from Aeon Website
sits with his child before a fire ritual
during the summer solstice in June 2018
Banned under communist rule,
shamanism has seen a resurgence in Mongolia
since 1992, when the ancient practice
became protected by
the country's Constitution.
by Kevin Frayer/Getty
and healing powers of shamans
are so widespread
that they can be counted
a human universal.
Why did they evolve?
Its practitioners range from indigenous lineages who have passed down their craft over thousands of years to the modern 'plastic shamans', who represent no specific culture but have adapted shamanism to meet the demands of metropolitan markets.
However, there is a common theme to shamanism wherever it is practiced:
Here, in this non-ordinary reality, the shamans do their work.
According to the
historian of religion Mircea Eliade writing in 1951,
shamanism is the 'technique of ecstasy', involving the purposeful
invocation and use of dreams and visions to solve problems.
In this form, shamanism is everywhere in the old ways of humans.
Every tribal culture - alive or dead - has some broker of spiritual capital:
The sheer magnitude of our shamanic ancestry means one of two things:
If we consider that pre-agricultural human societies are each experiments in how to run a village, with each competing in the evolutionary market of survival and reproduction, then we must ask:
The answer is a lesson in both the psychology of problem solving and the construction of meaning.
In order to get there, we first have to understand what the prominent explanations of shamanism are in contemporary anthropology. These explanations all rely upon a common set of psychological and evolutionary principles, and these principles in turn explain the adaptive value of shamanism.
They treat everything from tiger bites to depression. Their expertise in medicinal plants and associated healing practices extends from the physical to the psychological.
This happens because many tribal cultures do not differentiate between the material and mental in the same way that modern science often does. It is also well-known that many of the plants used by traditional healers have active properties and are used accordingly.
But this explanation doesn't say much about a key element in shamanic practice:
A second prominent explanation is that shamans exploit human gullibility by taking advantage of psychological biases, such as the human fear of 'dread risks'.
These are risks that are essentially arbitrary, or outside of one's control, but can nonetheless wipe out entire families or villages.
Modern examples include,
...and the like:
The science shows that humans will pay a lot to minimize these risks, even if the associated consequences are more lethal over the long run.
In this case, some
anthropologists claim, the shamanic trance represents a kind of folk
proof that shamans can protect people against dread risks. The
shaman can interact with invisible forces and
effectively neutralize them.
For example, using the threat of magical retribution, the shaman can keep everybody from killing the last gazelle.
This mitigates a 'tragedy of the commons' scenario, in which shared resources are overused and depleted. Shamans can also unite the tribe around arbitrary decisions by making them sacred and putting everyone on the same page, thereby eliminating potential conflicts over,
This extends to
organizing groups around social-commitment ceremonies that enhance
cooperation and create the soothing in-group vibrations common to
traditions such as Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
Consider the following example.
But what was to be done?
It became known as the
They became a far more
formidable force by working together rather than singly. This
terrified the U.S. government, and contributed to rising conflict,
which eventually culminated in the
Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890.
But while this explanation for shamanism is heavily supported, it cannot be the entire explanation since there are many things that organize people:
So, what exactly is the
evolutionary added-value of shamanic trance and how in the world
does it work?
A case in point is the recent rise of shamanism among the Buryat in Upper Mongolia.
Following the collapse of socialism in 1989-91, the economic rug was pulled out from under the Buryat. This led to terrible poverty and starvation among a people whose cultural identity had largely been rubbed out over a series of generations.
In this existential
vacuum, the Buryat shamans blossomed like wildflowers as people
sought new ways to control the uncertainty in which they had found
Shamanism is not a method of controlling reality in defiance of one's own experience.
Shamanic peoples, just
like the majority of Western Christians, prefer Western doctors when
they can find them. Shamanism does not make one blind to the power
of penicillin. Rather, it is only when visible technologies fail
that people look for help from forces outside this world.
All organisms require resources to keep themselves alive and to reproduce. This has led to one of the most prominent theories on the evolution of the mind.
Put simply, the mind is a search algorithm.
Minds make their living
by being able to find things. Food, mates, a good place to hide,
effective methods of revenge, and the means to reach your goals,
whatever they may be - all of these and more are targets of the
mind's searching eye.
By searching inside that mental model, we build narratives that tell us how to get from one place to another.
Sometimes we do this
backwards, by constructing counterfactual alternatives to explain
how, if we had behaved differently, things might have gone. But just
as often, we conjure up simulations to better understand how to
influence outcomes in the future.
Our brains allow us to
solve these problems by projecting ourselves into alternative
versions of these potential futures. This is called
self-projection, which already starts to hint at the shamanic
forces that might lie therein.
Such problems unravel the semantic connective tissue that holds reality together.
They don't seem to play by the rules of our past experience.
When that happens, humans need a 'search engine' that knows how to do what Google cannot:
When minds can't find things, they engage with the random. A desert ant that can't find its nest starts hunting randomly.
When in 1898 the psychologist Edward Thorndike put hungry cats in puzzle boxes made to be super tricky to get out of, the cats scratched and clawed at everything - until they eventually, randomly, figured out how to escape.
And when the human mind
gets stuck on a problem it can't solve, it starts adding noise to
past solutions until it eventually hits on something that might
By heating it, one relaxes the crystal structure of the metal, allowing the randomness of jiggling atoms to literally explore the space of metallic configurations.
When it is cooled after this temporary heating, the metal can find a more solid arrangement. Similar metaphors of high-temperature exploration are found throughout biological evolution.
Some genes can alter their mutation rates in response to environmental heterogeneity in a process called evolvability.
Bacteria can randomize
their own genetic information by a stress-induced uptake of genomic
material floating around in the soup they swim in. These
evolutionary strategies insert
randomness in direct response
This is an inbuilt
feature of minds such as ours, and one we don't often notice. If you
sit quietly and let your mind wander, you can get a glimpse of this
randomness at work, as your daydreams put together odd combinations
in a kind of
Rube Goldberg approach to
For example, when we use
practices such as the I Ching or Tarot card readings,
we are engaging in a form of exploratory divination.
These can, upon
consideration, lead to new insights, especially in situations where
there are no competing solutions.
The final step towards
understanding shamanism's adaptive contribution also makes it clear
why shamanism is such an effective social organizer, why it might
offer an extra-strength placebo effect in psychosomatic healing, and
why it can capture the tribe's collective capacity for fear.
Through purposeful and yet exploratory investigation, shamans make lucid the mental associations that lurk quietly underneath our understanding of reality.
As what the U.S.
Terence McKenna in the 1980s
called 'astronauts of inner space', shamans help to make explicit a
part of our mind that is thousands, if not millions, of years old.
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell set out the basic narrative figures that are common to countless cultures.
The hero, the wise elder, the mother/sister/love-interest, the trickster, and the dark shadow are all themes that appear throughout humanity's many stories and explanations of itself.
The U.S. filmmaker George Lucas used Campbell's work as an inspiration for Star Wars (1977), which sheds interesting light on the elements of our narrative addiction.
These narrative figures and the challenges they face are embodied in characters such as,
In a deep psychological
sense, these figures are the molecules of meaning that fuel human
If you are an evolutionary psychologist, they are the survival and mating modules that compete for our attention ('Is it a threat?' 'Is it an opportunity for love?' 'Is he someone I can trust?' 'Is this the end?').
If you are a secular Buddhist who takes the practice of mindfulness as an opportunity to get a hawk's-eye-view on the mind, then these are the vines on which the monkey mind swings.
Why Buddhism Is True (2017),
the U.S. science writer Robert Wright combines these ideas to
make clear the shoulder-sitting angels and devils of human
In so doing, it offers us
the opportunity to make sense of our reality in the mental light of
forces that are hard-wired into our understanding. An evolutionary
bias towards seeking out the safety of mother figures, avoiding
enemies, respecting the wisdom of our elders, and for seeing
ourselves as the heroes of own adventures is a powerful advantage
over creatures that might fail to make such associations.
There is little that is as important as this constructed meaning. Research consistently finds that experiencing a coherent and meaningful life is one of the strongest predictors of our wellbeing.
By meaningful, I mean
having a story to tell, a higher reason as to why one thing happened
and not another. This makes us feel good and helps us to act in ways
that are consistent with our higher goals, instead of pursuing more
To gain mastery over reality is to create a mythology worth living for.
Your head is the space
from which all meaning derives. It is the shaman's role to shine
light on that meaning in order, like a wind-up doll, to make you