Biology Magazine

Dreams, Trance & Visions

By Cris

There can be little doubt that fluctuations in consciousness are a major contributing factor to beliefs in the supernatural. Although there are other aspects of mind that are also contributing factors (such as agency detection, theory of mind, causal sequencing, and pattern imposition), one thing that surely would have mystified or perplexed early modern humans would have been dreaming.

Though we don’t know when humans first gained the ability to talk, my guess is that one of the first topics of protracted conversation revolved around dreams. Making sense of dreams surely was a priority. My guess is also that those who offered the most convincing explanations or interpretations were the first shamans.

It probably did not take long for these early shamans, whose status derived at least in part from their ability to interpret or make sense of dreams, to discover that dream-like states could be induced outside of sleep. Physical exertions and deprivations could lead to trance states and hallucinations. Psychotropic plants could do the same.

Shamans the world over interpret these experiences as soul flights. From a shamanic perspective, the problem with sleep-dream soul flights is they are hard to control. While some control can be gained through training or what is called lucid dreaming, there is greater possibility for control and direction when one is awake. This may explain why shamanic societies tend to place greater emphasis on deliberately induced trance states than they do on sleeping dream states.

Dreams, Trance & Visions

In shamanic societies, the tight linkage between supernatural beliefs on the one hand and dreams-trances-visions on the other is not in doubt. The traditional exemplar comes Australian Aborigines, whose supernatural cycle is known as Dreamtime or Dreaming. Other well-known examples come from the San of southern Africa with their trance dance and the Plains Indians with their vision quest. In Amazonia, the use of psychotropics to induce “spiritual” hallucinations or soul flights has long been famous.

In all these cases, sleep dreaming has taken a back seat to deliberately induced altered states of consciousness. An interesting exception to this comes from the historic Iroquois, whose supernatural beliefs were structured in large part around sleep dreaming and the interpretation of dreams. In Jesuit Relations (1610-1791), which constitutes one of our best sources on Amerindian life during the early contact period, missionaries characterized sleep-dreaming as “the Iroquois divinity.”

This is a fascinating twist on the dream-trance-vision complex and its relationship to supernatural beliefs. I can’t help but wonder whether it constitutes a survival of sorts or whether it is a unique development that presaged Freud by hundreds of years.


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