Friday, June 12, 2009

Neurotheology and the Biological Processes of Shamanism

By Niharika Kapadia

Neurotheology and the Biological Processes of Shamanism

Shamanism is defined as set of beliefs and practices which can apparently facilitate communication with the spiritual world. It is not a culturally specific concept but comprises more of a group of characteristics found in many societies from hunter gatherers to city dwellers and in different races and communities throughout the world (Eliade, 2004, p.4). Its practitioners, called Shamans are able to enter into altered states of consciousness through various behaviours, such as breathing exercises, use of drugs, fasting, meditation, vision quests, exercise, drumming and ecstatic dance and music (Townsend, 1997, 420) All of these can lead to a trance like state (Winkelmen, 1997, p.393). Using the framework of spiritual states developed by Winkelman (1997), this paper addresses the link between scientific and religious perspectives and explains that shamanism involves basic biological mechanisms in the brain providing a universal framework to explain spiritual practice. Today, scientists are trying to find out more about the interaction between the brain and specific religious practices and beliefs. This field of study is known as neurotheology.

What are referred to as spiritual experiences in different cultures and communities by a varied range of practitioners can still have a very common theme, a universal undercurrent. The unique feelings that people have and describe are based on certain biological phenomena taking place in the brain (Gafias, 1980, p.16). The structures involved and the biochemistry that have been studied confirm the common pathway taken by the spiritual experiences.

Scientific study on the relationship between the brain and trance states can be assessed by enhancing the spiritual experience with drugs and assessing the effect on the brain with imaging techniques and other modalities (Winkelman, 2004, p.194). Different experiences and activities can be localized to specific areas of the brain.

Advances in scientific technology such as topographic brain mapping, positron emission tomography and regional cerebral blood flow imaging can help in understanding brain function (Seybold, 2007, p.77). Observations in cardiovascular activity, autonomic nervous system function, hormonal levels, blood glucose and calcium distribution are also effective ways of correlating with changes in different parts of the brain (Winkelman, 2004, p.197). These in turn help provide a better understanding of the mechanisms behind the trance phenomena. The term ASC has to be differentiated from unusual mental states of awareness which are part of mental illnesses. For example, schizophrenia which has many features of altered states of consciousness is a pathological condition (Gafias, 1980, p.16).

There are many neurobiological processes that enhance the Shamans experiences. A study of these processes requires an assessment of neurological function, brain structure and physiology. These experiences generally have similarities as they relate to the brain’s biological processes and activities (Seybold, 2007, p.77). Shamanic states increase connections between the limbic system and other brain structures. These create slow wave (theta) discharges which are then projected into the frontal brain. Theta waves generally occur when one is in a state of deep calm or mentally drowsy (Winkelman, 2004, p.194)

Shamanic ritual affects release of serotonin and endogenous opioids. These chemicals can enhance health and create a better sense of well being (Newberg, 2005, p.7). The highest concentration of opioid receptors in the brain is found in the cortical areas. These include the orbital and frontal cortex and also structures such as the amygdala and the temporal lobe. The opioid receptors can be stimulated by community activities also (Newberg, 2005, p.7). They are involved in the relaxation response and have influences on emotions, social bonding, identity and self. They create a type of human consciousness known to be present from the earliest days of civilization (Winkelman, 2004, p.194). Certain structures of the brain are also important in the development of trance like states. The hippocampus in the brain helps with assessment of the beginning of an altered state of consciousness. The limbic system focuses on emotion and memory (Newberg, 2005, p.7).

Trance like states can lead to activation of more primitive levels of the brain. The autonomic nervous system can be activated until a state of exhaustion is reached, leading to collapse (Atran, 2001, p.3). This can be a sleep like situation but it also induces a state of relaxation and allows mental recuperation to take place. A similar result can be achieved by relaxation, withdrawal and meditation (Winkelman, 2004, p.196)

Altered state of consciousness experiences can be brought on by activities such as ingestion of hallucinogens. They can also be created by activities that involve extreme rhythmic movements such as drumming, chanting and dancing (Gafias, 1980, p.16). Other processes that can help create these states of consciousness include self injury and subjecting to temperature extremes and austerities, such as being in sweat lodges and depriving oneself of water and food. Night time rituals also have a special role as endogenous opioid production in the body is highest then (D’Aquili et al, 1996, p.4). The natural opioids which are released excite the immunological system and produce a sense of joy, confidence and ecstasy (Newberg, 2005, p.9). They also help to reduce pain, improve the adjustment to stress and at the same time help in the maintenance of appropriate biochemical equilibrium in the body. These produce a reaction in the nervous system and brain discharges leading to common behaviour and emotions (Winkelman 1997, p.395).

The specific and appropriate neurobiological processes and pathways relate to the hippocapmpal-septal reticular raphe region. The discharges that are produced create slow wave, in particular theta waves on the EEG (Seybold, 2007, p.77). These demonstrate the importance of various interconnections in the brain and in particular their relevance for producing some of the effects observed in the trance like state (Seybold, 2007, p.77). There are a number of structures and connections which are important here. These include the reticular formation of the lower brain, the hippocampal-septal area of the midbrain and links to the frontal lobes and which are another important link. The hippocampal septal region has a central coordinating role as it also receives connections from the somatic and autonomic nervous systems and also various receptors in the body (D’Aquili and Newberg, 1996, p.4).

Many of these connections and mechanisms of brain activity lead to a harmonization of the limbic system, frontal lobes and both hemispheres of the brain. They create a state of relaxation where the activities of the parasympathetic nervous system are very important (Seybold, 2007, p.79). The serotonin receptors have a major role here and serotonin itself helps in the common symptoms and feelings observed in the altered states of consciousness (Winkelman, 2004, p.199). The sense of ecstasy, peace and agitated happiness is an end result of these common pathways.

Trance alters the way mental energy is utilized. Every trance has its own specific set of disabled cognitive functions. Music consists of repetitive rhythms and melodies which induce a trance like state (Pilche, 2004, p.4). The high repetition stimulates the autonomic and limbic system. The autonomic nervous system connects the brain with the rest of the body. Sports such as jogging and swimming require repetition of particular movements and actions. There is also clear evidence of the production of endogenous opioids (Pilche, 2004, p.4). When performed regularly these contribute to an elevated sense of well being and sometimes a feeling of euphoria.
The Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography Scans focus on blood flow in the brain. A picture is taken of an individual’s brain when he or she is in a resting state (How our Brains are Wired for Belief, 2008). Another is taken when the patient is engaged in a practice such as meditation. In a normal waking state the frontal lobes show a considerable amount of activity. However, there is a larger activation when an individual is practising meditation (How our Brains are Wired for Belief, 2008).
Recent research using these brain scans has examined parts of the brain which are activated during prayer and other shamanic like practices. Dr Persinger (2008) is a well known neuroscientist who focuses on experiments with a helmet. This helmet assesses pulses of small bursts of electrical activity in the brain. He states that the pulses can simulate mystical or spiritual experiences and are prominent during prayer and shamanic activities. (How our Brains are Wired for Belief, 2008).
At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Andrew Newberg (2008) has shown through experiments involving brain scans those parts of the brain that are activated during meditation and during prayer (How our Brains are Wired for Belief, 2008). After an individual has undergone meditation, Dr Newberg injected his patients with radioactive dye and took pictures of the brain. As the meditative state deepened appropriate changes in colour were noted indicating corresponding alterations in brain activity. The area of the brain involved in the sense of self and orientation then showed lesser activity than normal (Winkelman, 2004, p.199).
These findings have led to criticisms on this new and at times conflicting research. Religious groups were worried that this scientific information could lead to the belief that God is a concept created in our brains whereas he is meant to be some omnipotent and omnipresent force around us but not necessarily an extension or part of the human experience (Religion and the Brain, 2001). These fears are not justified. The current research is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the workings of the mind and in particular trance like states. These controversies are, however, useful as they allow for healthy debate and a more critical and unbiased look at the altered states of consciousness (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1981, p.75). It appears that the brain has been engineered in such a way as to allow for spiritual experiences (Religion and the Brain, 2001).
The development of the mind has been the one of greatest stories in human evolution. Intellectual progress has occurred in tandem with advances in the mind’s spiritual journey. This experience, sometimes mystical has uplifted man and contributed to the progress of spiritual thought. Practices known as Shamanism have also contributed very significantly to this progress and evolution. In varied cultures and communities throughout history, it has created a common spiritual experience even though it may have been practised in different ways. This is an experience that has a universal quality in both its external manifestations and internal appreciation. This realisation has been subjected to scientific and objective study. The results of modern research appear to confirm the existence of these altered states of consciousness and their universality. Trance states and shamans are not ‘shams’ but are beacons in that unique path, that of discovery in the workings of the mind.


Atran, Scott. “The Neuropsychology Of Religion.” University Press, California (2001): 1-25.
D’Aquili, Eugene., and Newberg, Andrew B. ‘Mystical States And The Experience of God: A Model of the Neuropsychological Substrate.’ Science and the Biology of Belief New York: Ballantine Books (1997): 177–200.

D’Aquili, Eugene., and Newberg, Andrew B. “The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual, and Mystical States.” Science and the Biology of Belief New York: Ballantine Books (1996): 1-39.
Eliade, Mircea. ‘Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy.’ Bollingen Series LXXVI, Pantheon Books (2004):3-7.
Gafias, Robert. “Altered States of Consciousness: The Roles of Dreams and Spirit Possession.”School of Music University of Washington (1980): 1-17.
India Times. “Spirituality.” 1242577,prtpage-1.cms.
Newberg, Andrew B. “ Field Analysis of the Neuroscientific Study of Religious and Spiritual Phenomena.” University of Pennsylvania, Metanexus Institute (2005): 3-18.

Pilch, John. “Music and Trance – Music Therapy”, Georgetown University, Washington DC (2004): 2-9.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, George. “Brain and Mind in Desana Shamanism” Journal of Latin American Lore (1981): 73-98.
Religion Ethics. ”Religion and the Brain.” ndethics/week510/cover.html.
Seybold, Kevin.“Explorations in neuroscience, psychology and religion”, Aldershot, Eng, Ashgate (2007):75-86.
The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life. “How our brains are wired for Belief.”
Townsend, Joan B. ‘Shamanism.’ Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press (1997): 429-469.
Winkelman Michael. ‘Shamanism as the Original Neurotheology.’ Journal of Religion and Science (2004): 193-217.
Winkelman, Michael. “Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour.” Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press (1997): 393 - 428.

No comments:

Post a Comment