Description: While not trying to be overly dramatic it is possible to say that the 2018 American midterm elections which are occurring in 2 days are the centerpiece in a social climate fraught with uncertainty. There are legions of reporters, supporters, pundits and even a few politicians telling us how we should think about this uncertainty or how we should be thinking in order to make the uncertainty go away. As current and as new as this all might seem it is interesting and possible helpful to think a bit about how human beings have come to deal with uncertainty not just in recent or recorded history but through the ages. In ancient (evolutionary) times many, perhaps most, social groups had one or more individual whose role was, among other things, to deal with uncertainty and to work with the social group to help them deal with uncertainty. These individuals are referred to as shaman, though their local labels vary (e.g., angakok among the Inuit, böö among the Mongolian Buryat, fugara among the Bedouin, txiv neeb among the Hmong). One of the common attributes ascribed to shaman whenever and wherever they are found is their ability to see or to enter the spirit or spiritual realm, however it was defined locally. What does this have to do with uncertainty? Well, think for a moment about how important the ability to step back from or out of the moment is to human problem solving, decision making, and future action planning. Now think about the potential importance to a hunting/gathering clan of not just having that ability but having someone who could channel it and focus it for the group. Why might this be worth your reflection? Well for all that our world is now “modern” and different than the world of the hunter/ gatherers the commonality across those world is us – internally, mentally, how human beings think about their engagements with and their plans to move forward in the world likely are functionally the same as they ever were at least in terms of evolutionary time (which groups us with, not apart from, our hunter/gatherer ancestors). So, open up your mind (without the use of any mind-expanding substances – through shaman knew/know a LOT about those too) and read the article linked below to see something of our past and something of how we (you) deal with uncertainty.
Source: Masters of Reality, Thomas T. Hills, AEON and the British Psychological Society Readers Digest.
Date: November 1, 2018
Much of how we understand, plan, and reflect upon our world and our experiences in it involves stepping out of the moment, out of the here and now. Decision making (career planning for example) is possible because we can think about possible futures and try options on for size and think about where they might take us or what we might require to get there. Similarly, we can review past events perhaps using counterfactuals – how would that meeting, that plan, that relationship have gone if I had or had not done that? The roles shaman play in cultures/societies/groups reflect and amplify some of most unique and most important aspects of how we humans have adapted to our world(s). Rather than viewing shaman and shamanistic practices as primitive ‘voo doo’ thinking about what they have done or do for us makes it possible for us to glimpse some of the bigger pictures of human problem solving, planning, cognition, adaptation and evolution. Pretty cool stuff I think!
Questions for Discussion:
- How does personal problem solving (potentially) involve stepping ‘out of the moment’?
- What role(s) did (do) shaman and shamanistic ceremonies and practices in the cultures and groups that have them?
- Psychology tends to get quite tightly focused on the internal workings on our minds/brains. What does thinking about the possible role of a spirit or spiritual realm in human thought and decision-making potentially do for our Psychological work (Theory and research) in those areas?
References (Read Further):
Gaissmaier, W., & Gigerenzer, G. (2012). 9/11, Act II: A fine-grained analysis of regional variations in traffic fatalities in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Psychological science, 23(12), 1449-1454. http://kops.uni-konstanz.de/bitstream/handle/123456789/27931/Gaissmaier_279310.pdf?sequence=2
Buyandelgeriyn, M. (2007). Dealing with uncertainty: shamans, marginal capitalism, and the remaking of history in postsocialist Mongolia. American Ethnologist, 34(1), 127-147. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/958f/5157e5fe3f086424ff259e66b0cf6b197610.pdf
Hills, T. T. (2006). Animal foraging and the evolution of goal‐directed cognition. Cognitive science, 30(1), 3-41. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15516709cog0000_50
Buckner, R. L., & Carroll, D. C. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(2), 49-57. http://www.hss.caltech.edu/~steve/buckner.pdf
Hills, T. T., Todd, P. M., Lazer, D., Redish, A. D., Couzin, I. D., & Cognitive Search Research Group. (2015). Exploration versus exploitation in space, mind, and society. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(1), 46-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4410143/
Park, N., Park, M., & Peterson, C. (2010). When is the search for meaning related to life satisfaction?. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 2(1), 1-13. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2009.01024.x