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6

Thinking of office cubicles in the brain may help us imagine how dissociation might work & even be a great metaphor when we start suggesting that sometimes there is a jerky boss in our heads who comes out & barks at employees then cloisters himself away & a whole host of employees sitting in their cubicles with the various personalities that resemble aspects of ourselves that manifest under various circumstances. But this model doesn't really explain what dissociation is. Another way of viewing dissociation is simply as a psychological construct.  Dissociation isn't a specific thing, like love or stress are not specific things. A construct is something that exists in the mind but can't be localized to only one physical object. Dissociation is not the office walls or the computers in the cubicles or even the office flirt; it's the totality of everything & how information flows & is gated in the office of your brain. Dissociation is a concept. This means it can't be nailed down to any specific psychocultural behavior or affect or any neurological underpinnings.

This is important because we describe many different behaviors and activities as dissociative.  Shamanic spirit journeys are dissociative & supposedly involve leaving the corporeal body to commune with spirits on the astral plane (cue the Modern Lovers) or something.

Possession trance is dissociative but involves invading spirits displacing or pushing aside the self & memory of the experience (check out Maya Deren's classic Divine Horsemen).

Zoning out while playing video games may be dissociative if the house is falling down around you & you fail to notice. I used to joke that if Law & Order was on TV across the room, I could dissociate my wife talking to me & the kids fighting in between--I would not even notice them, transfixed as I was on the story-line of the show.

Dissociative Identity Disorder like that portrayed in Sybil or Three Faces of Eve or Fight Club or name-your-DID-movie portray people whose psyche is carved up; some of their "alters" know what other alters are up to, some don't. Intuitively, it would seem these states could not possibly harness the exact same neural hardware, but they do involve similar states of focused awareness, albeit for different reasons.

These are a few of the forms of dissociation that first caught my attention. Many people find the term "dissociation" confusing, &, I agree, it's one of those jargony terms that we could do without. But what other term would apply to all of these states? The obvious response to that, probably, is a question--why do we need one term to describe them all? On the one hand, these states are all historically particular--they are culturally relative & arise due to relatively unique ecological circumstances, as critics of ethological approaches like mine point out.

Spirit journeys, possession trance, DID, & extreme zoning do, however, share some psychological qualities; they partition aspects of awareness to filter, reduce, or moderate stress. So, rather than switch terms every time I discuss the cognitive mechanisms that filter, reduce, or moderate stress, I use the blanket term dissociation, which I picked up from reading Erica Bourguignon & she picked up from smarter people than me before her.

There are only two decent alternatives to the term dissociation that I can think of, both of which I do use, as I'll discuss in depth later, one of which is more straight forward, while the other is way more jargony. The term "trance" seems the obvious alternative, but I argue that it connotes an appearance & is best reserved for dissociative states that are visible to others. The other term, "deafferentation," is one of those cool words you invoke at parties to look like a bookish tool & really should be avoided but has such precise & flexible meaning with regard to neural systems that I feel it shouldn't be avoided under the circumstances.

The best way to understand a concept is to invoke an example. One type of cultural dissociation reputed to enable individuals to transcend the self that is particularly interesting to me is possession trance, & one purported form of possession trance takes place around speaking in tongues.  I say "purported" because speaking in tongues is not universally agreed upon as taking place in a trance state or dissociation, &, based on my observations, sometimes tongues are dissociative & sometimes they're not.  But it usually is, I believe, and its characteristic form--what I call the "excited Holy Ghost" type--almost certainly does.

If dissociation is necessary to limit the costs of self-awareness, as I suggested in Part 2, it is because these costs cause problems, are stressful, & therefore dissociation can be construed as an aspect of our allostatic stress response system.  Allostasis is homeostasis or equilibrium but through change. The concept of homeostasis got marred in misunderstanding, as some static state our body always strives to return to. We immediately recognize, however, when we think about the changes we must go through as we grow, age, become pregnant, modify our bodies through diet & exercise, among other normal habits, that there is no way our bodies could maintain one state throughout our lives. So homeostasis was reconceptualized as allostasis, which essentially means changing stability. The set-points at which things like stress response are triggered change as our bodies change. In theory, as I practice meditation & become more Zen (ha!), the threshold at which I lose my temper goes up, but there is a trigger, & once I've yelled at my kids & see they're sufficiently remorseful (again, ha!), my blood pressure drops back below the threshold & stops boiling. Yes, I am mixing metaphors, but I think it conveys the principle of allostasis.

Allostasis is a concept that is generally applied to stress physiology, but we could think of our behaviors that purposefully moderate dissociation as a "behavioral allostatic system." In other words, we have cultural practices that, whether we are conscious of it or not, moderate the threshold of our tempers & stress response. For my doctoral dissertation research, I suggested that speaking in tongues was a "behavioral homeostat." In stress physiology jargon, homeostats are the individual mechanisms of homeostasis, such as the hormones cortisol & epinephrine that increases blood pressure or the glucose that is released to increase energy. In this case, speaking in tongues is a behavioral homeostat because it is a mechanism that hypothetically moderates stress response. It plays a role in moderating awareness of stressors. While people are speaking in tongues, they are focused on God. In fact, according to practitioners, God has pushed them aside in their minds & is speaking through them. There literally is no room to think about anything else. If you're thinking about your bills, God won't come in. So, your worries are dissociated or partitioned from awareness at the moment you are speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues itself is not the dissociation but what happens instead of the worry or the worldly thought or whatever; it is a mechanism or part of the system though not a direct mechanism.

This system is allostatic in that, I believe, practicing it leads to an increase in daily dissociation. By engaging in ritual dissociation, you train your body to raise the threshold of stress response. The set-point for freaking out on your kids (or whatever) is raised because you're more chill, more zazen. It's no different than exercising so you have more energy--you change the set-points for when you're exhausted & gasping for air & pooping out & having a heartache on your front lawn while mowing the grass.

Okay, so this is a nice theory & all (actually a hypothesis, but that's not the expression), but what about the data? To test this, in 2008-09 I compared the overall rates of speaking in tongues among participants in a couple Apostolic Pentecostal churches in New York to biomarkers of stress response using saliva samples collected across a day of worship and a day of non-worship.  I asked them how many times they'd spoken in tongues in their lifetime to get at that idea of practicing something to change the allostatic set-points. Then I divided the folks in my study into high-tongue speakers (21+ lifetime experiences--most had so many they were off the chart) & low-tongue speakers (0-20--most had never experienced tongues).

If we compare them using just the better understood stress hormone cortisol (I also analyzed alpha-amylase, about which we understand less, but you can read my analyses here and here), we found that high-tongue speakers had significantly higher cortisol across the worship day (suggesting they were more active during worship) & significantly lower cortisol during parts of the non-worship day (interpreted as being potentially less reactive to daily stressors).  This is consistent with studies of long-term meditators, whose cortisol levels indicate less daily stress reactivity (i.e., they are generally more chill).

So, based on one study of one religious group, culturally-mediated dissociation seems to influence stress. This needs to be followed up & replicated, which I'm in the process of doing (over a longer course of study this time), but religion is not the only behavioral allostatic system. What about all those religion haters out there who shout about their equal claims to relaxation? Okay, well, maybe they're making my point, but there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, gamers, & just plain non-religious-non-intellectual-about-the-whole-thing people out there doing yoga & aerobicizing & whatever to relax. Are they getting the same benefits from dissociation?

5

Dissociation and Human Consciousness

There is little agreement on what consciousness is or how to define it, but most reduce in some way to being aware of inner & external states. This reduces to two essential capacities that are related, self-awareness & theory of mind.  Self-awareness is the ability to distinguish the self from others & be reflexive, while theory of mind is the use of self-awareness to be able to infer the probable mental state of another based on personal experience or knowledge of a similar situation. Therefore, theory of mind presupposes self-awareness. However, no one is either fully self-awareness nor necessarily highly attuned to the minds of those around them. This is not just because they are ignorant but precisely because of the burden of these awarenesses. In fact, research on deception-detection suggests that people may not be particularly good at mindreading (Barnacz et al. 2009), but, I would argue, the fact that we demonstrate empathetic efforts goes a long way in social situations.  Signaling our willingness to cooperate, not our accuracy, may be what is truly important.

Evidence for this has come, for the past 40 years, from mirror self-recognition studies. Evolutionary pstchologist Gordon Gallup, Jr.¹ (1969) conducted the first experimental test of self-recognition by placing a painted dot out of the line of sight except by a mirror on various anesthetized, mirror-habituated primates.  Upon waking, only chimps, bonobos, and orangutans, among the non-human primates, have been able to pass what has been termed the "mirror test," which is the recognition that the image in the mirror is oneself & that one has some schputz in one's hair. Lower primates respond in a consistent agonistic way, engaging in approach/withdraw behavior with what appears to be a conspecific, then calling it a draw & giving up in seeming boredom. Gallup infers self-awareness from this test, pointing out that, barring blind people, individuals who lack or have impaired self-recognition, such as newborns, & people on the autism & schizophrenia spectrums, have corresponding degrees of self-awareness.

Interestingly, gorillas don't fit this pattern &, with the exception of three unique exceptions, fail to respond to the mirror image.  This is important because gorillas are phylogenetically intermediate between orangutans & chimps & genetically more closely related to both the Pan (which includes chimps & bonobos) & Homo genuses than to Pongo (orangs). The exceptions are three developmentally enriched gorillas raised in captivity.  Dan Povinelli, an anthropologist² in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, & John Cant, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico,  suggest this is because (1) self-recognition is not necessarily coupled with self-awareness but is probably a prerequisite, (2) self-recognition & self-awareness are neurologically expensive traits & will not be maintained if the benefits don't outweigh the costs, (3) self-recognition is the result of enhanced proprioceptive awareness that evolved in large-bodied, arboreal primates to safely navigate in 3-dimensional space (think of the meticulous quadrumous locomotion of orangutans high in a forest canopy); & (4) the selection pressures that favor proprioceptive awareness in other large-bodied non-human primates are relaxed in gorillas, which locomote mostly on the ground & have no natural predators (1995). However, the neural hardware still exists & can be developmentally activated in gorillas raised in enriched environments (like Koko).

The suggestion that self-awareness is expensive is largely inferential, based on the relative rarity of it across species & a cost-benefit analysis.  The benefits of self-awareness seem to be, in no particular order, the ability to groom oneself (except for hygiene-related behaviors, basically a social function), scenario-building or imagining potentialities in the abstract (Alexander 1989), being able to take pride in one's accomplishments and strive to better oneself (again, a social function), positive misperception of self (or self-deceptive enhance, which I'll get to more later), self-control (social, social, social), & theory of mind (which is rather important, so it's not exactly a straight-up cost-benefit tally).  However, I can think of about twice as many costs, including the capacity to self-isolate (damn self-awareness and my sense of missing out on things), paralysis of analysis (there are just too many conflicting choices and demands on my attention!), forecast inaccuracy (my wife says I'm not social enough, so I think she'll be pleased if I hang out with friends & watch football ALL WEEKEND LONG), self-aggrandizement/low self-esteem (the overweening self-critic never did anyone any good), resentment (toxic), egotism (ugh), envy (deadly sin, anyone?), & guilt/shame (the flipside of analysis paralysis).

I think all of these benefits are important, but the facilitation of theory of mind may have been the most significant driver of elaborated self-awareness. For the time being, we will just leave that as a speculation because the point I am making is that, though being socially oriented & aware seems to have driven the elaboration of self-awareness, it came with significant costs that are also psychological & social in nature. To manage these costs, I propose a third basic but underappreciated aspect of consciousness is what appears to be its functional limitation, which is the action of dissociation.

Transcendental Medication-AAA 2011 (shortened)

Dissociation is the partitioning of awareness (Lynn 2005).  Partitions can be restrictive, semi-restrictive, or permeable, permanent, semi-permanent, or temporary. The DSM (Diagnositic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "gold standard" of mental disease & disorder in the United States, now near to being in its 5th edition) conceives of it as comprising absorption, depersonalization, & compartmentalization. I describe it using the office cubicles model of psyche.

These partitions are infinitely flexible psychologically, developmentally, & socioculturally. They are also both biological & conceptual in nature, as I will attempt to explain, but first let me give you a sense of their diversity. Rebecca Seligman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, who I had the pleasure to arrange to meet in 2010 by inviting her to be on a discussion panel I once organized, refers to a "dissociative family of experiences," which I find nicely encompasses what she & her postdoc adviser, psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer, have referred to as the "psychiatric-adaptive" and "anthropological-discursive" perspectives on dissociation (2008).

In the next part, I'll talk more about the concept of dissociation & how I've operationalized the concept in several studies that I have conducted or that are currently underway.


 

¹You'll soon note I talk about Gordon Gallup a fair amount due to the fact that I studied in his evolutionary psychology lab in graduate school. Though my discipline was anthropology, specifically biocultural anthropology, & my adviser was Dr. Lawrence Schell, I chose to take on the extra work of participating in Gordon's lab because it was the only way I could get the cognitive evolutionary training I was interested in at University at Albany. I ended up there after several false steps elsewhere & due to practical considerations. I was first admitted to the Evolutionary Anthropology program at Rutgers for grad school, where I was to work with Lee Cronk, Bob Trivers, & Helen Fisher, but they did not give me funding. I was commuting from Brooklyn to New Brunswick, NJ & couldn't handle it, so I dropped out. After a year in the Hunter College evening master's program in Anthropology, I took a year off when my triplet sons were born before being offered a teaching assistantship at University at Albany. I'd applied there as the only state school with an Anthropology program commutable from Poughkeepsie, NY, where we'd be moving to get help from family in raising 3 infants. I stumbled onto Gordon's lab by happenstance, after I'd been admitted to the Anthropology program, when John Beatty (see preface) suggested I look outside of the Anthropology Dept for what I'd lost in dropping out of Rutgers. I was elated to find the guy who had done the seminal mirror self-recognition studies there. I shot him an email & told him of my interests, & he invited me to join his lab without question.

²Dan actually prefers to just be considered a writer. While his degrees are in Anthropology, he works in a biology department & largely does laboratory research with chimpanzees. I met him several years ago when he came to the University of Alabama to give a lecture & asked him what he considers himself, & he simply said he considers himself a writer. He said that, while he certainly an invested researcher, his mind is equally pulled toward the community theater he acts in. He said that he had dismantled his primate lab because researchers have not learned anything new in a decade about primate cognition & that, with the immanent extinction of chimps & other great apes in the wild, more urgency should be shown to conservation than lab research at this time. Combining his thespian skills with his primatological research, Povinelli dispense with the typical Powerpoint lecture, brought audience members down to the stage, & had them help him act out the chimp experiments he'd conducted. It was one of the 2-3 best lectures I've ever seen, & it was a shame that it was one of our poorest attending. Incidentally, Dan is also an alum of Gordon Gallup. Though he is typically at odds with Gordon over the interpretation of mirror self-recognition, Gordon helped him set up his primate facility, & they maintain mutual admiration & communication.

18

matt j rosano
Matt J Rosano
Southeastern Louisiana University

Matt J. Rossano received his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California at Riverside in 1991. He is a Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA. He is the author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, released in June 2010 by Oxford Press. His interests include: Evolution and human nature, evolutionary psychology, consciousness, evolution of the mind/brain, religion and science, and evolution of religion.

 

Around 100,000  years before present(ybp), anatomically modern humans (AMH)(these are not the same as Neanderthals and other hominids at the time) went back to the place from whence they emigrated, Africa; however, their retreat did not last as they were expanding again into the Eurasian landmass again 60,000 ybp and showing evidence of a much more sophisticated social structure and developed levels of cognition. This might have been due to ecological conditions in Africa at the time that created an extinction environment for AMH. From this, a level of social complexity partly based in religion emerged.tobatoba

According to Stanley Ambrose, a professor at the University of Illinois, during this period of difficulty for AMH, there was an eruption that caused a 6-10 year volcanic winter followed by a 1000 year winter winter(an ice age). This served to bottleneck AMH’s population to about only 2000 individuals, which luckily is the closest humans have ever come to extinction. This problem set the stage for a series of developments for human cognition’s development into what it is today.

The Social Solution

Around 75,000 ybp, we see evidence of trade going on around Africa: stashes of beads and sets of tools are found together, and we know they have intrinsic value as the beads are all the same type and the tools have a sophistication that man should not have accomplished at this time. These tools were a “social response to ecological stress.” The eruption made it so that AMH had to band together and trade resources or risk extinction. This solution (social solution) remained a part of human interaction even after AMH escaped extinction and is a critical part of today’s horticulture society.

Another aide to the development of society was the usage of ritual: a rule-governed pattern of formalized, attention-demanding behavior. The main usage of ritual in mammals is to confront tense or awkward situations in a way that releases tension. It draws attention away from threatening cues and defensive responses and so creates conditions for extended social interaction. Ritual behavior is also the basis of many other social and cognitive skills and so no matter how few rituals were observed, the fact that they happened at all served as a keystone to the development of social bonds.

Origins of Modern Cognition

Archaeologists have suggested that modern cognition is based on the use of symbols to organize behavior. Put another way, symbols help us organize our society by having a set standard (think of the alphabet). The symbols have purely arbitrary value decided by the culture that uses them. The reason we are able to use these symbols as social cues is because of the increase in working memory during this period. We gained the ability to hold goal-relevant information while completing other tasks. This increased memory combined with the development of symbols, humans began to master the concept of shared intentionality, which is just a fancy way of saying we can understand what another person is doing or thinking and so we can create shared meanings and communicate.

This working memory was also extremely important in the establishment of more complex rituals as these rituals needed increasing levels of self-restraint. The ability to ignore an intuitive response to complete a ritual takes a level of mental fortitude that AMH developed.  Evidence shows that rituals in place to develop group trust and solidarity are the most demanding of self-control and focus. Three main types of social rituals were key in building group alliances and trust: trust building and reconciliation, initiation, and shamanistic.

trust fall
an example of a ritual that we use today where we have to hold back our inhibitions

Rituals of Trust-Building and Reconciliation: These types of rituals likely saw a rise in polarity as AMH started grouping up more and more. Individuals had to show that they could restrain their instinct when it came to interactions with the group to show that they were indeed members who embodied the group’s best interests. The individuals who could not inhibit these instincts were probably left to survive alone as outcasts.

Rituals of Initiation: Even today, over 70% of traditional societies have rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood. As society during this period become more and more complex, the initiation practices became more intense. The ability to have self-control during these rites is a hallmark of the increased working memory needed for symbolic thought.

Shamanistic Healing Rituals: Shamanism combined supernatural authority to social norm which led to increased within group cohesion. Groups that were bonded by these emotionally taxing rituals would more likely exhibit altruism during times of scarcity and this gave the group a fitness advantage over other hominids. These shamanistic rituals were also heavy on their usage of mind altering drugs ad most of the practices during the rituals served the gual of achieving an altered state of consciousness. This process of ritual healing shows evidence of being viable at the time for increasing survival rate and the rituals might have even played a roll in increasing working memory necessary for modern cognition with the mind altering drugs.

The Fortuitous Mutation

Stanford archaeologist Richard Klein’s theory on human development is that the difference between AMH  and other hominins was genetic mutations that restructured AMH’s brains in a way to conduce social interaction resulting in a cognitive advantage. In 1896, three researchers studied the process known as the Baldwin effect which provided a mechanism for allowing environmental phylogenic traits to become genetically expressed through processes of natural selection. Acquired traits do not necessarily affect the genes, but they might create an advantage in these individuals that could contribute to this gene becoming expressed in future generations. Complex cognitive skills could have emerged as a necessity of the environment and as that necessity persisted, the traits required for cognitive abilities were genetically expressed and become stabilized in the gene pool.

Baby Rituals

When we observe rituals in mammals, we can see all of the elements associated (attention-demanding, formalized, rule governed) in interactions between infants and adults. Within an hour of birth, human babies start imitating facial expressions indicating these reactions are more than just reflexes, they are genetically coded and expressed. Even in later infancy, we notice a pattern in mother-child interactions:

  1. Initiation- engage attention
  2. Mutual orientation- excitement calms and voices soothing
  3. Greeting- infant moves limbs, mother more animated
  4. Play Dialogue- take turns making sounds (protoconversation)
peekaboo
We see that this baby has learned the action, so why does she laugh every time we play peek-a-boo?

These elements show that there is a specific order followed, and even if this ritual is not used to confront an awkward situation, it teaches the baby the process of ritual behavior. Why does a baby laugh every single time you play peek-a-boo? It’s not like it has not leaned what is going on, it is part of the ritual of the game (you would be hard pressed to find a baby that doesn’t laugh at peek-a-boo).  These interactions with adults and especially mothers teach infants the critical skills of how to regulate emotions based on interactions, how to use social partners as cues for emotion and as a source of information, and how to use the ritual context to interpret a situation and the emotions attached to it.

The parents of AMH 70,000 years ago did not share this level of intricacy in parent-infant interactions, but ones that showed increased  levels of it were more likely to reproduce and this possibly became a part of genetic code through the Baldwinian process.

Unique Culture Produces Unique Cognition

After all of this, we only have one question: why us? There were other hominids like the Neanderthals that shared many features with us, but did not show this level of cognition. The only differences were the wide ranged trading patterns of AMH and supernatural beliefs associated with shamanistic rituals. Basically, increased social rituals were the only differences that allowed humans to develop cognition and developed highly complex social rituals because of this. The reason humans are so unique, no matter how corny it sounds, is because we worked in groups as a species due to survival needs.

 

20

In his essay, "Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology," author Michael Winkelman looks at various instances of shamanism across cultures to find similarities that reveal "universals" about the practice.

Dr. Michael Winkelman Associate Professor Arizona State University
Dr. Michael Winkelman
Associate Professor Arizona State University

Winkelman recently retired from his post as an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University to begin studies in Brazil. Winkelman focuses his research on shamanism as medicine, applied medical anthropology, and cross-cultural relations. His knowledge of cross-cultural relations allow him to find these shamanistic "universals" that he argues are the basis of the practice's modern resurgence. After receiving his Bachelors degree from Rice University, Ph.D from the University of California at Irvine, and Masters Degree from the University of Arizona, Winkelman made strides in researching shamanism's ability to heal substance abuse issues as well.

To preface his research, Winkelman starts by noting that shamanism is "humanity's most ancient spiritual, religious, and healing practice" and is currently having a resurgence because it is rooted in the basic functions of the "brain, mind, and consciousness." In the past, this rooting provided shamanism with a functional role in survival and cultural evolution in hunter-gatherer societies. Since shamanistic rituals date back to human prehistory, they produced what Winkelman characterizes as an "evolved psychology" that gives shamanism relevance in a modern society.

In order to have a resurgence however, there must have been a decline somewhere along the line. Confusion about the true nature of shamanism created skepticism because of the variety of shamanistic rituals that span contrasting countries and cultures. Winkelman also adds that the practice's origin outside of the western world and association with altered states of consciousness helped to create a stigma. However, treatments for "spiritual emergencies" and substance addictions have helped prove the worth of shamanistic ritual in modern society.

Modern research, like that done by Winkelman, has helped to empirically prove an association between shamanistic practices and opioid releases in the brain that "enhance serotogenic function." In order to do this, practitioners use a plethora of shamanistic activities and symbols designed to elicit "physiological, psychological, and emotional" responses. When these responses are quantified they form the biological bases of the shamanic "universals." These include shamanistic healers, altered states of consciousness, analogical thought, and community rituals.

Winkelman found in his cross-cultural study that Shamanistic healers are a "universal" in shamanistic  cultures and that they even share many similar characteristics across cultures. The healers share a common background in alternated states of consciousness, which forms the basis for their "universal institutionalization of mechanisms for altering consciousness and healing through integrative brain functioning." Shamans also share many other characteristics such as interpreting illnesses as being caused by spirits, symbolic manipulations for healing, and attributing illnesses to the work of other shamans. Their work focuses on achieving a state of "religious ecstasy" that is a form of altered consciousness. This state causes a natural nervous system reaction that triggers a sense of relaxation and brain synchronization. Lower brain structures are stimulated to create a "synthesis of behavior, emotion, and thought"

Another "universal" in shamanistic healing that has already been mentioned is altered states of consciousness. Rhythmic activities employing music, dance, and mimetic control are frequently used to achieve altered states through theta and alpha wave brain patterns. Rhythmic activities are also beneficial when trying to promote group cohesion. Large groups are able to connect easily through music because it promotes "synchrony, coordination, and cooperation among group members." (Hint: get ready for tomorrow) Visionary experiences are also important in shamanistic healing as the symbolic method as opposed to activity method employed by the rhythmic activities. Winkelman's research finds that these visionary experiences are "a natural brain phenomenon" that occurs when the brain "releases the normal suppression of the visual cortex."

Combining ritual songs and dance is one of the most common ways to achieve an altered state of consciousness
Combining ritual songs and dance is one of the most common ways to achieve an altered state of consciousness

 

Analogical thought is also often present in shamanism as Winkelman finds that innate processing modules for natural history of intelligence nand mental attributions regarding "others" manifest themselves in shamanism through analogs. Animism, animal allies, and examples of self-representational death and rebirth all reflect preverbal brain structures dating back thousands of years. Animism involves the attribution of of human mental and social capabilities to animals, nature, and the unknown. According to Winkelman's research, organisms model their own mental states to other organisms mind and behavior. Animal allies also employ the natural history model that animism employs, but involve representations of "sacred others" and attribute more specific brain capacities to specific animals. Soul Flight as well as death and rebirth experiences are also universally manifested in shamanism. A common example of this is a near death experience where the soul goes on a momentary "journey."

Community rituals are also highly important to shamanism as attachment and affectional bonds are also helpful in releasing the natural brain opiates necessary for healing. These opioids are known for stimulating the immune system, providing senses of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness, enhancing coping skills, maintaining homeostasis, reducing pain, decreasing stress levels, and allowing for greater environmental adaptation. Community rituals are important in treating "soul loss" which is one of the main shamanic illnesses. Shamans also use cultural symbols that the community helps to reinforce in order to manipulate physiological responses. Symbols can manifest themselves unconsciously, allowing shamans to heal through advanced methods of engagement with "neurocognitive structures to produce therapeutic changes."

Can anyone guess what some of these pre-verbal shamanistic symbols are?
Can anyone guess what some of these pre-verbal shamanistic symbols are?

Through these "universal" processes, shamanistic healing allows for the restructuring of ego and identity in the person. The "universals" that Winkelman found in his research also help to create a special mode of consciousness that creates synchronized brain wave discharge patterns. These patterns help to coordinate the hierachical functions of the brain in a more positive manner. Through better coordination of the functional levels of the brain in this state of consciousness, the self is better able to induce personal, cognitive, and social integration as a means of healing.

Overall, the main points to take away from Winkelman's research are...

  • Shamanism has experienced a resurgence in modern society as it reflects basic concepts of human nature
  • Shamanism's healing powers come from creating an altered state of consciousness that release natural opiates stimulating serotonin flow.
  • Shamanistic healing rituals alter physiological, psychological, and emotional responses by using activity (dancing, music) and cultural symbols.

 

23

Mark Schaller is a psychological scientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.  He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1984 and obtained a PhD in Psychology at Arizona State University in 1989. He's been at his current position at the University of British Columbia since 1996. Schaller's research looks into the cognitive processes that contribute to stereotypes and prejudices, as well as the implications of evolutionary fundamental human motives on social behavior, the psychology of kin recognition, and the psychological consequences of fame. The reason that he's important for our class at this very moment has to do with his research into and coining of the term "behavioral immune system."

Mark Schaller Department of Psychology  University of British Columbia
Mark Schaller
Department of Psychology
University of British Columbia

So, to talk about the Behavioral Immune System, first we have to talk about the immune system. You know, that pesky little piece of your body that throws out fevers, sweating, swelling, et al. to deal with the stress you put your body through? Well, this system is actually very metabolically costly in its attempts to keep the body healthy. To mitigate the risk of these costs ever being incurred in the first place, human immune systems have also developed behavioral mechanisms that can prevent contact with foreign and harmful pathogens. We call this system of preventative behaviors the Behavioral immune system. Any time that you feel the need to stay away from people with known illness, you're experiencing the most obvious results of this system.

Other examples of this kind of proactive avoidant behavior can be seen in nature: Schaller lists tadpoles, mice, and chimpanzees as animals that are known to actively avoid other members of their species that are noticeably ill. The primary emotion that is associated with studies of this system is disgust, and Schaller seeks to examine how these feelings can effect social cognition and interaction within a given social ecology.

So, the Behavioral Immune system can be subdivided into two sorts of behaviors- detection and response. Detection primarily depends on smell and sight to find possible risks of infection around you. This includes both objects and behaviors of those around you who may be a vector of disease. The objects that subjects experience revulsion towards seem obvious-- fecal matter, vomit, etc. When it comes to how you react to those around you, however, that's where the research gets interesting. Test groups not only responded with avoidant behavior to those who were obviously sick or clearly unhygienic, but also to those who seemed visibly different from the cultural norm. The reasoning seems to be that those who are from outside of the local culture pose a threat not only because they may carry unusual pathogens, but also because they haven't been taught the local methods of hygiene. The findings don't stop there, however; there is also revulsion associated with those who are a part of the culture but differ from the "healthy" norm: the obese, the very old, the disabled. This can all be explained by the vast array of symptoms that may be signs of disease; the system over regulates because a false positive is less likely to cause harm than a false negative assumption of disease.

This guy's probably CRAWLING with unnatural diseases
This guy's probably CRAWLING with unnatural diseases

Interestingly enough, test groups didn't always experience these feelings of xenophobia or revulsion. Subjects who were more cognizant of the risks of disease were more likely to want to avoid outsiders and less likely to even be friendly within their own social groups. In one experiment, groups who were exposed to a video warning about the dangers of disease and foreign pathogens were much less likely to want to recruit workers from less well known or "unsafe" countries than those who watched a video about workplace accidents. In the real world, this translates into stronger feelings of xenophobia and fewer allowances for those who are "free thinkers" or otherwise non-normative in cultures which have historically higher rates of pathogen activity and greater diversity of pathogens, such as in equatorial regions.

So, funnily enough, the guy with the butt tattoo is statistically more likely to revolted by this meeting. To be fair, they ARE British.
So, funnily enough, the guy with the butt tattoo is statistically more likely to revolted by this meeting. To be fair, they ARE British.

This sort of predisposal towards those that the behavoiral system interprets as safe can also be seen in mate selection. Part of Schaller's findings showed predispositions towards less sexually promiscuous and more attractive partners that followed the same sort of increase in areas where pathogenic activity is high. This stems both from the increase in possible vectors of infection when partners are sexually active with multiple persons as well as the perceived genetic purity of those with symmetric faces. 

Schaller concludes the article with a look into the portions of the system that are as yet not well understood. The Behavioral immune system does not exist in a vacuum, and many of the systems and behavioral cues that the system encourages also serve to help other, older systems. An easy target is the fact that the eyes and olfactory system obviously didn't evolve purely to spot pathogens. However, even disgust and revulsion, the primary forces of the system, were most likely coopted from the need to vomit and expel harmful substances once ingested. Additionally, though xenophobia, regulatory behavior within a social circle, and distrust of non-normative behavior are all tools of the system, there are other behaviors thought to play a role. People like doctors, soldiers, and youth and aged caretakers are all constantly participating in behaviors that increase the risk of pathogen infection, yet they enjoy positions of respect in most cultures. The sorts of assumptions of personal risk in exchange for lowered risk for the larger culture are still not very well explained by the Behavioral Immune System model.

18

Rebecca Seligman is a medical and psychological anthropologist at Northwestern University. Seligman received her PhD from Emory in 2004. Her current research looks into both the mental and physical health of Mexican Americans, specifically between diabetes and depression.  Her work on dissociative experience and cultural neuroscience, with Laurence Kirmayer, was published in 2008. Kirmayer is a MD of transcultural psychiatrist and currently a professor of psychiatry at McGill University.

All dissociation falls into one of three classifications: a neurological reaction brought on by stress or trauma; social performance or ritual; and fluctuations in everyday consciousness, which generally go unnoticed.  It is often thought that even though these three forms of dissociation are caused by three different things, the psychophysiological mechanisms that induce these altered states are the same. Unfortunately, we don't know enough about the underlying functions of dissociation to draw any conclusions. Through our desire to learn more about dissociation, two different approaches or paradigms have been developed.

The first is a psychiatric paradigm which is derived from clinical research on stress and trauma induced dissociation. Psychiatric dissociation is referred to as "adaptive" and it postulates that dissociation is a biological function and a natural mechanism of our subconscious triggered by emotional feedback. Fugue states, amnesia and identity disturbances are examples of neurological issues psychologists focus on when referring to dissociation. Many researchers in the psychiatric paradigm believe stress and trauma reactions were evolutionary precursors to dissociation. Dissociation allowed our early ancestors to enter a trance state to reduce anxiety and stress during traumatic events, similar to trance states experienced by many animals before death. The trauma survivors go into what's referred to as "dissociatiave coping" which minimizes or even eliminates memories of traumatic experiences that could be triggered by almost anything and cause extreme emotional reactions. When we don’t completely dissociate post-traumatic stress disorder can frequently develop.

 The second discipline is the anthropological paradigm which was built on research of social dissociation which is generally confined to religious and spiritual practices or healing ceremonies.  This social idea is known as "discursive" (as opposed to this blog which some might call "distyping"). From the anthropological aspect discursive dissociation is a social behavior that requires people to become immersed in cultural practices designed to distance them from preconceived thoughts and notions.  Social dissociation cultures frequently use spirit possession as a way to show status or power, and advance socially. Standards, customs, and rituals vary so drastically from culture to culture that few anthropologists attempt to define dissociation as a whole, but rather attempt to understand it within the constraints of a specific cultural group.

The two paradigms seem to share few similarities on the surface, which has created what Seligman and Kirmayer refer to as a "false dichotomy". The problem with this is that many people feel compelled to side with one of the two disciplines. Due to this many people either feel dissociation is adaptive and all dissociative symptoms are due to neurological mechanisms responding to emotional stimuli, OR dissociation is purely a social byproduct and it allows people to communicate feelings, establish communal hierarchy and follow cultural expectations. But like most things in the world, the process of dissociation is not black and white. Seligman and Kirmayer suggest that significant progress in each respective fields could be achieved if the two sides worked together. Many aspects of both the psychiatric and anthropological definitions are not mutually exclusive, in fact Seligman and Kirmayer say we need an integrative view of dissociation if we want to fully understand the meaning and mechanics.

The psychiatric-adaptive discipline is the most widely held view point and is considered the dominant paradigm, encompassing all stress and trauma related dissociation. Most of this dissociation is normal and we’ve probably all experienced it, maybe without even realizing it. But a small amount of this is considered pathological dissociation which covers fugue states and amnesia like mentioned before, but also includes PTSD and many other stress and trauma related disorders. These can affect everyday perception, cognition and attention, as well as disorganize and compartmentalize memories. Depersonalization and derealization are also serious problems of dissociative coping. The prior causes you to feel like you’re only watching your life but someone else is controling it (which sounds absolutely horrifying), and the latter makes you question if you, your friends, the world and everything else around you even exists.  These ailments are predominant in Euro-American countries where trance states and social dissociation are rare, yet people are always told to “talk about your feelings”.  In the Eastern world (and many still developing areas across the globe) dissociation, meditation, and social performances are common. In these areas stress and trauma related disorders are rarely reported or observed dissociative researchers. A great example of this was a study done by Wikan in 1990. The Balinese have been taught to avoid extreme emotion, and use dissociation as a coping method for stress almost daily. They maintain a smooth demeanor and show little emotion to not disturb spirits and upset the Gods. The Balinese believe that if emotion is displayed at the death of a loved one the spirit will be harmed in passing and may never find its final resting place.  During these times they partake in religious and performance dissociation practices, and have been recorded with lower levels of stress during this time as well.

According to Seligman borrowing ideas and knowledge from the opposite paradigm could have significant benefits, and should always be looked into. Take the Balinese in the story above for example; a social dissociative culture that developed stress reducing methods has had many psychiatric practitioners observe and research their culture and habits in the same fashion an anthropologist normally would. Similarly, many anthropologists could benefit from psychiatric work when modeling based on hypnosis to compare to the cognitive functioning of a research group. Developing future understandings of cognitive mechanisms and evolutional background will create an atmosphere in which social and psychological ideas will be more interchangeable, but the two paradigms working together may be the only way that happens and we truly understand dissociation.

19

womandrum
Janice Boddy is a Canadian anthropologist who specializes in medical anthropology, religion, gender issues and colonialism in Sudan and the Middle East. In Spirit Possession and Gender Complementarity, an excerpt from her book Women, Men and the zār Cult in Northern Sudan, she describes her experience at a zār ritual ceremony among the Hofriyat people of Sudan. The zār ritual is performed to bring about certain spirits who then possess a human host and manipulate their behavior in a way that allows for identification of different zār species.
The cult exists today throughout northern Sudan and similar versions of the name can be found in Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Arabia, and southern Iran. Background information aside, what is this whole zār conspiracy anyways? Boddy describes it as a spontaneous ritual with an imaginative basis that draws inspiration from a comprehensive collection of symbols and spirit roles. She compares the ceremony in a way that reminds me of a theater where choreography, improv, themes and costumes are all part of the performance. The zār rituals are also full of apprehension because at any moment a woman may be seized by an unknown spirit.

What is Zār?
Zār refers to the spirit, the illness brought on by spirit possession and the rituals necessary to their pacification. In her book, Boddy describes several of the many different spirits that can be encountered at a zār ritual. The ceremony begins in an open area called the mídān which is bounded on three sides by palm fiber ground mats. The priestess, or shaykah, incessantly drums a dallūka, which is then followed by the beating of another dallūka in shifted accents. The drumming is accompanied by the ringing of a nugarishana which is a brass mortar (similar in sound to a cowbell), as well as the beating of an inverted aluminum washtub called a tisht. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a party without the ceaseless and mesmerizing drone of chanting women, adding a hypnotic touch to the whole orchestra. These chants are called “threads” or “khuyūt” and they are said to be “pulled” as opposed to be sung. Once the procession has begun, the shaykah will pull various threads that each call upon different spirits.

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The first spirit Boddy describes is a more intensified version of the somniferous beat and leads the ayāna to rise and dance in the mídān. The ayāna is a sick woman for whom the zār ceremony is held. The Hofriyati people believe that women often fall ill due to a spirit that possesses them and so rituals are held in order to ask, and sometimes bribe, the spirit to refrain from damaging the woman’s health any further. This particular ayāna was possessed by Khawaja (westerner) spirits of a doctor, a lawyer and a military officer. Three spirits at once….no wonder she’s sick, right? Her dance is described as a slow, rhythmic walk crisscrossing a chimeric square, which sounds like she is displaying attributes of the latter most spirit mentioned.As the ceremony progresses, several more women rise to dance in the mídān under the enchantment of a spirit. In this trance, the women are pretty much at the will of whatever zayran (spirit) has taken over their body which means these ceremonies witness some pretty bazar behavior. The degree of bazarness can range anywhere from smoking, drinking and wild dancing to sword fighting and threatening men publicly. You know that a spirit is leaving the woman’s body when she begins burping, hiccupping and scratching herself uncontrollably.

Maybe there’s something to the whole scaring-the-hiccups-out-of -someone thing.

offering

On the last day of the ritual, a sacrificial ram (or chicken) is slaughtered by the ayāna’s son and is served later in the night. But that’s not all. The blood of the animal is collected in a bowl and placed before the drums. After daubing it on herself, the shaykha and then anoints the ayāna’s feet and arms. The other possessed women perform this act as well and some even sip the blood. Pretty eerie, right?
Hofriyat women stand upon a moral ground fermented in dignity and propriety, so why are they so often found smoking, drinking alcohol and blood, sword fighting, wanton dancing and flailing about to incessant drumming?

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Cultural understanding of Zār
When trying to make sense of these rituals, Boddy notes that it is important to consider the cultural context in which they are taking place. Possession appears to be viewed not so much as a blessing but rather a condition or an illness. Once a spirit chooses a host to possess, the person will experience suffering at first, however, the relationship can progress into a positive symbiotic existence. Another frightening concept about this relationship is that once you are possessed, you are always possessed. Zayran never abandons its host and has the ability to infiltrate their body at will at any time. When the spirit takes over the host’s body, that person becomes entranced. Hofriyati say that the possession trance is a state induced by the spirit’s forceful entry into the body, which displaces the human self-awareness to another perceptual plane. Basically, they are kicked out of their body momentarily. Bourguignon describes trance as “A radical discontinuity of personal identity” (1973: 12-13). The only issue with this model is that, in this case, the disrupted perception is not limited to just personal identity but affects other entities as well. In the Hofriyat society, trance is only one version of spirit possession and it can manifest in various ways. These spirits are constantly hanging around their human host through the course of daily life, influencing what they do and how they perceive things whenever they want.

Another interesting aspect of this culture is that trances seldom occur outside of a premeditated ritual setting. This means it is not a spontaneous phenomenon and instead a learned, practiced behavior requiring skill and control.
Many observers seek biological understandings for spirit possession. Among them, Kehoe and Giletti attempted to explain the phenomenon on the basis that it is caused by “a spontaneous neurological manifestation of nutritional deficiency” (1981). This model is potentially blurred by western rationalism which inevitably discredits any mode of consciousness other than critical self-awareness. In the search for biological explanations of trance occurrences, a crucial point is missed: possession is logically and contextually prior to the trance. In Hofriyat, one is not said to be possessed because she becomes entranced, moreover, she becomes entranced because she is possessed.

possession

Where are the men in this picture?
Possession is mainly only experienced by women. More than 40% of Hofriyat women over the age of fifteen and married claim zār affliction as opposed to 5% of the population of adult males. During Boddy’s six year absence from the village, only one man became possessed in contrast to sixteen women who became possessed. She did note, however, that a few of her male acquaintances privately confessed they were inflicted with a spirit but refused to make a public declaration in fear of “losing face”. What creates this disproportion of gender? I.M Lewis proposed a sociological explanation for this occurrence stating that zār possession is a strategy by women to overcome their subordinate social status. This model underestimates the unchallenged factuality of spirits within Sudanese society. Possession is a widespread matter of fact to the Hofriyati and therefore it cannot be limited to the strategic social strife of a minority group. It also assumes that women wish to acquire the social status of men in a society where the roles of men and women are distinctly different and separate. This is not due to men’s triumph rather it is the product of cultural design.
But this still doesn’t explain the discrepancy.
In Hofriyati, both sexes agree that women are more vulnerable to spirit custody because of their femininity. Spirits are attracted to women and covet the precious perfumes and gold jewelry that they wear. They are even more enthralled by those who are married because they have “activated” their fertility. Religious authorities attribute the vulnerability of women to their moral frailty. Because of this, women find it more difficult to resist the infliction of a spirit. Finally, men feel that women are more likely to become possessed because they see no difference between the zār and Islam. To women, they are just performing a part of the general Islamic religion and therefore they put themselves in the position to be overtaken by zayran.

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One possessed, always possessed.
Unfortunately, there is no cure. The spirit is forever bound to its host. Through a propitiatory ceremony, however, symptom relief is possible. The spirit may agree to refrain from further destruction of the human’s health so long as she attends regular ceremonies, avoids mourning behavior, associates herself with clean and sweet smelling things and avoids being consumed by strong emotion. This contract is infinitely renegotiable, though.

2

Ed Norton & Brad Pitt in "Fight Club"
Ed Norton's character in "Fight Club" has dissociative identity disorder (DID), & Brad Pitt is actually one of his alters. This movie is an example of what I refer to as DID being the contemporary deus ex machina, wherein it swoops in & resolves otherwise inextricable plots. In all fairness though, it's based on a book I have yet to read, which I'm told is better.

Dissociation is the main focus of this series. Dissociation is a filtering, compartmentalizing, or apportioning of consciousness or awareness. I've called dissociation 'partitioning of awareness' (2005). This essentially means we can compartmentalize aspects of awareness from each other in our mind. It's the psychological state shared among shaman when they travel mentally to other realms, when initiates leave their bodies & are replaced by deities or spirits, or when you seem to be under the spell of someone else during hypnosis (not really, but bear with me). It's what is going on in Fight Club when Edward Norton alternates himself as Brad Pitt or is simply the zoning out you're doing right now if your eyes are reading these words, but your mind is thinking about something else.

It can be useful to understand the context of a theoretical model. I've just spent a few days reading about how Darwin's thinking about transmutation over many years & various pursuits led to his dawning realization of his conceptualization of natural selection. I'm certainly no Darwin, but in the spirit of a history of science--my own history & the science I do--I owe my interest in dissociation to two people really, my wife & Professor John Beatty.

Professor John Beatty
Professor John Beatty is a linguist but blew my mind with his True Renaissance Man Anthropologist resume: His father was Mohawk, mother was German. He grew up half on the rez in upstate NY, half in Brooklyn. He speaks fluent Mohawk & often curses at students in Mohawk. His father later remarried a Kiowa-Apache woman, & he learned to speak that too. His family adopted two Cantonese boys when he was growing up, & he learned to speak some Cantonese thru them. He has done fieldwork in Ireland, Mexico, & Japan & speaks Japanese, some Totonoc. He taught in Germany. Before becoming an anthropologist, he was an opera singer, an actor, a baker, a sailor, an Army Intelligence Officer, a NY City Police Detective, & some other stuff. He's written books on intercultural communication, runs several museums, consults for the NYPD on occult-looking stuff, & does pro bono PI work. He helps run a silent film festival & currently adjuncts in the Department of Film after he quit the BC Anthro Dept the day before the semester began. And he had his front teeth knocked out by Washoe the chimp when he was a linguistics grad student.

I began to be interested in dissociation when I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. I was taking a really fascinating course called "Cults, the Occult & Secret Societies" (yes, Anthropology really is simply the coolest major in college) with Professor John Beatty. As a quick aside, I owe Prof. Beatty much, as from the very beginning, he let me take the graduate-level course  for honors credit because I worked during the day & couldn't take the undergraduate course. He would spend 2 hours with me in the hallway after a 75 minute class talking about topics related to the course (which I scarcely understood & am still, to this day, finally making connections with what he said then). He made many special accommodations so I could take his courses despite conflicts with work or other courses, &, despite being a linguist with expertise in Native American languages & film, he saw what attracted me & pointed me in the direction of sociobiology, psychological anthropology, & medical anthropology. During the year when I was teaching at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum because I could not get funding for the PhD or Master's programs I'd been admitted to & then became an imminent father of triplets (Prof Beatty, in his typical cantankerous way & as an avowed lifelong bachelor, encouraged me to sell them on eBay & make a tidy profit), Prof Beatty pointed me toward museum studies (he ran several small museums out of Brooklyn College & a local bank), helped out with our Intrepid Museum programming, & suggested I look outside anthropology in programs that could fund me for the expertise I desired. I got admitted to an online museum studies program & was all ready to enroll when I got the call from the University at Albany (SUNY), offering me a full teaching assistantship, & where I had made contact with evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, Jr., who devised the mirror test that is the basis for much of the self-awareness & theory of mind research over the past 40 years.

In Prof Beatty's "Cults, the Occult, & Secret Societies," I had to do a research paper for my honors project & had become interested in similarities I noted between readings about Vodou (in yet another class that had a module on Caribbean culture--this was very relevant, as Brooklyn College sits in the largest Caribbean community in the world outside the Caribbean), shamanism (which seems to come up in every cultural anthropology course, so I had probably noted it in the intro to four-field anthropology I had taken the previous semester with Prof. Beatty), & the field of Dance/Movement Therapy my wife, Loretta Lynn (when we first met, my wife said, "You know, if we got married, I'd be 'Loretta Lynn' [like the famous country singer for those of you not following along]--that I wasn't scared off by that was her sign to go full bore ahead!), was studying in a master's program at Pratt Institute in NY. Dance/Movement Therapy is a non-verbal approach to psychological analysis & mind/body integration.

I was editing papers my wife was writing for her studies in Creative Arts Therapy generally & Dance/Movement Therapy specifically. The Pratt program is based in Freudian & Jungian psychoanalysis, but the ability of therapists to "read" clients' movements & to help them through getting them moving in rhythmic & group-oriented ways resonates strongly with cross-cultural shamanic-possession ethnomedical modalities. My wife worked in Woodhull Medical Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in in-patient psych. Bed-Stuy is a relatively poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn with an appreciable immigrant population. Patients my wife worked with were largely mentally ill & homeless. Many of them also didn't speak English, so there were numerous barriers to verbal therapy. They were the lowest of low-functioning, in many ways. Because this was a non-verbal therapy (& because my wife hates writing), she convinced her advisers that it made more sense for her to compile a video thesis instead of a written one. So, as I sat watching video of her sessions with patients, where they would gather round a parachute & use it as a pivot to facilitate group movement, I had two epiphanies:

  1. The social movement integration that she was facilitating was the same type of behavior that ethnographic films of Haitian Vodou or !Kung Bushmen depicted except the pivot was a fire or something similar--the non-verbal approach to social integration was similar.
  2. The important component to facilitating better functioning is not self-reflection or awareness--it is social skills. These therapeutic interventions helped people function better socially. You can be a total mess in your mind, but you won't be institutionalized unless it's a social problem. Similarly, you can go to see a Vodou mambo or priest for personal issues, but the cure or the therapy is inevitably social.
Mama Lola. Photo by Claudine Michel.
Mama Lola. Photo by Claudine Michel.

Another quick aside that reinforced this analogy for me & a thread I still regret not following up on. Upon graduating the Pratt program, my wife continued working at Woodhull, &, in my interest in Vodou, I read Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Recall that the largest Caribbean community in the world outside the Caribbean is in Brooklyn, so many of my wife's co-workers were Haitian, including relatives of Mama Lola. Mama Lola was still there practicing (& I think still is) &, were I not an undergrad at the time, I may have had the chutzpah to look her up. As it was, my wife & I discussed Dance/Movement Therapy with Mama Lola's relatives, who were Vodou practitioners & affirmed similarities. Furthermore, when my wife & I started trying to have children & realized were suffered fertility issues, one of those relatives brought us Mama Lola's phone number, so we could try that therapeutic invention. Ultimately, we decided it was too sensitive & painful an issue for us to subject to cultural tourism (especially after we unsuccessfully tried Chinese medicine), stuck with our own biomedical cultural model, & went to a fertility clinic for intrauterine insemination (& successfully produced triplet boys, who are 10 years old now!).

I was interested in the common thread & noted, additionally, similarities with other similar phenomena & spent the semester writing an exhaustive paper on shamanism, possession trance, hypnosis, multiple personality/dissociative identity disorder, & demonic possession.

Mirrors and Compasses: An 85th Birthday Symposium for Erika Bourguignon
Erika Bourguignon. Photo taken by Melinda Kanner at Mirrors and Compasses: An 85th birthday Symposium for Erika Bourguignon, held at The Ohio State University on Friday, February 20, 2009.

Two books formed the spine of that investigation & my foundation in studying dissociation for several years. I stumbled on Felicitas Goodman's How About Demons? Possession & Exorcism in the Modern World (1988), which led me to Possession (1976) by Erika Bourguignon. Erika Bourguignon is a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology from Ohio State specializing in psychological anthropology.  Possession is an ethnology, or cross-cultural investigation & comparison, that examines possession states. It is based specifically on her work in Haiti studying Vodou possession trance (which differs from mere possession, because of the dissociative trance that is described as a displacement of self &, in theory, has neurological correlates) but compares such possession trance to shamanic spirit journeys, demonic possession, multiple personality, or other types of possession around the world. Besides the ethnology Possession, Bourguignon is notable & continually cited for her 1968 ethnologic analysis of the appearance of altered states of consciousness as normal parts of cultural practices.

Felicitas Goodman, now deceased, was a student of Bourguignon's. Her story is interesting, as she came to anthropology later in life, focused on the ethnology of glossolalia (speaking in tongues), & went on to found a New Age facility called the Cuyamungue Institute, dedicated to rediscovering trance as a form of everyday relaxation through ritual postures. Goodman's early work & dissertation, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (1972), are really phenomenal, as she was the first to conduct neuroanthropology among Apostolic Pentecostals. She worked in Indiana & Mexico, conducting ethnography of tongue-speaking & recording glossolalia to test the hypothesis that it has universal features. She found, in brief, that while there are dialectic differences among groups, there are universal aspects of glossolalia that suggest it is not faked but is something else entirely (whether or not it is truly God's voice is not the question, as there have been non-Christian glossolalists as well). Goodman's later work tended to be less ethnographic than historical & experimental. Her more famous work is the The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (2005), which analyzes the German demon possession case upon which The Exorcism of Emily Rose (U.S., 2005) & Requiem (Germany, 2006) films are based. She also began collecting prehistoric & historic depictions of postures that she suspected were, like yoga postures, meant to induce altered states of consciousness. She conducted several studies using college students to simulate the postures & measure physiological responses to them. This work is outlined in Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences (1990)  & Ecstatic Trance: New Ritual Body Postures: A Workbook (with Nana Nauwald, 2003). How About Demons? picks up where Bourguignon's Possession left off, comparing contemporary forms of dissociation cross-culturally, including her own studies of glossolalia, faith-healing, demon possession, & experimental work.

I tried some of the trance postures published in The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys (2009) by Belinda Gore, who took over the Cuyamungue Institute when Goodman died. Here is the fish woman pose with Douglas Weathers simulating it.
I tried some of the trance postures published in The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys (2009) by Belinda Gore, who took over the Cuyamungue Institute when Goodman died. Here is the fish woman pose with Douglas Weathers simulating it.

This all led me to studies of Pentecostal glossolalia, self-deception, & other forms of trance, which I'll be writing about in future posts. These posts are drafts of what I hope will become my "position paper" toward informing my tenure & promotion committee reviewers how all my research fits together (along with the rest of the academic community, who might read it) &, ultimately, a book. I'm posting these drafts in the course blog for "Primate Religion & Human Consciousness" because the course follows my exploration & thinking for the book.  This semester is the 4th time I've taught the course, & it has changed somewhat dramatically each time. It has provided me an opportunity to integrate my interests in biopsychology with anthropology of consciousness. The first semester we read Julian Paul Keenan's The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness (with Gordon Gallup, Jr. & Dean Falk, 2003), a series of articles, & conducted numerous in-class activities & in-class research projects. The next time I taught it, we read Barbara King's Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (2007), David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, & the Nature of Society (2002), & the 2nd volume of Michael Winkelman & Etzel Cardena's Altering Consciousness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (2011), articles, & conducted in-class activities & out-of-class research projects. Last year we read Evolving God, Darwin's Cathedral, & Joseph Bulbulia & colleagues' The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques (2008); & I encouraged students to take up Wilson's challenge of a church-by-church ethnography toward testing his multi-level adaptationist model, which has since blossomed into the Religious Ecology Study (aka Belongingness Ecology Study). After giving two talks last year (one for the Tuscaloosa Humanist Society & another for the American Anthropological Association) that integrate all of my projects within one cohesive theme, I revamped this course to follow the outline of those talks & expand on that material.  Currently, we are focusing on specific readings that inform each slide from those talks (& their accompanying Powerpoint slides), trying to include author biographies to put this research into a historical & disciplinary context, & always developing more experiential activities to facilitate "embodied" learning.

I hope that all of this will find form to make for a compelling read & provide avenues by which others, whether scientists or no, can appreciate the point I'm exploring--that our "consciousness" has mechanisms that, by design, curtail awareness. I think this is fairly intuitive to most people, but there is an interesting contrast when we talk of seeking to expand our consciousnesses or for higher consciousness as some natural progression of humanness that I think may be an artifact or by-product of other cognitive functions. And even as I write this, I feel my awareness of exactly what I'd like to say hiding in the murk of my mind, murkiness I hope both to see through yet leave in place, if that makes any sense.

21

Have you ever been so absorbed in a video game that you lose track of time? One moment its noon and the next thing you know the moonlight is shining through the windows. This is not uncommon to many, our lives are filled with all sorts of video games, from the Sims to World of Warcraft. In fact, several researchers studied the positive and negative effects video games, in particular World of Warcraft, had on gamers. Apparently getting immersed in such a visually stimulating game as WoW can have both good and bad impacts on health. Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, Michael G. Lacy, H.J. Francois Dengah II, Jesse Fagan, and David E. Most studied the dissociation or immersion of those playing WoW.

What's really going on in our brains while playing?

Snodgrass and friends identify absorption as becoming unaware of the environment around them and time perception maybe altered. According to Snodrass it is commonly accepted that being absorbed in something is healthy. Most people become absorbed in things on a daily basis, for example reading a good book.

On the other hand there is the extreme version of this absorption called dissociative identity disorder or DID. This extreme detachment from the real world combined with amnesia, depersonalization, and de-realization have caused some scholars to diagnosed DID as a mental disorder. It is common for many people to become absorbed in things that give relief from the stresses of life. Except those that have DID use absorption to avoid stress.

Snodgrass goes on to describe the ways in which researchers are reacting to the good feeling benefits of dissociation. One such approach is looking at the neurobiology involved, which in lay man’s terms means examining the brain’s lack of attention to the world around it. Then measuring the reactions of the stressors to the environment in relation to health benefits. An example of this is meditation. Another belief is that being in these “feel-good” states releases endorphins. Other researchers have focused on the effects dopamine (which is connected to the brain’s reward system) and stress have on addictions to harmful subsistences. They study the amount of stress hormones such as glucocorticoids cortisol have in short-term and long-term situations. The results showed that with short-term stress an increase in dopamine allowed people to feel focused and alert. While in a long-term situation it led to an opposite effect. Causing those under chronic stress to need more feel-good activities and becoming more susceptible to subsistences abuse.

Snodgrass's Angle

Snodgrass hypothesized that those who became absorbed in WoW could show the same mental states as other dissociates. He believes that those who become dissociative show both good and bad mental health depending on the players’ stress levels.

Research and Methods

Snodgrass and Co. used several methods for collecting data, they played the game, watched and interviewed other players. Three of the researchers hung out and played WoW excessively so as to better understand the effects of the game’s environment on their surroundings. They discovered that at some points it was a source of stress relieve while at other times it was the source of stress. They interviewed 30 gamers and split their data into three groups. One focused on the individuals’ motivations and goals, favorite and less favorite aspects of the game. Then gamers further described their positive and negative experiences when playing WoW. The third part was the cultural success in the both the game world and the real world.

In addition, Snodgrass conducted a Web Survey with three scales. The first measured individuals’ levels of absorption using the Tellegen Absorption Scale and the Dissociative Experience Scale.They were asked to describe to what extent they became absorbed into the world of WoW. The second part measured how playing WoW negatively impacted their real-world lives. The last part asked the gamers to measure the extent WoW added to their happiness.

Table 2 shows that 30% became so absorbed in the game that they blocked out the world around them. While, two-thirds said that losing track of time was also common, but that the virtual world of WoW felt real to them. In fact, many believe that the happenings in this fictional world were more memorable than events in their actual lives. Some even feel as though they truly are their characters.

Table 3 focuses on the effects WoW has on players. Half of those surveyed said that the game actually increased their happiness. Many more found that the game was relaxing and helped release stress, increasing their life satisfaction. Oddly, most of those surveyed said that WoW didn’t increase stress, but one-third did agree that to a degree it did add to stress. Half did admit to being addicted to the game.

Pretty eh?

While doing research Snodgrass observed that many players found the world to be visually pleasing, vivid, and even seemed real. Many people, including the researchers preferred to be called by their character’s name while playing. In fact, the researchers found themselves unconsciously referring to each other with these made up names outside of playing WoW. Many of the players experienced the good benefits from being absorbed in a game. The researchers interfered that these players achieved positive dissociation from moving away from their stressors. Some even reached a meditative state.

At the opposite spectrum the game was creating stress for some players.While many players started playing to avoid stress, yet found themselves being so immersed that they neglected every day responsibilities, creating more stress. Over time these players needed to spend more and more time in this fictional world to get the “good-feelings” from the game.

Conclusion

Dissociation in WoW leads to both positive and negative mental wellbeing. Some people find WoW to be therapeutic, contributing to their over-all happiness and mental health. While others become so addicted to the game and found themselves unable to leave the game. Snodgrass believes that over-all playing WoW is not necessarily a bad thing and that it can actually be a healthy thing, relieving stress for most players.