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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?

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.