What Biohacking Borrows from Shamanism

Manvir Singh, Ph.D.

There’s a lot you can learn from shamanic practices — without going too far into austerity and self-denial.


In this Episode of The Human Upgrade™...

… you’ll find out about the relevance of shamanism in a modern world and why high performers are turning toward shamanic practices to get ahead.

The show’s guest, Manvir Singh, Ph.D., is an anthropologist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France. He studies universal or near-universal cultural practices, including music, shamanism, and witchcraft. For the past seven years, he’s conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia.

“Shamanism is neither lost wisdom nor superstition,” Manvir explains. “Rather, it’s a reflection of human nature, a captivating tradition that develops everywhere as humans turn to each other to produce the extraordinary.”

He recently wrote an article in WIRED magazine titled, “The Shamanification of the Tech CEO,” noting some curious parallels.

– “Silicon Valley austerity continues to grow more extreme. By 2020 intermittent fasting was no longer enough, and dopamine fasting—an abstention not just from food but from any form of stimulation, including music, eye contact, and playing Magic: The Gathering—had taken off. These self-denial fads are often touted as biohacking innovations. Yet as an anthropologist who has studied austerity in some of the most remote regions of the world, I see them as part of a larger pattern: the self-shamanification of tech CEOs.”
– “Analyzing an old dataset of 43 nonindustrial societies, I found that shamans in 81 percent of the societies observed prohibitions on food, sex, or social contact. Given that these data were collated from reports by travelers and anthropologists, they are probably an underestimate. Silicon Valley deprivation, it turns out, is less a strange, new development and more the most recent manifestation of a ubiquitous shamanic practice.”

“People everywhere intuit that self-denial and other shamanic practices cultivate power.”

Manvir Singh, Ph.D.

This conversation gets into:

  • shamanism in general
  • the cultural significance of shamans
  • how shamanic practices have made their way into modern culture
  • why humans think they need shamans—or similar “magic” or “other” beings

More about Manvir Singh, Ph.D.:  Manvir earned a Ph.D. in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Sc.B. with Honors in Human Biology: Evolution, Environment, & Ecosystems at Brown University. He’s received multiple awards, honors, grants and fellowships—from Fulbright Scholarship to visiting scholar and research fellow. He’s written more than a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and more than a dozen articles for general audiences. He gives talks domestically and internationally on the topic of shamans.

Enjoy the show!

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  • I’ve never heard anyone say it comes from basically biological quirks in humans that causes shamanism to arrive. Explain how that is, and then why you think tech CEOs are actually becoming shamanic in their things.  – 4:11

  • What shamans are really doing is they are providing individuals with a service and particularly a service of controlling uncertainty.  – 8:26
  • Is it that these shamanic realms exist everywhere, and some of us are trained to see them, some of them aren’t? Or is it that they don’t exist, and some of us are just batshit crazy, and we use them for marketing? – 16:23

  • I’m an empiricist. I published the paper. There were a number of commentaries that put forward different hypotheses. – 29:54

  • Would you agree with this notion that as a CEO founder, there is a pressure to appear like you can do things that regular people cannot? – 32:45

  • Some of intermittent fasting inspired by the intuition that you had just put forward, that through suffering you become great. – 40:36

  • But because something produces a benefit does not necessarily mean that it is being leveraged for the benefits that it’s producing or that it exists because of the benefits that it’s producing. – 45:34

  • Do you know the pigeon study with the pigeon dancers to get fed?  – 48:45

  • That’s a great question. The way that I see my own, what we might call costly religious or spiritually related behavior, is being as Sikh is really tied up with my identity.  – 53:24

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