On what we know about Shamans and Shamanism

An Interview with Stanley Krippner, PhD

by Brent Raynes

Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco. Formerly, he was director of the Kent State University Child Study Center, Kent OH, and the Maimonides Medical Center Dream Research Laboratory, Brooklyn, NY. He is the co-author of Extraordinary Dreams (SUNY, 2002), and co-editor of Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (APA, 2000), as well as many other books and scholarly articles.

Editor: What do you make of the unusual experiences that people are reporting these days? They range from out-of-body experiences, to near-death experiences, to encounters with shamans.

Dr. Stanley Krippner: My explanation for all of these reports is simply that they fall into many different categories. For example, people have unusual experiences that are triggered by different brain events. People move in and out of various states of consciousness during the day and during the night.

Western society, especially in the United States, does not pay much attention to these shifts and permutations in consciousness. When people have nightmares, pre-sleep imagery, post-sleep imagery, day-dream imagery, etc., they sometimes misinterpret a natural occurrence and think, ‘Oh, I’ve been contacted by a spirit,’ or ‘I’ve been abducted by an alien,’ or ‘I’m having a visitation from an angel.’ In other words, they often tend to go overboard and come up with a complicated explanation where the correct interpretation is probably easily explainable in terms of what psychology already knows about the brain and the body.

However, this misinterpretation can actually be to a person's benefit. Sometimes a person will have a great creative insight during one of these experiences and will say, ‘Oh, that music was sent to me by God.’ Well, if a person wants to believe in divine inspiration, it might inspire a great work of art. I think that it was more likely that the creative material was due to the workings of the unconscious that manifested during a burst of creativity in some shift in consciousness. But if the result is a beautiful piece of music then let the musician make his or her own attribution! I think the danger in this line of thinking, however, is when people proclaim, ‘Oh, I heard the voice of God telling me that I must blow up an abortion clinic,’ or ‘A heavenly voice told me to kill a doctor who performs abortions,’ or ‘The Supreme Being told me to start a Holy War.’

The meanderings of the unconscious are based, in part, on one's past conditioning and belief systems. Most people know very little about psychology, so they take these injunctions seriously, which cause all sorts of trouble. The bottom line is that people really need to be better educated so that they know what the brain and body are able to do, and how some unusual experiences can be triggered. Teachers, physicians, and psychotherapists need to be better educated so that they can give simple explanations that make sense to somebody who comes to them with these extraordinary reports. In many cases, they might be able to prevent damage from being done from potentially harmful experiences, while at the same time maximizing the benefits that might come out of potentially positive experiences.

Editor: What would be your definition of a shaman?

Dr. Stanley Krippner: To properly describe a shaman we have to look at a three part definition. First of all, shamans are socially sanctioned by their community. In other words, it is the community that decides who deserves the label of shaman; of course, these labels are different in every culture. The community also decides who does not deserve the label of a shaman. In this way, a community protects itself from charlatans, imposters, and the mentally ill--all of which might claim to have healing powers.

Second, the shaman is able to shift states of consciousness at will and move from one state of consciousness to another, whether it’s shamanic journeying, talking to the spirits, incorporating benevolent power animals, or visiting so-called upper and lower worlds. Shamans exercise these abilities to obtain wisdom, to accrue power, and to discover knowledge that’s not available to them in their ordinary state of consciousness. Such abilities are not available to other members of their community -- who do not have shamanic talents.

Third, shamans use this power, wisdom, and knowledge for the benefit of their community and for individuals in the community. They do this by healing, by mediating conflicts, and by assisting in transitions involving life and death, childbirth, puberty, menopause, and menstruation.

So there you have it. That’s how I would define a shaman, and as I said, different cultures and different societies will use different words to designate these people. In South Africa, among the Zulus I have visited, the word for shaman is Sangoma. In various parts of Mali the word is Malia. In Bali, it is Balian. What’s interesting is that these practitioners all engage in similar activities, even though they’re separated from each other in time and space.

Editor: A number of books that I have read have traced many of our modern techniques and practices in such areas as psychology, hypnosis, medicine, pharmacology, counseling and so on, to the accumulated wisdom and wealth of knowledge that was passed on by the ancient shamans.

Do you have anything you’d like to add to that observation?

Dr. Stanley Krippner: I think this is absolutely correct. Many of the medicines that we take for granted today were originally brews, or herbal teas, or ground nuts and berries that were used by shamans. For example, an old remedy taken from the Willow tree was used to make acetylsalicylic acid, which is repackaged now as aspirin, but was originally a shamanic treatment. The same thing occurred with quinine, which was originally used by shamans in Central and South America. And, Chinese shamans of yore used dozens of herbs that were incorporated into Chinese medicine, and many of which are now being studied and repackaged by Western medicine.

When the Europeans first came to North America they brought their own medicines with them, and they soon discovered the medicines that the Native American shamans were using. Among Native American tribes from the eastern part of the United States, by current standards, their medicines were something like seventy percent effective. The European medicines of that era, on the other hand, were about 40 percent effective. Many of the other mixtures often worked because of the colonists' expectation, faith, and the placebo effect. However, from a medical perspective, many Native American medical systems were much more effective than the European medical systems -- which came over at the time of the conquest of North and South America.

Editor: That’s interesting. How far back can the activities of the shamans be traced?

Dr. Stanley Krippner: We can trace shamanism back to at least 30,000 years before the Common Era. Some investigators think that there are traces of what seems to be shamanic activity that go back even further, even 40,000 years ago. Shamanism actually pre-dates the development of agricultural societies because shamanic practices were common among the hunting and gathering tribes around the world.

Editor: In addition to shamanism, you’ve also had a keen interest in parapsychology, I think, in the study of psychic events and extra sensory perception. Have you found many shamans who seem to possess genuine, or even perhaps, demonstrative paranormal abilities?

Dr. Stanley Krippner: There’s a small amount of literature in the parapsychological records where shamans were actually tested and some of them made extraordinary scores on tests for what parapsychologists call extra sensory perception. There was a test, for example, of Australian aboriginal shamans, where these practitioners, referred to as "wise women" and "wise men," guessed the identity of hidden cards at levels that were significantly above chance.

Outside of formal testing, many shamans claim to have these abilities. I suspect that most of what they do is based on intuition, on careful observation, on coincidence. And some of it is even based on slight-of-hand, because many shamans are master tricksters. It can be argued that these shamans trick people in order to help people get well. Shamans know how to utilize the placebo effect, faith, and expectancy; with the result that the people in their community swear that these shamans actually have extraordinary abilities. For the most part I think that they have abilities that are more easily explainable in terms of psychological principles.

Editor: Stereotypes of shamans abound in our modern times. They formerly held positions of power, trust, and respect in their day, but today many dismiss them as having been ignorant, very primitive and superstitious pagan ‘witch doctors’. How would you best try to remedy that popular misconception?

Dr. Stanley Krippner: These are very unfortunate misconceptions because they tend to put down the historical benefits of shamans and shamanism. Even today, in many parts of the world, shamanism is the only medical system that is available. Obviously there are some shamanic treatments and some procedures that don’t make much sense, but there are others that are quite sophisticated. That’s why the shamanic procedures have survived for thousands of years.

When I was in South Africa talking to a Zulu Sangoma, (shaman), she said, “Well, a lot of people from your country call us witch doctors and in some ways they’re not far off because much of what we do is to doctor people against the curses put on them by witches.” In other words, witches and sorcerers are people who are paid considerable amounts of money to put curses on their rivals. These victims and their community believe they have been hexed or bewitched, and they might very well get sick because they believe strongly in the power of this curse or hex. If a shaman conducts a ceremony or administers a medicine that counteracts the sorcery, then indeed they can be called ‘witch doctors’ because they are ‘doctoring’ people against what the malevolent witches have supposedly done to weaken their minds and bodies.

I think that we have to be very careful not to fall into simplifications and stereotypes. On the one hand I wouldn’t want to romanticize shamans; some of these practitioners do some pretty foolish and even harmful things. But, on the other hand I wouldn’t want to call them ignorant or superstitious because they represent a very venerable medical system. Shamans represent a very worthwhile philosophical belief system and one that has served communities very well over the years. Less than thirty percent of the world's population is served by allopathic biomedical practitioners; shamans, herbalists, midwives, and other indigenous healers work with the other seventy percent.

In some parts of the world, shamans are working together with Western physicians and Western psychotherapists. I’ve seen this occur in Mexico, I’ve seen this at work in Puerto Rico, I have observed cooperation in South Africa, and it’s taking place in other parts of Africa, such as Tanzania and Kenya. The World Health Organization is sponsoring a project to bring indigenous practitioners, such as shamans, together with Western practitioners, such as physicians and psychotherapists, to determine what common ground there is and to encourage these two traditions to work together.

Editor: Are there certain personality traits or characteristics that seem to make up the average shaman?

Dr. Stanley Krippner: In my opinion, there are some common traits, and again you have to be very careful when you generalize because there are so many varieties of shamans. First of all, shamans are highly intelligent. Secondly they’re highly imaginative. Third they’re highly creative, and fourth they’re emotionally stable, at least for the most part. There have been some personality tests given to shamans, and compared with other members of their community the shamans emerge as the most emotionally stable members of that community. Interestingly enough, in one study done among a Native American tribe in the United States, not only did the shamans have superior scores on tests of mental health, but charlatans [in the community] who claimed to be shamans actually scored below par in terms of mental health. Incidentally, people in that community rejected charlatans claiming to be shamans. So the community knew what they were doing when they gave shamanic status to some people but not to others.

Editor: I was just kind of curious with regard to your travels – in what countries have you found people who were both shamans and who also claimed to have interacted with UFOs?

Dr. Stanley Krippner: Some of the Tibetan Lamas, who are religious functionaries, not shamans, claim that there is a long tradition in Tibetan Buddhism in which UFOs, flying saucers, and aliens from outer space visited the Earth. There are many Native American shamanic traditions that claim that there were contacts with aliens from outer space. Whether these reports represent dreams, imagination, fantasy, or a misinterpretation of natural events, I think is an open question. Nonetheless, there is a tradition in many of these shamanic cultures that aliens have contacted their ancestors many, many, many years ago.

Let’s just say that I’m agnostic about this issue. I keep asking, "Where's the beef?" I’m open-minded but I’m waiting for a little more beef before I make my sandwich.

Editor: Okay, but you have run into it anyway.

Dr. Stanley Krippner: Yes, I’ve run into these reports. They might tell us more about human imagination than about life in outer space, but in any event they need not be dismissed. Like any other human report or experience, they are worthy of attention and study. Psychological science has the tools to investigate any type of behavior, no matter how bizarre or outrageous it might seem to conventional thinkers and narrow-minded people.