Altered States of Consciousness in Shamanism

Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) – Shamans are sometimes distinguished from other religious or cultural leaders by their ability to deliberately enter distinctive states of consciousness. While these states are sometimes labeled “trance” (dissociation from “ordinary reality”), some commentators use terms that are thought to be more narrowly applicable to the experience and practice of shamans, perhaps even as definitive of shamanism rather than other, broader phenomena. Mircea Eliade talks of “ecstasy” (principally the experience of soul flight or journeying), while Michael Harner prefers “shamanic state of consciousness” (a singular state in which realities outside of “normal” perception are experienced). While neo-shamanism is deeply concerned with inner experience and individual states of consciousness, there are larger debates about whether there is a single kind of “religious experience” and whether it is possible to speak about unmediated “experience” at all, which make it doubtful that certainty can be achieved about the nature of shamans’ states of consciousness or awareness. Piers Vitebsky argues that, since there are many different cultural understandings of what shamans do, it is likely that there are many different shamanic states of consciousness. Caroline Humphrey and Urgunge Onon expand on this by noting a range of states of mind—including different kinds of dreaming, assumption of other identities, having visions, the exaltation of calling for blessings, various states of dissociation, fever-induced delirium, and drunkenness—all of which enable Daur Mongol shamans, yadgan, to access knowledge and experience or perform rituals. More significantly, they argue that for both shamans and their communities, what shamans did was more important than any actual state of consciousness. That is, it is less important that shamans actually enter trance or become ecstatic in their mind, experience, or state of consciousness, but vitally important that they demonstrate that they engage with spirits or powerful otherthanhuman persons. For example, shamans may demonstrate that they are “journeying” by the performance of culturally recognizable acts such as shaking, making animal noises, foaming at the mouth, falling to the ground, and so on. Particular actions are associated with, or mean, certain things—for example, lying still, apparently unaware of one’s surroundings, indicates that shamans may be “journeying” beyond their bodily and geographic location. If so, it may be better to speak of “altered styles of communication” (also ASC) between shamans, their communities, and otherworld persons (or spirits). A complementary approach is taken by RogerWalsh in arguing that a careful phenomenological approach to what people say they experience permits interpreters to distinguish between shamanic experiences and those of schizophrenics or practitioners of meditation. In a contrasting trend there is considerable interest in the parallels between brain chemistry and states during shamanic performance and those influenced by endorphins or stimulants such as ayahuasca (yagĂ©) or peyote. A whole style of neo-shamanism utilizing psychoactive plants has evolved as a practical experimental and experiential expression of this interest. Linking a dated theory that the right and left hemispheres of the brain work separately and that nostril blocking can affect brain states, allied to an overemphasis on ASCs, has led John Pilch to claim that breathing only through the left nostril can stimulate the right side of the brain and result in ASCs. Questions about conscious states and performative actions continue to be debated. A solution that is applicable to every culture and situation may be impossible or inappropriate, and it may be more useful to attend to specifics.

Although Michael Winkelman’s proposal that ASC should stand for “alternate” rather than “altered” state of consciousness has not been widely accepted, his reasoning that “altered . . . implies a static, foundational state” is valid.


  • Entheogens;
  • McKenna, Terence;
  • Psychonauts.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007