Review of "Altered States of Consciousness as Paradoxically Healing: An Embodied Social Neuroscience Perspective" (Mishara & Schwartz)
by Brian Rivera
I was hesitant to share this selection both because of its length and because it is a
narrative review of a topic that can seem out of left field. But as I was reading it, I felt it
provided strong neuroscientific grounding in the descriptions of Altered States of
Consciousness (ASC) and it did so in a very accessible way. This topic seemed
extremely relevant because it offers a unique window to study the human brain and its
functions through the different manifestations elicited by cultural practices such as
meditation, mindfulness, dance, yoga, starvation and diet, etc. To me, it is a direct study
of how different cultures and cultural practices have adapted brain capacities for different
purposes, especially ones relevant to group cohesion and healing.
The induction of ASC in shamanic practices is widespread in human cultures and
is perhaps as old as cultural practices themselves. Although it has been the subject of
interest of some anthropologists, it has been mainly ignored by psychology and
neuroscience. This is in spite of the fact that William James, the father of American
Psychology, had a strong interested in how consciousness changed during religious
experiences. Thus it seems that ASC are a core aspect of human behavior.
In this book chapter Mishara and Schwartz introduced Altered States of
Consciousness (ASC), a wide range of conscious experiences demarcated perhaps only
by how they differ from normal waking consciousness, and describe how they are used in
shamanic practices to induce healing effects mainly through the neurocircuitry of the
human social brain. The authors present the multiple problems with attempts to study
these phenomena that range from the methodological problems of how to study them
(many have only nonrandomized groups without a control), to the difficulty of making
sense of extremely subjective experiences (i.e. inner journey). While there might be an
impulse to dismiss shamanic practices as acting as a placebo, the authors state that the
enactment of the ritual is a mechanism exploited by practitioners to provide healing
effects by enhancing feelings of belonging to a community. Thus there is something to be
said for how prevalent such practices are across the world.
The authors also present evidence of change of patterns of brain activity during
hypnotic states that might coincide with the phenomenology of an ASC. Furthermore, the
authors argue that such an experience might contribute to healing by allowing the
experiencer to gain a new reflective perspective as if outside of him or herself. They also
describe that the use of narrative, especially that of death and re-birth, might serve as a
way to optimize reflective awareness. This last conclusion is taken to be the paradoxical
healing power of the ASC.
I thought this article was relevant to the end of the semester because it offers a
perspective of what it would look like to have a more unified description of cultural
dependent aspects of psychology and nervous system variation while maintaining
grounding in neuroscience. I though it provided a rich depiction of a whole class of
phenomena not widely discussed but relevant to discussions of neuroanthropology.