Get into trance: Felicitas Goodman

Dr. Felicitas Goodman
Dr. Felicitas Goodman

Some readers may have thought I was doing my little anthropologist’s quibble with the research on gene expression in meditation in Relax your genes, when I wrote, ‘I’d be surprised if variations in these techniques (such as those that use chanting or movement, for example) had no effect at all on the resulting neural, cellular, and perhaps even genetic processes.’ Some of you might have thought to yourselves, ‘Sure, Greg, you always say stuff like that — you’re paid to say stuff like that as an anthropologist.’ But one of the things I was thinking about was the work of the late anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, which I hadn’t really discussed at all on Neuroanthorpology.

I stumbled across the webpages for the Felicitas Goodman Institut (the page is in German), and the English discussion of her work, Ritual Body Postures and Ecstatic Trance, by Nana Nauwald, and the webpage for The Cuyamungue Institute, which Goodman founded, this morning. A bit of searching turned up an interview with Prof. Goodman at Conversations for Exploration.

Goodman’s own biography is pretty fascinating; she didn’t do her PhD in anthropology until she was in her 50s, already a veteran German professor at Ohio State where she emigrated after leaving Germany with an American husband (Glenn). She went on to teach anthropology at Denison University (Ohio), and is best known for her contributions to the study of ecstatic states, including trance and glossalalia (speaking in tongues). She wrote a number of works, including Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences and Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (now out in a new edition, according to Amazon). After falling in love with the area around Santa Fe, Goodman helped to found The Cuyamungue Institute in New Mexico, which, according to the institute’s website, ‘continues her research into altered states of consciousness and holds workshops about the postures which she admits are but one door to alternate reality.’

Goodman’s work appears to have produced a whole set of teachings about how ecstatic trance might be used, including workshops in a variety of places. I’m a bit less interested in the applied use of her ideas than in the original ethnographic and comparative work; some of the applications even worry me because they seem to evacuate some of the very ethnographic content that Prof. Goodman was also writing about in her work.

In particular, Goodman’s studies of art led her to notice body postures that seemed to affect subjects’ experiences when they assumed trance states. As she wrote in the Yearbook of Cross-Cultural Medicine and Psychotherapy (1998-1999):

In addition to much abstract ornamentation, the archeological record of human artistic activity also contains human representations. Upon close scrutiny, most of these human effigies share a curious feature of a non-ordinary body posture such as the hands placed on the middle of the body, the fingers spread in an unexpected way or the tongue hanging out. In 1977, in connection with my ongoing research concerning altered states of consciousness, I had the research subjects assume one of these non-ordinary postures and then added a rhythmic stimulation. To my surprise, the subjects reported a variety of visionary experiences. Apparently, I had inadvertently stumbled onto a very ancient shamanic system that had hitherto gone unrecognized. During initial research, a number of regularities became evident. The visionary experience varied according to the posture….

There were postures mediating divination, shape-shifting, or even healing. It became clear that the postures were rituals, each one containing its own implicit myth. [emphasis added]

Trance postures
Trance postures

Goodman’s research has absorbed a fair amount of criticism (see, for example, Kremer and Krippner 1994; Woodside, Kumar, and Pekala 1997), and her specific results have been hard to replicate. I wouldn’t want to argue whether or not a specific posture can produce the sense that one is a giant cat, but the idea that one’s posture could affect one’s experience of trance would certainly resonate with practitioners of yoga, who certainly believe that various asanas, or yoga postures, can produce distinct experiences.

In one of her later works, Goodman (1999) explored the differences between both the experiences and the neurophysiology of shamanic trance and the states entered by those who ‘channel.’ The distinction is important, for example, in the work of Gilbert Rouget (1985), who classified trances according to whether the subjects felt that they had journeyed from their body (shamanic travels) or had been replaced by another entity entering their own body (possession).

Although Goodman’s own explorations of trance postures may have been biased by her expectations in analysis and interactions with her subjects, i think that her attention to the differences in trance states is crucial. For example, in her article in Anthropology of Consciousness (1999), Goodman points out that, although in her experiments, ‘only a rhythmic stimulation is employed,’ the methods in which people reach trance are more varied: ‘There is a greater degree of latitude in inducing channeling, including rhythmic stimulation, concentration, dancing, and many others.’ The article attempts to explore the different profile of neurophysiological reactions between ecstatic trance and channeling.

Although we might now find the neurophysiological measures obsolete, the research is suggestive. Goodman found that most of the differences related to the sequence of neurophysiological events: many of the same neural events that happened during ecstatic trance happened at the end of channeling, when participants often say they experience a state of intense euphoria. That is, Goodman’s work suggests that the chain of neural events was affected by the way in which they were evoked and the subjects’ understandings of what they were doing. As she writes in the 1999 article:

In comparing the tracings from the two approaches…, it becomes evident that these two kinds of ASC’s [altered states of consciousness] are closely related, but they are not identical. Observations in the field, as well as in the laboratory, further suggest that these ASC’s are not single strands, but rather bundles, sets, or families. [emphasis added]

Like Silvan Tomkins’ psychological theories of affect, the empirical techniques used to generate the theoretical insights may not have held up, by the theories themselves are grounded, at least in part, in careful phenomenological investigation and observational research as well, so they shouldn’t just be dismissed because the researchers didn’t have available fMRI or PET scan data.

In the case of altered states, for example, we find some really intriguing differences in the way people describe trance states, whether shamanic healing, devotional prayer, quietistic meditation, compassion-based spiritual exercise, repetitive prayer, possession dance, or another practice, even deep hypnosis. While the research I discussed in Relax your genes and Meditating makes the brain more compassionate focuses on two different forms of quietistic meditation — compassion meditation and relaxation exercises — Goodman was looking at different ‘bundles’ or ‘families’ of mental practice: trance induced by repetitive rhythms (a shaking rattle was one important stimulus she used) and channeling. Even if her research is subject to criticism, her work also forces us to consider how research on meditation might be different if it focused on a different set of meditative techniques.

Other ‘naturally occurring experiments’ in altered states of consciousness might focus on such issues as differences in mental imagery among shamans (see, for example, Noll 1985) or on how different musical practices, such as participatory chanting compared to drum-led dancing (such as I observed many times in Brazil), induce subtly different states in participants. I’m hardly saying anything novel by suggesting this; a review of the available literature by Cahn and Polich (2006) also points to marked variation among forms of meditation (and non-meditative trance states):

As outlined previously, several studies have suggested that different meditation practices lead to different neurophysiological outcomes, so that the neurophenomenological comparison of meditative practices with other methods of altered state induction are becoming warranted to isolate the functional brain activity associated with psychological states. Assessments of psychological changes, clinical outcomes, and state–trait neuroactivity markers across meditative practices will be necessary for developing the clinical utility of these methods.

Likely, as Goodman suggests, different brain processes might show up in a range of these states, but they might show up in different sequences or in relation to processes that only show up in select techniques; for example, the intense motor stimulation of possession dancing might inflect attentional processes that show up in most types of trance in distinctive fashion.

But Gilbert Rouget’s (1985) studies of the rhythms associated with trance — which differed markedly across cultures and didn’t affect trance in people without the appropriate backgrounds — also offers a cautionary note. Rouget’s work suggests that it won’t be possible to understand completely the carefully cultivated propensity to become entranced in specific ways in each context by levering the trance techniques out of that context. Or, as Woodside, Kumar, and Pekala (1997:85) put it:

On the other hand, it may be that part of the effect of the drumming and posture is embedded in the ecology of the experience, and trying to “rip the wings off the butterfly,” so to speak, by divorcing the posture or drumming from its putative anthropological matrix, may destroy the phenomenon in the process. In other words, relevant effects may only be possible if the suggested phenomena are compatible with the participants’ belief systems.

That doesn’t mean the sorts of experiments conducted by Goodman are worthless, however. In fact, even the way that she might have corrupted her data through her interactions with experimental subjects might be much more like the culturally embedded trance experiences that people have in non-experimental settings.

More reading

For more on meditation at Neuroanthropology, see Daniel’s Wired for Belief? and his The Neural Buddhists of David Brooks, or two pieces that I’ve posted: Meditating makes the brain more compassionate and the more recent, Relax your genes.


Cahn, B. Rael, and John Polich. 2006. Meditation States and Traits: EEG, ERP, and Neuroimaging Studies. Psychological Bulletin 132 (2): 180–211. doi 10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.180 (abstract, pdf of artcle)

Goodman, Felicitas. 1986. Body Posture and the Religious Altered State of Consciousness: An Experimental Investigation. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 26:81-118. (abstract,
_____. 1990. Where the Spirits Ride the Wind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
_____. 1998/1999. Ritual Body Postures and Ecstatic Trance: Implicit Myths and Healing. Yearbook of Cross-Cultural Medicine and Psychotherapy: 43-50.
_____. 1999. Ritual Body Postures, Channeling, and the Ecstatic Body Trance. Anthropology of Consciousness 10(1): 54-59.

Kremer, Jurgen W., and Stanley Krippner. 1994. Trance posture. Re-Vision 16 (4):173-182. (questia excerpt)

Noll, Richard. 1985. Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism. Current Anthropology 26 (4): 443-461. (abstract)

Rouget, Gilbert. 1985. Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relationsbetween Music and Possession. Trans. by Brunhilde Bie-buyck. Chicago and London: U. of Chicago Press

Woodside, Lisa N., V. K. Kumar, and Ronald J. Pekala. 1997. Monotonous Percussion Drumming and Trance Postures: A Controlled Evaluation of Phenomenological Effects. Anthropology of Consciousness 8 (2-3): 69-87. doi:10.1525/ac.2006.17.1.65 (abstract)

Illustrations from Conversations for Exploration (postures originally from The Cuyamungue Institute.)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

6 thoughts on “Get into trance: Felicitas Goodman

  1. I am trying to find Wayne Morrison’s windtrance cd for hypnosis. could you please direct me?

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