A great discussion on the Medical Anthropology listserve focused on good films for trance. I’ve provided the list below, complete with links to the films, extra notes in brackets, and some YouTube clips.
Joshua Moses asked:
Dear colleagues, I was wondering if people could recommend film footage of trance states of various kinds–rituals, dance, shamanic, church based etc.
The geographical region is not important. I would be grateful for you assistance. Thank you.
Michelle Ramirez (University of the Sciences in Philadelphia): There’s always the classic “Holy Ghost People” by Peter Adair, which shows folks in Appalachia (in what very much looks like trance-like states) handling snakes.
[You can also get this documentary in a series of six YouTube clips starting here; I’ve embedded below another clip that contains some of the most relevant footage]
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.
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.’
A recent article on PLoS One by a research team from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) discusses the genetic effects of the relaxation response, a widespread bodily state induced by different mind-body techniques (such as meditation).
The relaxation response is a bodily state, found in a variety of contexts, characterized by ‘decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress.’ Long-term effects of relaxation exercises include decreased oxygen intake and carbon dioxide elimination; reductions in blood pressure, heart and respiration rate; prominent low frequency heart rate oscillations; and some changes in cortical and subcortical brain regions, including increased thickness of the cortex (see NeuroReport and here also on the effect of meditation on aging).
For about three decades, dependable clinical studies have shown that relaxation response-producing exercises have a range of positive health benefits. What makes the current research distinctive (at least in my reading) is that the team traced this metabolic process to its genetic effects. As the authors write:
This study provides the first compelling evidence that the RR elicits specific gene expression changes in short-term and long-term practitioners. Our results suggest consistent and constitutive changes in gene expression resulting from RR may relate to long term physiological effects. Our study may stimulate new investigations into applying transcriptional profiling for accurately measuring RR and stress related responses in multiple disease settings.
Newberg covers a lot of his take on the biology of belief as well as imaging research he has done on people praying or meditating. Here’s an excerpt on belief:
So our brain is trying to put together a construction of our reality, a perspective on that reality, which we rely on heavily for our survival, for figuring out how to behave and how to act and how to vote. But again, the brain is filling in a lot of gaps and helping us think certain things that may or may not really be there… So what are beliefs? Again, I apologize, but I always come at this from a scientific perspective. I am defining beliefs biologically and psychologically as any perception, cognition, emotion, or memory that a person consciously or unconsciously assumes to be true. The reasons I define beliefs in this way are several-fold. One is that we can begin to look at the various components that make up our beliefs. We can talk about our perceptions. We can talk about our cognitive processes. We can talk about how our emotions affect our beliefs. And we can also look at how they ultimately affect us. Are we aware of the beliefs we hold? Or are they unconscious? And which ones are unconscious and which ones are conscious?
And an excerpt connecting belief to the practice of religion.
The practices and rituals that exist within both religious and non-religious groups become a strong and powerful way to write these ideas into our brain. Again, go back to the idea that the neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you focus on a particular idea, whether it is political or religious or athletic, the more that gets written down into your brain and the more that becomes your reality. So that is why when you go to a church or a synagogue or a mosque, and they repeat the same stories, and you celebrate the same holidays that reinforce that, you do the prayers, and you say these things over and over again, those are the neural connections that get stimulated and strengthened. That is a strong part of why religion and spirituality make use of various practices valuable for writing those beliefs strongly into who you are.
Brooks aims to place these sorts of ideas into a social and cultural context.
Scientific American‘s Mind & Brain website has a discussion of a recent study of meditation, Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate. The original research article that this piece is discussing, ‘Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise’ by Antoine Lutz, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, and Richard J. Davidson, is available on-line at the Public Library of Science (here).
The research team investigated the activity of the insula and anterior cingulate cortices, areas implicated in empathetic reactions to others’ suffering, when people voluntarily sought to feel compassion. In other words, the research team looked at whether a set of brain areas which are active when people see other people suffering and feel empathy might be intentionally activated in situations where subjects imagined compassion; could will or conscious thought be used to summon up brain activity that looks like a reaction to suffering that is almost automatic in most people? (Lots of caveats here, but you get the gist.)
In particular, the team was looking at whether compassion meditation might make people more likely to have strong reactions to hearing the signals of another person’s distress; from the abstract, ‘Our main hypothesis was that the concern for others cultivated during this form of meditation enhances affective processing, in particular in response to sounds of distress, and that this response to emotional sounds is modulated by the degree of meditation training.’ Specifically, the research team compared novice meditators to ’16 long-term Buddhist meditators, whom we classified as experts’: ‘Experts had previously completed from 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditative training in a variety of practices, including compassion meditation, in similar Tibetan traditions (Nyingmapa and Kagyupa).’