The practices of shamanism date back at least as far as the Neolithic ages and possibly the latter parts of the Paleolithic ages of mankind's prehistory. Here, shamanism is defined as a set of ritualistic practices that are used in conjunction with an understanding of a larger framework of the cosmos to engage in ritualistic practices that were goal-directed. This practice was the role of the tribal shaman who entered altered states of consciousness to heal a sick person, among its many other applications. Contrary to popular belief, the practice of ritualistic shamanism directly led to the nearly-overnight birth of modern, systematized medicine, especially so-called "Western Medicine". The practices of shamanism, beginning from the late Paleolithic age onward, have shaped the course of modern medical science.
The placebo effect is a powerful component of modern medicine's implicit powers to heal both the body and the mind. When the patient's faith in his treatment and/or practitioner is high, the chances of healing are much greater. Hence, the placebo effect relies exclusively on the patient's power of belief, a power so strong that when given a drug that has no value in healing a bodily system, the patient is nevertheless healed.
For example, researchers have discovered that treatments which have no active drug components, can successfully alleviate the symptoms of a variety of medical ailments including Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure, depression, pain, fatigue, and anxiety. Indeed, the placebo effect is powerful (Feinberg, web). In clinical trials which test the efficacy of new drugs, a double-blind placebo trial is often conducted. That is, neither the researcher nor the subject know if they are receiving a "real treatment".
In one study, patients were administered either acupuncture treatment or given "pills" to alleviate chronic arm pain caused by such conditions as tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. The results of the study showed that most patients reported relief of their symptoms. However, the pills they received were made of cornstarch and the acupuncture they received used retractable sham needles that never pierced the skin. Therefore, the experiment exposed two fake treatments (Feinberg, web).
In the context of prehistoric shamanism, shamans used the placebo effect to change their "patients'" consciousness from the internal world to the external world, contextualizing their illness within a larger framework. "Shamanism pays particular attention to bridging the internal world of the patient to the external world where the problem originates" (Money, 2001, p.1). Shamanism, therefore shifts or alters consciousness in the direction towards healing and even today, its core principles such as expectancy and conditional learning find relevance as well as scientific validity (Feys et al., web).
Those who argue that western medicine did not evolve out of prehistoric shamanism (with its hallmark placebo effect) contend that shamanism, in and of itself, cured many ailments before western medicine became the new paradigm. For example, opponents of this theory contend that shamans used herbs, roots, and other plants that had actual medicinal healing and/or curative properties. They advance the notion that shamans utilized far more than ritualistic practices (and the placebo effect) to effect change in bodily systems in addition to shifting consciousness of those who they attempted to heal, or its critics dismiss shamanism as mere "hocus-pocus".
Opponents of modern shamanism argue against visions of spirits or the belief in multiple worlds that can be explored during states of expanded consciousness. This prevailing notion of shamanic healing negates its power in the Western worldview, and counters the argument that the Western worldview and systematized Western medicine evolved from shamanic practices (Metzner 333). However, they wrongly ascribe actual curative properties to potions and many herbs that were mere trappings of the shamanic rituals themselves, rituals which had the singular goal of shifting and transforming the patient's mind into acutely aware altered states of consciousness, states which closely unified the internal world with the "external world".
Clearly, shamanism upset modern paradigms of Western medical practices as late as 1892 when, in a speech at the Smithsonian Institution, John Bourke called shamans '"an influence antagonistic to the rapid absorption of new customs"' and said, '"only after we have thoroughly routed the medicine mencan we [whites] hope to bend and train the minds of our Indian wards in the direction of civilization"' (sott.net, web). However, what Bourke and others failed to realize is that the practice of shamanism was -- and still is -- based on the scientific method. Furthermore, Western medicine can trace its roots to shamanic methods of treatment interventions.
For example, the placebo effect is integral to both shamanic healing and Western medicine, pointing to the evolution of Western healing practices from shamanic practices, practices which some scientists theorize originated about 40,000 years ago. While opponents of shamanic healing may argue that it is based on folklore, shamanic practices, like Western Medicine, employed a systematic worldview that was studied and manipulated for the sake of the patient. Many scholars have pointed out the relationship between shamanism and Western Medicine from this perspective.
Krippner (74) stated that, "Such remedies as lizard blood and swine teeth have no known medicinal property but seem to have worked well for centuries, apparently because clients expected them to work. Frank (1973) concluded that the apparent success of healing methods based on all sorts of ideologies and methods indicates that the healing power of faith resides in the client’s state of mind, not in the validity of its object" (Lee & Balick 75). Money (2001) stated that any healing process must utilize the restorative functions of the body and mind to achieve balance. Money also asserted that primitive shamanism has been validated in light of many recent discoveries in health, healing, and medicine (Eade 7).
What has been referred to as the PNI (psychoneuroimmunologic network) has been found to play a key role in modern medicine's efficacy, a role that helps explain both the placebo effect and the profound impact of shamanism in prehistoric cultures across the globe. The PNI consists of a network wherein about 80 neuropeptides, or short-chain amino acids communicate with every part of the body. Findings have shown that these neuropeptides bind to the hippocampus and the amygdala, important brain structures that modulate emotional response. The receptor sites have also been found in other areas of the body as well, including the heart, digestive tract, immune system, and the endocrine (or glandular) system. The most profound part of this research is that it shows that there are two communications systems in the central nervous system. One is hard-wired whereas the other system is biochemical. The biochemical system means that communication modulated by the central nervous system is much more complex than previously thought and is not restricted to neuronal signaling (Lee & Balick 116).
Moreover, it has been shown that ritual and emotion have a close relationship. This relationship affects the way opiate receptors operate, suggesting that shamanic rituals affect the "feel-good" neurotransmitters and the structures of the brain containing their receptor sites (Winkelman 344). That ritual affects certain parts of the brain and has consciousness-changing properties bodes well for addiction treatment modalities (Winkelman 345). Thus, modern-day counselors, nurses, psychologists, and psychiatrists (not to mention addicts themselves) have proved that shamanism can work in a contemporary setting as well. It has evolved over the millennia but its theoretical underpinnings have remained unchanged.
Shamanism, just like modern medicine, uses natural ASCs (altered states of consciousness) to help heal both the body and mind, a dualistic separation that did not occur until recently. By manipulating ASCs, the modern-day practitioner of healing arts can focus a patient's own PNI to various parts of the body, restoring balance. While the importance of spirituality, the placebo effect, and shamanic rituals have been shown to curb the process of addiction and to be effective treatments in a variety of illnesses, much of mainstream, allopathic medicine has not accepted that these practices have a firm scientific basis as well. They have, in a sense forgotten their responsibilities as clinicians who should consider the viability of every treatment option for their patients. The psychological, physiological, and social needs of drug rehabilitation patients need to be re-evaluated in terms of the shamanic context (Winkelman 347).
In conclusion, while shamanic practices have been largely discounted by modern, Western medicine, these practices, in fact, were the antecedents of Western medicine. Western medicine directly evolved from prehistoric shamanism. With their abilities to manipulate a patient's perceptions of his illness and their skillful use of the placebo effect, shamans comprised a powerful part of prehistoric tribal societies, one that has directly evolved into the Western medical system which is based upon scientific methodology handed down by knowledge acquired through thousands of years of shamanic practices.
Eade, V. "What is Shamanism and How Effective is it in Healing People?" n.d. Web. 29 June 2014.
Feinberg, C. "The Placebo Phenomenon," Harvard Magazine, January-February 2013. Web. 29 June 2014.
Feys, F., Bekkering, GE., Singh, K., & Devroey, D. "Do randomized clinical trials with inadequate blinding report enhanced placebo effects for intervention groups and nocebo effects for placebo groups? A protocol for a meta-epidemiological study of PDE-5 inhibitors," n. page. Web. 29 June 2014.
Krippner, S., "Shamans as Healers, Counselors, and Psychotherapists," International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 31(2), 2012, pp. 72-79. Web. 29 June 2014.
Lee, R. & Balick, M.J., "Snakebite, Shamanism, and Modern Medicine: Exploring the Power of the Mind-Body Relationship in Healing," Alternative Therapies, May/June 2002, 8(3): pp. 114-117. Web. 29 June 2014.
Metzner, R. "Hallucinogenic Plants and Drugs in Psychotherapy and Shamanism," Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 1998 Oct-Dec.;30(4): pp. 333-41. Web. 29 June 2014.
Shamanism as Evolutionary Medicine. n.p. Web. 29 June 2014.
Winkelman, M. "Alternative and Traditional approaches for Substance Programs: A Shamanic Perspective," International Journal of Drug Policy 12 (2001): pp. 337-351. Web. 29 June 2014.