Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Cross-Cultural Trance


Gage, J. (2010, October 29). Science of Santeria: Do a little happy trance. nbcnews.com. Retrieved November 26, 2013, from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/39915165/


For practitioners of santerìa, trance states are a way of connecting with the spirits. The space between the living and the dead is a liminal one and the combination of chanting, music and dance is a way of breaking down this barrier and literally communing with the spirits. The spirits of this Afro-Cuban practice are an adaptation of Catholic saints and African orishas. When slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism, many recognized that Catholic saints resembled their own ancestral spirits. The resulting blends have spawned several popular religious ideologies including Cuban santerìa, Haitian vodou and Brazilian candomblé. Each of these evolved under the oppression of French, Spanish and Portuguese colonization. 

Some followers of santerìa literally believe that the music can channel important messages from the gods. When the drumming and chanting occurs in a particular sequence, some of the listeners go into a trance state. Armenteros, the founder of a Miama band called Los Herederos states that all of the right elements must be present in a ceremony for trancing to take place. Dr. Peter Naish, a senior lecturer in cognitive psychology, has determined that certain types of people are more prone to trance behaviour than others. His research demonstrates that “those whose two hemispheres process information at disproportionate speeds are more capable of playing the hallucinatory tricks indicative of hypnosis and trance” (Gage). Furthermore, he asserts that based on the social expectations of the ceremony, if there is an assumption of entering the spirit world, that is what will happen. Thus, there are some physiological factors to trancing, but also some learned behaviours.

Lastly, this article describes how the stereotypes of Afro-Caribbean religious ceremonies are not always accurate. Many of the stereotypes that especially stem from Vodou ceremonies preceding the 1791 Haitian revolution to overthrow the French frightened the slaveholders of the time. While some practitioners perform animal sacrifices and cast spells, there is still a moral code attached. All of these religions still espouse a basic concept of respect and leading an upright life. Ultimately, trancing serves as a way of getting messages from the spirits out to other people by becoming enraptured in the song and music – a type of high.


Though many aspects of these Afro-Caribbean trance practices may seem outlandish and primitive from a Western perspective, we have similar aspects in some of our own religious practices. When I first began research for my final paper, I was initially only interested in trance and experiences of ecstasy in charismatic Christian communities. My research lens expanded when I started seeing connections to other religious trance experiences. The role of trancing in santerìa – to relay direct messages from the orishas or spirits – isn’t unlike the Christian practice of speaking in tongues. In the original context of this practice, tongues simply meant “language” and referred to the God-given ability to evangelize in languages that were foreign to the speaker. Tongues started to appear in the church context as a direct revelation from God which was interpreted by another church member. In the santerìa context, this is perhaps done in a more orderly fashion: often a ring of people envelop the spirit-possessed person while in the state of trance. The Pentecostal practice often looks much more chaotic with many people entering and exiting states of trance while speaking in tongues simultaneously. Whether the contemporary practice of speaking in tongues is faithful to the first-century practice is debatable[1], but the connections of trance to both Christianity and Afro-Caribbean religions are clear.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, used MRI scans to identify what is happening in the brain while people pray in tongues. He used a variety of participants in this study including a pastor and a congregation member. Based on the pastor’s brain scans, the results show that while praying in English, the frontal lobe was activated as a result of the intense focus. While praying in tongues, the frontal lobe was not activated as much since the frontal lobe also stores the speech centre of the brain. This quieting of the frontal lobe is consistent with the experience of transcendence that people purportedly feel while praying and the resultant glossolalia. Other study participants entered a trance state while listening to music and began speaking in tongues. The pastor is perhaps able to speak in tongues without requiring music since it is a habitual and learned behaviour for him. This parallels Dr. Naish’s suggestion that part of trance inducement can be learned and conditioned.

By contrast, an earlier study by Dr. Newberg focused on Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns. This study showed an increase in frontal lobe activity while praying as a result of the intense focus and mindfulness they use in prayers through repetitious phrases or mantras. This is a stark contrast to the trance-induced states that result in a drop of frontal lobe activity. In my understanding, other types of meditation may also result in a quieting of the frontal lobe since some meditation practices seek to quiet the mind by getting rid of conscious thoughts. Here is a link to a YouTube video which presents Dr. Newberg’s work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZbQBajYnEc.

         Thus, some of the trance practices of charismatic Christianity are reminiscent of the practices of other religions. This discussion also falls into the gray area where faith can’t be entirely explained by science. However, an understanding of the underlying neurological processes involved in these trance-like states gives us a clearer idea of what is actually happening in moments of transcendence.

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