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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.