NEUROPHYSIOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL APPROACHES TO SPIRIT POSSESSION IN HAITI

by Steve Mizrach

The Neurophysiological Approach to Consciousness

In this paper, I will be taking a neurophysiological approach to the phenomenon of spirit possession in Haiti, in order to argue that it is an altered state of consciousness marked by dissociation, and to determine the functions of this state. This type of approach was pioneered by the anthropologist Erika Bourgignon, who argued that spirit possession was a) a universal phenomenon insofar as all known religions contained similar types of experiences, regardless of how they were defined and that b) the reason for its universality was the well-recognized fact of physical anthropology that regardless of race and heredity, human brains everywhere contained the same basic physiological structure, unless some type of congenital abnormality was present. (1974: 35) Bourgignon felt that the reason why human consciousness had certain universal features was that it was the product of individual cognition as well as social programming, and that cognitive science models could point to certain universal features of human cognition. (1978:65)

Spirit possession in any given society, argued Bourgignon, could be articulated in all sorts of ways and defined by many more. Some might treat it as desirable, others undesirable; some might see it as the action of spiritual beings, and others might call it something else; some might make it an institution of religious life, while others might marginalize it; some would seek ways to inculcate it, while others might dedicate their energies to preventing it. Nonetheless, in any context in which it occurred, possession shared enough common characteristics to be dealt with as a heuristic device for explaining phenomena in myriad cultures, and the reason for these common characteristics was the simple fact that all human beings shared certain neurological features which determined the nature of the possession experience. (1977: 221)

Bourgignon therefore took the dangerous position of suggesting that possession was neither a form of cultural theater, which would be completely different from one society to the next, nor a form of mental illness, which was the approach that scientific medicine was developing toward the phenomenon. She argued that the neurophysiological approach could lead to a better understanding of cognition cross-culturally, and a method of organizing different phenomena in disparate societies under a common label. It could lead scientists to a better understanding of the physiological and psychological mechanisms which lead to cognitive changes, and deal with consciousness as a meaningful process rather than just an epiphenomenon to behavior and action. How mind functioned in different societies was graspable, insofar as we could see the universal neurological substrate from which it emerged. (1977: 113)

In this paper, I will be following Bourgignon's lead, into new territory. I will be attempting to deal with ethnographic accounts of spirit possession by making reference to new discoveries in cognitive science and neuropsychology. I believe that spirit possession can tell us a great deal about the nature of human consciousness, especially the very nature of self-awareness, the sense of identity, and how we apprehend experience. I also will argue that by studying spirit possession, Western scientists may discover new potentialities in the use of altered states of consciousness, and perhaps revise their theories about personality and mental illness. The study of spirit possession and altered states of consciousness is a key element of the growing scientific study of religion, and perhaps through new insights on Haitian religion, we can understand religious phenomena in our own society a little better.

What is possession? A brief history

Possession was clearly a matter of some importance in the premodern world. Exorcists and religious functionaries were called upon to drive demons and other spiritual beings out of persons, while oracles and prophets chose to summon such beings to come to them. In the New Testament, Christ is frequently called upon to drive evil demons and "unclean spirits" out of people. It was a widespread belief in the ancient world that these spiritual beings were responsible for the physical and mental illnesses of most people. Creative people were thought to be possessed by a genius (the word comes from the same root as djinn or genie) or tutelary planetary "daemon" which provided them with their wisdom. When people were acting "not like themselves," it was assumed that their soul had been expelled and that their body was now possessed or owned by some other spiritual being. (Garrett 1987:6)

Many of these ancient beliefs survived in the medieval Western worldview, and their survivals remain in much of modern custom. Medieval peasants said "bless you" to their fellows when they sneezed so that the devil or some other demon would not enter the person's body as his mouth was opened. The 'village idiot' was often allowed to roam free rather than being confined because people assumed he had been "touched" by God, and so his soul had become slightly dislodged. There were many "epidemics" of possession in European history, such as the one described by Aldous Huxley in his book The Devils of Loudoun , and they often led to rather violent responses, such as the Inquisition in Spain, the witch-hunts in central Europe, and the Puritan witch-burnings of colonial New England. "Concourse" with spiritual beings was assumed to be the result of a pact with the devil, and was severely punished. It was only with the advent of the Enlightenment that possession began to be looked at in a different light. (Garrett 1987: 38)

The early 'scientists' of that time (they more frequently preferred to be known as 'natural philosophers') increasingly began to look at natural rather than supernatural causes for mysterious events. They began to suggest that possession might not be the act of some outside spiritual being, but instead a derangement or disturbance of a person's mind, which would be better dealt with in a medical rather than a religious context. Possessed people might be mentally ill, and therefore it might be better to confine them to asylums rather than burning them, which was seen as a very humanitarian gesture. Many of these 'scientists' observed that possession occurred more frequently in women rather than men, and therefore began to diagnose the condition as 'hysteria,' a condition of loss of self-control which apparently resulted from the fact that one possessed a womb (hystere ), and which was best cured by the removal of that dangerous organ. (Crapanzano and Garrison 1977: 133-5)

As the Age of Reason commenced, eminently rational men struggled to find an explanation for why other rational people would suddenly begin speaking in strange voices, yelling blasphemies and curses, and acting violently and uncontrollably. They noted similarities between possession and the fits and convulsions of epileptics and psychotics, and concluded that it was best that possession be treated as a disease which could be dealt with by confining the person so that they could not injure themselves or others in their deranged state. (Oesterreich 1930: 81) Possession was the surrender of reason, and therefore like other irrational behaviors, had to be checked and controlled, lest it spread. (Taussig 1987: 45) Theories of contagion of disease rarely differentiated between the physical, mental, and psychosomatic. Thus the medicalization of possession had begun.

It was during this period, the end of the 19th century - during the medicalization of possession states - that anthropologists first began to bring back ethnographic accounts of possession in other non-Western societies. Not surprisingly, they treated it as a medical condition. It was assumed that shamans and medicine men who allowed themselves to be possessed must, in all likelihood, be the mentally ill people of that society; and that the society indulged their strange behaviors by giving them a chance to "act out" their derangement in a socially proscribed role, so that it could do the least possible harm. (Heber 1989: 562) Increasingly, possession became "primitivized," as well. If progress meant increasing rationality, then surely the more a society engaged in such irrational behavior, the more primitive and uneducated it must be.

Since possession was clearly proscribed by the Bible as paganism and sorcery in the Book of Kings (unless of course it was prophetic possession by the Spirit of God Himself), and further, was clearly an indication of widespread irrationality and lack of self-control, Western societies took it upon themselves as part of "white man's burden" to include possession as one of the "superstitions" that needed to be eradicated among less "civilized" people. By medicalizing possession, and placing itself in the role of therapist, Europe could develop a justificatory rationale for altering the culture of their colonial subjects. (Taussig 1991: 85) Europeans were merely curing the disease that retarded progress in these societies. This notion is not entirely gone; recently State Department officials have characterized voodoo in Haiti as a 'sickness' which requires a 'cure.' (Harrison 1992: 55) The U.S. Marines, when they occupied Haiti, cooperated with Catholic 'anti-superstition' campaigns; they proclaimed that U.S. intervention was necessary to free the country from 'possession' by 'superstition'...

Toward a new model of possession

As anthropology in the 50s and 60s was confronted with the unraveling of colonialism and the logic of 'white man's burden,' there was a reevaluation of many concepts previously accepted as sacrosanct by anthropologists. Many anthropologists began to wonder openly whether treating possession as a medical condition was correct. Many began to examine possession as a form of theater or performance - that it was merely a form of sacred drama in which trained actors performed the roles of the gods. This is, after all, how drama began in the West - with the Egyptians acting out the death and resurrection of their god Osiris, which would in turn inspire the sacred dramas of the Greeks, and the passion and mystery plays of Christianity. If possessed people were behaving in a bizarre or irrational state, it was merely a form of "acting out" some role for the benefit of others. (Metraux 1946: 210) Perhaps it was a form of role-playing which served personal advancement; women might pretend to be possessed by spirits to increase their authority or social position. (Lewis 1971: 64)

Unfortunately, this explanation did not always seem to hold true for cases of involuntary possession, because in those cases, it might result in antisocial behavior and social disturbance (driving away family, friends, and others), and jeopardize a person's social position greatly. Perhaps involuntary possession was also a form of "acting out" - a way of releasing violent resentments on people without taking responsibility for them. ("The Devil made me do it.") Some anthropologists began to suggest that two different phenomena may be at work. Perhaps voluntary possession was a form of role-playing, whereas involuntary possession was a form of mental illness, or at least a person choosing a role which was seen as destructive and inappropriate. In all these cases, possession was seen as a different kind of behavior , but the mental state of the person was seen to be the same. (Mars 1975:12)

Anthropologists attempted to deal with possession in Haiti in precisely this way. Any change in mental state had to be pathological, but they didn't want to pathologize Voodoo, so they assumed there was no change in mental state. But this approach ran into several problems. If what was taking place was sacred drama, one would expect that there would be trained ritual specialists who would be "coached" in their roles. However, while people were frequently "trained" by the houngan to control their possessions (they would "graduate" from hounsi bossal or a novice who could not control his loa to a hounsi canzo , or initiate, who could), not everyone asked for or received this training, and there were many people who became possessed once or several times before receiving it, while others became possessed at ceremonies without ever having it. Anthropologists looked for 'ritual specialists' in possession (as was the case with Western 'spirit mediums') and could not find them. (Bourgignon 1978: 85)

It also became clear that not only could all Haitians be possessed, but that almost all who participated at Voodoo ceremonies and desired the experience had been possessed at least once in their lifetime. And there were several who reported that they had been present at ceremonies where they did not want to be possessed and had the experience anyway. It was also found that there was indeed a distinct amnesia about what they had done while possessed. Interrogation revealed that they not only did not want to say what they did while possessed, but that they were genuinely unable to remember what they did. When shown objects they handled while possessed by the loa , they showed absolute failure to recognize those objects. (Bourgignon 1978: 105) Haitians were either all very skilled liars or they genuinely did not remember their actions while possessed. And then Western people like Maya Deren began to proclaim that they also became possessed at Haitian Voodoo ceremonies. (Deren 1970: 249) Theories of "racial susceptibility" to possession flew out the window.

During the 70s, it became clear to many anthropologists such as Bourgignon and Sheila Walker that there were many similarities between possession and the hypnotic state, and that possession, much like hypnosis, might be a state of consciousness different from the ordinary one. (Walker 1972: 29) Hypnotic subjects almost always failed to recall their experiences while hypnotized, unless ordered to do so by the hypnotist. Curiously, however, hypnotic subjects could remember memories from other parts of their life with almost "total recall," if ordered to by the hypnotist. They could even be made to remember something at a later point or to feel a certain sensation after leaving hypnotic trance - this was known as posthypnotic suggestion. There were many curious things about hypnosis, especially its origins, which we will deal with later. The main thing to note is that possession, like hypnosis, seemed to be amenable to analysis as an altered state of consciousness .

The Emic view of spirit possession

Interestingly, this new view of possession came closer in interpretation to the "emic" view of the Haitians themselves, but it also contradicted that view in another way. I am using the term "emic" to refer to how cultural phenomena are understood by members of that culture, as contrasted to "etic" viewpoints which are based on scientific explanations derived from Western concepts and science. (Harris 1968: 32) Up till now, I have been focusing on the "etic" viewpoint of the outsider to Haitian culture, attempting to make sense of possession on his own terms. But now it is necessarily to deal briefly with how the Haitians see possession themselves - what meanings it holds for them and how they interpret the experience. It was the ignoring of such data that allowed earlier 'medicalizing' theories to proliferate, since no one thought it was worthwhile to ask the Haitians themselves as to how they felt about possession.

The Haitian Voudouists view each person as being composed of three "bodies," so to speak. In many ways, it is inappropriate to call any of these three "bodies" a "soul," since that carries certain Christian and other connotations which may not be correct. The first body is the physical one which everyone can see, the corps cadavre. The other two bodies dwell within the first one. The second is known as the gros-bon-ange (literally, "large good angel") which can be thought of as the vitality, intelligence, moral character, and animating drive of the person. The third is known as the ti-bon-ange (literally, "small good angel") which is sort of their abstract self, or the unmanifest essence of personhood. Both the gros-bon-ange and ti-bon-ange depart at death - the first after several weeks, the second almost immediately after. If the ti-bon-ange is driven out for some reason, the gros-bon-ange becomes sluggish, and the person is now zombi , one of the walking dead. When the gros-bon-ange departs - and is not replaced - the person is mort , one of the truly dead. (Deren 1970: 128-34)

It is thought that sorcerers can place a person's ti-bon-ange in a govi or jar, and thereby make that person zombi. Possession is understood differently from being made zombi. In the case of possession, a person's ti-bon-ange remains, but their gros-bon-ange is temporarily driven out and replaced by one of the loa or spiritual beings. The loa is said to "mount" the person like a horse, and when it leaves, the person's gros-bon-ange returns to its home. (A person's gros-bon-ange is also thought to wander while they dream. Sleepwalking is thereby a cause for great concern in Haiti.) While some of the loa are clearly "translated" African deities, many of them appear to be gods of other origins, or perhaps even deified recent ancestors and heroes of the revolution; others appear to be lesser spiritual entities which perform services, the so-called "work loa." In Haitian cosmology, it is possible for a person's gros-bon-ange to become loa once it reaches the Abyss, and then that person can return to possess others. (Rigaud 1969: 69)

When a person is possessed by one of the loa , they are always referred to by the name of that being. When the gods enter a mount, that mount is given the deference appropriate to the god. If the person asks what he did while he was possessed, he is usually not told in terms of his own actions - instead he is told "Erzulie did this" or "Guede did this." The Haitians do their best to discourage faking of possession, because they want to listen only to their gods, not to spirits pretending to be their gods, or especially human fakers. There is a certain hot spiced rum drink which it is said only Guede can tolerate; any person claiming to be possessed by Guede must drink this and not show any signs of discomfort. Failing this test reveals the person to be a liar. Anthropologists tasting a drop or two of this concoction report that it would be indeed unbearable for anyone without a cast iron mouth... (Herskovitz 1937: 66)

Though the gods are shown a certain deference, they are not allowed to injure their mount, and the houngan will take steps to assure they do not damage the clothing or articles of the mount. If a loa has become particularly unruly, the houngan will demand that they leave. The "mount" may often be physically and emotionally exhausted after the experience, but the loa are not permitted to harm the person otherwise. (Huxley 1966: 84) Involuntary possessions in Haiti are usually dealt with in one of three ways. If the person is deeply Catholic, their relatives will assume it is a demon and seek a priest to perform an exorcism. If the person practices Voodoo, it is generally assumed that their loa have come at an "inappropriate" time, and a houngan will be sought to politely ask the being to leave. If they are irreligious, frequently they are brought to an asylum or otherwise treated as suffering from mental illness, and warned against any future association with friends who practice Voodoo (Huxley 1966: 129).

It is clear that (Voodoo-practicing peasant) Haitians did not recognize possession as a form of mental illness and did not consider it a form of performance. They, like some anthropologists are doing now, considered possession to be a very different state of being. Unfortunately, for them, this state is something very important - it represents participation in their lives by divinity. For the anthropologists, examining the matter etically, possession represents something perhaps more banal - a change in consciousness of the person. (A profound change, but that will be discussed later.) But the goal of this paper is not to attack the emic point of view of the Haitians themselves. It is not to impose the etic point of view of 'rational' Westerners on 'less rational' Haitians. Instead, it is an attempt to make spirit possession phenomena comprehensible to Westerners on 'scientific' terms that they can understand.

The existence or nonexistence of spiritual beings such as the loa is simply not a matter for scientific debate. At Voodoo ceremonies, the loa generally will not answer any questions about themselves to blancs. As Metraux once said, "they do not consent to be interviewed." (1946: 17) Unlike spirits at Western seances, they do not have recourse to any "ectoplasm" which allows them to be visible or manifest to the living, except through their "mounts." The Haitians have no other way of knowing of them except through their manifestations through the living. Unless anthropologists can discover some "ghostbuster" type equipment, we will not be competent to deal with the reality or nonreality of the Haitian or anyone else's spirit world. Therefore, I will not say that the loa are not real, independent spiritual beings; that is a matter for parapsychology to determine. In this paper I intend to treat them as if they are psychological states, for heuristic purposes.

Mostly, I want to remove the alienness from the phenomenon. Possession is alive and well in the 20th century here in the Western world, and all kinds of emic systems (Spiritualism, New Age "channeling," Scientology, etc.) have been developed to explain its occurrence. Through recourse to some psychological and psychiatric literature, I think anthropologists can begin to get an "etic" grasp on the phenomenon. I also would contend that there are aspects of the phenomenon which will force us to expand some currently narrow tunnel-visions of what is 'real' or possible. In saying that possession may have 'paranormal' aspects, I am not suggesting that it is supernatural or mystical or unknowable, but rather that in understanding it we will have to deal with anomalies that may not be explicable in current psychological and cognitive models. (Winkelman 1986: 201)

Definition of terms

Before proceeding, it is necessary to undertake the inevitable enterprise of defining my terminology. While I have sketched out preliminary definitions of much of the terms in my paper, I feel it necessarily to define precisely certain terms so that they will not be ambiguous. Certain differentiations need to be made explicit and the origins of certain terms need to be explored more closely.

Mesmerism, hypnosis, hypnotoform states, and hypnotizability

Dealing with the term "hypnosis" is intrinsically problematic. On the one hand, it is a widely used analytic term and instrument in modern psychology. On the other hand, hypnosis is also one of the most widely misunderstood phenomena in the modern psychotherapeutic lexicon, insofar as no one seems to know how or why it works. There has been a great deal of argument recently as to whether hypnosis is a true ASC or just a special mode of interpersonal interaction between hypnotist and patient, and as to whether one can ever separate fact from fantasy during hypnosis. Recently, hypnosis has been used to recover repressed "memories" from patients that have supposedly been lost for 20 or more years - "memories" of sexual abuse, Satanic ritual abuse, abductions by UFOs, and parental abuse. (Mack 1991: 45) Many psychologists argue incessantly over whether repression really works this way, and as to whether hypnosis could possibly be effective in such a way. (Bliss 1986: 45)

I will not deal with the modern controversies over the use and effectiveness of medical hypnosis. I only wish to use it as an analytic category, by suggesting that spirit possession may be a hypnotoform state, which displays features of hypnosis, but is not a hypnotic state per se. As I see it, the only way one can understand what hypnosis is, is to look at its manifestations in history. If these are examined, then the similarities between Haitian spirit possession and hypnotism become evident. Hypnosis first appears in France as something rather unlike what we know it today; there, in the 18th century, it is associated with a quack called Anton Mesmer, who believes its operation to result from a special fluid present in all things called "animal magnetism." Mesmerism was denounced by the authorities, who doubted its healing properties, and saw it as a way for Mesmer to take advantage of unsuspecting Parisian women.

It is interesting to note that most of Mesmer's patients were women. Further, his therapy sessions were marked by intense group interaction, with several patients at a time and several assistants performing mesmerism. This is rather unlike the solitary character of modern hypnosis. Also, it is interesting to see that many of these women were called convulsionnaires because after being "magnetized," they went into convulsive, agitated states which clever French doctors thought not altogether unlike sexual arousal. Whereas today it is assumed that hypnosis puts a person into a somnambulistic trance, which is marked by reduced activity and a sleeplike state, whatever Mesmer was doing put these women into a rather frenzied peak of activity. The convulsionnaires danced wildly and acted in ways that Mesmer called "not altogether unlike the Bacchantes" - it was very similar, some noted, to intoxication. Many of these young women would dance until exhaustion. The similarities between Mesmer's rituals and Haitian spirit possession should stand out to the astute reader.

Later psychologists like Charcot concluded that no magnetic fluid of any kind was involved. Instead, Mesmer was effective in treating people because his "magnetic passes" were putting them into some sort of trance. Charcot found many inventive uses for "mesmerism," and it was from one of his students that Sigmund Freud learned the technique and concluded it would be useful in extracting material from patients' dreams and from the unconscious. Mesmerism became medicalized in a different sense - psychologists removed it from its original group context, and turned it into a tool manipulated by a single physician with a single patient. If mesmerism was hypnosis performed in a different context, and there were clearly similarities between Mesmer's "dramas" and spirit possession, then we can see how spirit possession might be related to hypnotic states.

Unfortunately, what most people think are features of hypnosis are just modern inventions or distortions. You don't need a swinging watch to hypnotize somebody. In fact, you don't need to swing anything. Counting to some number, or "coaching" the person ("you are getting sleepy..."), are entirely unnecessary. Even a hypnotist is unnecessary. All that is key to hypnosis is rhythmic repetition - of light, sound, motion, or vibration. Apparently, when certain rhythms begin to approximate the natural waveforms of the brain (5- 8 Hz), people will go into trance. While driving an automobile, people can become "auto-hypnotized" by a steady beat of music and the motion of the wiper blades, or the light passing through a steady succession of electric-power poles, and this results in many auto accidents. One does not need to be still, or feel sleepy, in order to be hypnotized. Good hypnotists can hypnotize several people or entire crowds at once, and can bring people selectively into or out of trance. One can see how the steady but shifting rhythm of Voodoo drums might be particularly effective in this regard - Walker actually calls this process "sonic driving." (Walker 1972: 22)

While under hypnosis, people can engage in dissociative behaviors. Everyone is familiar with the one where the hypnotist tells the person to "cluck like a chicken." But a hypnotized subject can be told to act like another person - as if they were a woman, a man, an older person, a younger person. They can be made to feel sensations which will in turn be physically manifest. If told that their arm is burning, red welts will often appear. While a hypnotized person is in a highly suggestible state, they cannot be made to do anything which they would not do in a normal state of awareness. Any commands to perform behaviors contrary to personal ethics will elicit a refusal; the power of the hypnotist over the subject is not absolute. All actions performed while hypnotized are not remembered by the person - though they may emerge later in dreams - unless the hypnotist commands them to do so. (Frankel 1990: 823)

When given a posthypnotic suggestion, people will display really bizarre dissociative behaviors. If told that upon "awakening," they will feel thirsty, the hypnotized subject will frequently go for a glass of water. If asked why they are doing so, they will not be able to come up with an answer, and may say something to distance themselves from the action, such as saying that the "therapist's assistant asked them to," even though this was not the case. (Crabtree 1988: 25) There are clear links between hypnotizability and dissociation, besides the fact that both are amnesic states. Obsessive-compulsive people, psychotics, and unimaginative people often cannot be hypnotized. The same types of people score the lowest on the dissociative experiences scale. The more hypnotizable a person, the more likely they are to have a rich fantasy life and to adopt new ideas. Those same types of people, psychologists note, are also the same who are prone to have more dissociative experiences. Some feel that hypnosis is not really doing anything at all, and that hypnosis may just involve "triggering" people who are spontaneous dissociators. (Frankel 1990: 830) This debate in psychotherapy remains ongoing.

Ethnographic accounts of spirit possession - in a new light

By looking at how anthropologists and non-anthropologists' recorded observations of spirit possession, we can begin to see possession phenomena in terms of the hypotheses I am trying to outline here. Many anthropologists have pointed out the obvious ways in which possession seems similar to trance. First, Francis Huxley determined that after he gave a mambo LSD, she underwent a similar type of experience to possession. He writes of the mambo Dieudonne, who has taken the drug:

she sang, 'St. Andre, you are a good father - why have you not come to us?' St. Andre is another name for Ogoun, and he it was now who possessed her. He said resentfully that it was he, not his mount, which had taken the drug, and laid claim to all the utterances which had given the audience pause. She had indeed only been able to invade the realm of the mysteres under the influence of the drug, so Ogoun was right... what she had said was fit matter only for the loa... Meres was gray with astonishment; at first he had been against the experiment, but when she took the drug and began telling him things about himself, he was certain she was possessed...
This suggests that both using the drug and being possessed involve an ASC. Second, Maya Deren's own account of being possessed by Erzulie suggests that the experience was amnesic and dissociative. She writes:

As sometimes in dreams, so here I can observe myself... how the smile spreads imperceptibly into a radiance lovelier than I have ever seen... I realize with terror... that it is no longer myself I watch. Yet it is myself, for as that terror strikes, we two are made as one again, joined by the point of the left leg as if rooted to the earth... resting upon that leg I feel a strange numbness... I must call it a white darkness... the white darkness moves up my veins of my leg like a swift tide rising... the bright darkness floods up through my body and reaches my head and engulfs me. I am sucked down and exploded upward at once. That is all. My memory begins again with sound heard distantly... around the sharp distance and direction of that sound the darkness shapes itself and now it is as if I lay at the far distant end of an infinitely deep-down, sunken well...
We cannot know for certain that her 'participant observation' gave her the same experience that the Haitian possessed by Erzulie feels, but we have to assume (in the absence of contrary evidence) that it was the case. Third, various accounts of possession support the contention that, as in hypnotic states, dissociative transformations led to sharp somatic and mental changes, which are not unlike the created "personalities" seen in MPD. This from W.B. Seabrook:

When I first looked at the man's face... I saw only a dazed peasant masquerading in fantastic garments... but soon it seemed to me that I was in the presence of something superhuman... it was for me as if some monstrous, black, bedizened idol had come alive... I saw presently a god descended to earth and made incarnate, accepting and devouring the meats arrayed for him upon his own sacrificial altar... he seemed utterly self-contained, utterly unconscious of the presence of any of us... he was the god, and we were less than nothing in his presence... he began to speak in a creole I could not understand... Maman Celie later verified that it involved definite commands to avoid the avalasse, or approaching spring storms and torrents...
Seabrook was certainly no true believer, but thought himself in the presence of a changed person. Fourth, it is apparent that there is a certain constancy about the appearance of certain loa which suggests more than acting may be involved. In Deren's book, she shows two photographs of "Guede", and notes:

These two photographs, taken six months apart, and in different hounfors, show a man and a woman possessed by Guede seated in the exact same position and posture, and suggest that possession is not a period of 'self-expression'. On the contrary, the individual's psyche is displaced by that of the loa, whose character is constant and independent of that of the person in whose body he becomes manifest.
Finally, many accounts of possession show that, like hypnotic subjects, possessed people demonstrate some remarkable attributes such as resistance to pain, hypersensitivity, and unusual bodily strength. There may even be certain "paranormal" features which suggest even more unusual faculties are at work. This also from Deren:

The effects of possession are also frequently similar to those seen in hypnosis: an ability to climb impossible heights, or perform other such physical feats, an imperviousness to pain, certain rigidities of the body, an amazing immovability of the person, etc. I have seen the possessed do the truly remarkable... in times of stress the Haitian will call upon his loa to deliver him from problems he could not otherwise handle... knowing the god is capable of amazing feats...

Spirit possession and cognitive neuroscience

Recent commentators on possession phenomena have begun to use neurophysiological approaches but these are also, as I will try to demonstrate, often incorrect. Focusing on the inheritance of "loa" from one's parents in Haiti, some observers feel that it may be worthwhile to consider possession to be a basic epileptiform syndrome (akin to Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, marked by auditory hallucinations and amnesic experiences), and to treat it as a congenital neurological defect. Others have attempted to use various forms of the deprivation hypothesis - arguing that the poverty in Haiti results in the peasantry being unable to obtain the nutrients (esp. carbohydrates or lack of blood glucose) needed for the manufacture of neurotransmitters, resulting in their being "prone" to breakdowns in brain function, namely possession experiences. (Sproles 1988: 54) Both of these approaches do not attempt to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary possession.

Many of these approaches come to the heart of an important debate in anthropology - are altered states of consciousness adaptive or maladaptive? Tautological arguments have been advanced for the evolutionary value of ASCs - "e.g. surviving cultures experience them, therefore they must enhance survival." But the arguments against them have been similarly insubstantial: "people spend most of their time in a normal state of consciousness. Therefore, by definition, ASCs are an abnormality and are probably selected against." This debate at the general level will be hard to establish; but paleontological evidence suggests the use of psychotropic plants and fungi from the earliest periods in human history, and the attainment of ASCs as central factors in the very earliest forms of ritual. Andrew Weil has argued that the need for altered states of consciousness is as fundamental as that for sex, sleep, or security. (1972: 10)

ASCs clearly are evolutionarily dangerous for humans (it is now known if other species experience them, though intoxication can be observed in almost every closely related primate) for one simple reason: almost all generally reduce or alter perceptual stimuli from the external world - including the stimuli generated by disasters, predators, or enemies, for example. However, they are also probably responsible for the rich imagery found in many of humanity's religious, symbolic, and mythic systems, and there are arguers for the value of ASCs that suggest they may open the mind to stimuli otherwise filtered out by the ego. (Winkelman 1986: 26) The general debate here may be irresolvable in this space; but I will attempt to argue later that spirit possession states are functional, in the Malinowskian sense, because they serve the psycho-biological needs of the people who choose to experience them.

The other problem with the above neurological approaches is that they attempt to deal with possession as the product of deficient, damaged, or congenitally defective brains. There is no attempt to examine how possession might occur in an otherwise "normal" or "healthy" brain. Recent studies have shown that there is a possible physiological mechanism active during shifts in the state of consciousness - namely the rapid depletion of calcium ions in the synapse. A graduate student in nursing here at the University of Florida believes that in voluntary possession there may be a "biofeedback" process involved; namely, an otherwise uncontrolled physiological reaction becomes controlled by the person so that it can be summoned at will. (The initiation into the hounsi canzo status may involve training in the elicitation of this reaction rather than "role-playing" training.) To determine this factor in the field, anthropologists may have to be prepared to obtain a blood sample immediately following possession, and have the proper medical testing equipment ready. (Sproles 1988: 92)

Cognitive neuroscience has recently determined quite a bit of interesting data about the "normal" organization of the human brain, which suggests dissociation may not be so abnormal after all. It should be noted that progress in cognitive science has come from the metaphor of examining the brain as a computer, and from using computer simulations of how the brain is believed to compute and process data. I believe that anthropologists should not be reactionary toward this data, and should be willing to get as "mileage" as possible out of examining the ways in which human brains function as if they were computers. The cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner suggests that the brain consists of multiple intelligences (mathematical, spatial, linguistic, synthetic, etc.) rather than a unitary intelligence - that there are several "subprograms" within the brain which are utilized and that their "outputs" are then combined into the "narrative stream" that we call consciousness by the brain. (1989: 144)

Computer scientist and AI researcher Marvin Minsky says the same thing - that the brain normally shifts between various functions which are distinct, and utilizes "subpersonas" for manipulating and reacting to various social situations - the Romantic, the Rebel, the Life of the Party, etc. While these "subpersonas" may have different levels of inhibition and response, the person's sense of self-identity does not change because the normally functioning cognitive metaprogram we can roughly call the "ego" attempts to organize 'interruptions' of the stream of consciousness into continuity. (1992: 13) Freud, and more particularly Jung, felt that at times the ego was subject to being overcome by the unconscious. Jung felt that the 'archetypes' resident in the collective unconscious (such as the shadow, anima, or Great Mother) could in fact temporarily 'dispossess' the ego; Deren, in her book, notes the similarity between the loa and certain Jungian mythic archetypes found in other societies. (Deren 1970: 212) What Jung called archetypal possession, Minsky might (in a more scientific jargon) call this the overwhelming of the ego by a subprogram.

Other experiments in neurology have noted some shocking things about consciousness. When epileptic patients undergo surgery to have the sheath between their two brain hemispheres (the corpus callosum) disconnected, it truly becomes a case of "the left hand not knowing what the right is doing." Linguistic ability appears to be located in the left hemisphere, which controls the right side of the body. When asked to pick up something with their left hand, these patients will do so. When they are asked what they are holding, the response is "nothing." They have dissociated themselves from activity in the left side of the body, insofar as the right brain appears to be incapable of describing it, without "asking" the left brain first. (Kintsch 1978: 364) Awareness of our own actions requires attention, and neuroscientists have found that in many automatic behaviors, the action is not attended to at all. Particularly in highly stressful situations, the brain acts in "advance" of the ego's ability to organize its activities, and the person literally cannot "remember" what they did to get out of the situation. Ego processing is apparently rather slow compared to routinized behavioral responses and reflexive actions, and in certain situations the brain clearly is forced to abandon it. (Minsky 1990: 79)

What cognitive neuroscientists have also found is that, in currently indeterminate ways, the brain indeed internalizes "programming." Identity is socially constructed; infants from the very earliest stages learn to internalize elements which are constitutive of their "identity" - e.g. what does it mean to be male, to be Catholic, to be Haitian - mostly through language and somatic mimicry. These identity programs can be broken down, and in certain situations can be replaced by others, due to the plasticity of the brain. (Irvine 1982: 245) Hormonal and biological factors do generate certain behaviors; but the sense of identity is not created by testosterone or estrogen. A man can become a dissociative female personality, just as a Haitian male can become Erzulie, because especially in paradoxical states where brain function becomes dislocated, gender identity (e.g. behaviors to fulfill expectations of the female gender role and the subjective sense of 'femininity') can be disabled as well. (Goodman 1975: 105)

Minor cases of dissociation and temporary dissociative experiences are thought to result from temporary ego regression. The ego is not present to organize personal experience into a narrative, so behavior is not remembered, or only emerges in dreams or small "flashes" of memory. In full-blown Multiple Personality Disorder, the cognitive neuroscientists believe, the "subprograms" of the brain no longer simply take the "center stage" from the ego for short periods of time. They develop a certain autonomy and begin to generate "sub-egos" of their own; at this point the person has in fact fractured into multiple "selves." These selves can have different gender, race, age, or ethnic identities from the "core" self because they are separated from the normal identity-functions of the ego.

In hypnosis, dissociation is believed to occur because the trance state has induced regression in the service of the ego. The submergence of ego-narrative allows repressed or forgotten memories to emerge, but the person also is in a highly suggestible state, capable of responding to things that the ego might otherwise filter out. Again, while spirit possession is not hypnosis per se , it can be argued that Haitian devotees are "hypnotized" through a combination of the rhythmic beat of the drums, the 'mesmeric' actions of the houngan , the repetitive motion of dancing, the increased level of adenochrome in the brain (a byproduct of the adrenaline created from physical exertion), their intense cultural expectations facilitating biofeedback-triggered neurochemical changes, rapid changes in the level of stimulation, and the deployment of ritual set and setting. (Walker 1972: 126) In this dissociative, hypnotoform state, they are capable of "becoming" other neural subprograms from their unconscious mind - the loa.

While Haitians are not taught how to roleplay their gods, they are taught what things the gods expect from devotees, what gods have been of particular importance to their lineage, how the gods have acted in previous occasions, and what spheres the various gods are assigned. They learn from childhood on that Ogoun is fierce, that Erzulie is extravagant, and that the Petro deities are bloodthirsty and vengeful. As a result of the hypersensitivity to social cues - the "hypnotized" Haitian can sense immediately when his god-behavior is not absolutely correct - and this internalized cognitive imprinting of the nature of the loa - a possessed person instinctively becomes Erzulie, Ogoun, or Damballah. (Irvine 1982: 242) They assume the gender and other identity-properties of the deity - it's all part of the "program." And thus the Ogoun "subprogram" is recognizable from one end of the country to the other. Because of such things as posture and bearing, Voodoo devotees recognize immediately which loa are present in their "mount" even before they announce their arrival. The Haitians know when a person is just merely trying to act out being one of the loa, and as mentioned earlier, they have rather specific tests for the presence of the deity. Walker comments:

There are limits to the freedom an individual has in inserting his own personality into the patterns furnished by his god. Exploitation beyond social bounds of the role and license of the gods is one of the most highly tabooed acts, and unleashes fierce social control against false gods.
One of the marks of being a hounsi canzo is a complete, flawless adoption of the god-identity.

It is evident that a psychic change has taken place in the possessed person, at least to the Haitians. It is expected of them to perform feats they would not be capable of otherwise. It is expected of them, especially when they manifest a trickster such as Baron Samedi, to engage in rude and lascivious behavior that would be improper in other settings. It is expected of them to make demands that they would not dare do of their peers otherwise. External 'etic' observers can see the presence of trance through certain ocular changes (a rolling of the eyes) and temporary loss of motor control. But anthropologists will never be able to definitively determine the presence of the ASC in the possessed person unless they bring the proper medical tools with them into the field; this hypothesis will remain guesswork unless they possess the instruments for measuring neurophysiological changes which would be signs of an ASC occurring in the mind. (Sproles 1988: 55)

No one has established a quantitative limit for dissociation. Metraux mentions one person he knows who was possessed by Guede for at least two weeks. (1951: 201) In theory, it is possible for the ego to cease functioning for that long a period of time. The houngan , like any good "system operator", knows how to "reboot the system" when necessary and expel the "subprogram." However, if he feels that the loa will not cause the "horse" any harm, they will be allowed to stay for many days. Significantly, because many Haitians "inherit" their loa from their parents, they become these same gods over and over again. "Booting up" the subprogram becomes easier over time, and this can be seen in experienced Voodoo devotees, who become possessed right at the beginning of the ceremony. The computer metaphors here are deliberate; I am stressing that the processes here are no more bizarre or pathological than the function of a computer.

The Psychological functions of spirit possession

If I have demonstrated that the dissociative process involved in Voodoo is not pathological, and that the mechanisms by which it occurs are simply byproducts of the way the brain 'normally' works, this still does not answer the question of why Haitian peasants volunteer to be possessed. There are many social explanations that have been offered by anthropologists: an increase in social status for women and others through participation in the central rituals of community; an ability to "act out" things that would otherwise be 'taboo' culturally or forbidden to their position; the immense "social pressure" for Haitians to honor their family loa , and the rewards they derive thereby; a form of theater to lift their hearts from an otherwise dreary existence. These explanations do not consider the possibility that possession is an actual alteration in the person's psychic state, and that certain psychological benefits might accrue.

From Metraux's time onward, some anthropologists tried to see Voodoo possession less as a folk sickness and more as a form of folk therapy itself - specifically, psychotherapy. Sargant traveled to Haiti, and he concluded that possession might trigger an abreaction in the person being possessed. Considering the many traumas which one faces in Haitian life, it is likely they would need a great deal of abreactive therapy. Sargant writes of his field research in Haiti:

Not all those possessed at the service went on to collapse, though many did, but at the end of their possession, as they came out of it, most of them seemed completely but temporarily exhausted, mentally and physically, as a result of emotional and abreactive release... during the war, as we have seen, the human nervous system might be bombarded by stimuli of sufficient intensity to produce exactly the same conditions of mental dissociation and trance as are deliberately produced in other parts of the world by drumming, dancing, and other excitatory techniques... each dancer ideally achieves a state of ecstasy, and in stereotyped fashion collapses in a trance from which he emerges purged and refreshed..
. As a catharsis or crisis, it might precipitate ego changes which were beneficial for the person. It might also allow a person to integrate parts of his personality otherwise jeopardized by narrow social roles - a man's possession by Erzulie might allow him "to get in touch" with his "feminine side," so to speak. A quiet, mousy woman who was told that she had become Ogoun might find her "inner fierceness" after the experience. Sargant noted that there were many similarities between possession and the psychoanalytic process, including transference, removal of repression, countering projection, and integration of parts of unconscious life.

I would argue that there is yet another psychological factor at work in possession. Sargant also mentions that when Pavlov's precious dogs were rescued from a brush with death in the Russian flood of 1924, all their conditioned reflexes were wiped out - they no longer salivated after the ringing of the bells. During paradoxical states like possession, Sargant suggests, people are highly subject to "reprogramming" - "brainwashing," if you will - because previous social programming can be "wiped out." (1974: 117) But worse (or better) than that, because of the hypersensitivity and hypersuggestibility of the hypnotic state, the person is more likely to incorporate new ideas, new behaviors, or new symbols (whatever he sees in the peristyle impacts his consciousness to a greater degree) without questioning them. This is clearly a central mechanism in what Sargant sees as religious (or ideological) indoctrination. As to whether the abandonment of old beliefs and the adoption of new ones is psychologically healthy depends on what those beliefs are.

The houngan can manipulate the suggestible state of the possessed devotee for ill or good. He can get the devotee to change behaviors which are destructive to his health (hypnosis is frequently used to cure addictions and bad habits.) He can either seek to rid the person of oppressive beliefs that they hold in a normal state of awareness ("Francois Duvalier is your friend") or instill oppressive beliefs ("Damballah desires for you to be poor"). This is not the place to debate the social function of the Voodoo religion in Haitian politics and society. But I am arguing that possession is a state in which political and other beliefs become more malleable than they normally are. It is only an instrument, just as Sargant notes various forms of religious enthusiasm and exaltation are in other religions; the person can be transformed by it for the worse or for the better...

It has been noted that the houngans and high-level mambos do not go into as deep a trance as their fellow ritualists, and that their possessions are neither as crisis-driven or spectacular. When the ritual leaders go into possession, it is generally low-key, but it is also trance. But this is expected of them, because it is their responsibility to "manage" the various loa which appear and avert any problems during the ceremony. I would argue that the ritual trance for houngans and mambos serves a different role from that of the others - it enables them to access state-dependent knowledge systems. They have to become possessed in order to fulfill their healing or oracular functions. (Shaara 1992: 148) Possessed ritual leaders are expected to provide medical and other advice for the community of devotees, because it is assumed that the loa knows things they do not. Rigaud writes:

A mystere can mount a person for the following reasons: [1.] to confer upon him a faculty he needs for the successful accomplishment of a task, and which he does not ordinarily have. To permit him, for example, to swim to land in case of a shipwreck, in case he doesn't know how to swim... [2.] to give counsel or to give some person a treatment, or simply to propose or compose a remedy [3.] to give warning of a danger threatening an individual or the community or point out some transgression or forbidden ritual..
. They are able to access knowledge that is otherwise not available to them in an ordinary state of awareness. This is because they are making use of the state-dependent knowledge system. They have to be in trance to access this "data bank," because the data in it was acquired in a nonordinary state of awareness. I am not going to take the time here to argue for the validity of parapsychology and the possibility of the attainment of parapsychological knowledge. But I will simply point out that universally almost all 'psychic' healers, such as the late Edgar Cayce, went into trance before giving their diagnoses. And that many parapsychologists believe that one of the features of the ASC is that it makes parapsychological experiences more likely. (Wilber 1982: 105) There are many unusual features of hypnosis - the complete lack of sensitivity to pain, the intense rigidity of body that can be achieved - which are surprising, but then there are ones that are genuinely paranormal.

Charcot reported that mesmerized patients could "read" the thoughts of their doctors to an extraordinary degree. He chalked it up to their heightened sensitivity to nonverbal cues. But some hypnotists in the 19th century reported that their patients, when asked to invent certain stories from whole cloth, inevitably ended up borrowing material from the doctor's own mind, without any prompting. Scientists who worked with the hypnotoform trance-inducing drug called ayahuasca used to refer to it as "telepathine" because it was believed that the state created by the drug heightened ESP. (Dobkin de Rios 1992: 152) There are some trance phenomena in various religions which almost seem to demand paranormal explanations. How do we explain glossolalia ("speaking in tongues") when the person speaks in a language they have never ever been exposed to? How can a person in trance walk across blazing hot coals and not be burned? Why do people in trance suddenly report "past lives" - or, at any rate, at least accounts of the past which are strikingly accurate? What about Haitians who have precognitive dreams after being possessed? Why would anyone in trance or not possibly take the risk of handling poisonous serpents and strychnine?

Here I will not attempt to argue that these folk knowledge-systems are the product of ASC-facilitated parapsychological experiences. But I am certain that they are state-dependent, and that the ritual leaders are drawing on knowledge resident in the configuration of a state other than ordinary awareness. Going into trance would be difficult for modern men of medicine (you wouldn't want to be operated on by your doctor if his eyes suddenly glazed over), but medicine men in other societies (even the Philippine 'psychic surgeons') must apparently go into trance before they can heal, just as a medium must go into trance before the spirits will come. It is expected of the houngans and mambos of Haiti. Huxley found that the loa were not very omniscient in their observations of his behavior; at one point Guede told him he did something he never did. (1966: 112) On the other hand, Deren found that some of the loa made accurate predictions of her own life. (Deren 1970: 235) Their wisdom seems to have been a hit-and-miss affair.

Of course, Deren was a believer where Huxley was an agnostic, and some of the same factors that cause people to think horoscopes are correct in describing their own lives may have been at work; but an interesting experiment by the late researcher J.B Rhine may be pertinent here. Rhine took 'sheeps' - people who believed in psi - and 'goats' - firm disbelievers - and tested their psi quotient with the Zellner cards. The 'sheep' did better than chance, which Rhine took (as in other trials) as evidence of ESP at work. But when the 'goats' took their turn, they did worse than chance, which means they were performing statistically worse than anyone might expect. Strangest of all, when the 'goats' were put in the same room as the 'sheep,' they basically canceled each other out, regardless of who was taking the test. (Rhine 1938: 934) Such is the power of belief.

Conclusions

This preliminary study suggests many future directions for research. Possession in other Afro-American religions, such as Umbanda, Candomble, Macumba, Santeria, Shango, and Brazilian Kardecismo, needs to be compared with possession in Haitian voudoun. The similarities and differences here may help determine just what is and is not 'African' in Afro-American religion. But, since as I have suggested, possession is a universal religious phenomenon, it also needs to be examined in that light. Sargant compares possession in Haiti to possession by the Holy Spirit in evangelical Christianity and also American Spiritualism. Interesting comparisons might emerge by comparing it to, say, Tibetan oracle possession or possession as described in the ancient world. It may be culturally mediated in myriad ways, its content and control shaped by differing social forces, but it remains for anthropologists to determine if a common neurophysiological process is occurring in the religious experience that they call possession.

The evidence provided here cannot prove scientifically beyond a shadow of a doubt that possession is in fact dissociative or an ASC. Anthropologists will need to start acquiring some hard evidence before going around claiming that. Measuring some EEG readings in the field might be a good way to start. Since uncooperative subjects might dislike being attached to electrodes while doing their ritual dance, it might behoove anthropologists to bring SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Detectors) into the field. SQUIDs are portable detectors capable of registering very minute electromagnetic fields, such as those generated by the brain. A good blood testing kit might help measure alterations in neurotransmitter, glucose, calcium, hormone, or adenochrome levels, so some definite neurochemical evidence might be accumulated. Finally, questionnaires based on the Assessment Scale for Altered States of Consciousness might allow informants to "check" whether they experienced the criteria of an ASC.

I suspect that possession incidences might fall along a continuum. Some will involve more conscious theatrics and less trance. Others might involve heavier trance and more complete amnesia. Some might actually involve the manifestations of a truly psychopathological individual. To find where they fall along such a continuum, some objective methods of assessment will be needed. If anthropologists are going to deal with ASCs in the field, they must be prepared to prove to their colleagues that such states are real, produce observable changes, and can be determined. Spirit possession in Haiti is perhaps a good place to start.

The goal of this exercise was not to "chase" away the loa. I will not perform the exorcistic ritual of saying that the loa are only 'computer subroutines' or states of mind. If they are real spiritual beings to the Haitians in their emic system, they will continue being real regardless of what Westerners think of the matter. I even hold the possibility out that Westerners might discover them to be real spiritual beings as well.. There are more things in heaven or earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. But here our technology will probably fail us; without 'ectoplasmic detectors,' this is something we simply cannot determine one way or the other. But I do not think it is so horrible to suggest that the gods come forth from one's own mind. It does not rule out other possibilities. When asked about the importance of the God-archetype in the human mind, Carl Jung did note that "the presence of an imprint suggests the action of an imprinter."

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FOOTNOTES

  1. Most of this derives from a presentation by Etzel Andrea Cardena, "The Nature of Hypnotic Induction: Sense and Nonsense" at the 1993 AAA invited panel session "Behavioral Modes of Inducing Alternate States of Consciousness."
  2. Huxley, Francis, The Invisibles, p. 115
  3. Deren, Maya, Divine Horsemen, p. 260
  4. Seabrook, W.B, The Magic Island, p. 77
  5. Deren, p. 246, photoplate caption
  6. Ibid., p. 321
  7. Walker, Sheila, Ceremonial Spirit Possession in Africa and Afro-America , p. 78
  8. Sargant, William Singer, The Mind Possessed, p. 179
  9. Rigaud, Milo, Secrets of Voodoo, p. 49
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