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shamanism in South America
Trance and Shamanic Cure on the South American Continent:
Psychopharmacological and Neurobiological Interpretations
(author: françois blanc)
Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 21, Issue 1, pp. 83–105, ISSN 1053-4202, & 2010 by the American Anthropological Association. (All rights reserved).
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abstract (to read the full text, click on:
This article examines the neurobiological basis of the healing power attributed to shamanic practices in the Andes and Brazil in light of the pharmacology of neurotransmitters and the new technological explorations of brain functioning. The psychotropic plants used in shamanic psychiatric cures interfere selectively with the intrinsic neuromediators of the brain. Mainly they may alter:
(1) the neuroendocrine functioning through the adrenergic system by controlling stressful conditions,
(2) the dopaminergic system in incentive learning and emotions incorporation,
(3) the serotoninergic system in modulating behaviors, and mood, and (4) basic functions implied in anxiety or depression.
PET scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging studies of hypnotic trance and altered states of consciousness may provide a useful model for the neurophysiological phenomena of shamanic drum-and dance trance. The reorganization of cortical areas and the direct interconnections between the prefrontal cortex and the dopaminergic reward centers in the limbic system are of particular significance for human social judgment and symbolic processing. Those centers, including the hypothalamus and the amygdala (associated with psychosomatic equilibrium, memory, and emotion) are enhanced. This arousal may be amplified in order to induce a cathartic crisis, the shamanic trance. It is suggested that through this holistic approach the shaman empirically interferes in neurobiological dysfunctions.
keywords: shamanic trance, neuropharmacology, neuroimagery, hypnosis
Introduction and methodology
The author of this article lived in Brazil from 1973 to 1980 where he studied medical aspects of the ritual practices of Candomblé and Umbanda (Luis-Blanc 1981). He then went to the Andes and spent two years in 1983–84, teaching about infectious diseases and doing field research with students from the Medical School of Cusco, Peru. This medical school, founded in the years 1980–81, includes in its curriculum a communitarian work project within the Andean communities (called ayllus) around the Sacred Valley. Students attend courses about traditional medicine in an attempt to integrate the traditional healers and shamans into the public health service as an official policy.The author followed this field experience with several missions and further visits to indigenous communities. Based on the results of 25 years of participant observation and the field work with the health agents and academic team of the Medical School of Cusco, this article examines some of the traditional healing practices of Brazilian and Andean peoples through interviews with the ‘‘guardians of memory’’ represented by several curanderos/as (healers) and a few shamans. The author defines curanderos/as as healers who use medicinal plants and shamans as mediators between their community and supernatural forces.
In this article emphasis will be put on neuropsychiatric cures conducted by the healers and shamans whose unquestionable efficacy (beyond the common suggestive effect) induced the author to examine their neurobiological basis.
Firstly, this article analyzes the pharmacological effects of intrinsic neuromediators and traditional vegetal psychotropic substances. Then the author will discuss the correspondences between the trance or shamanic healing and the physiological phenomena in the cerebral circuitry in the light of the latest cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging knowledge that allows insights into the shamanic practices.
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