Neurotheology is a nascent field that is developing understanding of the neural patterns behind spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviour. It is often used to explain the physiology of altered states of consciousness, which are a common element in Shamanistic practices. Shamanism has existed in various forms since earliest recorded human history, and continues to be practiced around the world today. Some areas have aspects of shamanism that are unique to them; however there are also a host of common elements of shamanism that are found in all practicing communities. The psychobiology behind some of these universalities will be discussed in this paper. The nature of neurotheology and its legitimacy in studies of spirituality will also be explored, as well as the structure and function of shamanism and its effects, with particular focus on the work of Winkelman, Newberg, d’Aquili and Sidky, and the concept of Shamanism as the original neurotheology.
In a previous paper
(Archbold-Digby, 2011, pp. 2-3), it was stated that Neuropsychology is the scientific study of the structure of the brain and brain functions during particular psychological processes or behaviours. Neuropsychological tests are standardised and administered to a large group to establish validity of results. These tests are designed to measure or identify specific neural processes or pathways associated with certain thoughts or behaviours. After the test has been initially administered, the results are averaged into a normative sample. Subsequent testing then relates the new individual or group’s results to the previously established normative ones (Ponser & DiGirolamo, 2000). Neurotheology applies these studies in an attempt to understand the neurobiological processes associated with religious experience. It is specifically the study of neural phenomena and its connection to subjective spiritual experiences (Muller, 2008, p. 24).
As an emerging scientific field, neurotheology has a pressing need for clear parameters to be set around its study. Currently, there is a consistent need for disambiguation when discussing it as it can refer to two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it is a branch of neuroscience, and a methodologically sound and legitimate scientific endeavour that is broadening our understanding of the neural processes behind religious and spiritual thought and action. On the other, it is a pseudoscience; ‘scientific process’ is forged and manipulated to bolster philosophical religious claims. The ambiguity is easy to understand considering the term itself; one would assume that something ending in ‘theology’ would be a more philosophical field, as opposed to the scientific nature indicated by the prefix ‘neuro’. Regardless, many are calling for a strict set of parameters to be set to neurotheology, in particular Andrew Newberg, and his proposal for a “Principia Neurotheologica”, a mandate on the “Principles of Neurotheology”. He feels that with clear guidelines of process, the ambiguity around the term will be clarified. In his book he emphasises the importance of definitions especially in the scientific realm. He says that it is only from this common understanding that reliable scholarship may proceed, and that neurotheology above many other fields actually requires more stringent defining due its multidisciplinary nature
(Newberg, 2010, p. 23). He states that neurotheology will become a more significant field once it can be legitimised by both the theological and the scientific community. One could argue that such a marriage would be fundamentally impossible: to neuroscience, religious and spiritual feelings are the result of specific neural processes that are derived from influences such as evolution, that the interpretation of certain experiences as supernatural in any way is the result of a delusion or neuropathy. To those who fully believe in the legitimacy of spirituality and religion, however, they are the result of external influences, explained by a wider philosophy. Scientific neurotheology and Theological neurotheology are two very different fields, only one of which can give concrete insight to the physiology of spiritual experience. For the purpose of this essay, the term neurotheology will be used to refer to scientific neurotheology; diversion from this will be clearly stated.
Shamanism, to our knowledge, is the earliest and most pervasive magico-religious tradition, which has provided the foundation for the major faith systems in the world today
(Voight, 1977). Throughout history, from its origins to today, it is said to have maintained three universal consistencies: One, the belief in a spirit world, these spirits are usually capable of taking form often in animals and are capable of affecting human beings. The Shaman acts as the messenger, conduit and mediator between worlds; Two, trance or altered states of consciousness are significant – the Shaman enters into these when connecting with the spirit world, and lay people (participants in shamanic ritual) can also enter into these altered stats of consciousness; and Three, with the power invested in them by the spirit world, the Shaman can act as a healer of psychosomatic illnesses, and can assist community members handle conflict in their lives. Stutley argues that many psychiatric methods first seen in shamanic traditions are still in use today, some of them having been adopted by Western psychiatry (Stutley, 2003, p. 2). While there are new interpretations and developments, the fact remains that there is no such thing as shamanism without tradition. Tradition and ritual is its foundation and in contemporary practicing communities, the shamanic ritual present is unlikely to be too diverged from how it was practiced hundreds of years ago.
Sidky, in his article “On the Antiquity of Shamanism and its Role in Human Religiosity”
(2010), presents a list of assumptions that can logically be made from reviewing the majority of scholarly literature on shamanism. The list includes the recognition that shamanism is “an extremely ancient and once widespread religion dating back to the … Upper Paleolithic period”, “Magico-religious beliefs and practices among… hunting-gathering cultures have preserved (shamanism) intact”, and that “Shamanism represents a biological foundation for religiosity, or a “neurotheology” (Sidky, 2010, p. 69). Sidky argues that because the history of shamanism dates back to Paleolithic peoples, it could be argued that it is indeed the basis of human religiosity itself, a “neurotheology”. This poses a problem, however. He claims that it has invited
“Indiscriminate labelling of historically and ethnographically unrelated magico-religious beliefs and behaviours as shamanism simply because the human central nervous system tends to display common functional attributes in ASC (Altered states of consciousness) under certain conditions
(Sidky, 2010, p. 80)”.
This is essentially true; it is the most logical conclusion we can make given the data we have, that shamanism is the basis of religion. Now that we have modern, science based neurotheology however, we can further expand on this perspective. Instead of seeing shamanism’s universality as reductive, it could be argued that its universality is what qualifies it to provide insight to humanity as a species, meaning that Shamanism and its historicity is the most useful basis we have from which to approach Scientific neurotheology today.
An example of the application of neurotheological perspectives applied to early shamanism is the interpretation of prehistoric rock art. Because trance (or altered states of consciousness) is a universal element of shamanism, ancient rock art depicting scenes of altered states of consciousness (such as ecstasy, hybridisation of human and animal qualities, or hallucinations) present a code of symbolism that can be translated across a range of discovered ancient Palaeolithic cave paintings around the world. These discoveries allow two tentative assumptions: that shamanistic experience was experienced in similar ways by differing groups of people that had no contact with each other, thus could not have influenced each other, therefore different peoples’ shamanism was independent from each other however still held universal traits; and that as this art is the earliest record we have of any supernatural, ethereal, or altered states of consciousness it is therefore to the best of our knowledge the first instance of human religiosity, and the situations they depict are still widely found in almost all cultures today to varying degrees, therefore we can use them to draw reliable conclusions on the nature of religiosity from an evolutionary neuropsysiological perspective; that is, as a basis for modern Scientific neuropsychology. These assumptions are tentative because, as Sidky says, consciousness itself is so technically undefinable, that to see an “altered state of consciousness” as a universality of shamanism is perhaps too grand a claim to make. However, semantics aside, one cannot argue that the general concepts behind shamanism in the Palaeolithic era and today are easily comparable
Winkelman supports Newberg’s argument that shamanism is the original neurotheology. He sees neurotheology as a ‘bridge’ between scientific and religious perspectives. He states that while neurotheology provides insight into spirituality from human biology and evolutionary psychology perspectives, it can also be limited by culture bias, or ethnocentrism. He claims that such bias can be avoided when approaching neurotheology with systematic, cross-cultural research, which can reveal the universal patterns Newberg discusses, and provide “transcultural frameworks for neurotheological theories
(Winkelman, Shamanism as the Original Neurotheology, 2004, p. 194)”. Unlike others who make the argument for shamanism as the original neurotheology based on sociological or anthropological perspectives (Laughlin, 1997), Winkelman actually takes a scientific approach in discussing the physiology behind altered states of consciousness. Shamanic processes, he says, “intensify connections between the limbic system and lower brain structures and project these synchronous integrative slow wave (theta) discharges into the frontal brain.” This pattern is interpreted by neuroscientists as conducive to mental capacities for attention, memory, inhibitions, and beliefs. The therapeutic effects of shamanism felt by participants in altered states of consciousness rituals are what have made Shamanism so transcendentally pervasive throughout history (Winkelman, Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology, 2002, p. 1875).
d’Aquili and Newberg discuss this pervasiveness, claiming that religion serves two main functions: It is a “system of self-maintenance” and a system of “self-transcendence”
(d'Aquili & Newberg, 1998, p. 187). It is these shared qualities among shamanism and its subsequent religions and spiritualities throughout history that are evidence for a solid base from which to approach neurotheology. These functions, they say, have direct influence on human survival, therefore the neuropsychological mechanisms behind them are to be viewed as evolutionary adaptations, ingrained in the human brain and experience.
Though the arguments d’Aquili and Newberg present (and indeed many of the arguments of Scientific Neurotheology) may seem to show religious and spiritual experience as explicable therefore disproving their ‘legitimacy’, or the existence of god or spiritual realms, they stress that this is not the case. Everything, they argue, can be explained neurologically, from interpretations of physical objections to feelings like love and desire, and this does not negate the objects’ existence. They speculate that the experiences they have recorded throughout their studies provides evidence for the existence of a heightened reality or ‘other realm’, Echoing the sentiment that Newberg also presents in his book “Principles of Neurotheology”, they conclude that by nature the certainty of such things as religion or spirituality are ultimately ‘unknowable’, due to the brain’s functional interpretation of everything in its consciousness (d'Aquili & Newberg, 1998, p. 199; Newberg, 2010).
Other more strictly scientific neurotheologists maintain that these elements are explicable; that as we are able to explain the origins of particular neuropathies, we shed light on what we previously, (and uneducatedly) would have labelled religion or spirituality. With greater knowledge and understanding we can move away from speculation of other realities because science explains our reality so fully
(Hayward, Koenig, Owen, Pyne, & Steffens, 2011).
An example of the practical application of neurotheology on shamanistic practice is Ramachandran’s studies into the neuroscience behind epilepsy and its relation to religiosity. In shamanism, trance rituals are conduits to altered states of consciousness. In these altered states, participants can undergo a range of physiological reactions to external stimulants. These reactions throughout history have been exclusively attributed to the shaman and their ritual, and as we develop understanding of the brain and certain neuropathies, these states can be attributed to actual illnesses. Ramachandran and Blakeslee are known for their work exploring temporal lobe epilepsy as spiritual experience. Their study “Phantoms in the Brain”
(1999) involved the use of the ‘galvanic skin response’, which is the method of measuring the moisture level of the skin, thus its electrical conductance, and interpreting it as psychological or physiological arousal (Lott & Porier, 1967, p. 253). They selected participants who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, and a control group of those who did not, and compared their reactions when shown words with religious, neutral or sexual connotations, with an aim to determine whether hyper-religiosity in people suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy was due to an overall heightened emotional state, or was stimuli-specific. They then took the galvanic skin response and found that between the two groups, those with temporal lobe epilepsy had a heightened response to religious words by comparison (as well as a decreased response to sexual words and similar response to neutral words). This means that he had discovered a link between the temporal lobe and emotional reactions to religious stimuli, indicating that those with affected by temporal lobe epilepsy were more likely to be religious (Blakeslee & Ramachandran, 1999).
Scientific neurotheology is a field that has immense potential to further our understanding of shamanism, religiosity and spirituality
(Achterberg, Cooke, Kozak, Lake, Richards, & Standish, 2005, p. 966). It is bringing shamanism out of being a purely anthropological study, and developing our understanding not only of modern incarnations of shamanism but also providing concrete scientific theory on the psychology of Paleolithic human beings. In his paper, Sidky (2010) inadvertently presents a rather solid case against the term neurotheology as applied to a scientific field. It is an obvious trend throughout extensive academic reading on shamanism and neurotheology that authors regularly remind readers to keep in mind certain definitions, or lack thereof. Sidky discusses shamanism as the basis for neurotheology, yet goes on to say that shamanism is ill-defined, the states that are involved in shamanism are ill-defined, and that spirituality itself is too exceedingly broad to define. All of these undefinable terms and concepts have no place in science, which is a fact-based field. True science does not deal in ambiguity, yet ‘neurotheology’ is steeped in it to the point where virtually any argument can be countered with a refutation of semantics. This is the fundamental issue scientists have with the term and its perceived misappropriation, and why it is so important to be clear when discussing it and concepts within it, and why a new term needs to be found and agreed upon, as Newberg says, by both scientists and theologians.
Scientific neurotheology only aims to provide a strictly scientific interpretation and explanation of shamanism. Dismissing it as reductionist for applying parameters to something that is limitless; that is to say, that to apply purely scientific concepts to something as complicated as shamanic spirituality is failing to appreciate the validity of a purely spiritual experience, is a hermeneutical error of approaching scientific theory. Regardless, no matter what evidence either ‘side’ of the debate discovers or claims to have discovered, there will always be a polarity between them of science and religiosity. It would be detrimental to both sides, however, to dismiss each other because both have the potential to provide endless insight into humanity. It would also be a significant loss to the scientific community to discount claims of shamanistic experience, as it is through investigating them that things like temporal lobe epilepsy are better understood.
Winkelman presents a workable framework through which to approach the neurotheology of shamanism while maintaining scientific integrity. He could be interpreted as having taken on some of Newberg’s requests detailed in “Principles of Neurotheology” for an inclusive and mutually agreeable approach to neurotheology, however Winkelman presents an arguably more scientific approach than Newberg seemed to be envisioning. Science is a fact and evidence based endeavour. What Newberg and others are suggesting is a marriage between science and philosophy, but they are two that cannot be married. One can only have a scientific philosophy, but there is no such thing as a legitimate philosophical science, it is a misnomer. However, as previously mentioned, this does not detract in any way from the importance of shamanism historically. In fact, because it is so ritual based and steeped in strict and elaborate tradition, shamanistic practice that we witness today could be seen as a sort of window into the past, and due to the fact that shamanism is one of the earliest recorded universalities of human nature at the arguable dawn of human nature itself, it should be preserved as one of our most significant and insightful historical artefacts.