Sunday, April 5, 2009

critical review - steve columbia darvall


In Richard Noll’s Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism, the cultural role of mental imagery within traditional, non-literate societies is discussed, with a specific focus on shamanistic practices. Noll argues that all humans experience some form of mental imagery, which is an inherent trait, and as with all human traits, can be adapted and developed.

He describes how mental imagery within a shamanistic framework is cultivated and developed by increasing the vividness and the control of visions. It is through the use of mental imagery that shamans can commune with the spirits, gain insights, heal and divine through altered states of consciousness and trance. These are all vital to the health of a society. He also suggests that mental imagery is used as a mnemonic strategy within non-literate societies to retain cultural mythology and practices. As with all things, there are many uses and meanings for mental imagery, not simply as a tool to enter altered state of consciousness.

Noll’s examples of shamanistic practices clearly show the pivotal role mental imagery has within a shaman’s training, social and individual worlds. By showing that aspects of shamanism seem to be universal on Earth, such as magical flight, altered states of consciousness and visionary travel, his argument that mental imagery is shared by all human beings holds up to scrutiny.

From a scientific viewpoint, Noll’s argument is effective and thorough but by no means complete, as he admits. With encouragement the article is finished with nods towards sources where mental imagery is found in societies other than those that are non-literate, such as parts of Western society.

On the other hand, as the article is coming from an anthropological viewpoint, its scientific approach leaves gaps. Understandably, it is not possible to fill in all gaps, but, the result is a dissection of shamanism and mental imagery into ‘tools’. This gives the impression of separateness. It is akin to saying that people use their heart to ‘achieve’, to move forward and to survive. The interconnectedness of shamanism within a culture, within it all, is lost, but then again, that is the result of definition and dissecting, tools themselves. This review would not be possible without them.

Noll R, 1995, ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’, Current Anthropology, 26, 4, 443-461.


Shamanism’ by Joan B. Townsend discusses that very topic. Townsend begins with a brief look at the history of the term shamanism and then continues with her own definition. This thorough definition incorporates ideas from various sources, but varies in its structure and detail. She classifies the criteria of shamanism into the essential and the related but they are all similar in that trance, altered states of consciousness and spirits are integral to the definition.

In discussing the origins of shamanism, Townsend looks at differing cultures, such as a tribal or agricultural economy and whether or not shamans exist as part of the culture due to the social, environmental and economic context. Particular universal characteristics of shamanistic practices are discussed and again, tend to focus on the use of trance and altered states of consciousness as a means to contact spirits and assist people within the society.

The definition of shamanism is the theme that carries through the entire article. These elements are used to discuss a shaman’s training, responsibilities, relationships, worldview, social role and individual role and their relation to each other.

This article accomplished exactly what it was intended to. Essentially it is a literature review focusing on shamanistic practices and roles and their relation to the world they inhabit. Townsend’s various conclusions are peppered throughout the piece and due to her own experience within the field studying shamanism, give it an angle that adds to the great amount of material that already exists.

Townsend points out the many gaps in the research that could be filled and why she feels they are indeed gaps. Often the case comes down to the perspective of the researcher in question. Essentially she is saying that objectivity and a more experiential approach is required.

Townsend J, 1997, ‘Shamanism’, in S. Glazier, Ed, and Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, 429-469.


The text, ‘Theoretical and Methodological Issues’ by Jean-Guy Goulet and David Young, focuses its attention on how, from an anthropological viewpoint, extra-ordinary experiences are studied in the field. The extra-ordinary experiences they discuss include dreams, rituals, visions and beliefs.
Four approaches of study are mentioned; the rational, psychoanalytic, content analysis and the experiential. Being the authors’ preference, the experiential is described in detail. Essentially, the experiential approach should involve one in the lives of the people they live with in the field in order to fully experience and understand another’s cultural perspective, or reality. The idea of multiple realities is broached to support the experiential approach, which is that humans move in and out of different realities of perception depending on their inner and outer surroundings.
The article does not define altered states of consciousness or trance states concisely but instead cites the experiences of anthropologists within these fields in order to show the effectiveness of an experiential approach. These examples develop the idea that experiences are interpreted differently depending on one’s cultural and social background.

The prevailing theme throughout is that of experience. The authors’ opinion is that in order to study something effectively, one cannot be removed from it, but must be immersed in the context within and without the experience. The argument is backed up by sources but seems to lack somewhat in reasons why the experiential approach is not effective. This may be a reason for the effectiveness of the argument. Philosophical viewpoints are not mentioned which is probably wise given the scope of a discussion of what an experience is.
Although a very analytical approach, within the discussion the authors do not separate ideas to a great extent. Understandably, in order to convey ideas, separation must occur, but after reading, a sense of openness in its discourse and its approach to the subject leaves the reader with that very sense of ‘experience’ the authors rally for. They bring you into the anthropological world of extra-ordinary experience and, perhaps with some encouraging nudging, we are then left to interpret the knowledge given as we see fit. The authors do not force their opinion down your throat, but acknowledge the very subjectivity of any type of study. We are all just perceptions perceiving others perceptions perceiving others perspectives and so on.

Goulet J-G. & DE Young, 1994, ‘Theoretical and Methodological Issues’ in DE Young & J-G Goulet, Eds, ‘Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience’, Peterborough, ON, Broadview Press, 298-335.

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