Neuroscientists Discover Shamanic Healing

Better late than never is a good thing, even if the delay is measured in many thousands of years. Western medical science is just now discovering that the mind is powerful and placebo works.

Shamans have implicitly known this since they began ritually treating patients perhaps 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic transition. In fact, one of the better hypotheses regarding the adaptiveness of invisible agent-agency ideas (improperly called “religion”) revolves around shamanic placebo healing. In Wondrous Healing: Shamanism, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion (2001), James McClenon contends that what we today call “religion” evolved because ancestral humans who believed in spiritual healing powers had a much greater chance of actually being healed. These differential healing effects, even if statistically minor at any given time or place, become enormous over evolutionary time.

This may account for the fact that placebo is the most powerful non-medicine known to science. Any drug that had the proven clinical efficacy of placebo would be a billion dollar blockbuster. I suppose this is why placebo treatments, which come in all shapes and woo-sizes outside of standard medicine, is in fact a several billion dollar per year industry.

This makes Harvard Magazine’s recent profile of placebo researcher Ted Kaptchuk all the more interesting. Placebo is finally getting the scientific scrutiny it deserves. At my own university, Tor Wager does similar research that was profiled in 2010 by the New York Times. The Harvard profile is particularly poignant because the researchers are using some curious language:

“What we placebo neuroscientists have learned is that therapeutic rituals move a lot of molecules in the patients’ brain, and these molecules are the very same as those activated by the drugs we give in routine clinical practice. In other words, rituals and drugs use the very same biochemical pathways to influence the patient’s brain,” said Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin.

“Doctors give subtle cues to their patients that neither may be aware of. They are a key ingredient in the ritual of medicine,” Ted Kaptchuk explained.

“There was simply no way to quantify the [doctor-patient interaction] ritual of medicine. And the ritual is the one finding from placebo research that doctors can apply to their practice immediately,” said professor of medicine Russell Phillips.

Although placebo therapies are often considered to be “alternative,” the fact of the matter is they are better conceived as supplemental. The two should go hand in hand, even in cases where the cause (e.g., bacterial infection) is unequivocally responsive to treatment (e.g., antibiotics). If the immune response can be boosted even slightly with placebo, why not provide the assist? It makes sense to me.

This also made sense to Dr. James R. Walker, a Civil War veteran and government physician assigned to the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in 1896. When he arrived, a tuberculosis epidemic was raging. The disease was being treated by shamans, a fact which frustrated the skeptical scientist Walker:

In my first relations with the medicine men [Oglala shamans] I considered them arrant humbugs whose practices should be suppressed by every means. I then studied their methods of treating the sick, and the results. I found that they have little knowledge of disease, that most of their medicines are inert, and that their practices consist mostly of mysticism and trickery. 

But I also learned that the Indians have faith in the power of the medicine men to relieve suffering, and that most of the medicine men have a sincere confidence in their power to do so; that the sick believe the mystical forms and ceremonies of the medicine men to be solemn rites that propitiate malignant powers; that these ceremonies beget an expectation of relief so that when the medicine man suggests that there is relief the patient declares that he feels it; that in minor ailments, this relief is real and permanent; that in serious illness it sooths the patient and consoles the friends; that because of these results the medicine men maintain a powerful influence among the Indians in all matters pertaining to the sick. (Lakota Belief and Ritual, Walker at p. 10).

If there is a better description of placebo therapy than this, I’m not aware of it. Walker kept meticulous records and discovered that standard medical treatments nearly always worked better in conjunction with traditional shamanic rituals. This was true even when the ailment (such as tuberculosis) was clearly amenable to drug intervention. It’s nice to see modern neuroscience finally catching up.


Did you like this? Share it:

8 thoughts on “Neuroscientists Discover Shamanic Healing

  1. rosross

    This is an interesting piece although I would venture to suggest that ‘bias belief’ was at work in Walker in terms of his assessment of the efficacy of the shamans.

    There is no doubt that the placebo effect plays a role but it does in modern medicine as well. Interestingly, you see the same ‘relationship’ between traditional medicine and modern, or allopathic medicine in Africa today – no doubt for similar reasons as observed by Walker.

    But there is also no doubt that beyond the role the mind plays, there are herbal medicines and treatments which have an effect and it is definitely not placebo. Homeopathy is also utilised in Africa, as it is increasingly in India, and is effective. But the Indians have a far more sophisticated system of traditional healing in Ayuveda, than is generally found in African cultures and homeopathy fits ‘neatly’ into this.

    The other interesting area of research is nocebo and the impact that the doctor has on the efficacy of treatment – as you touch on here. The mind certainly plays a part but there is much more to healing than that or modern medicine would have a far greater success rate given the fact that most people are prepared to put a great deal of trust in it, and their doctors, and most people do want to get well.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    (1) Interestingly: as a former Acupuncturist, Ted Kaptchuk’s acupuncture book, “The Web that has no Weaver”, was formative in my early acupuncture voyage. I’m sure you are aware of his background. I now see acupuncture as largely ineffective, much like homeopathy, no matter how complex and seemingly effective.

    My work with Homeopathy did teach me one thing: the power of placebo — which I now try to amplify even in my use of modern medicines. (which have their own sets of problems, of course).

    (2) “Learned pain behavior” is part of what us medical providers do to teach patients to how to get pain meds. We likewise teach them to act out to get their desired results in public settings. We train each other in rituals — and yet we are often blind to our mutual dancing.

    (3) Fantastic new blog look and the “follow by comments” is a great add. Nice fixes, mate: thanx.

  3. pain0strumpet

    “Western medical science is just now discovering that the mind is powerful and placebo works.

    Shamans have implicitly known this since they began ritually treating patients perhaps 40,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic transition.”

    This has been bugging me for a few days. You say that shamans have implicitly known that placebo works, which strikes me as being like saying that bumblebees implicitly understand the mathematics behind flight.

    The tone of your opening suggests that the shamans have been standing atop this mountain of wisdom, waiting all this time for modern scientists to climb up and be greeted. But nowhere do I see evidence presented that the shamans involved doubt the veracity of their supernatural claims, which is what would be needed to bear out this idea.

    Is there any good reason to believe that shamans have ever maintained, “None of this is real, but the sick people believe, and their belief in my mumbo jumbo cures them, so I’ll just keep on keeping on like this”?

  4. Cris Post author

    Hi Eric — sorry for the late response; I’ve been out of town.

    The ethnographic literature on shamanism is replete with references to the fact that shamans are quite often (or nearly always) accomplished magicians, being expert at sleight of hand, swallowing and regurgitating objects, throwing voices, and other skills (such as mimickry and mime) that we associate today with modern or professional magic. The literature also indicates that these skills were always deployed in the service of ritual, usually of the healing variety. These are learned skills and shamans surely are aware of the fact that these are tricks of perception and deception.

    So there is a sense in which shamans have been sitting on applied placebo knowledge for a very long time.

    In this post on “The Magic of Religion” I discussed these issues in more detail.

    So I think there is at least some reason to think that shamans have understood that at least part of what they do is deceive, in the service of healing.

  5. Anonymous

    Do you have the citation for the placebo/ritual paper from Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin.

Leave a Reply