Alienation, Neo-shamanism and Recovered Animism (2002)

Bruce Charlton

Bruce G Charlton MD
Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry
Department of Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Editor-in-Chief, Medical Hypotheses


It is one of the distinctive features of Western contemporary life that, while pleasures are widely available (albeit at a price), there is almost universally a sense of alienation. Alienation is the feeling that life is 'meaningless', that we do not belong in the world.

But alienation is not an inevitable part of the human condition: some people feel at one with the world. This perspective is a consequence of the animistic way of thinking which is shared by children and hunter-gatherers. Animism considers all significant entities to have 'minds', to be 'alive', to be sentient agents. The animistic thinker inhabits a unified world populated by personal powers including not just other human beings, but also important animals and plants, and significant aspects of physical landscape. Humans belong in this world because it is a web of social relationships.

We were all animistic children once, and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the 'natural' way of thinking for humans, and it requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive socialization to 'overwrite' animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world. It is learned objectivity that creates alienation - humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things.

But objectivity is superficial: animism remains the basic underlying mode of human thinking, and animism can be recovered. When we are removed from the rational systems of civilisation, when learned patterns of socialised behaviour are stripped-away, then animistic thinking can re-emerge and a sense of belonging in the world may return.

Animism defined

Animism is not a religious or philosophical doctrine, neither is it an ‘error’ made by people too young or too primitive to know better - animism is nothing less than the fundamental mode by which human consciousness regards the world. Consciousness just is animistic. And this perspective is a consequence of human evolutionary history.

Humans evolved sophisticated brain mechanisms for dealing with the complex social situations that formed a dominant selection pressure throughout primate evolutionary history; and in animistic thinking these social mechanisms are flexibly applied to interpret complex aspects of the world in general. Information on animals, plants and landscape are fed-into a system that codes them into social entities with social motivations, and models their behaviour in social terms.

[The hunter gatherer child] learns that many animals have to be given water when they are killed to ensure that some of their number will be willing to die again when she and her family need food. She discovers that animals and humans must be at peace with one another. [Her language] has no words for ‘vermin’ or ‘weed’. There is no demarcation between the life of an animal and that of a human - no word for ‘it’… Bit by bit she will come to understand that the world around her is shared both among people themselves and between people and the other creatures that belong here.

Human consciousness is therefore essentially a social intelligence, designed by natural selection for dealing with people, but accidentally highly applicable to understanding, predicting and controlling a wide range of phenomena. Unless suppressed during upbringing, this way of looking at the world is spontaneously generalised beyond the social sphere, so the significant world is seen as composed of 'agents', having dispositions, motivations and intentions. Humans see the world through social spectacles.

Because the natural world is seen as sentient, for an animistic thinker significant events don’t ‘just happen’ - like inert billiard balls bouncing-off one another - instead events occur because some entity wants them to occur. For the animist, every significant event is intentional, every significant event has personal implications. So a dog may be ‘kind’, a tree ‘wise’, a sky ‘cheerful’, a landscape ‘threatening’ - and such categorisations are as individual, flexible and variable as categorisations of people would be.

This is an extremely effective way of dealing with the natural world under the conditions of hunter-gatherer societies. For instance, each species of animal has its own nature, each member of a species its own character, knowledge of which enables behaviour to be predicted with considerable precision in real world situations. Even with the advantages of scientific biology, informed anthropomorphism still remains the best system for understanding, predicting and manipulating animal behaviour - especially among the social mammals that are so important to hunters.

Hunter-gatherer knowledge is dependent on the most intimate possible connection with the world and with the creatures that live in it. The possibility of transformation is a metaphor for complete knowledge: the hunter and his prey move so close to one another that they cross-over, the one becoming the other.

Furthermore, because other people were so important in evolutionary history, social information is especially vivid: it grabs and sustains our attention and mobilises our emotions. In an oral culture that depends on human memory, the best way of transmitting important information is by the medium of anthropomorphic stories and songs.

A relationship with the world

Everything about the hunter-gatherer system is founded on the conviction that home is already Eden.

Animistic thinkers are at home in the world. Children and hunter-gatherers are not necessarily happy, of course - but they have a relationship with the world: they are not alienated. Animists are watched over, controlled, protected, and also punished, by the sentient powers that constitute the world.

This land to which [an Inuit baby] belongs is the subject of many kinds of stories…history, geography, personal adventure and mysteries intertwine. There are misadventures, murder and starvation, to be sure, but spiritual powers and every kind of humour mean that even the worst is part of being in the best possible place, in one’s own land…

Although there are hostile powers, the relationship of each individual to the world is that of child and parent. The world is a ‘giving environment’ - fundamentally benign because it keeps us alive. This is a beneficent ‘cosmic economy’ which cannot be controlled, planned or significantly shaped.

The people depend on the animals, and the animals allow themselves to be killed. An animal’s agreement to become food is secured through the respect that hunters and their families show to the land in general and the animals in particular. […] Rather than seeking to change the world, hunter-gatherers know it. They also care for it, showing respect and paying attention to its well-being. […] They do not make any intensive efforts to reshape their environment. They rely, instead, on knowing how to find, use and sustain that which is already there.

By contrast, since the invention of farming, modern life has become a state of siege, a small gang of family and allies against a mass of hostile strangers, an island of order surrounded by overwhelming forces of chaos - planning is essential, yet most plans will fail. The world is not an unconditionally nurturing parent but must be coerced into producing the necessities of life, survival is a hard bargain, failure an ever present threat. For the farmer, the natural world is neither unchangeable nor ‘giving’ - it is raw material for the production of food and other necessities and luxuries. Production entails prolonged, dull, repetitive tasks to force nature into new and different shapes.

The conditions of [the] archetypal farm are harsh. This is not Eden but the curse of exile: only by the sweat of his brow does the man provide food for his family. Not only the man, of course; the woman, too, must work all and every day. The children are the labourers who will ease the burden of the cursed land.

The same forest that is a nurturing parent for the hunter-gatherer, becomes for the farmer a perpetual threat of savage encroachment. The world consist of objects to be manipulated:

The trees are felled, their root are hauled from the ground, stones are picked from the earth, invading wild plants and shrubs are rooted out again and again.. the soil will grow grass and vegetables only if a great deal else is “kept under control”, which means excluded or destroyed. Not only rival plant life, but also wild creatures that harm seeds, seedlings, buds or fruits, or eat the domestic animals… Weeds and vermin. These are the agents of wild nature that have to be walled out, scared off or killed.

And ‘the farmer’ stands for the modern human condition - the life of modern man is ‘farming’ the whole world. The serious business of survival now depends absolutely on a shift to objectification, control, imposed order. Animism must be denigrated, written-over and suppressed.

The distinction between respect and control is of immense importance to an understanding of how agriculturalists approach hunter-gatherers. The skills of farmers are centred not on their inner relationship to the world but their ability to change it. Technical and intellectual systems are developed to achieve and maintain this as completely as possible. Farmers carry with them systems of control as well as crucial seeds and livestock. These systems constitute ways of thinking as well as bodies of information. .. the achievement of abstraction and the project of control are related.

Recovering animism

Mass alienation is no accident but an inevitable consequence of the kind of society we inhabit. Animism is grossly maladaptive for a complex society that depends on objective information and rational planning. Alienation is therefore necessary to the generation and maintenance of our world, and returning to a thoroughgoing, society-wide animism would be impossible without a return to hunter-gatherer lifeways.

The most probable human future entails more complexity, more planning, more control, and more alienation. But if a shared and public animism is ruled-out, the situation for individuals is different. There may be niches for more-or-less wholly animistic individuals even in modern society, and there certainly are niches for animistic thinking within many ordinary people’s lives. The problem is that, for a modern adult, recovery of animistic thinking entails undoing the effects of an exceptionally thorough and prolonged process of socialisation that has buried animism under a vast superstructure of repressions. Modern adults cannot necessarily recover their animistic thoughts at will, even temporarily.

Methods used to help in the recovery of animistic modes of thinking have been known since the Romantic era. They essentially involve detachment from the social systems that tend to maintain objectivity and rationality. For example, solitude (away from people), leisure (away from the economy) and unstructured time (as contrasted with technologically-measured time). Direct contact with nature is another classic strategy. Under such conditions of societal detachment there tends to be a spontaneous resurgence of animistic thinking - and those who can achieve detachment, often strive to do so. But clearly detachment is not possible for everyone, nor is it always effective. Some people find that it takes many clear days of vacation - or even longer - before they can ‘switch off’ their organised minds, and begin to live in the here-and-now.

It has also been noticed that altered states of consciousness due to accidental or deliberate impairment in brain functioning will allow the re-emergence of animistic modes of thinking by a process called 'disinhibition'. Disinhibition usually involves a relatively selective impairment of the 'higher' and more recently evolved brain centres (pre-frontal cerebral cortex). Animistic thinking emerges when drowsy (eg. during hypnagogic states between sleeping and waking), when delirious due to serious illness or brain injury or intoxication - whether accidental or deliberate, and also occurs in severe psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and mania. People with ‘paranoid’ delusions, which occur in many psychiatric conditions, are characterised by an frightening kind of animism called ‘delusions of self-reference' - which is the sense of being the focus of a world of hostile sentient powers. Deluded individuals may perceive the radio talking to them personally, and interpret newspaper stories as containing coded allusions to their situation.

The quality of this animistic state - whether self-reference is experienced as benign or hostile - depends on the emotional state. Emotional state colours the experience of a delusion. The delirious animism of severe physical illness is almost always very unpleasant, because the person is sick and suffering negative emotions such as pain. So alcohol withdrawal may involve terrifying delusions of a persecuting and hostile environment. Mania, by contrast, may involve a blissful state of godlike one-ness with an animated world; because the emotional tone of mania lends an euphoric colouring to delusions of self-reference. Something similar applies with hallucinogenic drugs - whether someone has a good or bad ‘trip’ depends substantially on their simultaneous state of mind and body.

Any significant alteration of consciousness may lead to a resurgence of animistic thinking. And this effect may be exploited as a ‘cure’ for modern alienation.

Shamans and Neo-shamanism

Shamans are known as the ‘priests’ of hunter-gatherer animistic ‘religions’ - and shamans learn how to make use of altered states of consciousness induced by sleep, hypnotic trances, drumming, dancing, rattling, disease and intoxication. Shamans ‘dream’, they remember their dreams, and they interpret their dreams.

Dreaming is the mind’s way of combining and using more information than the conscious mind can hold. It allows memory and intuition and facts to intermingle. […] Shamanism prepares the brain to work at its fullest, widest potential.

Even without shamanic practices, hunter-gatherer animistic thinking moves freely across the porous boundaries between humans, animals, plants and landscape. Shamanistic dreaming further loosens the mental associations, making porous the boundaries of space and time - allowing the shaman to go on ‘journeys’ in search of useful knowledge.

The dreamer crosses the boundary between human and animals… and may also move through the boundaries of time… for hunters the dream experience is real. The events of the dream are relied upon as a guide…

Traditional shamanism is therefore essentially a cognitive technique that is employed by animistic thinkers to gain access to otherwise unattainable objective knowledge of value to the tribe.

For many hunter-gatherers, dreams are a form of decision-making… hunters use dreams to help them decide where to hunt, when to go there and what to hunt. .. When should the next step of the seasonal round be taken? Will the fish be running… will the deer be feeding… is it time to go inland or return to the coast?…

To make these decisions, hunters need knowledge. They must bear in mind all the facts that inform the choice… must draw on knowledge that they have accumulated over many years… what others have seen and done over the past few days… In the end there is need for… some leap of the imagination, some way of processing the facts so that they yield a conclusion. This is what dreams can do.

The modern practitioners of revivalist ‘Neo-shamanism’ use similar consciousness-altering techniques to traditional shamans, but the implicit purpose and function is different. Modern people are alienated, they are not animistic thinkers but instead objective-thinkers, and dreams are not a reliable form of decision-making in the modern world. Therefore shamanistic dreaming has a different effect in the modern context.

In the modern cultural context shamanism does not - in general - provide access to objectively-valid, publicly-useful knowledge. When modern people want their sickness healed they typically consult a trained doctor, when they need to predict the weather they consult a meteorologist. An exception is in creative thinking. Animistic states, perhaps in circumstances of altered consciousness, may enable leaps of imagination to otherwise unattainable conclusions. However, these conclusions typically require checking by standard rational, objective methods before they become publicly acceptable and useable.

Neo-shamanic trances are essentially employed with the purpose of enabling modern people to think animistically, and to heal their sense of alienation. Typically, rhythmic techniques such as hypnotic dancing and drumming are used, rather than drugs, because they are safer and more controllable. Indeed, no technique need be used at all, and some people are able spontaneously to self-induce a ‘shamanic’ state of mind. If a person is able to achieve the necessary detachment and/ or self-hypnosis, then they will experience the desired resurgence of animism.

What is sought, is a state of consciousness sometimes termed ‘active imagination’ (CG Jung) or the ‘poetic trance’ (Robert Graves); a state in which the mind is freed, associations are broadened and emotions are enhanced - but in which purposive thinking remains possible and memory systems remain operative. As well as inducing a sense of belonging, this is potentially a creative state in which (as for shamans) mental synthesis and integration may occur, personal problems, and intuitive truths may be reached using otherwise inaccessible mental powers.

The difference between shamanism and Neo-shamanism is that one provides objective knowledge while the other provides a subjective experience.

Cognitive impairment

An important difference between hunter-gatherers and modern people is that moderns may need to experience altered states of consciousness to reach the level of animistic thinking which is only the starting point for traditional shamans. Hunter-gatherers are already animistic thinkers whose minds cross the boundaries between humans, animals, plants and landscapes. The altered states of dreaming consciousness enables hunter-gatherers to cross further boundaries of time and space in pursuit of high-level insights that synthesise and integrate complex knowledge of many kinds. But a similar state of altered consciousness would probably take modern people only to the level of animism. To experience journeys through time and space would require extreme levels of delirium.

And this highlights the problem with altered conscious states: brain impairment is never wholly specific to the goal of recovering animistic thinking. Not only does impairment cause disinhibition and release of animism, but impairment also affects other aspects of general brain function such as concentration, judgement, and reaction times. Extreme states of intoxication or delirium will significantly damage memory processes, so it may not be possible to remember or learn from mystical and spiritual experiences. But even mild states of cognitive impairment may be dangerous in situations where skilled or responsible behaviour is required (driving a car, looking after children, doing most kinds of job).

Nonetheless, modern people may potentially use shamanic techniques to ‘cure’ alienation, to achieve that sense of belonging in the world which is spontaneous for hunter-gatherers. If detachment and self-induced hypnotic trances are unattainable or ineffective, an optimal strategy may be to seek minimally-effective alterations of consciousness by reliable, safe and controllable methods. The aim is reduction of conscious level just sufficient to allow the resurgence of spontaneous animistic thinking, but not so much impairment that the laying-down of new memories will be affected.

Recovered animism and the modern world

Neo-shamanism is therefore an approach to the goal of inducing desirable subjective states that may work as a cure for modern alienation. It is, however, a limited cure; and one that is at odds with the objective, rationalist, systematised nature of the modern world. Furthermore, beneficial effects are constrained by the unstable and temporary nature of altered conscious states, and their unwanted side-effects due to mild, general cognitive impairment. Even self-hypnosis or drowsy reverie are incompatible with optimal mental performance. For most people, most of the time, recovered animism must be a leisure-time pursuit.

The traditional shaman dreamed publicly-useful knowledge, and used this knowledge in healing and advising the tribe. For shamanism the dream is just a means to an end - but for modern Neo-shamanism the ‘dream state’ is an end in itself, and its informational content is less important that the emotional experience. Beyond the immediate dream state, memories of animism may be sustaining, since vivid memory entails re-playing and re-experiencing past emotions.

Despite these constraints and limitations, it is possible that recovered animism may become a major spirituality - indeed exactly this may lie behind the growth of interest in Neo-paganism and New Age ideas. And it seems more than a coincidence that the favourite book of the twentieth century in most surveys was substantially a work of animism: JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with its non-human sentient beings, and its animate horses, eagles, trees, mountains and landscapes.

There are eruptions of the hunter-gatherer in the [modern] urban setting… arenas in which a rival mind seeks expression and longs for its particular forms of freedom […] The hunter-gatherers in the heartland of the exiles… are opponents of the dominant order. They oppose hierarchy and challenge the need to control other people and the land itself. Consciously or not, they are radicals in their lives.

At the least, they experience the tension in themselves that comes from a longing not to plan and not to acquiesce in plans; at most they use a mixture of knowledge and dreams to express their vision. It is artists, speculative scientists and those whose journeys in life depend on not quite knowing their destination who are close to hunter-gatherers; who rely upon the hunter gatherer-mind.

In an ever more rational and objective public world it would be ironic, although not altogether surprising, if most people privately practised some version of Neo-shamanism in order to induce a sense of belonging. Recovered animism could become the personal religion of the future.

Notes: All quotations are from The other side of Eden: hunter-gatherers, farmers and the shaping of the world by Hugh Brody, Faber, 2002. For further references and background see my papers The meaning of life, Awareness, consciousness and language, Ceremonial time versus technological time, and Peak experiences, creativity and the Colonel Flastratus phenomenon all available at my home page - Daniel C Noel’s delightful book The soul of shamanism is fascinating on animistic spiritualities in contemporary Western society, and particularly insightful in relation to the state of active imagination.



also by Bruce Charlton
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Pharmacology and Personal Fulfillment
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology
Peak Experiences, Creativity and the Colonel Flastratus Phenomenon