Possession and trance

Neuroanthropology has collected videos of trance states in religious rituals, where intense movement, music and mental involvement lead to profoundly altered states of consciousness.

Trance is a fundamental part of many (probably most) religions. Although it is typically associated in the popular mind with ‘voodoo’ it’s also common in many Christian denominations.

Indeed, there’s a video of trance states in Candombl√©, a fusion of Catholicism and voodoo-related Orisha worship, and one of trance states in a charismatic Christian church in the US.

Trance is usually described as involving ‘dissociation’ – originally defined by the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet as the ‘unconscious compartmentalisation of normally integrated mental functions’.

Dissociation is thought to underlie a wide range of phenomena, including hypnosis, reaction to trauma, trance and some forms of spirit possession, hysteria, conversion disorder and, more controversially, multiple personality disorder.

One of the best guides to the range of experiences and the possible neuroscience behind these states is an excellent article by anthropologists Rebecca Seligman and Laurence Kirmayer.

One notable omission from the list on Neuroanthropology is video of the female possession rituals of the Zar Cult from Northern Sudan which has been quite widely discussed in the anthropology literature.

There’s some brief footage of it online and in another video anthropologist Gerasimos Makris discusses the structure and social meaning of the possession rituals.

Link to Neuroanthropology collection of trance videos.
Link to article on trance, dissociation and neuroscience.
Link to good page on anthropology of possession.

One thought on “Possession and trance”

  1. The anthropologists Margaret Bateson and Gregory Bateson studied trance rituals in Bali and consulted the great hypnotherapist Dr Milton Erickson who recognized many similarities between this religious trance and the trance phenomena exhibited by his hypnotized patients.
    I’m also reminded of the “crowd hysteria” and collective trance phenomena that can happen at pop concerts; so called Beatle Mania.
    Thanks for posing all these links-very interesting.

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