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’ll interview Dr Polimeni about his book,
Shamans Among Us: Schizophrenia, Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Religion.

1 thought 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.

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