Winkelman M, 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’ in Glazier S, Ed. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 393 - 428.
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Winkelman (1997) presents a psychophysiological metaphoric system to explore the universality of altered states of consciousness (‘ASC’) in the context of shamanic cultural practices. Based on his cross-cultural studies of shamans and other magico-religious practitioners, Winkelman posits that there are certain physiological characteristics that represent common denominators for a wide range of ASC (1997, p. 397). Such physiological common denominators include cortical synchronization, which results in slow wave brain activity, and a dominant parasympathetic state within the automatic nervous system (Winkelman 1997, p. 397).
These physiological characteristics are common responses to widely divergent stimuli, including auditory driving, extensive motor behaviour, fasting and nutritional deficits, sensory deprivation and stimulation, sleep and dream states, meditation, sexual restrictions, endogenous opiates, hallucinogens and community rituals (Winkelman 1997, pp. 398-402). Such procedures induce ASC, which results in the disruption of the normal functioning of the autonomic nervous system due to the over-stimulation of the sympathetic system. This causes a rebound into a state of parasympathetic dominance (Winkelman 1997, p. 398). Winkelman’s findings suggest that there is a biological basis for ASC, which supports Seigel’s (1989) assertion that ‘humans have an innate drive to seek ASC’ (1997, p. 421).
On the basis of this conclusion, assuming it is accurate, it is possible to draw insights from contemporary Australian society. Winkelman points to the ‘bar scene’ and alcohol consumption in the United States of America as an example of an alternate behaviour pattern that appears to meet the human need for ASC where institutionalised religion has failed to do so (1997, p. 421). In Australia, a nation renowned for its drinking culture, ‘alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive substance’ (Community Alcohol Action Network 2004). Indeed, former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was immortalised in the Guinness Book of Records for sculling a yard glass of beer in eleven seconds (Hawke 1994, p. 28). It is interesting to consider that ‘the societal failure to create legitimate modes for the alteration of consciousness’ (Winkelman 1997, p. 421) could be a contributing factor in the tendency of certain individuals to engage in alcohol and drug use in modern Western society.
Community Alcohol Action Network 2004, Alcohol Use in Australia, Community Alcohol Action Network, viewed 1 April 2009,
Hawke, B 1994, The Hawke Memoirs, William Heinemann, Melbourne.
Seigel, RK 1989, Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise, Dutton, New York.
Winkelman, M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in S Glazier (ed.), Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn, pp. 393-428.
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