Over at Inkling Magazine, Meera Lee Sethi reports on a brilliant study which shows that when believers are told that the person to whom they are listening has divine powers, the regions of their brain responsible for high level executive functioning — in other words, the areas involved in critical thinking and judgment — show massively decreased activity, thus making them more receptive to the message and “closer to God.” I cannot improve on Sethi’s nicely written and succinct article, so will not provide any excerpts. I encourage you to read it.
There is one aspect of the article which deserves further mention. The findings which Sethi reports are relevant to James McClenon’s argument in Wondrous Healing: Shamanism, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion. McClenon’s thesis is that shamans throughout history have been healers, and that shamanism could be an evolved adaptation. Essential to McClenon’s argument is that the people being treated by shamans (a) must believe in the shaman’s power to heal, and (b) have better outcomes if they are prone to hypnotic states similar to those described in Sethi’s article. What is being described here is the power of placebo, which is undeniable and empirically supported by numerous controlled medical studies.
A fascinating account of shamanic success in healing comes from James R. Walker’s Lakota Belief and Ritual. Walker was an American medical doctor who in 1896 became the head of medical services on the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation; he remained in that position until 1914. Almost immediately and contrary to his expectations, Dr. Walker noticed that his interventions were significantly more successful when patients received both Western medical treatment from Walker and healing treatment from Lakota shamans or medicine-men (“wicasa wakan“). This, in turn, prompted Walker to learn the ways of Lakota shamans and Walker himself eventually became a wicasa wakan, incorporating traditional healing methods into his medical practice.
Between McClenon’s empirical findings and Walker’s medical practice, there is powerful evidence to suggest that shamanic techniques of healing improve outcomes. Neither McClenon nor Walker, however, stated whether these improved medical/healing outcomes were the result of suggestion (placebo) or the work of spirits, and both seemed open to either idea or some combination thereof. The suspension of disbelief can, under certain circumstances, be a wonderful thing.