The Troublemakers

on December 12, 2012

The story I have told so far about the emergence of the earliest visions has been as simple and straightforward as I know how to make it.

It relies on just a few basic assumptions: That the first true humans possessed a mental map-making ability that enabled them to construct structured visualizations of the world around them. That as the human population expanded, this same ability was applied to devising elaborate kinship systems that could regulate the interactions among individuals and groups. And that the resulting focus on abstract relationships brought with it a mastery of formal categories and rules that came to be applied to the physical world as well.

The first two visions to come out of this process were the prototypes of all the scientifically-based and socially-based visions that have followed over the long centuries since. But there are also visions of a third type — those based on inner experience — which operate very differently and cannot be explained as simply another form of map-making.

Inner experience is not susceptible of being pinned down like our experience of the physical world. It shifts and fluctuates and may differ radically from one individual to another. It cannot be reduced to categories and laws like the stuff of our social relationships, because it is wild and willful and defies expectations. Yet at the same time, it displays certain consistent themes, and shamans and wizards have always been able to swap stories, find common ground, and provide guidelines for their disciples.

There were proto-shamans among us from the start, and they must have played a crucial role in the development of the first two visions. Without their access to higher knowledge and the sense of the unity of all things that it brought with it, those initial visions would not have been possible. But their wisdom was embedded in the visions they helped formulate, and they did not yet have a vision of their own.

A number of things must have happened to change that. The most important would have been that as the human population increased and became more securely established, the first two visions would have progressively grown less transcendent and more matter-of-fact.

For those of us who are not natural shamans, the intuitive flashes of higher knowledge are triggered most strongly at moments of crisis, when we are faced with unfamiliar situations and life-and-death decisions. And the earliest period of human history, when we were few in number and subject to many external threats, would have provided one crisis after another that forced us to improvise wildly and react in unison.

But once the human community was well stabilized and no longer in danger of being wiped out by famine, disease, or sharp-toothed predators, those kinds of spontaneous responses would no longer have been necessary. Our unparalleled knowledge of the natural world, together with the capacity for unified action built into our kinship systems, would have sufficed to carry us through any challenges we might encounter.

As a result, the proto-shamans, rather than being essential for survival, may have become something of an embarrassment — the crazy aunts and uncles who had no sense of social propriety, said and did things that no normal person would say or do, and seemed to live in a world of their own.

But precisely to the extent that they were marginalized, those proto-shamans would have begun to gain a sense of self-consciousness and a discrete identity. In a world where the human species had always formed an undivided whole, with a single identity and a single will, some small number of individuals would have started to perceive themselves as different. And they would slowly have become aware that what made them different was they they had their heads full of the damnedest stuff — dreams and visions and unexplored possibilities — that nobody else seemed to recognize.

People like that have been responsible for the emergence of every new inner experience vision in recent times, and there is no reason to think it was any different at the start. If anything, it would have been immeasurably stranger and more powerful the first time around, because it took the form of an unprecedented awakening and gave rise to unfamiliar social tensions.

Once the process was underway, a couple of other factors would have furthered the development of a distinct shamanistic identity. One would have been population growth, which may have made human society in general more ordinary but also meant there were enough weirdos wandering around that they could find each other, hang out together, and start exchanging notes.

It’s also possible that the properties of hallucinogenic plants were discovered at this time, making it possible for those who experimented with them to regularize the visionary experience, clarify its nature, and start establishing common terminology.

But whatever the exact details of the process, the results were dramatic. Instead of proto-shamans, who might occasionally encounter spirit beings in the wilderness and take them for a part of the natural landscape, there were the first true shamans — people who recognized their experiences as occurring within themselves and were determined to study them and understand their meaning.

As one aspect of their growing self-awareness, instead of simply trying to convince their less perceptive fellows of the truth of their strange hallucinatory experiences, they would have begun to develop methods of leading others to share their mythic perceptions of reality by way of story, song, and dramatic performance.

Over the last few years, some fascinating studies have been carried out on the subject of brain synchronization. In one experiment done at Princeton, a woman was recorded telling the same story both in English and in Russian while an MRI scanner recorded her brain activity. These recordings were then played to listeners who knew only English, and though the Russian version had no effect, brain scans showed that “when the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

In a related study carried out in Berlin, pairs of guitar players were wired up and given a piece of music to play in harmony. The investigators found that “when the musicians had to actively coordinate their playing, that is especially at the beginning of a sequence, the signals from frontal and central electrodes were clearly associated — not only within the head of one player, but also between the heads of the duet partners.”

“When people coordinate actions with one another,” the scientists concluded, “small networks within the brain and, remarkably, between the brains are formed, especially when the activities need to be precisely aligned in time.”

This human capacity for “neural coupling” is clearly very ancient. It may have been part of the suite of changes in brain functioning that marked the appearance of our own species. Or it might have had its roots among our more archaic ancestors — but if so, it would have been greatly enhanced by the flowering of language and story-telling among the first modern humans.

A capacity for synchronization of thought and action no doubt played a vital role in enabling us to live in larger groups than our forebears and explore wider territories while still maintaining a high degree of social and intellectual coordination. However, it might also have had the negative effect of enforcing a rigid adherence to a narrowly-drawn consensus reality.

I suspect that our species did begin to fall into precisely that trap at a certain point — and that the only thing that saved us was a small group of people who were both strange enough and strong-minded enough to stand outside the consensus and gradually turn the hivemind in their own direction.

People of that sort can exercise an extraordinary power over their fellows. They tell stories so bizarre, and yet so strangely compelling, that their audience hangs on every word. They act out their narratives in dramatic form until the listeners feel as though they have experienced them in their own persons. They get the entire group singing and dancing in unison. And as they do, they quite literally “plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

As I’ve noted previously, the archaeologists keep seeking the Holy Grail of “behavioral modernity” — that elusive moment when our ancestors started acting more or less like us. They’ve recently moved the goalposts back a bit — to about 75,000 years ago, when the first examples of visual art appeared in South Africa, along with a number of striking technological innovations — but they still seem unwilling to concede that people who lacked those things could have been fully human.

However, we humans typically invent new things only when we need them — and the need for artifacts of a particularly tangible sort may simply not have been present any earlier.

Since the late 19th century, advances in art and technology have been regarded as automatic by-products of reaching a certain level of mental capacity. But what if that isn’t true? What if human development has been guided at every step by dreamers and visionaries who have been doing no more and no less than what is called for to keep the rest of us moving along the path?

In that case, everything we lump together as “culture” and consider the highest form of human accomplishment would amount to no more than an accumulation of devices for keeping the herd in motion. And it was the first true shamans of 200,000 or more years ago who initiated the process — and did so quite consciously and with a fair inkling of the outcome.

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