Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology


Anthropology and Ethnic Studies

First Committee Member

Daniel Benyshek, Chair

Second Committee Member

Peter Gray

Third Committee Member

Jennifer Thompson

Fourth Committee Member

Michael Winkelman

Graduate Faculty Representative

Lois Helmbold

Number of Pages



Medical anthropology is well positioned to make contributions to consciousness research based on biocultural approaches that integrate methodologies from the biological, behavioral and social sciences to explore aspects of human health. The ubiquity and perseverance of health related activities involving altered states of consciousness (ASC) across cultures past and present suggest that these potentials are deeply rooted in human sociocultural evolution. Analyzing the relationship between immune function and meditative ASC represents an effort to empirically investigate the adaptive value of these human potentials.

A controlled, randomized investigation of two meditation practices was conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to determine how ASC-meditation might influence immune function. In the 3 week study of 13 subjects, a gentle breathing meditation technique called Cellular Theta Breathing (CTB), was compared against a mindfulness guided meditation (GM) technique and a reading control activity with respect to quantitative and qualitative outcome measures. Biomarkers including antibodies against the Epstein-Bar Virus (EBV) and salivary cortisol were measured in addition to qualitative assessments of consciousness states, reported levels of anxiety, and perceived personal meaning associated with each activity.

CTB meditation activity was found to generate statistically significant reductions in measured anxiety. CTB also produced statistically significant increased frequencies of ASC when compared to GM and the control activity. CTB and GM resulted in statistically significant occurrences of 5 ASC characteristics (sound, temperature, physical sensations, emotion and time distortion) compared to the control activity. CTB generated a statistically significant frequency of 2 ASC characteristics (sound and physical sensation) compared with GM. Results suggest that increased episodes of altered consciousness characterized by changes in physical sensation, sound, temperature, emotion and time distortion during CTB and GM are linked with lowered anxiety and subsequently have an indirect influence in immune competence. No significance for salivary cortisol was indicated in either meditation technique or the control. CTB was found to have a measurable impact on EBV (p=0.06) antibody titer levels. However this finding should be tempered by the presence of outlier and disproportionate leverage values. EBV antibody reduction was statistically significant for all subjects during the first week of the study and 62% of subjects ended the study with reduced EBV antibodies compared to beginning baseline levels, suggesting that participation in the study improved immune system functioning for study participants. Results also show that when ASC characteristics, lowered anxiety and ascribed meaning were simultaneously present, EBV antibodies were reduced twice as much as during CTB compared to GM, and 4 times as much compared to the control. Findings suggest the combination of ASC, ascribed meaning, and lowered anxiety impact EBV antibodies. The presence of ascribed meaning and perceived anxiety reduction implicate socio-cultural factors in cell-mediated immune function and provides supportive evidence for the biological efficacy of culturally mediated healing-orientated practices involving ASC so common in the ethnographic record.


Altered states of consciousness; Biocultural; Immune function; Immune response; Meditation – Physiological aspects; Meditation – Psychological aspects; Shamanism


Biological and Physical Anthropology | Medical Immunology | Therapeutics

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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