Should you Go to the Hospital or See a Shaman?

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Should You Go To the Hospital or see a Shaman?


We tend to think of modern medicine as scientific and objective.  Doctors are guardians of the “truth” about health and sickness.  This is symbolised by their calm bedside manner and white coats.  The beep of multi-million pounds machines in the background further corroborates their knowledge.  But what if I told you that the most powerful drug in the health system wasn’t to be found in syringe or bottle? Many experiments have shown that our culture and beliefs play a huge role in our experiences of pain and healing.  This is commonly known as the placebo effect.  If you are given a sugar pill – with no active medicine in it – from a doctor – you are likely to feel relief from your symptoms.  Amazingly, this is true, even if you are told that it is a placebo!  The healing effect comes from your belief in the powers of the doctor, hospital and medicine to heal you. 

Similarly, research shows that in the UK we believe medicine in red packets is more effective and faster acting than any other colour of packaging.  Again, this actually does have the effect of reducing pain more quickly.  You may remember that drug companies recently marketed essentially the same medicine for different types of pain, i.e. back pain, menstrual pain and so on.  Again, these medicines prove more effective due to our belief system; we think targeted medicines are better for us, and so we find ourselves cured.  This is not really very different to visiting a shaman.  If you believe in the shaman’s healing powers, they will be curative.  Yes, they blow smoke in your face, and then make a live sacrifice and rub the blood on their forehead, but this can work, if you are open to it. 

In the west our belief in the model of biomedicine is very powerful.  We believe that health is determined by things at the cellular level that are too small to see. We generally believe that health can be retrieved by doing things to the body.  The very process of visiting a hospital, being assessed by staff in special uniforms, and undergoing various scans and x-rays can be very healing for many people.  It is, in many but not all cases, a very expensive way of essentially administering a placebo.  Hospitals have become new places of pilgrimage where we go.  Our salvation is found in presription and medications.

The same could be said for visiting a psychotherapist.  The use of a non-medical building, the décor of the room, the arrangement of the sofa, the soft lighting the box of tissues, the demeanour of the analyst, all of these may constellate certain healing properties, especially in those who have a belief in the power of therapy.  All healing systems are culture bound.  In Germany patients are very concerned with weak heart muscles and consume a great deal of heart medication; in France, they worry about their livers, and take medicine related to that.  In India, there is belief that injections are more effective than pills.  All of these are folk-beliefs, which operate in modern societies, that shape how we interact and are affected by healers, be they biomedical clinicians or shamans.

Next time you think you entering the realm of objective biomedical science, notice the routines and rituals, and notice your reactions to them.  There is even a well-documented reverse effect, the nocebo.  So, if  a doctor tells you that they have stopped your pain killers, you are likely to start feeling pain, even if they haven’t done anything of the sort.  Essentially, we are very suggestible, and there is a great deal of healing potential, and our experience of pain, that is activated in the context of a human relationship.  It is the quality and setting of that relationship that can help us manage the pain, as well as our beliefs, rather than the active ingredients of the medicines/ smoke themselves. Western societies are spending more than ever before on scanners and other hi-tech medical devices with limited medical benefit but a great capacity to increase our anxieties.  Perhaps, the west that is more in the grip of a primitive way of thinking than so called traditional societies?

Ajay Khandelwal PhD

Ajay Khandelwal is an experienced psychotherapist and consultant. He welcomes contact and enquiries and is accepting new clients via zoom during the shut down.