The shaman as cybernetician: Explaining the efficacy of shamanic healing

I was kindly invited to give a talk by the Cognitive Science research group at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The talk will take place at 1pm on the 6th of December in the Sala de Conferencias.

The title and abstract of the talk are as follows:

The shaman as cybernetician: Explaining the efficacy of shamanic healing

The structure of experience during shamanic initiation and healing is typically characterized by various kinds of transformations of personal identity: the self is experienced as being capable of new abilities such as flight, moving underground or breathing under water; as being situated in other worlds, places and times; as being embodied as other persons, spirit entities, animals and inanimate things; as dying, being decomposed, and then reassembled and reborn afresh.

Are these transformations of identity merely anomalous products of altered consciousness, or do they perhaps constitute an important element of the efficacy of shamanic rituals? In this talk I will argue that transformations of identity play a functional role. By drawing on the conceptual and practical relationship between the first wave of cybernetics and psychiatry, I will outline a possible mechanism that can help to explain why changes in identity can lead to increased adaptation to the challenges and demands of life.



  1. pitvok said,

    December 2, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Question of the functional role of transformation is very interesting. But first one must say what is transformation. What, how and why is being transformed? Is it one holistic type of personality transformation or are there different experiential levels at play?

    • Tom Froese said,

      December 2, 2012 at 2:46 pm

      The question of the identity of a transformation is indeed an interesting one. Because I will address this phenomenon at the abstract level of a dynamical system, both holistic and partial levels of description are possible.

      A consequence of the generality of the mechanism is that even a little transformation may already be beneficial. Nevertheless, I would expect that a full-blown experience of transformation (e.g. becoming an animal like a jaguar or crow) will have more profound consequences than a partial experience of transformation (e.g. “only” seeing ones hands becoming hairy or covered with feathers).

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