Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Schizophrenia

Enjoy this 2013 presentation by Joseph Polimeni, MD on his theory about why schizophrenia (and bipolar disorder) persists over time.

In my next post, I interview Dr Polimeni about his book,
Shamans Among Us: Schizophrenia, Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Religion.

2 thoughts on “Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Schizophrenia”

  1. Dr. Polimeni has not delved deeply enough into religion and religious practices to know the differences between common human experiences that are found in cross-cultural comparisons of religious experience and schizophrenic symptoms that also contain religious elements. Consequently, like so many psychiatrists, he often conflates those more rational religious/spiritual occurrences with the irrational confusion that results when the left, rational brain becomes unable to integrate at normal speeds with the right, non-rational brain, thus creating audio (and visual) hallucinations. The point at which psychiatry detached itself from genuine religious experience was the point at which it made preposterous and cruel assumptions about the confused religious notions of mentally ill patients as well as about people who are perfectly sane but who have access to a category of experiences we can loosely categorize as “religious or spiritual” and that require a very high degree of rational self-control. Here, Polimeni imputes to shamanism a consistency of mental processes completely at odds with anthropological data. Shamans are not schizophrenic, at least, not usually; certainly not the ones I have met and not most of those I have read about. “Hearing voices” is a phenomenon that may or may not be a symptom of schizophrenia. The fact that a person “hears voices” does not mean necessarily that the person is in a state of psychosis and that the voices are audio hallucinations, although some cultures use alcohol and other techniques for inducing audio hallucinations. Schizophrenics are rarely capable of performing the roles of shamans, even in primitive cultures, that usually require highly attentive rationality, along with ritualistic practices. On the other hand, when a schizophrenic thinks he is Jesus or Hitler or some other iconic figure, which is an extremely common misapprehension when integration speeds slow down, that is a distortion of normal religious thought processes, not a sign that the person qualifies as a shaman. Arguably, quite the opposite.

    1. Your reply´s logic is based on a pathologized assumption of schizophrenia. You are characterizing the schizophrenic´s behavior as a standard, without awareness that it has emerged in a larger sense than what G Bateson called a schizophrenogenic environment. W Reich´s dramatic life and career nevertheless shined a light as his treatment of a schizophrenic involved breathing and some form of adequate dialogue that he presents in Character Analysis.

      Polimeni did excellent work, I recall, in examining and comparing the content structure of schizophrenics and shamans. It is shamans who represent the standard, anthropologically, and modern society that is full of dysfunctional behavior. I recall that the medical profession operates with its own assumptions and alignment adjustment in modernity, with the emergence of issues like Eco-psychology involved Harvard´s John Mack MD no less, long after community psychology with S Sarason´s work, and RD Laing no less famously and his being a resource, reluctant in some ways, for anti-psychiatry.

      Bruce Levin is a clin psych who has done strong work on Resisting Illegitimate Authority.

      We are fortunate to live in a time with so many advances already, yet I find that appreciating it is a task I need to contribute to. My undergraduate work in Bio Anthro and the evolution of human speech, symbol use, religious ritual, and microsociology gave me an advanced view of things, I have found. My masters was more practical in nature in a mid-life International Relations on eco-social enterprise, but still exposed me to social constructivism based on symbolic interactionism, all an extension of my undergrad work.

      And addressing modern US society´s deepening dysfunctions has never seemed more urgent. Schizophrenics could be powerful and functional contributers, since spiritual intelligence like Gandhi´s is itself undervalued as was evident profoundly in George Fox´s founding the Quaker-Friends with little formal education and an “inner voice.”

      I heartily encourage you to embrace the approaches I mention. From the resourceful orientations of Bioenergetics and Core Bodywork to Ecopsychology to Community psych to Bruce Levine´s political awareness, pathologized fixation is a tragic overspecialization and misorientation. Not least of all in simply valuing scholarship appropriately, and most profoundly for all the issues of sustainability and human rights the world faces. Clearly, anyone labeled as “schizophrenic” serves to benefit from exposure to non-pathologizing and empowering views based on anthropological literacy.

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