Accepted Paper:

On somatic markers of trance and possession trance in three cultures: similarities and differences  


Antti Pakaslahti (University of Tampere)

Paper short abstract:

The study compares systematic visual data of possession trances in three unrelated cultural settings. A number of similar somatic & psychomotor markers were identified cross-culturally. However, their time sequencies and local "subcultural" interpretations differed.

Paper long abstract:

The present study springs from documentatary work over a decade in North Indian healing shrines (Hindu and Muslim) including extensive visual documentation of trances and possession trances used in local treatments of mental health problems. The author decided to compare those observed at the famous shrines of Balaji (Rajasthan) with material of two independent visual series from Europe:

First, the richly documented and illustrated descriptions of "major attacks of hysteria" in photos and drawings by Jean-Martin Charcot at La Salpetrière over a century ago in Paris. He considered that "the hysterics of today are the possessed of yesterday". He also specifically described a "demonic variant of major hysteric attacks".

A second comparative series became available as the author was invited to document the trance sessions of a well-known Finnish "energy healer" in Helsinki. Along with interviews, the healer and her patients accepted to be extensively photographed and filmed during treatment session.

In this presentation, the three series are illustrated and compared using slides and videoclips. The data show in discrete psychomotor trance manifestions and somatic markers intriguing similarities. In terms of repertory, frequency and intensity they are most striking between the Indian and the Charcot series. Motor phenomena in the Finnish series had similarities with both other series but their repertory was smaller, less frequent and less intensive. It is obvious that the observed similarities cannot be due to chance. Neither could they be explained by supposing similar suggestions or learning paths.

In terms of process and time sequence of psychomotor and somatic phenomena the three series showed differences. Also, the "sub-cultural" local meanings assigned to them were quite different.

The study discusses the observed similarities and differences . A common psychophysiological capacity for trance phenomena is presumed. Paradoxically, it can be manifested both in healing rituals and pathological conditions, nowadays often called dissociative states. Cultural context is decisive for process and local interpretations. Based on the comparative analyses a new cultural hypothesis is presented on the "major hysteric attacks" as non-therapeutic ritual possession trances.


Charcot JM, Richer P. Les Démoniaques dans l´art. Paris: Macula, 1984. (original by Delahaye&Lecrosnier, Paris 1887.)

Didi-Huberman G. Invention de l´Hystérie: Charcot et l´iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière. Paris, Macula 1982.

Hernesniemi, A: "Do 'healers with healing hands' emit thermal radiation to patients?". Book of abstracts. Lääkäripäivät 2001 : luentolyhennelmät. 292 p. Suomen lääkäriliitto: Helsinki. 2000.

Pakaslahti A. Family-centered treatment of mental health problems at the Balaji temple in Rajasthan. In: Parpola A, Tenhunen S. (eds): Changing patterns of kinship and family in India. Studia Orientalia 84. The Finnish Oriental Society. Gummerus: Helsinki, 1998, pp. 129-166.

Pakaslahti A. Ritual possession trance and dissociative disorder: a cross-cultural comparison. WorldPsychiatric Association: Transcultural Newsletter/Autumn 2001.

Pakaslahti A. Terminology of spirit illness: an empirical study from a living healing tradition. In: D Wujastyk (ed). Papers of the World Sanskrit Conference 2003. Vol 7 Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi: 2008, in press, pp 155-192.

Panel W094
Rethinking spirit possession