the triune brain, three evolutionary strata—the reptilian brain; the paleomammalian (limbic or emotional) brain; and the neomammalian (frontal cortex and symbolic) brain—that manage behavioral, social-emotional, and symbolic information. These three levels use distinctive thought processes and provide the basis for different behavioral, psychological, and mental functions. The reptilian brain mediates basic behaviors, the paleomammalian brain provides the emotional influences, and the neomammalian brain uses symbols to integrate basic behaviors and emotions with higher-level information processing. The reptilian and paleomammalian brains are fundamental to basic behaviors and emotions that underlie social interaction, but they tend to operate outside of awareness of the frontal neomammalian brain. Interactions among these levels of the brain are principally through nonlanguage forms of representation, primarily a visual information processing system operating on intuitive representations, affective associations, and subsymbolic processes from a level prior to that of verbal language.

In shamanic ritual, the neomammalian brain, which provides the basis for symbolic processes, language, and culture, receives information produced in lower brain structures. Ritual processes activate connections between the reptilian and paleomammalian brains, providing information from these lower systems to the symbolic mechanisms of the frontal brain. This engagement permits the symbolic reprogramming of the emotional dynamics and behavioral repertoires of these lower centers of the brain through the “language” of ritual and their psychophysiological effects.

Ritual and the Reptilian Brain

The reptilian brain’s programs underlie stereotyped behaviors—instincts, survival activities and daily routines, behavioral communication, and repetitively structured social interaction. The relationship of ritual to functional brain structures is revealed in the cross-cultural similarity in the behavioral, ideational, and structural features of rituals and their relationship to characteristics of the biologically based obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder and sacred rituals share concerns about the necessity of appropriate behavior; pollution and purity; fear about something terrible happening to oneself or significant others; the integrity of the self and relationships with significant others; bodily processes, secretions, and grooming; sexual impulses and aggression; thresholds or entrances; and the special significance of colors. These are central to the functions of the reptilian and paleomammalian brains.

The correspondences of sacred rituals with features of obsessive-compulsive disorder indicate that human rituals reflect a specific human neurological capacity and compulsion, a drive with a neurophysiological basis. Dulaney and Fiske hypothesize this must be similar to the neurological mechanisms underlying obsessive compulsive disorder, involving functions of the basal ganglia (of the reptilian brain) and its management of fixed action patterns and species-typical self-protective behaviors. Basal ganglia are central to motor control and have circuitry that extends to the thalamus and frontal cortex to coordinate complex motor acts. The basal ganglia also engage previously learned rules that are based on environment and context. Serotonin mechanisms are directly implicated in obsessive-compulsive disorder behaviors, as serotonin reuptake inhibitors are effective in reducing the behaviors.

Other common features of rituals and obsessive-compulsive disorder behaviors associated with reptilian brain management are routinization and temporal sequencing of behavior; rigidly structured subroutines; isopraxic behaviors (performed in the same way or manner) used in interspecies recognition; tropistic behaviors (unlearned responses manifested in innate motion patterns and fixed action patterns); repetitious or preservative behaviors involving repeated performances of meaningfully interrelated specific acts; re-enactment behavior involving ritualized repeated actions; and deceptive behaviors.

Ritual and the Paleomammalian Brain

Ritual concerns with fear about threats to the integrity of self, relations with significant others, bodily processes, grooming, sexual impulses, and aggression implicate the paleomammalian brain. This brain level mediates emotions and one’s sense of self derived from the attachments to others, and regulates sexual feelings, compulsions, species preservation activities, and the emotional behaviors of anger, aggression, protection, caressing, and searching. The paleomammalian brain manages attachment needs and emotional security produced by relations with family and others, mediating social signaling that promotes a sense of community and cooperation that enhances human survival. Facial expressions, vocalizations, and gestures provide information about others’ minds and their emotions. The paleomammalian brain integrates emotions into behavior, manages expressive emotional states related to sociability, and regulates the interaction of organic systems and psychosocial dynamics, guiding behavior required for self and species preservation.

Fundamental to shamanic healing is the symbolic manipulation of paleomammalian brain processes that have profound physiological effects on the organism and the autonomic nervous system. The relationships among innate drives, social and biological needs, and social and cultural influences produce many kinds of health problems: conflicts, anxiety, fears, behavioral disorders, excessive emotionality, obsessions, dissociations, and repressions. Personal well-being is deeply intertwined with a sense of community, a social identity where empathy with other humans provides the basis for self and security. The paleomammalian brain and its social and self activities are managed by ritual practices that manipulate emotions, social attachments, and interpersonal relations to achieve therapeutic effects. Shamanic ritual, especially altered states of consciousness, activates limbic brain linkages with the reptilian brain, driving the representations of these preverbal processes into the frontal cortex and conscious experience.

Altered States and Integrative Consciousness

Central to shamanic practice is ecstasy, or an altered state of consciousness. Shamanic altered states of consciousness are typically referred to as a soul flight or journey, with basic structural and experiential characteristics similar to modern astral projection and out of body and near death experiences. Shamanic altered states are typically induced through singing, chanting, drumming, and dancing. Other practices facilitating induction of altered states of consciousness include fasting and dehydration, prolonged periods of sleeplessness, overnight activities and the deliberate induction of dreams through incubation processes, extreme temperature exposures, painful mutilations of the body, and ingestion of hallucinogens, emetics, and other plant medicines.

The diverse practices used to induce altered states of consciousness share overall physiological effects. Shamanic altered states typically activate the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (through activity or drugs) to the point of exhaustion and collapse, with dreamlike vivid internal visual and emotional consciousness. The collapse is a physiological response like sleep and dreaming, evoking the body’s relaxation response and natural recuperative processes. This natural response is a basic mode of consciousness involving elicitation of slow wave discharge patterns that produce synchronized brain waves. These wave patterns synchronize across functional levels of the brain, producing physiological, behavioral, and psychological integration. This integrative mode of consciousness can be evoked by many practices, reflecting its basis in a natural response of the brain.

Shamanic altered states of consciousness are typically characterized as a soul journey, an out of body experience where an aspect of the person leaves the body. Altered states of consciousness engage the same nonverbal symbolic process that underlies dreaming. Shamans use this process to enhance awareness and create self-transcendence. Hunt characterizes the shaman’s altered state as a complex synesthesia producing a third-person perspective on self by taking the perspectives of the “other” toward one’s self. The symbolic representation of the soul’s flight is reflected in meanings ofecstasy in the Greek root ekstasis, “to stand outside oneself.” The soul flight provides a self-reference linked to and apart from the “body image,” a natural symbol system derived from neurognostic models for organizing experience. This hardwired body image constitutes a neurological foundation for all human experience and knowing, making the body foundational to all metaphoric or analogic thinking. This universal body-based representational system provides a template for human symbolism at all levels of organization, from metabolic levels through self-representation and advanced conceptual functions.

Analogical Thought in Shamanism

A number of the fundamental features of shamanism—animism, totemism, and animal spirits—also reflect preverbal representational systems produced by innate processing modules. These shamanic universals are based in representations of self, processes of mental attributions regarding self and social others, and natural history intelligence, a specialized capacity for differentiating animal species. Central to these shamanic beliefs is the use of an epistemology or “theory of mind” involving the attribution of mental states to others based on one’s own mental states and feelings. This tendency to attribute one’s own qualities to others is extended to the unknown, leading to the perception of spirits with characteristics that reflect the dynamics of social and interpersonal relations.

Fundamental to shamanism is a universal of religion: animism, or the spirit world. Animism involves an understanding of the unknown through the use of innate representation modules for understanding self. Human mental, self, and social capabilities are projected onto animals or other parts of the natural environment and the unknown. One’s own mental states serve as a model for the “other.” The spirits engaged in shamanic healing practices are “sacred others” that represent personal qualities and social expectations, and they provide models for self-development and individuation.

Animal allies, guardians, and totems enable representation of diverse personal and social qualities through the innate systems provided by the natural history module. This specialized capacity for organizing knowledge about animal species provides a natural analogical system for creation of meaning, differentiation of self, and formation of personal and social identities. Shamans use spirits to manipulate self and identity, engaging symbolic complexes that operate independent of ordinary awareness. This produces healing by restructuring and integrating unconscious dynamics, and mediating between different instinctive levels of the brain and a hierarchy of goals.

Self-transformations underlie the shamanic death and rebirth experience involving attacks by spirits leading to the experience of death and dismemberment. The subsequent reconstruction of the body provides spirit allies and powers. This is a natural process of self-transformation that occurs under overwhelming stress. Laughlin and colleagues view this breakdown of ego structures as an “autosymbolic image” that activates innate drives toward the psychological integration that constitutes a basic aspect of shamanic healing.

Shamanic Therapeutics

Shamanism involves a variety of healing capacities based in altered states of consciousness, ritual, community bonding, psychosocial and psychobiological interactions, and symbolic healing processes. Shamanic healing is biological, psychological, and social, addressing many levels of human well-being, and it takes place in a social context that links the individual with the community. Core shamanic concepts of disease include soul loss/retrieval, object intrusion/extraction, and possession/depossession.

Soul loss, or power animal loss, represents the loss of or injury to the personal essence of an individual. It is manifested in disharmony in life and feelings of disconnectedness with others. Soul recovery restores a sense of identity and emotional well-being through therapeutic processes involving the participation of the entire community, providing healing through enhanced social bonding.

Possession is more associated with other shamanistic healers rather than core shamanism, but it is treated by shamans. Possession is the control of a person by spirits. It produces changes in personality, consciousness, or awareness, and it is interpreted in Western traditions as psychiatric illness. Possession may also have important positive cultural functions in diagnosis, healing, self-development, projection of responsibility, personal expression, and intragroup mediation. Possession may constitute an empowering aspect of the professional development of mediums, who acquire powers by being possessed by spirits.

A number of shamanic capacities depend on or are enhanced by a genetically based propensity underlying hypnotic susceptibility. McClennon illustrates how the shamanic healing capacity builds on inherited qualities related to hypnotizability, which produces physiological and psychophysiological responses through suggestibility. Hypnotic induction enhances belief and expectation, producing placebo effects with physiological consequences. Hypnotic capacities in other primates suggest it was an ancient adaptation that provided mechanisms for reducing stress and engaging the relaxation response. Altered states of consciousness are induced by a general tendency toward hypnotizability. Shamanism exploits tendencies toward hypnotizability, dissociation, fantasy proneness, and thin cognitive boundaries to enhance connections between unconscious and conscious aspects of the mind. Shamanistic rituals stimulate therapeutic states of consciousness, derived from the hominid capacity for hypnotizability that facilitates psychosomatic change and healing.

Shamanism integrated a mammalian caring heritage into community rituals to provide humanity’s original spiritual, biological, psychological, and social healing practices. These practices provide:

  • Physiological effects of altered states of consciousness and elicitation of parasympathetic responses and the opioid and serotonergic neurotransmitter systems.
  • Symbolic-psychophysiological dynamics from ritual manipulation of emotions, self-structures, and the nervous system.
  • Plant medicine, particularly hallucinogens or psychointegrators.
  • Social therapies engaging community participation and social symbol systems engaging self-development.
  • Psychological and self therapies engaging spirits as psychocultural systems, and innate psychological dynamics of the self represented in animal spirits and death and rebirth experiences.

Shamanic ritual evolved as a system for managing the relationships among innate drives and needs, social bonding processes, and cultural representational systems, providing a system for managing health problems derived from anxiety, fears, conflicts, excessive emotionality, obsessions, and compulsions.

The concept of shamanism has undergone rehabilitation. Once dismissed as a delusion or fraudulent manipulation, it is now perceived as an adaptive form of spiritual healing embedded in human biology. The biogenetic model of shamanism provides a paradigm for interpreting ancient human cultural activities, the rise of modern symbolic consciousness, and the worldwide distribution of strikingly similar healing practices. These universals of shamanism reflect an evolved psychology; a biological, psychological, and social dynamic of thought; and a healing and community integration with deep evolutionary roots in the hominid heritage. Shamanic practices continue to be relevant in the modern world, responding to humans’ innate healing needs and capacities.