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Winkelman / SHAMANISM
Shamanism as Neurotheology
and Evolutionary Psychology
Arizona State University
Universals of shamanism reflect innate brain processes and representational systems and
fundamental aspects of consciousness. Shamanic universals involve psychophysiological
dynamics of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) and visionary experiences, metaphoric
representations produced through integration of innate representational modules, and ritu-
als that produce psychophysiological healing responses. ASCs reflect natural brain pro-
cesses involving systemic integrative conditions. Universal shamanic representations (e.g.,
animism, animal allies, and soul flight) use cross-modal integration of specialized innate
modules and reflect fundamental aspects of the psychodynamics of self. These prelinguistic
emotional, social, and mental processes use presentational symbolism that reflects funda-
mental structures of consciousness. Therapeutic aspects of shamanism involve the
psychophysiological effects of ASCs, ritual and community evocation of neurotransmitter
responses, and the functions of spirit concepts in representing and manipulating individual
and group psychodynamics. The shamanic paradigm’s psychobiological foundations
explain the origins and cross-cultural distribution of shamanism, its modern manifestations,
and the continued applicability of shamanic practices.
Shamanism, humanities’ most ancient spiritual, religious, and healing prac-
tice, has achieved a dramatic modern resurgence. The cross-cultural distribution
and current adoption of shamanism by professionals poses a dilemma for per-
spectives that consider religious behavior to be ephemeral. The cross-cultural
manifestations of shamanism and its contemporary appeal are rooted in psycho-
biological structures and basic functions of the brain, mind, and consciousness.
This article reviews data on the universals of shamanism and their neurological
bases. Integration of cross-cultural and neurological perspectives reveals the
psychobiological basis of shamanic universals such as altered states of con-
sciousness (ASCs), soul journeys, animal allies and guardian spirits, death and
rebirth experiences, and healing practices.
Shamanism plays a central role in elucidating neurotheology because sha-
manism constitutes humanities’ first theological and spiritual system. Cross-
cultural manifestations of similar shamanic ideology and practice reflect neuro-
phenomenological and neurognostic structures, forms of experience and
AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, Vol. 45 No. 12, August 2002 1873-1885
© 2002 Sage Publications
knowing based in innate biological and symbolic capacities (Laughlin,
McManus, & d’Aquili, 1992). Psychobiological perspectives are a necessary
interpretive framework for understanding the universals of shamanism and
reveal the foundations of humanities’ original neurotheology. The cross-cultural
manifestations of shamanic experiences and practices (Winkelman, 1992) illus-
trate that shamanic psychodynamics are a basic aspect of human experience and
an evolved psychology. These universals provide the basis for constructing a
natural theological paradigm based in fundamental structures and operations of
the brain. These neurognostic structures have implications for elucidation of
basic aspects of neurotheology, theories of consciousness, and healing
The psychobiological basis of shamanism provided it with functional roles in
survival and cultural evolution (Winkelman, 2002), producing an evolved psy-
chology that still has implications for contemporary healing (see, e.g., Harner &
Harner, in press; Ingerman, 1991; Winkelman, 2001). A primary focus of sha-
manic healing practices is on ASCs. Shamanic ASCs involve an adaptive inte-
grative mode of consciousness, resulting from slow-wave synchronization
across brain systems and enhanced operation of socioemotional and self-func-
tions of the paleomammalian brain (Winkelman, 2000). ASCs elicit structures
and functions of the paleomammalian brain and operations of consciousness
involving self, attachment, emotions, and integrative brain functioning. These
ASCs have adaptive potentials in healing and cognition, producing spiritual and
religious experiences that promote integrative psychodynamics and elicit natu-
ral healing processes. Shamanic ASCs enhance integration of information by
eliciting cognitive capacities based in presentational symbolism, metaphor,
analogy, and mimesis, and representing preconscious and prelinguistic struc-
tures of the brain. Shamanistic ritual involves physically and culturally mediated
activities that elicit opioid release and enhance serotonergic function. Shaman-
istic healing uses activity and symbols to alter physiological, psychological, and
emotional responses. Contemporary spontaneous religious experiences, illness
characterized as “spiritual emergencies,” and modern addictions have shamanic
roots and illustrate the continued relevance of the shamanic paradigm.
The nature of shamanism has been confusing because of a range of meanings
and denotations associated with the concept of the shaman. These stem from
shamanism’s origin outside of Western cultures and its similarity to worldwide
practices involving the use of ASCs (Winkelman, 1990, 1992). The exact nature
of shamanism has been in dispute, but the idea that shamanism is cross-cultural
or universal was widely accepted before systematic empirical research estab-
lished the commonalities. Central contentions regarding the nature and univer-
Winkelman / SHAMANISM 1875
sality of shamanism are resolved by cross-cultural studies of magico-religious
healers (Winkelman, 1992, 2000) that show shamanism is a central feature of
hunter-gatherer societies and originated early in human prehistory (Winkelman,
The empirical characteristics of shamans revealed by Winkelman’s cross-
cultural study (see Winkelman & White, 1987, for data and method) confirms
many central characteristics of shamanism (e.g., Harner’s [1990] “core shaman-
ism”). Statistical assessment of shared characteristics of healing practitioners
found around the world provides empirical demonstration of the cross-cultural
characteristics of shamans. Despite different cultural backgrounds, the healers
of hunter-gatherer societies (shamans) have substantial characteristics in com-
mon and differ significantly from other types of magico-religious practitioners
(e.g., those labeled healers, mediums, priests, and sorcerers/witches
[Winkelman 1990, 1992]).
Cross-cultural research shows shamans are found among hunter-gatherers
and slightly more complex societies with limited agriculture or pastoral subsis-
tence patterns. These societies lack political hierarchies and have leadership
limited to the local community, where the shaman is the charismatic leader with
informal political power, reflecting the dynamics of a band-level organization.
The shaman is highly esteemed, initiating the most important collective reli-
gious activities, providing leadership, organization of communal hunts, and
decisions regarding group movement. Shamans normally engage in activities on
behalf of the local community, most frequently healing, divination, and assis-
tance in hunting. Shamans are also believed capable of malevolent magical acts,
attacking others with spirits, sorcery, and stealing their soul.
The significance of shamanism for the study of religion was established
through the cross-cultural synthesis provided by Eliade (1951/1964) in Shaman-
ism Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy . Eliade characterized the core of shamanism
as involving (a) “techniques of ecstasy” (altered states of consciousness) and (b)
interaction with the spirit world (c) on behalf of the community. Other universals
ascribed to shamans include being found in hunting and gathering societies,
selection for the position through an illness or calling of the spirits, a vision
quest, a death or rebirth experience, the capacity to fly, the ability to transform
oneself into an animal, the use of spirits as assistants, and the potential to be a
sorcerer with negative powers. Central to shamanic ecstasy is the soul journey or
flight, where the shaman’s soul or spirit departs the body and travels to other
places. Soul journey was also used for contacting spiritual forces, determining
distant conditions or the fate of separated family members, finding lost objects,
and escorting souls to the land of the dead. Shaman’s ASCs were also mani-
fested in the vision quest or transformation into animals.
ASC activities were the basis for shamans’ training and professional ser-
vices. Shamans were typically selected through the outcomes of deliberately
sought ASC experiences (e.g., vision quests), involuntary visions, illness, or
other signs of selection by the spirits. The deliberate vision quests involved
inducing ASCs through a great variety of procedures, including chanting and
singing; periods of extensive exercise through dancing, drumming, and dra-
matic enactments; prolonged fasting, water deprivation and the use of emetics;
exposure to temperature extremes (e.g., a sweat lodge or staying in cold
streams); the use of psychoactive plant medicines, particularly hallucinogens;
various austerities, including cutting the body; and periods of prolonged social
isolation and sensory deprivation (Winkelman, 1992). The shamans’ character-
istic ASC was soul flight, involving the practitioner’s soul, spirit, or animal
familiar entering into a nonordinary reality to interact with spirits.
A universal feature of the shamans’ initiatory periods involved an experience
interpreted as a death and rebirth, often involving as dismemberment, and fol-
lowed by reconstruction of the initiate’s body, accompanied by introduction of
spirit powers. Shamans’ interactions with spirits were fundamental to their pow-
ers. Spirit entities affected all aspects of human life and nature, embodying the
essence of natural forces, humans and other animals, as well as illness and heal-
ing processes. Shamans’ relationships with animal spirit helpers were central to
the development of identity and professional competence, providing powers to
carry out a variety of activities.
Shamanic ritual was the most important group event, structuring relation-
ships of the individual to the collectivity and the cosmos. Shamanic ritual was
the context for expression of the basic cosmological, spiritual, religious, and
healing activities of hunter-gatherer societies. In a nighttime ceremony attended
by all of the local group, the shaman enacted struggles within the spirit world,
summoning spirit allies while excitedly beating drums, singing, chanting, and
dancing. The shaman collapsed exhausted and through a visionary soul flight
entered into the spirit world to obtain the spirits’ cooperation. The shaman con-
trolled the spirits, through which many tasks were accomplished: healing,
dream interpretation, divination, clairvoyance (clear seeing), handling fire,
communication with spirits of the dead, recovery of lost souls, mediation
between spirits and people, protection against spirits and sorcerers, and finding
animals. Concerns with health typically considered people to have lost their
souls or to be plagued by witches, ghosts, spirits, or the malevolent action of
other shamans. The shaman’s entry into the spirit world typically involved dra-
matic struggles to recover the patient’s soul. Soul loss could be due to neglect,
fright, or its theft by other shamans or spirits. Shamanic practices evoked power-
ful emotions and healing through psycho- and sociotherapeutic functions and
physical treatments (e.g., massage, cleansings, and plant medicines).
Winkelman / SHAMANISM 1877
The cross-cultural distribution of the shaman with similar characteristics,
activities, and beliefs has a psychobiological base and reflects a neurological
structuring of consciousness (Winkelman, 2000). Shamanism found in hunter-
gatherer societies around the world reflects ecological and social adaptations to
human psychobiology. The neurological foundations of shamanism are repre-
sented in the principal characteristics of shamanism emphasized by Eliade—
ecstasy, spirits, and community—as well as other universal characteristics of
shamanism (e.g., soul journey, the use of music and dance, animal allies, and
death and rebirth experiences).
The use of ASCs in community rituals for accessing the spirit world has a uni-
versal distribution in the activities of many types of magico-religious healers
(Winkelman, 1990, 1992). These other healers, along with shamans, are referred
to as shamanistic healers in recognition of their common bases in ASCs. Sha-
manistic healers also share other characteristics: illnesses interpreted as being
caused by spirits, who are used in therapeutic processes; symbolic ritual manip-
ulations for healing; and the causation of illness attributed to the ritual actions of
other humans (Winkelman, 1992). These other types of shamanistic healers gen-
erally do not have other characteristics of shamans (e.g., soul flight or journey,
an ability to transform into an animal, control of animal spirits, the death and
rebirth experience, or hunting assistance). Shamanistic healers reflect a univer-
sal institutionalization of mechanisms for altering consciousness and healing
through integrative brain functioning. Shamanistic concepts of ASCs, spirit
world, and community processes are psychobiologically based human univer-
sals. They use the integrative effects of ASC induction procedures, metaphoric
thought processes, and community ritual.
Principal psychobiological foundations of shamanistic healing involve the
structures, functions, and effects of ecstasy, or ASCs. ASCs reflect fundamental
principles of the human nervous system, involving natural reactions that induce
the relaxation response and brain synchronization, as well as visionary experi-
ences that reflect a presentational symbolic capacity (Hunt, 1995). ASCs
involve high-voltage, slow-frequency brain wave activity originating in the
limbic system–brain stem connections that drive synchronizing patterns into the
frontal cortex (Mandell, 1980; cf. Winkelman, 1992, 1996, 1997). This inte-
grates activities of different levels of the brain with coherent brain wave
impulses from lower brain structures through the frontal cortex producing a syn-
thesis of behavior, emotion, and thought.
The spirit world fundamental to shamanism involves productions of innate
processing modules. Human cognitive evolution involved acquisition of a
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