Monday, 3 August 2009

Trance & Possession-like behaviours...

I have recently become interested in behaviours that superficially resemble trance communication and possession behaviours, and am particularly interested in the possibility of neurophysiological similarities, or differences, between them.

Some of the physical symptoms of possession cases include:

  • Erratic movement
  • Manipulation of vocal tonality
  • Presentation of at least one other personality distinct from the host

Trance communication behaviours include:

  • Manipulation of vocal tonality
  • Personality shifts
  • Eyes closed (often but not always)

The following clips contain what I would consider to be trance-like or possession-like behaviours.


This is, of course, a fairly exaggerated example of the way in which acting can superficially resemble the trance and possession states. An actor changes his/her voice, mannerisms, characteristics and even appearance when performing a role. Impersonators take on specific real life personalities, while ventriloquists are able to project their voices often while performing as several different characters simultaneously.

Studies have been conducted with the aim of determining whether the neurophysiology of individuals suffering from psychopathological disorders differs from that of method actors feigning the disorder. EEG results revealed significant differences in brain activity between actors faking emotions and patients with emotional disorders (Tucker & Dawson, 1984). Similar research has also been conducted on individuals suffering from psychophysiological movement disorders (e.g. being unable to move one's arm) and individuals pretending to have the same disorder. PET scans showed significant differences in the neurological activity of the patient and the feigner (Spence, et al., 2000).

In certain situtations, then, acting can clearly be distinguished from specific neurophysiological disorders.

Unfortunately I am unaware of any studies that have specifically compared the EEG recordings of actors and trance mediums/possessed individuals.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID):

EEG studies with DID patients have revealed differences in neurophysiological activity between the host and his/her alter personalities, while alter personalities performed by professional actors failed to replicate these differences “indicating that EEG coherence, at least in the present study is not able to be simulated or faked from information relating to age and sex” (Hopper et al., 2002, 84). Alter personalities are seemingly correlated with “greater alpha band spectral power” (2002, 76).

In trance mediums it is not uncommon for individual controls to come through unexpectedly, even when another communicator is making itself known. Occasionally this is put down to the strength of the individual control: the stronger (i.e. more developed) spirit would be better able to make itself apparent through the medium, while less developed spirits may be supplanted, or even replaced. Crabtree (1988) recalls a several cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder in which an alter, apparently more socially successful (i.e. more confident, outgoing, etc.), has attempted, and in some cases succeeded, to take complete control of the host: entirely supplanting their personality.

Severe distress:

This boy had his World of Warcraft account cancelled, which apparently set him off on a tantrum. It is interesting to note the similarities between some of his erratic behaviours and certain behaviours observed in cases of possession and possession-trance:

  • Bodily convulsions
  • Manipulation of vocal tonality
  • Self-destructive behaviours

Might it be possible to suggest that times of great emotional distress can precipitate into possession behaviours? Much parapsychological attention has been paid to the relationship between adolescent emotional states and manifestations of the paranormal: the Enfield poltergeist case of 1977 is perhaps one of the most well-known examples. On this occasion “poltergeist activity” was seemingly occurring in a locus around 11-year old Janet Hodgson:

The Hydesville incident of 1848 (the official birth of the Spiritualist movement) was centred on the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret.

Many, particularly European, cases of possession revolve around an adolescent protagonist. Examples would include the case of Annelise Michel in 1975, whose problems began at age 16.

Mediumship, Channelling & Possession...

So how do these similar behaviours relate to mediumship, channelling and spirit possession?

From the outside these behaviours appear to resemble each other, but it might be possible to distinguish between them based upon tangible neurophysiological differences.

EEG research conducted on meditators and channellers has revealed distinctive patterns of brain activation when such practitioners enter into altered states of consciousness (ASCs). In particular there is a trend towards greater hemispheric synchronisation, particularly in the alpha wave frequency range. (Klimo, 1987, 268). Oohashi et al. (2002), in a study of Balinese possession, demonstrated that the EEG readings for an individual undergoing spirit possession (in the Balinese tradition) are significantly different to those of individuals with psychopathological or neurophysiological disorders: “The EEG of the possessed subject did not show any pathological findings including epileptic discharges” (2002, 435). In addition the possessed individual displayed “enhanced power in the theta and alpha frequency bands during the trance” (ibid.).

Altered states of consciousness, then, possess their own distinctive patterns of brain activation which can be compared and contrasted with those of individuals performing similar behaviours. As already mentioned, I am unaware of any research that has specifically compared the EEG readings of mediums, channels and those undergoing spirit possession, with readings from actors/impersonators/ventriloquists, DID/MPD and those experiencing intense emotional states. The data I have been able to find appear to suggest that neurophysiological differences would be detectable, and that acting, feigning and simulating do not inherently induce neurophysiological processes analogous to either pathological disorders or mediumship/channelling/possession, even if the physical manifestation of behaviour is similar. The dominance of alpha frequency neural activity during trance and in the alter personalities of DID patients is also fascinating.

This article is, of course, incomplete, but I hope that it may stimulate a little thought on the issues raised. Feedback and discussion would be most welcome.


Crabtree, A. 1988. Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession and Multiple Personality Disorder. Great Britain: Grafton Books.

Hopper, A., Ciorciari, J., Johnson, G., Spensley, J, Sergejew, A., Stough, C.M. 2002. EEG Coherence and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 75-88.

Klimo, J. 1987. Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc.

Oohashi, T., Kawai, N., Honda, M., Nakamura, S., Morimoto, M., Nishina, E., Maekawa, T. 2002. Electroencephalographic measurement of possession trance in the field. Clinical Neurophysiology, No. 113, pp. 435-445.

Spence, S.A., Crimlisk, H.L., Cope, H., Ron, M.A., Grasby, P.M. 2000. Discrete neurophysiological correlates in prefrontal cortex during hysterical and feigned disorder of movement. The Lancet, Vol. 355.

Tucker, D.M., & Dawson, S.L. 1984. Asymmetric EEG Changes as Method Actors Generated Emotions. Biological Psychology, Vol. 19, pp. 63-75.

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