Saturday, November 12, 2011


As it turned out, Michael Winkelman’s book called “Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing,” (always pay attention to the long phrase after the colon in the titles of scholarly books) is as much about brains as about glamorous ethnic ceremonies that require one to drink nasty stuff in a jungle somewhere. It was exactly what I needed but I had to read it slowly with the radio turned off and a couple of dictionaries at hand. The writing is exact, packed with composite words, and sometimes uses invented words and phrases to describe phenomena we’ve only recently understood to exist.

Most of us know that the brain has evolved along with the rest of the body, so that the knob at the top of the spine is attached to the reptile brain, which still does all the things it used to do in reptiles, and then there is the mammal brain which adds a lot of things that a cat or dog would need to think about, and on top of that is the paleohuman brain which has developed a lot of little bells and whistles with strange names like amygdala and hippocampus. Then behind the forehead is the frontal lobe, which is the location of the social brain, all the little understandings that makes you (but not necessarily everyone) cooperative and reliable.

That uses up all the space inside your skull, so since then evolution has been about complexification and internal communication, messages and collaborations among all the parts. These loops are identified and we even know what some of them do -- mostly. Some are molecular reciprocities, like serotonin v. dopamine, and some are actual fibers, like the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. Taken together, a lot of this is called the limbic system, which is of crucial importance, especially if you are a shaman, since a lot of it is about managing the consciousness it produces and the busy brain and body-wide sensory equpment you are rarely conscious of, if ever.

The looping, sensory, and memory information is organized into modules which might be called algorithms or convictions or habitual practices. I take them to be skill sets like recognizing faces or knowing where you are in space. Real basics. This is called “evolutionary psychology” and is still arguable, though I’m pretty much persuaded that it exists in an “if then” sort of way. Between Google and Wikipedia, a person who cares can explore vast realms of research.

The main idea for what I’m doing is that modules developed in the brain throughout evolution and that the hunter-gatherer skills and assumptions are still dominant and used in our modern society, whether defined as the ag-based last ten thousand years or as the city-defined civilizations that have developed in the last few thousand years.

The theory in “Shamanism” is that it is a form of leadership and healing -- reassurance and courage, really -- that formed during hunter-gatherer times to keep the group together and surviving. Winkelman does not say, but I will propose, that modern life with electronic communication is more like hunter-gatherer society than like grain-based settlements. In fact, I would reflect that I’m a hunter-gatherer living in a agricultural community and that this leads to awareness of difference. Like, where’s my tribe? Online?

The next element that is often overlooked is brain development that is “experience ready,” that is, finished outside the womb by the social “womb” of the family home. The first three years are so basic that if things go seriously wrong with the brain’s learning, death can ensue. This is when babies learn intimacy, trust, and mirroring. In the next years, which we might describe as the primary years, it is motor skills, space exploration, and social outreach that shape the brain. Then in the elementary years the brain is still physically growing and shaping even such things as sexuality (tissue response to stimulation) and language skills like narration. The secondary school years involve abstractions, history, moral concepts, and irony. Physical maturation of brains continues into the twenties of grad school students and, of course, mental and emotional growth never stops. Brain cells replicate in response to use.

People can be seriously deformed by physical trauma as in the head injuries of the football game our country loves so much. We are only recently beginning to understand that. Then there is mental and emotional trauma. Clearly, until now, we have not even admitted that such a thing as shower room encounters can warp a growing brain. Just horseplay, we say.

I have in my possession a set of videos sent to me by an artist who wanted to tell the world, as part of his healing, what his history was. Born to a prostitute who was the daughter of her madam, he had been sold for sexual uses from infancy onward. In adolescence he ran away to remake himself as a cowboy. War and a head injury remade him again. Art communities, and particularly the Manhattan abstract-expressionist world, were tolerant of personalities like Jackson Pollock, who was a kind of archetype who allowed for maladjustment and fury. So my friend did well and became well-known, though he could never maintain a marriage.

What seems to have saved him was the underlying vitality of his “original equipment” and the skills he learned as a whore which included incredibly seductive sensitivity to other people. He’s dead now. I never knew him very well. Someday someone else who received those videotapes will release them but it won’t be me. Our prudish and clumsy culture would condemn the man and gut the value of his work, all the while being eager to attend movies about just such a story.

Much of brain theory -- to say nothing of our understanding of shamanism -- shades off into philosophy or even mathematics. But we can all grasp the idea that a society that punishes and excludes the atypical person is more, shall we say, “stream-lined,” but takes a huge loss in richness and awareness. Winkelman’s ideas go towards the humanities. The innate “modules” of rhythm -- like percussion or dance -- are the first bridge between the animal world of pre-humans and the modern city-dwelling person with class advantages. The skills of the hunter-gatherer don’t lead us to math and hard science so much as they do the painter, poet, and orchestra, exactly the skills we are dumping out of our schools. This needs to be rethought.

In the meantime, every individual with an “experience-ready” brain needs human intimacy and support. And yet we continue to find unwanted children abused and starved, war-damaged men half-conscious on park benches, hidden dead women. We have no “module” in our culture -- not even religion -- that effectively accepts and guides them. The cultures of the planet need a shamanic intervention. I need to buy a copy of this book so I can read it over and over.

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