RELN2110: Final Assignment – June 2009
The phenomenon known as the altered state of consciousness (ASC) can conjure up images of bizarre practices that with or without intoxication by drugs and alcohol affect the human mind and the subsequent behaviour of the human body. ASC features in all cultures through ritual, practices, dance ceremonies, and within cross-cultural adaptation of indigenous customs. All of these have one thing in common which is to experience either complete relaxation or prolonged states of euphoric activity in the quest for the indefinable spiritual experience. Within western cultures spirituality is defined through many forms of religion and millions of people, through their faith and belief, manage to sustain community systems of healing and social cohesion. Whilst faith and beliefs also play a large role in ceremonies which involve ASC, the practice itself is better understood if we can explain the underlying human emotions and how they interact with the brain under the influence of ASC. In this essay I will attempt to seek out the explanations by linking the concepts of mind and body symptoms as they are manifested both emotionally and neurologically.
Winkelman (2004, p.394) presents an empirical account of worldwide Shamanism which clearly illustrates, at least through his own and others' studies, both the processes and symptoms of
Shamanistic practices in how they influence both physiology and neurology of the brain. According to Pert (1999, p.267), neurochemicals such as serotonin are the body's natural opiates which directly affect mood enhancement; their lack thereof can induce depression. Serotonin also plays an important role in dreaming. Certain hallucinatory drugs which suppress serotonin can produce states of trance and dreaming, the accounts of which are highly subjective (Carlson & Buskist, 1997, p.118). Winkelman (2004, p.405) seeks to demonstrate how these states of ASC can translate into both individual and community therapeutic benefits within some indigenous cultures.
Winkelman describes how self-worth is expressed as a form of “soul recovery”. Recovery from emotional trauma with healing is one of the primary aims of the Shaman. Winkelman goes to great lengths to demonstrate the underlying process between the brain and the body during the rituals. He refers to the inner workings of physiology, such as the immune system and vital organs, that respond positively with the Shamanistic rituals, (Winkelman, 2004, p.407). What is very significant is the open and all-embracing approach by the Shamans and their communities towards the healing of emotional trauma so that a collective empathy and understanding is also encouraged and therapy is open for all with no discrimination, including those who are mentally impaired. Townsend's (1997, p.445) account of a Shaman's background history and personal experiences reflects on their capacity for compassion and tolerance in how they conduct their roles.
The Shaman rituals through ASC set out to achieve forms of euphoria amongst the participants to enable physical and mental recuperative powers to assist those to become one with their inner self, in other words to recover their soul, and to give meaning to their existence with an acceptable identity within their community. Winkelman (2004, p.399) is in accord with Pert (1999, p.133) when he described the chemical processes occurring in the brain to release the endogenous opiates, which have transformative powers, and which can positively or negatively affect the human psych. However, it is the application of these powers that raises the question as to whether they are voluntary or responsive mechanisms, or both. Shamanistic ritual seeks to influence these chemicals for mood enhancement within the individual but as Townsend (1997, p.452) points out, successful outcomes for the Shaman depend on receptivity by the participants. Perhaps this aspect may explain why it is necessary for states of consciousness to be altered first, which would create receptivity or at least a relaxed state, with an open mind.
Gibbs (2006, pp.268-9), discovered some aspects of human conditions in relation to an Amazonian indigenous people who partake of the natural herb, Ayahuasca, during rituals. According to Gibbs (2006, p.268-9), the effects of Ayahuasca are such that they enable the user to experience a sense of transcendence whilst the “divide between the self and non-self is diminished”. In the west we could interpret this to mean that the non-self is the socially constructed role of self which becomes temporarily redundant during ASC. This allows that person more freedom to be in a natural unattached state. Individuals using Ayahuasca can still maintain a state of altered consciousness whilst capable of critical reflection and rational interactions with the immediate environment and circumstances that surround them. This is also the experience of the researcher mentioned by Gibbs who participated in these rituals. This would indicate that Ayahuasca has unique properties that are compatible with Winkelman's (1997, p.5) explanation for “enhanced brain integration”. However, it needs to be understood within the context of how ritual and community are joined.
From within the same Amazonian environment, a more detailed account of the Desana tribe may provide clues on this aspect as is given by Reichel-Dolmatoff (1981). She portrays community life as connected to the environment with ancient mythologies enshrined within archaeological sites. Whilst the Desana tribe engages in hallucinatory drugs and ceremony, the participants are closely monitored so behaviours that are beneficial to both the community and the environment are influenced by their Shamanistic practices. Their hunting prowess has enabled them to gain insights to the brain which is described in detail with separate functions for the left and right sides of the brain. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1981, p.76) lists a catalogue of expressions that indicate a recognition of the emotional connection to the brain as a manifestation of subjective human behaviour. For example, their language uses terms with meanings similar to those in western medicine in describing mood changes, feelings, and pain experiences which are expressly mediated by the brain, (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1981, p.82).
From the hunting experiences of the Desana tribe and their bodily dissections of animal heads, they have similarly interpreted the image and design of the brain in much the same way as western medicine. They have a complex oral history, also with illustrations, that places the brain as the ultimate authority within their rituals of ASC as the primary source of influence. Their narcotic intake is used to enhance the powers of the brain to connect to those specific areas and experiences to which they sought enlightenment and understanding, (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1981, p.77). In other words, trance and ASC are natural contributors to their social and spiritual life. This tribe were not fragmented or disassociated with their social order and there appeared to be no aimless addiction or negativity to these practices. The Desana have embraced the mind/brain/body connection without the complexities that have plagued the west since Descartes' meditations on this subject 400 years ago. Descartes' writings revealed the complexities between mind and body which created the precedent for unlimited enquiry up to the present day. According to Searle (2004, p.9), Descartes' legacy was to relegate faith and beliefs to matters of the mind, with the brain and the body becoming the property of science.
In the early 1970s, studies by a biochemistry student, Candace Pert,led to the discovery of a natural opiate receptor in the brain. This is one of the many sites that attract the exonegous and highly addictive drugs. Most significant was the subsequent discovery of natural substances known as endorphins which activate the opiate receptors producing “expanded consciousness” which is very similar to ASC and “runners' high”, (Pert, 1999, pp.63-64, 103-4). States of euphoria have long been the desire of all cultures universally as temporary respite from stress and anxiety.
From the 1960s to the present, the advanced economies with large and dense populations have experienced an enormous infusion of highly addictive drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetomines, just to mention a few. With the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the subsequent trauma of a fractured American society, public consciousness forced political action, and the National Institute of Health received special funding for research into a cure for drug addiction. Initially this was to become Pert's priority, to discover the specific natural opiates within the neuronal system that could occupy the synapse and prevent the exogenous drugs from entry (Pert, 1999, p.75-6). The cure for drug addiction so far does not lie in this process. What Pert and science failed to understand was the subjective nature of human behaviour, the same human characteristic that Shamanistic rituals seek to address. After many years of dedication and hard work, a major event in Pert's life was to change her course of direction to more profound non-scientific matters, the terminal illness of her father.
The central theme underlying Pert's(1999) book, “Molecules of Emotion”, can be illustrated quite simply, as follows. Her research into lung cancer, which had eventually claimed her father's life, identified the while cells known as macrophages as the unsuspecting cause of the cancer itself. These white cells are the normal defenders within the immune system whose task is to clean up the debris and bacteria within the lungs and other areas throughout the body. According to Pert, when these cells encounter too much toxicity present from many years of pollution on the cellular level, they mutate, their role is subverted and they divide and multiply, which creates the cancer, (Pert, 1999, pp.168-175). Her clinical research shows the biological information link between the immune system and the brain, which would indicate that the brain plays a pivotal role with the process of cell division and without discrimination for the consequences. The question of what, if anything, could influence the brain for positive outcomes, came to the fore. This is what confronted Pert and became her inspiration to research into how the mind is represented as the flow of information within the substance of both the body and the brain, (Pert, 1999, p.185).
Pert speculates on the possibility of this “information mind” containing the emotional inputs that could possibly influence the brain towards positive action for health and wellbeing, (Pert, 1999, p.189). Perhaps we are bound to accept the “nature/nurture” argument within all human life, which is now accepted in genetic research, that all possible outcomes will depend on the subjective traits within the individual humans themselves. With the recent high incidence of breast cancer detected in the Brisbane ABC Studios, identifying the gene which makes an individual susceptible to this cancer may well require comprehensive studies of how an individual lives his/her life. This coincides with Pert's dilemma, that science alone is not enough. This will surely rest upon the foundations and formations of each individual's emotional capacity and development.
From this viewpoint, small communities such as the Desana tribe and other indigenous peoples really do mirror this eternal quest for mediation between the mind and its emotions with the body and its brain. They have no need or reason for medical explanations in how they achieve healing and emotional reconciliations simply because they are dealing with means that are self-evident with outcomes. The Shamans and their communities know each other intimately and are aware of personal and community interactions. They are close to natural environments and are dependent upon those natural resources. The question arises as to how it is possible to generalise out from such a small community to the world at large.
Candace Pert is now a Shaman in the contemporary sense, combining this practice with a scientific background. This background has established her convictions for an alternate approach to life based on a unified body and mind, acting to heal and support emotional wellbeing, (Pert, 1999, p.285). Shamans, whether they be modern day or traditional, still depend for their responses on the faith and beliefs of the participants. These elements by themselves underpin the human capacity to belong to social or religious structures, which satisfy emotional needs collectively or individually.
Newberg (2004, pp.2-3) quoted a range of studies which parallel Pert's research into how the brain may influence health and wellbeing. Newberg differed in one aspect in that he tried to establish the connection between faith and belief in religion through the emotional responses that would elicit identifiable areas of activity in the brain. If it could be shown that the brain was not active during spiritual meditation it would confirm Descartes' theory that there was a mind or soul independent to the brain which would please theologists. However, this still remains a supposition, as spiritual meditation and investigative brain scanning could never occur at the same time, as there is no way of independently ascertaining the contents of the participant's mind. Brain scans are effective in relating neural changes that are visible with various physical states, for example, anxiety, stress and sexual thoughts, etc., (Newberg, 2004, p.6), (Pert, 1999, pp.103-4). There is still no evidence of the brain's capacity, apart from Pert's theories of neural body information networks, to identify with the experiental feelings associated with spiritual beliefs. The brain will facilitate negative or positive subjective behaviour in the same way that it deals with physiology. It does not appear to be the source that could reveal either the origins or derivatives of emotional feelings that are undetected physically, symptoms excluded.
There is no doubt that all communities will continue to seek ways and means to influence the capacity of the brain to selectively meet their needs, whether they be physical or emotional. The essential requirements for living are contained in the circumstances by which humans preserve their existence and progress. Emotional capacity is the means by which they fulfil their lives and is commensurate and relative to the psychological and physical life of each individual. Rituals, religion, alcohol and ASC may change the forms but they will still be essential forums from which people will seek either pleasurable or spiritual sustenance.
Carlson, N.R. & Buskist, W., 1997, Psychology:the science of behavior 5th ed., Allyn and Bacon, Needham Hts, MA, USA
Gibbs, R.W., 2006, Embodiment and cognitive science, Cambridge University Press, New York. pp.268-9
Newberg, A., nd, Field Analysis of the Neuroscientific Study of Religious and Spiritual Phenomena, htt;://www.metanexus.net/tarp/field.analyses.htm
Pert, C.B., 1999, Molecules of emotion: why you feel the way you feel, Touchstone, Rockefeller Center, New York, pp.75-6, 103-4, 133, 168-175, 185-189, 267, 285
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G., 1981, 'Brain and Mind in Desana Shamanism', Journal of Latin American Lore, 7,1,73-98
Searle, J.R., 2004, Mind: a brief introduction, Oxford University Press, New York, p.9
Townsend, J., 1997, 'Shamanism' in S. Glazier, Ed, Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, 429-469
Winkelman, M., 2004, 'Shamanism as the Original Neurotheology', Zygon, 39,1,193-217, pp.394, 399, 405, 407
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