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Shamanism Is the Original Neurotheology

"Neurotheology" has become an increasingly common concept since a Newsweek article (05/17/01) God and the Brain: How We're Wired for Spirituality was published.  The term reflects the idea that spiritual experiences have a biological basis.  "While the term neurotheology is new, the basic ideas have been around for thousands of years," says Dr. Michael Winkelman, Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University.  "Many cultures have developed technologies for altering consciousness and inducing spiritual experiences."  Winkelman describes shamanism--an ancient healing practice--within the context of neurotheology.

Scholars have recognized shamanism as a special form of religious behavior for more than a century.  Winkelman's earlier cross-cultural research on shamanism outlined in his book, Shamans, Priests and Witches, demonstrated that there were basic similarities in shamans in cultures around the world.  The similarities in shamans include the use of trance or ecstasy--altered states of consciousness (ASC)--to interact with the spirits and heal.  These spirit world interactions are often referred to as "soul journeys," out-of-body experiences, and astral projection.  These abilities are acquired when the initiate shaman undergoes a "death and rebirth experience" and acquires animal allies and spirit powers.

In his recent book, Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing, Winkelman outlines the neurobiological basis of shamanism--humanity's original spiritual practices--and explains puzzling aspects of shamanism: its universal presence in the ancient world, as well as its modern resurgence.  Similar shamanic practices in diverse parts of the world present a challenge to the rational scientific view that all religion is a delusion.  To explain this paradox, Winkelman poses the questions: "Why do these so called 'delusions' develop in similar ways in distinct cultures?  What is the adaptive basis that enabled these practices to survive for millennia?"

"Universals of shamanism are related to basic brain functions," says Dr. Winkelman, who suggests these universals reflect biological principles of the consciousness and the functions of ASC.  Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing explains basic aspects of brain operation that provide the foundations for shamanic practices and experiences.  "The shamans' experiences and practices have fundamental similarities around the world because they reflect innate brain processes and experiences," says Winkelman.

Winkelman's research findings place shamanism in the context of human evolution and suggest that shamanic practices were a key element of the evolution of modern humans some 40,000 years ago.  Shamans helped people acquire information and develop new forms of thinking.  Shamanism also provided mechanisms for healing and personal development, building alliances, and creating group solidarity.

"Shamanism is not just an ancient practice nor is it limited to simpler societies," says Winkelman.  "The contemporary world has many examples of 'neoshamanism,' current adaptations to these ancient principles of spiritual healing and consciousness.

"The resurgence of shamanism in the modern world is an anomaly and contradiction," continues Winkelman.  "These kinds of practices were supposed to disappear with the development of modern rationality, yet they persist and grow in popularity, especially among the more educated segments of the population."

The perspectives of neurotheology help explain the persistence and revitalization of shamanism, with current practices reflecting the same principles of brain operation that engendered the original manifestations of shamanism tens of thousands of years ago.  Winkelman's book Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing describes these brain systems, their functions, and how they can be elicited to enhance human health.

Alternative healing practices incorporate many shamanic principles and activities.  "The rise in popularity of alternative medicine is part of a desire of people to take charge of their own healing," Winkelman points out.  "Shamanism was the original self-healing practice, a form of self-empowerment."  Winkelman's book elaborates on how shamanic practices help people establish contact with their intuitive powers, manifested in visual symbols.

The brain's serotonin and opioid neurotransmitter systems are also stimulated by shamanic practices.  "Shamanism enhances both one's health and a sense of well-being because they 'turn on' the body's 'feel-good' chemicals," says Winkelman.  "Our current reliance upon Prozac and other serotonin-reuptake inhibitors, and our societal problems with drug addiction, reflect the loss of these vital healing traditions."

Winkelman predicts that shamanism will continue to grow in popularity due to its natural basis in human psychobiology.

Publications on Neurotheological Perspectives by Winkelman

2005       Pilgrimages and Healing.  Jill Dubisch and Michael Winkelman,, eds.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

2004       Divination and Healing: Potent Vision.  Michael Winkelman and Philip Peek, eds.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


2006.      Shamanism and the Biological Origins of Religiosity. Shaman 14(1&2): 89-116.

2006.      Cross-cultural Assessments of Shamanism as a Biogenetic Foundation for Religion. In: Patrick McNamara, ed. Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion.  Pp. 139-159. Westport, CT: Praeger.

2006       Teaching about Shamanism and Religious Healing: A Cross-cultural, Biosocialspiritual Approach. Pp. 171-190. In: L Barnes and I. Talamantez, Eds. Teaching Religion and Healing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (with Chris Carr)

2005       Understanding Consciousness Using Systems Approaches and Lexical Universals Anthropology of Consciousness 15(2): 24-38 2005

2004       Spirits as Human Nature and the Fundamental Structures of Consciousness.  In: From Shaman to Scientist Essays on Humanity’s Search for Spirits, J. Houran, ed.  Lanham, MD.: Scarecrow Press. Pp. 59-96.

2004       Shamanism as the Original Neurotheology.  Zygon  39 (1): 193-217. 

2004       Introduction: Divination and Healing Processes. Michael Winkelman and Philip Peek.   In Divination and Healing: Potent Vision.  Michael Winkelman and Philip Peek, eds.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Pp.3-25.

2004       Spirituality and the Healing of Addictions:  A Shamanic Drumming Approach.   In: Religion and Healing in America, Edited by Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered.  New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 455-470

2004       Shamanism: Update.  In: Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd. Edition.  Jones, Lindsay, ed. Thompson Gale Pub. Pp. 8274-8280.

2004       Cross-cultural Perspectives on Shamanism.  In: Shamanism An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices and Culture.  M. Walker and E. Fridman, eds.  Santa Barbara, Ca, ABC Clio.pp. 61-70.

2004       Divination.  In: Shamanism An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices and Culture.  M. Walker and E. Fridman, eds.  Santa Barbara, Ca, ABC Clio. pp. 78-82

2004       Neuropsychology of Shamanism. In: Shamanism An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices and Culture.  M. Walker and E. Fridman, eds.  Santa Barbara, Ca, ABC Clio.     pp.187-195.

2003  Evolutionary and Neurohermeneutic Approaches to Culture and the Brain.  Reviews in Anthropology 32(4): 275-295

2003  Psychointegration: The Physiological Effects of Entheogens.  Sidestreet Electronic Journal

2003 Shamanism and Innate Brain Structures: The Original Neurotheology,  In: NeuroTheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience, Rhwan Joseph, ed. University Press. Pp. 387-396.

2003  The Shamanic Paradigm: A Biogenetic Structuralist Approach.  Reply to Reviews of Michael Winkelman’s Shamanism. The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing in the Journal of Ritual Studies Book Review Forum, Vol 18(1): 119-128.

2003       Psychointegration: The Physiological Effects of Entheogens.  Entheos 2(1):51-61

2002a    Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution. Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 12(1): 71-101.

2002b    Shamanic Universals and Evolutionary Psychology. Journal of Ritual Studies. 16(2): 63-76.

2002c    Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology. American Behavioral Scientist. 45(12): 1873-1885. This article is in an Adobe PDF format.  To download Adobe Acrobat Reader, please go to this website

2001    Psychointegrators: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Therapeutic Effects of Hallucinogens. Complementary Health Practice Review. 6(3): 219-237.

2000    Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey.

1997    Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behavior. In Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. S. Glazier, ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 393-428.
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