Why Are Neuroscientists Studying the Benefits of Shamanic Practices?

Christian Burgos
December 28, 2022

Why Are Neuroscientists Studying the Benefits of Shamanic Practices?

Do shamanic practices impact the physiology and psychology of an individual? According to neuroscientists, shamanic practices alter the brainwave patterns of people as well as their behavior. In this article, we’ll discuss how shamanic practices may change people’s neurophysiology, thus their well-being.

What Are Shamanic Practices?

Shamanic practices are rituals where the practitioner enters altered states of consciousness, such as trance, to communicate with what they perceive to be a spirit world. Usually, the intention behind this is to channel spirits or spiritual forces into the physical realm for the benefit of healing, divination, or other forms of assistance for people. [1] These practices are ideally led by a shaman who must be able to communicate with spirits in both directions or simply merge with them at command. [2]

Furthermore, shamanic practitioners accomplish a particular state of trance where they enter what is known as the shamanic state of consciousness to provide others with physical, psychological, or spiritual healing. [3] Previous studies suggest experienced Shamans undergo shifts in consciousness during this period, including mystical experiences, sensations of disembodiment, or ego dissolution. [4]

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How Are Neuroscientists Studying the Effects of Shamanic Practices on the Brain?

Neuroscientists utilize several non-invasive techniques to measure the brain activity of shamanic practitioners. The most popular techniques include: 

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or fMRI. This method uses magnetic fields to identify variations in the brain's blood flow associated with neuronal activity. [5]
Electroencephalogram or EEG. In this technique, scientists connect tiny, metal discs (electrodes) to the scalp to assess the electrical activity of neurons. [6
Near-infrared spectroscopy or NIRS. Scientists measure the amounts of oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin in the brain through head-worn sensors, near-infrared light, and advanced signal processing. [7]

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What Does the Latest Research Say About the Effects of Shamanic Practices on The Brain?

Using fMRI, a collaboration of neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany and the Harvard Medical School, discovered that during the shamanic state, practitioners showcase unique brain activity. During trance, functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), and left insula/operculum was increased. These results led researchers to conclude that integration and understanding may happen along a long internal train of thought during a shamanic trance. [8

Moreover, a recent study by neuroscientists from the University of Michigan assessed whether listening to traditional shamanic drumming caused shamanic practitioners to enter a similar state of consciousness to people under the effects of psychedelic substances. Researchers used EEGs signals to acquire the subjects’ brain waves as well as self-report assessments to get objective and subjective measures of the subjects’ state of consciousness. Their results revealed that shamanic practitioners tap into a similar yet distinct state of consciousness. [9]

More specifically, the EEG data revealed changes in the following brain activity:

Increased gamma brain waves. These increments are associated with elementary visual alterations. 
Decreased low alpha connectivity
Increased low beta connectivity
Decreased neural signal diversity in the gamma band. These decrements are associated with fewer feelings of insightfulness.
Increased low and high beta and gamma bands. These increments are associated with complex imagery and elementary visual alterations.


Neuroscientists are currently unveiling the mysteries behind the effects of shamanic practices on people's neurophysiology. So far, studies are consistently showing unique brain wave patterns linked with altered states of consciousness during shamanic practices  

The influence of these practices may be key to developing the next level of consciousness so needed in today’s society. If these practices are properly performed, practitioners could be able to expand their awareness and unleash their true potential.  

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[1] Price, N. (2011). Shamanism.

[2] Grant, B. (2021). Slippage: An anthropology of shamanism. Annual review of anthropology, 50, 9-22.

[3] Wallis, R. J. (1999). Altered states, conflicting cultures: Shamans, neo‐shamans and academics. Anthropology of Consciousness, 10(2‐3), 41-49.

[4] Winkelman, M. (2013). Shamanism in cross-cultural perspective. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 31(2), 47-62.

[5] Heeger, D. J., & Ress, D. (2002). What does fMRI tell us about neuronal activity?. Nature reviews neuroscience, 3(2), 142-151.

[6] Teplan, M. (2002). Fundamentals of EEG measurement. Measurement science review, 2(2), 1-11.

[7] Murkin, J. M., & Arango, M. (2009). Near-infrared spectroscopy as an index of brain and tissue oxygenation. British journal of anaesthesia, 103(suppl_1), i3-i13.

[8] Hove, M. J., Stelzer, J., Nierhaus, T., Thiel, S. D., Gundlach, C., Margulies, D. S., ... & Merker, B. (2015). Brain network reconfiguration and perceptual decoupling during an absorptive state of consciousness. Cerebral Cortex, 26(7), 3116-3124.

[9] Huels, E. R., Kim, H., Lee, U., Bel-Bahar, T., Colmenero, A. V., Nelson, A., ... & Harris, R. E. (2021). Neural correlates of the shamanic state of consciousness. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 140.