Rebecca Seligman and the Cultural Neuroscience of Dissociation

Rebecca Seligman is a psychological and medical anthropologist at Northwestern University. I have known Rebecca since we interviewed together at Emory for graduate school, and I am very pleased that she will be part of our Encultured Brain session. She once showed me some remarkable video of trance states among Candomble practitioners in Brazil; I still think about that footage today.

Rebecca will deliver a paper entitled, funny enough, “The Cultural Neuroscience of Dissociation.” Here’s the abstract:

Approaches to trance and possession in anthropology have tended to treat dissociative phenomena as primarily social and rhetorical practices, used to create social space or positioning for the performance and articulation of certain types of self-experiences, in particular cultural settings. Most anthropological studies of dissociation do not consider the relationships among such social processes and the emotional context and biological mechanisms of dissociative experiences. Within psychology and psychiatry, on the other hand, the experience of dissociation is assumed to be the direct product of an underlying neurological mechanism, which operates functionally. More specifically, current research in psychiatry is focused almost exclusively on establishing the link between dissociation and trauma, which is viewed as the trigger for a neurologically mediated dissociative response that functions as a defense mechanism. In this paper, I outline an approach to dissociative phenomena that integrates the neuropsychological notions of underlying mechanism with anthropological understandings of its social-discursive uses, demonstrating how an understanding of such mechanisms further illuminates the role of dissociation as a metaphor for certain types of self-related experience. This integrative model, informed by cultural neuroscience, can advance ethnographic studies of dissociative phenomena, including trance, possession and spiritual healing practices, by considering the central role of embodied processes in the phenomenology of dissociation.

Rebecca has already published on this research in a Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry article, “Dissociative Experience and Cultural Neuroscience: Narrative, Metaphor and Mechanism.”

Rebecca is also working on a paper with Ryan Brown (yes, he’s presenting too!) that will provide an anthropological take on the emerging field of cultural neuroscience in a special issue on that topic. The whole collection will hopefully appear later this year in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience and is being edited by Joan Chiao. If you don’t want to wait that long, you might check out some previous posts on cultural neuroscience and the cultural brain here.

Rebecca was also part of an Ethos special issue on Building Biocultural Anthropology that I co-edited with Dan Hruschka back in 2005. Her article dealt with a similar topic, “Distress, Dissociation, and Embodied Experience: Reconsidering the Pathways to Mediumship and Mental Health.” Here is the abstract to that piece:

This article explores the biocultural bases of spirit possession mediumship in the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé. After a brief review of the literature, the article moves beyond the biomedical and social-structural explanations that have dominated the theoretical landscape, by attempting to construct an etiology of mediumship that is traced through the interface of individual characteristics with the cultural belief system that forms their context. Data were collected from a total of 71 individuals over the course of a year-long field study in Salvador, Brazil. Analyses of social ethnography, life history and semistructured interviews along with results from psychological inventories, suggest that altered states of consciousness should not be considered the central and defining element of mediumship. An alternative model is proposed, in which the combination of social conditions and somatic susceptibilities causes certain individuals to identify with the mediumship role, and predisposes them to dissociate. However in the context of Candomblé, dissociation is not a pathological experience, but rather a therapeutic mechanism, learned through religious participation, that benefits individuals with a strong tendency to somatize.

If you want to contact Rebecca, please email her at r-seligman at

One thought on “Rebecca Seligman and the Cultural Neuroscience of Dissociation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s