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The therapeutic potential of Shamanism

Posted by a.marlow on October 24, 2012 at 6:20 PM Comments comments (0)

Being a shamefully shameless hippy-type, I occasionally frequent Reality Sandwich, a website full of articles on the brilliant, the bizarre and the barmy. It is there that I first came across the ideas and practice of Shamanism which, although interesting, seemed a little far-fetched. How much relevance could the ancient practice of tribal witch-doctors who claim to convene with demons and animal spirits have in the modern world?

So imagine my surprise when I find this passage in (what I assume to be) a reputable medical dictionary, which defined Shamanism as:

"a form of healing that incorporates personal healing, transformation, and regeneration through access to a "higher power." Sickness, disease, and illness are indicators that the individual is out of balance and in disharmony within the essential nature. Success can be achieved if people are, first, willing to take responsibility for the creation of the disease and, second, open to nonphysical realities of life and willing to engage with their inner spirit and their higher selves. This type of healing has been effective for sexual dysfunction, chronic fatigue syndrome, mental health concerns, and obesity and other eating disorders."

I do not know what sources or studies were used by Mosby's Medical Dictionary, but the prospect that Shamanic therapy can be effective is intriguing- and, if you'll permit me to say it, not all that surprising. For, if Jung could examine the psychological meaning behind UFO encounters without offering an opinion on their objective reality, then it is not unfitting to examine the psychological meaning of Shamanic states of consciousness while withholding an opinion on their objective reality.

Indeed, it is worth looking at how these altered states of consciousness work, especially seeing as they are the lifeblood of Shamanic healing. Whether we consider drum-induced trances or ayahuasca-induced trips (ayahuasca being a type of tea drunk by Shamans that contains DMT, the most powerful hallucinogen/psychedelic/entheogenic drug known to man), it appears that these can bring certain therapeutic benefits to those suffering from mental illnesses.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, for example, it has been suggested that the 'temporary psychosis' of Shamanic integration could be viewed as a restructuring of the ego, which could be beneficial for those suffering from conditions like anorexia nervosa that have been linked with a failure to build a sufficiently strong ego due to problems in early relationships. And from the perspective of neuroscience, one of the effects of altered states of consciousness found in Shamanic rituals is a blocking of the inhibitory effects of serotonin in the frontal lobes of the brain. Again, seeing as neurological research has repeatedly found links between altered (often increased) serotonin function and eating disorders, a reduction in serotonin activity caused by Shamanic intervention could be beneficial for someone suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

However, all of this is speculation. I have nothing to go on but an entry in a dictionary and one article I happen to have read in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, so you should take my words with a pinch of salt. The moment I find some kind of scientific study on the use of Shamanism in psychotherapy, I'll post it here- and, in the meantime, if you know anything about shamanism that could add to our shared understanding, whether it supports or contradicts the ideas espoused here, I'd love to read it in the comments section below.


Krippner, S., & Combs, A., 2002. "The Neurophenomenology of Shamanism: an Essay Review", Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9(3), 77-82