You can laugh now, Modern human! You’ve got oxygen concentrators antibiotics and ICU beds in the millions. You can laugh.
But once upon a time, when all your tribe had, was a slightly (or severely) eccentric old man or woman, who dabbled with herbs and weird music, having access to a shaman in your tribe, meant the difference between survival and scattering of your tribe.
These old men knew by experience, by intuition and by oral traditions about some plants that could help with some of their common health problems. But more importantly, they were masters of the ritual and of using the placebo effect
Again, don’t laugh, modern human, because the placebo is a rather strong effect. By some estimates around 40 per cent of the positive outcomes of modern medicine is still attributable to placebo. It works through pathways validated by measurable, biological science. Mainly through the enkephalin and endorphin pathways that underlie all healing in the body. It also underlies the feeling of well being. When you drill down to basics, health promotion doesn’t get anymore basic than the endocannabinoid/ endorphin/enkephalin system. And anything that has a 40 per cent chance of creating positive outcomes should be taken seriously.
If possible that effect should be harnessed by modern medicine. Instead we deride it. Me included. It somehow feels distasteful, to me, to know that “the cure” that I claim to have effected, is actually done by placebo.
The shamans had no such issue. They had very little else to fall back on, anyway. If so method improved survival and health by 40%, or even 30%, it was still better than nothing.
They didn’t “know” how things worked out. The way we “know”. They knew it worked. And that was enough for them. The more observant among them, the more insightful among them would quickly pick up the importance of ritual and belief in healing. They would stack, ritual, belief, music, prayer and chanting on top of whatever herbal concoction they “knew” would help. And the stack would work. 40 per cent of the time.
That gave a huge survival advantage to the tribes that had shamans. And it was only a matter of time before all tribes had their own versions of shamans or druids or witches.
Trade and communication between these tribes hastened the spread of these practices. Settling down in an area for agriculture further accelerated the process. And the emergence of oral traditions that were passed on meant that the practices would get refined and improved painstakingly through trial and errors (lots of fatal errors). Modern civilization is built on the sacrifice of millions of human Guinea pigs, and several hundred thousand shamans who experimented on themselves, or paid the price when the treatment went awry for someone powerful in the tribe.
Where does this leave us, modern humans? Where does it leave modern doctors? Where does this leave me, a doctor, who is now aware of how shamanic practices worked.
Belief has a massive role to play in healing. And the belief is not just the belief of the patient.
The doctor/shaman has to believe. The wider society has to believe.
Where is our belief in healing now?
Do we believe in science. Is science all knowing?Is it possible to know all and everything? Will science ever be “settled”
Do we even know fully, how to “know”?