Brain Chemistry

   Western science views the brain as the source of human consciousness, and increasingly sophisticated understandings of brain chemistry have prompted some researchers on shamanism to consider brain chemistry and the role of the human central nervous system as key to understanding altered states of consciousness and shamanic experiences. Neuropsychological research on altered states has contributed to the shamanistic interpretation of rock art, wherein certain geometric shapes termed entoptic phenomena that are consistent in visionary experiences may be identified in rock art imagery. In addition, the efficacy of shamanic healing has been interpreted as resulting from the release of endorphins (from endogenous, meaning “within,” and morphine, a painkiller), biochemical compounds resembling opiates in their analgesic effects. By attaching themselves to the receptors on nerve cells, endorphins reduce the body’s sensitivity to pain—as “natural painkillers” they produce a sense of euphoria. It has been hypothesized that there is an increase in endorphin activity in both patient and shaman during shamanic healing, as well as for the shaman during the induction of altered consciousness, such as prolonged dancing and other forms of deprivation, since endorphins are linked to endurance. Certain drugs used by shamans may also be linked to endorphin activity: the molecular structure of peyote is held to resemble the endorphin nonadrenaline, for example. These investigations into brain chemistry and shamanism have prompted Michael Winkelman and other scholars to explore neurotheology—the idea that the impulse behind shamanism and other religions originates in brain chemistry.
   See also Mental Health.

Historical dictionary of shamanism. . 2007.

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