Saturday, 21 July 2007

Alienation and animism

*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat-*


Alienation, recovered animism and altered states of consciousness

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses. 2007; 68: 727-731



Alienation is the feeling that life is ‘meaningless’, that we do not belong in the world. But alienation is not an inevitable part of the human condition: some people do feel at one with the world as a consequence of the animistic way of thinking which is shared by children and hunter–gatherers. Animism considers all significant entities to have ‘minds’, to be ‘alive’, to be sentient agents. The animistic thinker inhabits a world populated by personal powers including not just other human beings, but also important animals and plants, and significant aspects of physical landscape. Humans belong in this world because it is a web of social relationships. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans: all humans began as animistic children and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. It requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive formal education to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world. It is this learned abstraction that creates alienation – humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things. Methods used to cure alienation and recover animistic modes of thinking involve detachment from the social systems that tend to maintain objectivity and rationality: for example, solitude, leisure, unstructured time and direct contact with nature. Many people also achieve similar results by deliberately inducing altered states of consciousness. Animistic thinking may emerge in meditation or contemplation, lucid dreaming, from self-hypnosis, when drowsy, in ‘trance states’ induced by repetitious rhythm or light, or when delirious due to illness, brain injury, psychoses, or intoxication with ‘entheogenic’ drugs – which is probably one reason for the perennial popularity of inducing intoxicated states. However, intoxication will typically damage memory processes making it harder to learn from any spiritual experiences; and even mild states of cognitive impairment may be dangerous in situations where skilled or responsible behaviour is required. Despite these constraints and limitations, recovering animism through seeking altered states of consciousness could already be considered a major world spiritual practice.


One of the distinctive features of Western contemporary life is that, while pleasures are widely available (albeit at a price), there is an almost universal sense of ‘alienation’. Alienation is the feeling that life is meaningless, that we do not belong in the world.

But alienation is not an inevitable part of the human condition: some people do feel at one with the world. This perspective is a consequence of the animistic way of thinking which is shared by children and hunter–gatherers [1] and [2]. Animism considers all significant entities to have ‘minds’, to be ‘alive’, to be sentient agents. The animistic thinker inhabits a unified world populated by personal powers including not just other human beings, but also important animals and plants, and significant aspects of physical landscape. Humans belong in this world because it is a web of social relationships [3] and [4].

We were all animistic children once, and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans, and it requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive socialization to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world [5]. It is learned objectivity that creates alienation – humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things.

But objectivity is superficial: animism remains the basic underlying mode of human thinking, and animism can be recovered. When we are removed from the rational systems of civilisation, when learned patterns of socialised behaviour are stripped-away, and in altered states of consciousness, then animistic thinking can re-emerge and a sense of belonging in the world may return.


Animism is not a religious or philosophical doctrine, neither is it an ‘error’ made by people too young or too primitive to know better; animism is nothing less than the fundamental mode by which human consciousness regards the world [1] and [2]. Consciousness just is animistic [3] and [4]. And this perspective is a consequence of human evolutionary history.

Humans evolved sophisticated brain mechanisms for dealing with the complex social situations that formed a dominant selection pressure throughout primate evolutionary history [6] and [7]; and in animistic thinking these social mechanisms are flexibly applied to interpret complex aspects of the world in general. Information on animals, plants and landscape are fed-into a system that codes them into social entities with social motivations, and models their behaviour in social terms.

Human consciousness is therefore essentially a social intelligence, designed by natural selection for dealing with people, but accidentally highly applicable to understanding, predicting and controlling a wide range of phenomena. Unless suppressed during upbringing, this way of looking at the world is spontaneously generalised beyond the social sphere, so the significant world is seen as composed of ‘agents’, having dispositions, motivations and intentions. Humans see the world through social spectacles [3].

The significant features of the natural world are seen as sentient and evaluated using social intelligence modes of thinking. Therefore, for an animistic thinkers significant events do not ‘just happen’ – like inert billiard balls bouncing-off one another – instead events occur because some entity wants them to occur. Every significant event is intentional and has personal implications.

Animism is an extremely effective way of dealing with the natural world under the conditions of hunter–gatherer societies. For instance, each species of animal has its own nature, each member of a species its own character, knowledge of which enables behaviour to be predicted with considerable precision in real world situations [1] and [2]. Even with the advantages of scientific biology, ‘anthropomorphism’ still remains the best system for understanding, predicting and manipulating animal behaviour – especially among large social mammals: successful animal trainers usually develop and use elaborate anthropomorphic characterizations of dogs, cats and horses [8].

Furthermore, because other people were so important in evolutionary history [6] and [7] social information is especially vivid: it grabs and sustains our attention and mobilises our emotions. In an oral culture that depends on human memory, the best way of transmitting important information is by the medium of animistic stories and songs.

At home in the world

Animistic thinkers feel at home in the world [2]. Children and hunter–gatherers are not necessarily happy, of course – but they are not alienated: they have a relationship with the world. Animists are watched over, influenced, protected and punished, by the sentient powers that constitute the world.

Among tribal hunter–gatherers, although there are hostile powers, the relationship of each individual to the world is that of child and parent. The world is a ‘giving environment’ – fundamentally benign because it keeps us alive [9]. This is a beneficent ‘cosmic economy’ which cannot be controlled, planned or significantly shaped. Animists say ‘yes’ to the world, unconditionally [2] and [10].

By contrast, since the invention of farming and on through the industrial revolution into modernity, life has become akin to a state of siege, the individual (usually with a small gang of family and allies) against a mass of hostile strangers [2]. To survive and thrive planning is essential, yet most plans will fail. The natural world is raw material for the production of food and other necessities and luxuries. Production entails prolonged, dull, repetitive tasks to force nature into new and different shapes. The world is not a nurturing parent, but must be coerced into producing the necessities of life.

Mass alienation is therefore no accident, but an inevitable consequence of the kind of society we inhabit. Animism would be grossly maladaptive for decision-making in a complex society of politics, economics, law, science, technology and military organization – a society that depends on objective information and rational planning [5]. Returning to a thoroughgoing, society-wide animism would therefore be impossible without a return to hunter–gatherer lifeways; which is both impossible and undesirable since modern life is, in most material respects, vastly preferable to the Malthusian trap (of poverty, disease and starvation) which constituted most of recorded history [11].

Indeed, the most probable human future entails more complexity, more planning, more control – and, as a by-product, more alienation [12]. But although a shared and public animism is ruled-out as maladaptive, the situation for individuals is different. There may be niches for more-or-less wholly animistic individuals even in modern society, and there certainly are niches for a recovery of animistic thinking within many ordinary people’s private lives – especially during leisure time.

The problem is that, for a modern adult, recovery of animistic thinking entails undoing the effects of an exceptionally thorough and prolonged process of socialisation that has buried animism under a vast superstructure of abstraction and systematic thinking [13] and [14]. Modern adults cannot easily or quickly recover their animistic way of thinking at will, even temporarily.

Methods used to help in the recovery of animistic modes of thinking have been known since the Romantic era. They essentially involve detachment from the social systems that tend to maintain objectivity and rationality. For example, solitude (away from people), leisure (away from the economy) and unstructured time (as contrasted with technologically-measured time) – indeed holidays away from home are often a highly effective way of getting ‘in touch’ with life. Direct contact with nature is another classic strategy.

Under such conditions of contemplative detachment from societal constraints there tends to be a spontaneous recovery of animistic thinking. Those who can achieve this state often strive to do so, perhaps by setting aside a ‘sacred space’ of a special time or place for frequent meditation or personal rituals [15]. They may find that these cues and repetitions make flipping-into an animistic state straightforward and habitual.

But psychological detachment from social constraints is not possible for everyone due to their personality or situation, nor is it always effective. Some people find that it takes many clear days of vacation - or even longer – before they can ‘switch off’ their organised minds, forget their personal and practical worries and begin to live in the here-and-now. Such people cannot self-generate altered states, and may need some kind of ‘artificial’ or technological assistance to produce the desired effect.

Recovering animism through altered states of consciousness

It has also been noticed that altered states of consciousness, due to accidental or deliberate impairment in brain functioning, will sometimes cause the re-emergence of animistic modes of thinking [16].

For instance, animistic thinking emerges during meditation or contemplation, when drowsy (e.g. during hypnagogic states between sleeping and waking), during intoxication – whether accidental or deliberate, when delirious due to illness or brain injury’. We can also recall animistic thinking when remembering dreams, especially those rare ‘lucid’ dreams. For most people, most of the time, recovered animism must be a leisure-time pursuit. Even self-hypnosis or dreamy-reverie are states incompatible with optimal mental performance.

It is generally believed that hunter–gatherers included individuals called shamans who utilized altered states of consciousness to intensify their animistic thinking to the point where they transcended the barriers of time, space and species to undertake spirit journeys and transformations with aims such as healing individuals, seeking guidance on tribal decisions, or restoring good fortune [2] and [17]. Traditional shamans attained altered states by spontaneous psychological ability reinforced by training and practice; through various ordeals, dances, performances and rituals; or by their skill in ‘lucid dreaming’ (i.e. remaining aware while dreaming, and retaining some control over dream content and direction). Modern New Age spiritual practices include ‘Neo-shamanism’ in which (usually) rhythmic drumming, chanting or music is used to induce a trance state in which similar animistic experiences may be achieved [18].

Animism is also a feature of severe psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and mania. ‘Paranoid’ delusions are characterised by ‘delusions of self-reference’ – which is a sense of being the focus of a world of hostile sentient powers [19]. Paranoid individuals may believe they are under constant observation, perceive the radio talking to them personally, or interpret media stories as containing coded allusions to their situation.

The nature of animistic thinking during altered states of consciousness depends on the emotional state [20]. A pleasant and healthy body state will usually lead to positive animistic experiences, and vice versa [3]. During the delirium of severe physical illness animistic experiences are almost always very unpleasant and involve the experience of a hostile (instead of nurturing) world, because the person is sick and suffering pain. For example, alcohol withdrawal (‘delirium tremens’) may involve terrifying persecutory delusions and perception of a threatening environment.

Mania, by contrast, may involve a blissful state of godlike one-ness with an animated world; because the energized and un-fatigued emotional tone of mania lends a euphoric colouring to delusions of self-reference [3]. Something similar applies with hallucinogenic drugs – whether someone has a good or bad ‘trip’ depends substantially on their emotional state, which may be influenced by the drug itself.

This emphasizes that there are two elements to recovered animism: alteration of consciousness, and maintenance of a positive emotional state.

The ‘entheogenic’ rationale for intoxication

Although intoxication may be rewarding in itself, probably one major explanation why so many people seem to seek so frequently to alter their consciousness with agents such as alcohol, marijuana, volatile organic solvents, opiates and hallucinogenic drugs [21] is that they are seeking to recover animistic modes of thinking, to cure alienation and feel at home in the world. When used in this spiritual-seeking way, psycho-pharmacological agents are sometimes called ‘entheogens’ (meaning ‘that which causes God to be within’) [22].

There are, of course, problems with using chemical intoxicants as an entheogen. There may be a risk of lasting damage to the brain or other aspects of health, there may be hangover or rebound phenomena, and the potential for addiction or other forms of chemical dependence. Intoxication does not have a specific effect in recovering animistic cognition, it also impairs other aspects of general brain function such as concentration, judgement, and reaction times. This means that intoxication is not an option for people who need to drive, operate machinery, look after children, or perform any kind of skilled or responsible function [22].

Furthermore, inducing animistic thinking by intoxication may be somewhat self-defeating, since intoxication will often significantly impair memory processes. Mystical or spiritual experiences may be induced by intoxication, but not be clearly remembered, so they can neither be learned-from nor integrated with the rest of life.

Despite such constraints and limitations, recovering animism through altered states of consciousness can be considered a major contemporary spiritual activity, especially in Neo-paganism [23] and New Age [24] movements, but probably also in some charismatic branches of Christianity – such as Pentecostalism (which is probably he fastest growing protestant denomination [25]). And it seems more than coincidence that the favourite English language fiction of the twentieth century in most surveys [26] was substantially a work of animism: JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with its non-human sentient beings, and its animate horses, eagles, trees, mountains and landscapes.

In an ever more rational, abstract and objective public world it may seem ironic, although it should not be altogether surprising, if many people privately practised some personalized version of Neo-shamanism in order to induce a sense of belonging [18]. Recovered animism could become the personal religion of the future.


[1] N. Bird-David, ‘Animism’ revisited, Curr Anthropol 40 (1999), pp. 567–591.

[2] H. Brody, The other side of Eden: hunters, farmers and the shaping of the world, Faber and Faber, London (2001).

[3] B. Charlton, Psychiatry and the human condition, Radcliffe Medical Press, Oxford (UK) (2000).

[4] B.G. Charlton, Theory of mind delusions and bizarre delusions in an evolutionary perspective: psychiatry and the social brain. In: Brune Martin, Ribbert Hedda and Schiefenhovel Wulf, Editors, The social brain – evolution and pathology, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2003).

[5] B.G. Charlton and P. Andras, Universities and social progress in modernizing societies: how educational expansion has replaced socialism as an instrument of political reform, CQ (Critical Quarterly) 47 (2005), pp. 30–39. Full Text via CrossRef

[6] R.W. Byrne and A. Whiten, Machiavellian intelligence: social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes and humans, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1988).

[7] G. Miller, The mating mind: how sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature, Heinemann, London (2000).

[8] V. Hearne, Adam’s task: calling animals by name, Knopf, New York (1986).

[9] N. Bird-David, The giving environment: another perspective on the economic system of gatherer-hunters, Curr Anthropol 31 (1990), pp. 183–196.

[10] J. Campbell and B. Moyers, The power of myth, Anchor, New York (1991).

[11] Clark G. A farewell to alms:a brief economic history of the world. Princeton (USA): Princeton University Press (in press).

[12] B. Charlton and P. Andras, The Modernization Imperative, Imprint Academic, Thorverton (2003).

[13] Keith E. Stanovitch, The robot’s rebellion: finding meaning in the age of Darwin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2004).

[14] B.G. Charlton, Science as a general education: conceptual science should constitute the compulsory core of multi-disciplinary undergraduate degrees, Med Hypotheses 66 (2006), pp. 451–453. SummaryPlus | Full Text + Links | PDF (63 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus

[15] J. Campbell, A Joseph Campbell companion: reflections on the art of living, HarperTrade, New York (1991).

[16] C.T. Tart, Altered states of consciousness, Wiley, New York (1969).

[17] R. Hutton, Shamans: Siberian spirituality and the western imagination, Hambledon and London, London (2001).

[18] D.C. Noel, The soul of shamanism: western fantasies, imaginal realities, Continuum, New York (1997).

[19] W. Mayer-Gross, E. Slater and M. Roth, Clinical psychiatry (3rd ed.), Cassell, London (1969).

[20] A.R. Damasio, Descartes’ error: emotion, reason and the human brain, Macmillan, London (1994).

[21] B.G. Charlton, Diazepam with your dinner, Sir? The lifestyle drug-substitution strategy: a radical alcohol policy, QJM 98 (2005), pp. 457–459. Full Text via CrossRef | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus

[22] Erowid. Entheogens: spiritual and traditional use of psychoactives. (accessed 7 Nov 2006).

[23] R. Hutton, Triumph of the moon, Oxford University Press, Oxford (UK) (2001).

[24] P. Helas, The new age movement, Blackwell, Oxford, UK (1996).

[25] Wikipedia. Pentecostalism. (accessed 7 Nov 2006).

[26] T.A. Shippey, JRR Tolkien: author of the century, HarperCollins, London (2000).