Transforming the Obligatory into the Desirable: Autism & Shamanism (Perceptual Warfare 18)

There is speculation that, in more primitive cultures, a human anomaly such as an autistic child would often be singled out for special training as a future shaman or medicine man.

“What if shamans resembled autistic savants some of the time? What if the very activity of shamanizing rendered these people in some respects functionally autistic, so that at the time they made the drawings they were temporarily in a non-conceptualizing state of mind? Given new ideas about the origins of savant skills, I think there is reason to take this possibility seriously. ‘We believe that artistic savants have direct access to “lower” levels of neural information prior to it being integrated into the holistic picture, the ultimate label. All of us possess this same lower-level information, but we cannot normally access it’ (Snyder 1999,588). So, for example, ‘the autistic savant Nadia can directly tap the way in which our brain derives perspective, whereas normal individuals cannot’.”[i]

Also this from “The shaman’s initiation,” by Joan Halifax. The subject is schizophrenia, but autism was a subset of the diagnosis of schizophrenia until 1971, and there remains a significant overlap between the perceptual modes:

“[Silverman] characterized schizophrenia as a disorder where the individual withdraws from society and the outer world and becomes preoccupied by internal processes with a resulting disintegration of the personality. The symptoms, broadly described, include autism and unreal ideation, disturbed perception and thinking, emotional lability and volatility, and bizarre behavior. The stages of the schizophrenic process include a magnification of unresolved conflicts, intense feelings of failure, and excessive self-concern. This is followed by a narrowing of attention, a withdrawal from the external world, and an increasing absorption in internal experiences, accompanied by an increasing difficulty in differentiating between reality and fantasy. There are usually auditory and tactile hallucinations and distortions of the body image; individuals often suffer from an experience of dismemberment or dying, hearing voices, ritualistic behavior, fusion of higher and lower referential processes, and the individual can cognitively reorganize, including the reintegration of the personality and the assimilation of unconscious content into the sphere of consciousness. I have seen that the integration of these experiences by people who are diagnosed as schizophrenic can be marginal to great. Silverman (ibid.) noted that those who have made it through the experience can manifest great mental acuity in which sensitivity, awareness, and creativity are definitely increased. He noted that when a crisis occurs in the life of a person from certain tribal cultures, it is socially as well as psychologically appropriate that the vocation of shamanism is considered as modus operandi for the resolution of the problem. . . . Western society views such psychological experiences from a pathological perspective, whereas primal peoples often find them acceptable within the context of the shamanic world view. Both schizophrenics in Western society and neophyte shamans can learn to use their altered perception to a good advantage in the process of cognitive reorganization. . . . . It is what anthropologist Victor Turner (1967) has called ‘transforming the obligatory into the desirable.’”

The smaller the group, the less complex the cultural psychic web it weaves around its members, the more tolerance there is for difference. But whatever the scale, culture is tribal and the idea of an “us” and a “them” (the tribe and everyone else) is built into all cultural values. If there is a link between the autistic perceptual mode and high affective empathy (and relatively low cognitive empathy), this might help to explain why autistics do not respond well to cultural indoctrination or conditioning: because, being highly empathic, they don’t subscribe to an “us and them” view of the world. To perceive autistically means to have highly amorphous boundaries between the self and the environment. One response to this amorphousness is to try and shut out the environment any way possible and withdraw into the “self”(i.e., the inner world). This is a common “symptom” of autism, and even the source of the term itself. It may even be that a less defined sense of self, or at least a less rigid identification with the self, is the primary component of the autistic perceptual mode.

Paradoxically, this would mean that, as soon as a person identifies with being autistic, they are adopting a neurotypical perceptual mode, and therefore being anti-autistic.

“Shooters” — individuals driven by circumstances to commit acts of violence in a (seemingly) random fashion — are acting from the reptilian brain, driven by “fight or flight” instincts. This is the predatory way of perceiving the world and, as Baron-Cohen suggests, it is diametrically opposed to the autistic perceptual mode. It’s ironic that neurotypical behavior is considered to be more social behavior, since it’s also much closer to predatory. Autistic behavior, on the other hand, is often viewed as “anti-social.” This may be a clue to the unrecognized nature of society and culture.

When Gandhi was asked what he thought about civilization, he replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”



[i]From Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution [Commentary on Michael Winkelman], by Nicholas Humphrey, page 91: http://www.public.asu.edu/~atmxw/shamanismcognitive2.pdf
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6 thoughts on “Transforming the Obligatory into the Desirable: Autism & Shamanism (Perceptual Warfare 18)

  1. Pingback: the autist as a spiritual artist « The Highly Sensitive Family

  2. Pingback: The autist as an artist « Ontario Healing Fields

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