Shamans as Schizophrenics

If we assume that what western clinicians call “schizophrenia” is a neurobiological condition, we would expect to find it among all humans. We should, in other words, be able to identify it in historical records regardless of time or place. Given this expectation, it’s not surprising that a number of scholars have argued that shamans display the classic signs of schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. Appropriately enough, I’ve been of two minds on the issue.

On the one hand, my reading of ethnographic and ethnohistoric records has never caused me to think that shamans are mentally ill or otherwise disordered. In most cases, shamans must — when not engaged in shamanic activities — be functioning and contributing members of their societies. They are not full-time specialists devoted solely to shamanizing. It’s hard to imagine them doing this while laboring under the kind of full-blown delusion and debilitation which characterizes the most severe forms of schizophrenia. There are numerous accounts in the literature of shamans being killed for some imagined offense (i.e., casting harmful spells or causing spirits to attack) which makes me think that their sometimes shorter life expectancies may not just be an occupational hazard. It could be that killing shaman-schizophrenics was an occasionally accepted way of dealing with those who had become too socially disruptive.

On the other hand, some of the literature suggesting that shamans may be schizophrenics has been the result of direct fieldwork and close observation. While the observers may not have been trained clinicians, it is hard to discount their informed assessments. This may just be a classic case of variation — in every society past and present, a certain number of people will suffer from schizophrenia or similar disorders and all societies have had to confront the issue. In non-institutional societies, this may have been dealt with by directing at least some of these people toward shamanic roles. This would mean that some, but not all, shamans may have been schizophrenic.

I was reminded of all this because over at Aeon, Mike Joy has written an article showing that the ways in which schizophrenia manifests — in terms of reported symptoms or delusions — has changed over historical time. Schizophrenia, in other words, is at least in part culturally constructed:

Persecutory delusions, for example, can be found throughout history and across cultures; but within this category a desert nomad is more likely to believe that he is being buried alive in sand by a djinn, and an urban American that he has been implanted with a microchip and is being monitored by the CIA.

All people, including the mentally disordered, work with what they know and available cultural materials. So this makes sense. I am less sure about western attempts to explain the underlying etiology, which Joy here describes:

At the core of schizophrenia, Victor Tausk argued, was a ‘loss of ego-boundaries’ that made it impossible for subjects to impose their will on reality, or to form a coherent idea of the self. Without a will of their own, it seemed to them that the thoughts and words of others were being forced into their heads and issued from their mouths, and their bodies were manipulated like puppets, subjected to tortures or arranged in mysterious postures. These experiences made no rational sense, but those who suffered them were nevertheless subject to what Tausk called ‘the need for causality that is inherent in man’. They felt themselves at the mercy of malign external forces, and their unconscious minds fashioned an explanation from the material to hand, often with striking ingenuity. Unable to impose meaning on the world, they became empty vessels for the cultural artefacts and assumptions that swirled around them.

Tausk’s theory was radical in its implication that the utterances of psychosis were not random gibberish but a bricolage, often artfully constructed, of collective beliefs and preoccupations. Throughout history up to this point, the explanatory frame for such experiences had been essentially religious: they were seen as possession by evil spirits, divine visitations, witchcraft, or snares of the devil. In the modern age, these beliefs remained common, but alternative explanations were now available.

While parts of this accurately reflect descriptions of shamans found in the ethnographic literature, other parts do not. Shamans, for instance, may indeed have a loss of “ego boundaries” but it would be hard to say they cannot impose their will on reality or form a sense of self. Indeed, a primary feature of shamans is that they have excess “will” and “self” — they create and explain in ways that seem uniquely real not only to them but also to those around them. Far from being “unable to impose meaning on the world,” they are expert at it.

Moreover, while shamans may occasionally be manipulated and “at the mercy” of possession spirits, this is usually considered dangerous and undesirable. Shamans were (and are) famous for fighting such takeovers or possessions. While I suppose these fights could be construed in modern-medical terms as an effort to stave off the dissolution of self caused by persistent or involuntary delusions, this seems doubtful because a hallmark of shamanizing is the ability to control spirits and put them to work. In the literature I’ve read, shamans function quite normally (i.e., without delusion) most of the time and only occasionally engage in activities that could be considered schizophrenic or delusional.

In the end, I doubt that most shamans were schizophrenic or suffering from other mental disorders. Even if they were, these unusual experiences and fantastic reports were so thoroughly integrated into society, and accepted by others, that it calls into question our own culturally constructed category of “mental illness.”

Related Post: Neuroscientists Discover Shamanic Healing


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25 thoughts on “Shamans as Schizophrenics

  1. Darryl

    I don’t know if shamans were schizophrenic, but I don’t necessarily see why a culture that took young people displaying the symptoms of schizophrenia and worked them through a series of initiations into a culturally-accepted social role, rather than shunting them off to dark corners and ignoring them as we do, would not be able to learn a measure of control over their experiences and maintain themselves in daily life. Just the fact that they ‘know’ what is happening to them, having a social support system that explains every episode in terms of generally accepted spiritual realities – even if it has nothing to do with neurochemical reality – must enable the schizophrenic a tremendous amount of confidence and control relative to the typical schizophrenic streetwalker on Skid Row down here in LA. (if the shamans, or some of them, are in fact schizophrenic)

    I have read that in some places shamans are often of common lineage or lineages; rather than being any form of nepotism, could it have to do with the genetic heritability of schizophrenia?

  2. Cris Post author

    These are excellent points Darryl; in fact, it’s such a nice hypothesis that I think you should systematically follow up on it! When I think about the literature with your suggestions in mind, things make a great deal of sense.

    It is true that in some societies shamans ran in lineages. It would be hard to tell, from this late vantage, whether that was because of genetics. It’s a cool idea, but the obvious counter to it would be that parents teach their children what they know.

    To test this idea, we would probably need to identify those specific societies in which shamanism was lineage-based, and then determine if there were some variable in those societies that could account for it. Lacking any such variable finding, we might suppose there was a genetic factor.

    My sense, however, is that in most shamanic societies this calling was not lineage based. In the majority, there seems to have “something unusual” about the person which indicated or “demanded” a shamanic calling (which was often unwelcome). This curious fact could suggest a mental-health angle, don’t you think?

  3. Karen von Merveldt-Guevara

    In most shamanic societies the calling was and is lineage based. The gift of the “healer” e.g. with the Hopi is passed from the father to the son, and you belong to a “guild” as a healer. There are some exceptions were the gift occurs in an individual who is not part of a lineage with that tradition, and it is not easy for that individual to be accepted as “same” (personal sharing). The same holds true for other tribal societies where the gift of the medicine is often passed on in the family (e.g. Dineh, Havasupai, Cree). I am a Western trained MD, yet work as a spiritual hands-on healer here in AZ. I study methylation cycles and their off-sets, which correlates with neurotransmitter dysfunction and can result in psychosis and schizophrenia among other disorders. I have had breakthrough and initiation experiences throughout my life, while still “part” of the Western World, including two hospitalizations during which I had several near-death experiences and profound experiences of initiations that were not part of the culture I come from by ethnicity or race. How do you explain that? My father was a surgeon, so was my paternal grandfather, on my mother’s side all women were in the medical field as nurses or technicians… my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with Senile Dementia, whereas I experienced him as schizophrenic, re-living other times and being de-realized. I took away “gold and silver-medals” in psychiatry: both diagnoses, polymorph psychotic and paranoid schizophrenic. I live a “normal” live and use my ability to dissociate in my profession as a hands-on healer. Like the actor in “Green Mile” without spitting flies, I take on other people’s energy, and pass it through. At times I see, too, what happened to them, or I see what happened in their ancestry line that makes them carry ancestral trauma, etc. Yes, I see the biochemical component, which can be genetic, and I see that as giving a lineage, plus the fact that if you grow up with a parent who treats your gift as what it is and not as a disease, you learn to integrate it and you can handle the “different worlds or dimensions you experience” often at the same time.

  4. Cris Post author

    Fascinating. Are you doing empirical or lab research on methylation? If so, what kind(s) of data are you collecting and have you published on it?

    I can’t speak to most of what you’ve said, though I am fairly certain that shamanic roles are not lineage based in most hunter-gatherer societies (i.e., historic Plains Indians, Great Basin tribes, Canadian tribes, Australian Aborigines, African Bushmen, Inuit, Siberians, and Amazonians). This is not to say that the shaman role could not be lineage based (indeed it would be strange if it was not, at least on occasion, simply due to parental teaching and transmission), just that it generally was not. We tend to find lineage based shamanism among sedentary or agricultural indigenes, as most of those you mentioned are.

  5. aspectsign

    My Thoughts on reading this ran much the same as Darryl’s above. I would add myself that while schizophrenia is largely treated with medication today it has and is still in some cases treated successfully with other therapies allowing the individual to accept their symptoms and function in the world. Anecdotally I have known several very functional individuals with schizophrenia and bi-poler disorders over the years both with and without medication including a former employee who while going without ongoing therapy or medication and often actively symptomatic was able keep those symptoms in perspective, working full time for me, working part time as a silversmith for himself, maintaining family and social relationships etc. The only rough parts where dealing with other individuals who would antagonize based on distrust of his condition rather than aspects of his behavior.

    I really don’t find it hard to believe that in smaller closer knit communities with accepting cultural norms individuals with various mental disorders could be fully functioning and integrated members of society. It would I think be important to remember that in western culture while we are often more accepting today, our cultural traditions are very rejecting and distrusting of non conforming individuals going back centuries and that colors our view.

  6. Karen von Merveldt-Guevara

    My research on methylation cycle function is based on Amy Yasko’s nutrigenomic test to understand genetic impairments of methylation and transsulfuration (Phase 2 detox capacity), at times I add Genova Diagnostics Detoxigenomic Test (Phase 1 and more detailed Phase 2). Functional understanding comes from lab test of serum, blood and urine, and a biofrequency test by use of an ASYRA machine, based on galvanic skin resistance measurements. Nothing published so far… very busy with practical work with patients, enjoying the fact that we can actually correct many metabolic derailments and “mend the broken cycles”. I see the methylation cycles as “the backbone of life”, therefore the importance to help them to proper function. The metaphor of broken cycles in our world outside and the reflection inside of us doesn’t leave me these days…

  7. John Schucker

    If you haven’t seen it yet: Shamanism and Schizophrenia: A State-Specific Approach to the “Schizophrenia Metaphor” of Shamanic States, Richard Noll, American Ethnologist, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Aug., 1983), 443-459.

  8. Linda Reneau

    While some shamans may have some degree of mental illness, like some people in every profession, including physicians, psychologists, anthropologists, politicians, store clerks, ministers, and lawyers, shamans may also be gifted with strong instincts for the healing properties of herbs and other healing modalities, including expert use of the consciousness effect (otherwise known as the “placebo” effect, which can be very powerful), and an inclination of high emotional and relationship intelligence.

  9. Cris Post author

    I agree Linda and have written about shamans and placebos in the recent past. I also like your frequency-based point that these sorts of things are distributed within or across populations, which means we can find corresponding frequencies in all sub-groups of the population.

  10. Jane Clugston

    This is facinating I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and am taking medication. “The episodes” I experienced seemed shamanic and spiritual in nature a heightened awareness and connectedness sometimes a feeling of not sensing where my “electrical” field ended. This may seem like a really “crazy”notion but could some mental states of this order be influenced by sun flares much like the full moon is thought to affect mental states in some people?

  11. Anonymous

    Trying to explain what shamans deal with to someone who cannot do what they do is like trying to explain the taste of strawberries to someone who has never eaten them. The description gives them an idea of what to expect, but it in no way resembles the reality of the experience. So all of this prattling about schizophrenia is just an outsider trying to make sense of something they cannot experience, and therefore, cannot explain.

  12. Cris Post author

    Isn’t this what novelists more or less or sometimes do? There are many things I’ve neither eaten nor experienced, yet novelists often manage to convey the flavor of the experience, even if that conveyance is not in clinical or explanatory language. While I see your point, I don’t think the attempt is entirely futile or worthless.

  13. Dale Lee

    The medical profession labels a person as a schizophrenic, then masks the symptoms with drugs, or teaches the person to “live with it”. The shaman clears what is causing the symptoms. The entity or energy that is creating the problem is extracted from the persons luminous energy field and the symptoms are relieved. Other techniques, such as soul retrieval may be necessary to make the person whole again. The reason that this method isn’t mainstream yet, is that we don’t take insurance.

    The shaman isn’t a schizophrenic. The shaman may hear voices, see visions. He can receive information through shamanic journeying. This can be used for the benefit of the shaman and his client. It is something that is under his control, rather than it being in control of him.

  14. Anonymous

    Comparing novelists to shamans is an inappropriate metaphor. Novelists are introducing you to new concepts which play by the rules of the plane of existence on which you operate. What happens in the spirit world has to be understood on a level where there are no words. A previous poster used the term, “visions”. That is so inaccurate. It implies that everything is happening in the shaman’s mind. When the reality is that we live a dual existence, that of the mind and body, and that of the spirit. Shamans have dual awareness of both realities and they have to translate between the two, which doesn’t always work out so well. Some things that happen in the spirit world can’t really be explained in physical world terms, or why they happen the way they do can’t be explained in a way that makes sense in physical world terms. Just because you don’t understand what you are being told, doesn’t mean that what is being said makes no sense.

  15. Cris Post author

    This sounds suspiciously similar to the kinds of dualist or “spiritual” things I was told while being raised in a religious household and environment, with the only difference being one of idiom and technique. In my estimation, all these experiences are occurring in peoples’ minds.

  16. Anonymous

    There you go, you have a closed mind, so I need to close my mouth. Never did like talking to walls.

  17. Sabio Lantz

    Interesting post and comments. I have no experience with Shamans, but did make a bit of a hobby of trying to chat with Sadhus in India — some were fascinating, bright or free people, others were clearly mentally ill — but I wager their audience was small. Working with many schizophrenics over the years, I can’t imagine any of them keeping a crowd interested and engaged — so neither could I imagine a successful Shaman being schizophrenic (not that this diagnosis is clear – not to mention schizotypal as displaying the fuzziness.

  18. alden roberts (@migmove)

    We still don’t understand the concept of time. When we do analyses of the above will accommodate and differentiate between conditions and ‘experiences’ helpful or non helpful. Premonition analyses I believe can offer interesting evidence to help understand time and rationale.

  19. Dr. Phillipus Theophrastus Bombast, Hohenhiemensis. suevorum ev panægyris nobilum arpinas.

    Egyptian magical ritual for curing disease was based upon a highly complex understanding of the human mind and its action upon the physical constitution.

    There is a great difference between the powers that removes the invisible causes of disease and that which is magic, and that which causes merely the external effects to disappear and which is physic sorcery and quackery.

    The sun is the same as the moon, they differ by degree.

    No different then hands are like feet and feet sre like hands. Water is like air and air is like water.

    The roots of trees are like the branches and leaves.

    Material existence is like non material existence.

    Your right brain is like your left brain. The difference are by degree.

    Like wise the two hemispheres of the brain and pineal gland between your arms is like that which is between your legs, consider function.

    A quartz amethyst has a presence in an empty room like that of a plant. Very subtle.

    Tis true without lying certain and most true, that which is below is like that which is above – Hermetis trismagistus.

    That which the dream shows is the shadow of such wisdom that exists in us, even if during our waking state we may know nothing about it. We do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things and we are asleep in regards to that which is real with in our selves.

  20. Anonymous

    It is interesting what they say about the left and right brain,one being scientific and the other artistic. whilst at university i based my dissertation on the hemispheres, scizophrenia and ambidexterity, basing the idea that we are left handed and right and so do our brain and are minds are connected to our hands. i studied the juggler in the tarot pack, he is the one that carried the ‘ caduceaus’ the cross with wings and serpants on it that hermes trigamistrus carried-‘ the healing symbol of the gods. i was interested to find out that sibelius the juggler not the fool in the tarot pack was the same man as hermes. all this wisdom made me scizophrenic,it was like i went on a journey of self discovery, i lost my identity and that is why i went unwell. as i said having been in institutions for 20 years its been one hell of a journey i have learnt so much, but i made it through. its all in my autobiography and diary and on facebook, it has been like a shamans magical flight , i wont go on fascinating lol jason

  21. Larry Stout

    Somehow (no references), I have it than shamans (sometimes rulers, acting out shamanistic rituals as an “official duty”) more often than not relied on hallucinogens to induce an apparently transcendent state, ostensibly enabling communication with unseen spirits and divinations. Of course, indulgence in certain hallucinogens might well induce lasting psychological effects of various kinds.

  22. muitiny in mokum

    Perhaps schizophrenics merely have a better view of the reality of the holographic universe that often is extremely distinguished from common perception. It probably is easier to label them mental than to better try to understand reality beyond the induced illusion of the generally accepted comfort zone.

  23. they're everywhere!

    There are plenty of “shamans” in our culture that have gone through the same visionary experiences and self-transcendence (which is not the same as a delusion) as schizophrenics do only they’ve managed to not get stuck in a delusional state and managed to re-integrate and understand the contents of the collective unconscious in a socially adaptive way. These people routinely use dreams, synchronicites and visions for inspiration and healing of others as well as seeing life as a living metaphor and not just a mere causal world of stone and flesh…they are usually called Depth Psychologists but can be hiding in a wide variety of professions.

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