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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



This serial post will be about dissociation as transcendence & why both are apparently ubiquitous & simultaneously extremely psychosocially diverse.  I will make several functionalist claims, as follow:

  • Consciousness is costly
  • Dissociation is a basic function of consciousness
  • Dissociation defrays the costs of awareness
  • Transcendence is just another word for dissociation
  • Transcendence appears in diverse psychocultural forms not because of its primacy but because it is a baseline necessity
Pentecostal service in a "campo," in this case a carport, in Via de Mar, Moin, Costa Rica
Pentecostal service in a "campo," in this case a carport, in Via de Mar, Moin, Costa Rica

Transcendent experiences are those beyond the limits of ordinary experience (Beauregard 2011).  There are varieties of transcendent experiences moderated by personal, social, & cultural circumstances.  Personal circumstances can be psychological & biological &, of course, are not mutually exclusive of social & cultural influences but are directly influenced by & interact with them.  Therefore, we can study transcendence from a number of perspectives.  For instance, I study speaking in tongues & other religious behaviorfire-induced trance or transcendence influenced by “flickering light & sudden sound,” & self-deception or transcendence of self-awareness as an adaptation or unconscious mating strategy.

Fireside trance (Photo courtesy Heath Kinzer)
Fireside trance (Photo courtesy Heath Kinzer)

These studies are based on a cognitive science of religion model.  This approach holds that cognitive mechanisms related to religio-spiritual behavior are either adaptations for religious behavior or exaptations evolved to deal with general problems but uniquely invoked for religious purposes.  I tend toward the latter school of thought & follow cognitive anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse (2004) in imagining that religions develop, in a non-linear way, following the modes of religiosity: "catchy" concepts --> repetitive rituals --> convoluted doctrine.

Kobe Bryant was believed to be self-deceiving when he claimed Katelyn Faber's "no" really meant "yes"
Kobe Bryant was believed to be self-deceiving when he claimed Katelyn Faber's "no" really meant "yes"

Transcendent experiences tend to be rather catchy & get repetitively repeated.  Doctrine is much harder to grapple with, so many people never get past the 2nd mode (some never get past the first, as I lay out in "The Wrong Holy Ghost").  Transcendence and thus “consciousness” are ecologically relative, which is a super-important point.  "Consciousness" I define as a combination of self- and other-awareness, but the dimensions of self & the others one is aware of are also relative.  This is why, even within religion, which is too often referred to monolithically as Religion with a capital "R," diversity is critical to ecological flexibility & stability.

Just as natural environments consist of many ecological niches that require different strategies of survival and reproduction, so too should different social environments foster different cultural and religious system.  In other words, we postulate that environments of stability, security, and wealth will cause a different form of religiosity to thrive--that is, liberal religion. (Storm & Wilson 2009)

This, therefore, is the perspective we take in the Religious Ecology Study, which examines group-level commitment behavior and success, based on a model proposed by biologist David Sloan Wilson in Darwin's Cathedral (2010). The main criterion for inclusion in the study is that a group fulfill anthropologist Barbara King's (2007) model of spiritual inclusion, which means that they inculcate a sense of “belongingness” among members. I have conducted such research among several Pentecostal church groups in New York, Tuscaloosa, and Costa Rica; and students in an Honors course I teach and in my research group have conducted research among video game communities (ABXY) and extremely liberal churches (e.g., Unitarian Universalist) and observed groups that defy traditional categorization (Temple of Divine Reality).

These are various outputs of the Religious Ecology Study [REST] (or, as I've taken to calling it lately because some student groups prefer to study secular groups, the Belongingness Ecology Study Tuscaloosa [BEST]). Clockwise from left are the checklist from the REST workbook, attendance at group meetings as an indication of commitment signaling in a video game club, a map drawn of a unique "school" one group of students unofficially observed, & a graph indicating the relationship among types of commitment & previous religious experience among a local Unitarian Universalist congregation.
These are various outputs of the Religious Ecology Study [REST] (or, as I've taken to calling it lately because some student groups prefer to study secular groups, the Belongingness Ecology Study Tuscaloosa [BEST]). Clockwise from left are the checklist from the REST workbook, attendance at group meetings as an indication of commitment signaling in a video game club, a map drawn of a unique "school" one group of students unofficially observed, & a graph indicating the relationship among types of commitment & previous religious experience among a local Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Thus far, the common thread among cooperatively successful groups is some transcendence of self in supporting the group. And, ironically, among groups less successful in sustaining cooperation, we observed other forms of systemic psychological transcendence that did not rely on group participation (e.g., the video gamer club).

The working hypothesis of this model, therefore, is that transcendence functionally limits consciousness. This can be demonstrated psychologically, phenomenologically, and neurologically. Evolved functional limitations of consciousness are exapted and superstimulated as part of ritual religious structures and behaviors.


Self-Conception and Evolution

I’m going to start off by defining four important aspects of self-conception as touched on in the reading 🙂

Self-conception is the awareness of self as…

1.      An object of knowledge

2.      The subject of experience

3.       An entity that exists through time

4.       A causal agent

In this article John G. H. Cant and Daniel J. Povinelli focus the most on number 4, self-conception as the awareness of self as a causal agent.

What exactly does being aware of yourself as a causal agent mean? Why should we care? And what are Povinelli and Cant exactly hypothesizing?

Well, a causal agent is an entity that produces an effect or is responsible for events or results. So basically it means possessing the awareness that your actions have specific consequences.

We should care because there is not much known regarding the evolution of these aspects of self-concept, and Povinelli and Cant have evidence to believe that number 4 (which they believe to be the most primitive) evolved relatively recently. Ironic, right?

Before we go any further, I just wanted to distinguish self-conception from self-perception.

Self-perception is defined by Leary & Butterworth as self-knowledge obtained through personal experiences and transferred to memory. Self-conception is when you can conceive of yourself and reflect on your own mental processes. It is widely believed that humans develop self-conception anywhere from 18-24 months of age.

There is strong evidence stating that only humans and some of the great apes possess the ability to self-conceptualize. We touched on this a couple of classes ago with self-recognition. Gorillas seem to be the exception to the rule as they don’t show any ability in experiments to recognize themselves in mirrors. There is an exception to the exception to the rule though, as specially trained Koko the gorilla showed some signs of self-recognition. It is unknown if Koko was exhibiting true signs of self-recognition or if she was trying to control the image without completely understanding she was the reflection. Gorillas and their exclusion are important to keep in mind when looking at predictions from this model.

Self-recognition is important in looking at the evolution of self-conception as it, according to Gallup, shows that the species under question is self-aware and capable of conceiving their existence. They have some idea of who they are or what characterizes them.


Schemata (or schema singular) are defined as “internal(presumably neural) states that are triggered by stimuli in the outside world.” They control motor output because of this, are in a sense, causal. Infants graduate from simple schema like reaching, turning head, etc., to a more elaborate form, where they would grab a box of cheerios, open it up, reach into the bag, and pull out a cheerio to put in their mouth.

Schemata are causally connected to an external object or event, but do not serve as a source of representation. It is simply present in the mind.  Mental representations possess a connection with an object or event when it is not present. Connecting these two different things together creates a proposition. Propositions are linguistic or imaginal statements that connect the dots, so to speak. For example, it would be like a toddler picking up a doll and categorizing it as a toy.

Gorillas have the ability to possess schema, but not the ability to relate it to something non concrete or present. So when they look in a mirror, they see an image, but can’t connect the dots to what the image is. They just see it and are like…crickets. They have no knowledge about themselves and can’t draw on anything other than direct perception.

This relates to self-conception as the awareness of self as a causal agent because a species can look at the reflection in the mirror (the object of perception) and realize that it’s actions are caused by them (held only in mind).

How Does This Relate to Monkeys Climbing Trees?

Understanding the evolution of self-conception existent in great apes and humans (minus gorillas) is dependent on understanding when and why schemata based knowledge proved insufficient for our common ancestor and their ecological circumstances.

Let’s look at some theories that will help us better understand primate intelligence and its evolution…

Social Intelligence Hypothesis

·         It is proven that socialized species tend to have more sophisticated mental abilities and are overall more intelligent than those who live in isolation

·         The only problem with this theory is the gorilla factor. There are many species as social as the great apes, but they do not have the ability to self-conceptualize

The Hunt for ‘Nanners

·         Another theory is that the need to find food led to higher intelligence and mental capacity. Milton proposed that the benefits of having to remember where the spatial location of a food source is and phonological patterns associated with this = smarter monkey

·         Parker and Gibson argue that this “extractive foraging” causes the development of higher sensorimotor skills and/or brain size.

·         This theory doesn’t really make sense because other species with the same sensorimotor levels do not use this strategy, and also why would the extractive foraging of some species result in the evolving of higher intelligence while it doesn’t in others?

FINALLY- Cant and Povinelli’s Model

This model argues that self-conception initially evolved as a psychological mechanism to facilitate planning and execution of unusually flexible locomotor patterns existent in the ancestors of great apes and humans. They used the long-tailed macaque, siamang, and orangutan as a basis for their hypothesis.

Can this Branch Hold Me?

A key aspect to the model is vertical tree trunks. These species must swing from tree to tree avoiding falling where there are gaps. They must also be knowledgeable of the fact that branches become less and less stable the farther away they are from the trunk. The less stable branches are where the fruit is usually located. But, all other aspects of these species’ existence is reliant on their ability to solve this locomotor problems.

Body weight is a critical factor as it jeopardizes the stability of the branches and trees to hold up heavier species such as the orangutan. More weight on a branch also means the branch will bend downward, sometimes increasing the gap from tree to tree.

Another factor is that larger animals are more fragile than smaller ones, meaning that they have a higher fatality rate when falling out of the canopy.

Common Locomotion Solutions

  • Suspension
  •  Multiple supports
  • Habitat compliance

Cant and Povenilli also introduce the idea of stereotyped or nonstereotyped locomotion. Orangutans are proven to gear more towards nonstereotyped locomotion as they are at a higher risk of falling due to their body weight. This means they have to troubleshoot and be more aware of their environment because they have more to lose if they make a mistake. Because of this they have to vary their movements more, unlike smaller species such as the siamang or long tailed macaque.

Cant and Povenilli feel that this model best explains the evolution of primate intelligence and self-conception because, in order to breeze through the trees, these animals have to be extremely aware of themselves and their surroundings. The have to recognize themselves as a causal agent in order to survive and get their next meal.

This model gives more evolutionary insight than ever before as to why only humans and large-bodied apes possess the ability to self-conceptualize.




Pia Nystrom
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate

Pia Nystrom and Pamela Ashmore are university professors, researchers, and best friends. They are also passionate animal lovers. Nystrom and Ashmore both received PhDs in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis where they met as graduate students. Nystrom now lectures across the Atlantic at the University of Sheffield in the UK, while Ashmore is an Anthropology department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Though they have lived in different continents since 1994, these two friends managed to write a book for undergraduates on their favorite subject, primates.

The Life of Primates

The Life of Primates (2008) gives the reader an in-depth yet straightforward review of nonhuman primate biology. This includes the social behaviors, environments, and cognitive processes of primates as well as basic physiology. The chapter we’ll be discussing is “The Primate Brain and Complex Behavior.” In this section, Nystrom and Ashmore cover a broad range of topics from they “why”s to the “how”s of primate brains and cognition.

Why study nonhuman primate cognition?

Kiri & Mobali of the Memphis Zoo

Because we ourselves are primates, the brains and behaviors of other apes and monkeys interest us and allow for interesting views of our own neurological evolution and psychology. Nonhuman primate cognition research is highly controversial-- especially in its interpretation. Many don’t believe that humans can ever truly understand the minds of other animals because we cannot experience their perspectives for ourselves. However, we continue with this research in order to answer both philosophical and evolutionary questions.

The philosophical questions relate to our desire to know our position in nature - how unique our minds are compared to other creatures. Those who seek answers to the evolutionary questions examine our closest extant relatives (bonobos, chimps, etc) while trying to understand the evolution of the human brain.

Early Research

Nonhuman primate research began in 1927 with Köhler’s chimp observations in the Canary Islands. He was the first to suggest that chimps were capable of insightful behaviors. Systematic research into primate cognition did not truly begin until the 1960’s, however, and even then most of that was done on captive primates. The biggest discoveries of this time period were from two field studies in Tanzania where the researchers showed the chimps frequently construct and use tools. Later research revealed that chimps have tool kits and that these kits are different regionally. This is more than Homo habilis can say with its identical tools across time and geography.

Brain Size


Though brain size usually correlates with complexity, the discovery of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia means this assumption must be reevaluated. H. floresiensis has a small brain case and stature (around the size of a modern chimp), yet it used tools which were much more advanced than those of chimps. This leads us to believe that the internal organization of the brain may be more important than its size. Still though, primates have larger brains than expected based on body size alone and are known to have more complex behaviors than other orders of animals.

Now the question is why did primates evolve such large brains? The brain is a metabolically expensive organ to run. There must have been a very strong selective pressure for large brains that outweighed the energetic cost.

There are several hypotheses for why primates have large brains. Primates with larger home ranges and which also eat fruit (a high energy food) have larger brains. They also seem to have the most efficient routes between food sources on their home ranges mapped out in their heads - this relates to the expensive tissue hypothesis. Sociality is another characteristic which correlates with brain size. Primates which live in large groups have complex interactions and can use “social tools” to achieve their own goals. For example, many primates use manipulation to gain access to food. This is the social intelligence hypothesis.


Mirror Test
Mirror Test

Researchers are also interested in whether nonhuman primates have theory of mind. However, it is very difficult to ascertain whether or not nonhuman primates understand another individual’s mental perspective. In order to learn more about nonhuman theory of mind, researchers have attempted to study an individuals awareness. If an organism has theory of mind, it is assumed to also have awareness. Though awareness is also a complex subject, it may studied a bit more easily than theory of mind. Awareness can be divided into two levels, self-recognition and self-attribution. Self-recognition is the ability to identify oneself apart from others. Self-attribution is when an individual aware of their own mental state and can use this to predict the actions of others.

The mirror test is the most often used test for self-recognition. Chimps, bonobos, and orangutans appear to recognize themselves in the mirror and use it to examine parts of their body they might not normally see. Gorillas do not react in this way and instead try to threaten the image. However, the famous captive gorilla Koko is said to routinely examine herself with a mirror. This may be because of her increased level of social stimulation. Gordon Gallup, the mirror test deviser, suggested that self-recognition could be an index for self-attribution.

Why do primates need to think?

The ability to understand others’ mental states can create more effective cooperation as well as social manipulation. Both of these lead to gains for the individual. Organisms which can differentiate between friendly and unfriendly interactions and intentions are better suited to realize when they are being manipulated or give them the means to manipulate. These abilities also potentially allow for the exchange of knowledge through observation or teaching.


Tool use has never been so adorable.
Tool use has never been so adorable.

As we learned in the Leary/Buttermore paper, tool use is a very large component of research on primate cognition. Primates are hand-feeders, meaning they use their hands for eating and essentially all grabbing activities. Hands are represented extensively in the sensory and motor areas of primate brains. While not all primates use tools, the grasping ability of the hand makes tools fairly useful in the primate world. Chimps and orangutans frequently use them, other species do not quite as much or at all.

Tools are not always used for food either - they can be used in displays and grooming as well. Chimps have been known to throw rocks at enemies and monkeys often dislodge branches to frighten away predators.

Not only are primates able to use tools, but they are also capable of making them. To do this requires forethought. They must have an idea of what the final product should look like and an understand of what materials to use to make that product. Chimps have also been known to make tools hours ahead of time - up to 14 hours of reaching the goal.

The “how”s of tool use in nonhuman primates are widely disputed. Capuchins seem to via trial and error, whereas with chimps it seems to be a mixture of emulation and perhaps intentional teaching.

While we may not ever truly understand the cognitive processes of nonhuman primates, we can learn a lot about our own evolutionary history from this research. There does not seem to be a distinct dividing line between our mental capacities and their own, especially when in a stimulating environment.