Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 31–64 | Cite as

Dissociative Experience and Cultural Neuroscience: Narrative, Metaphor and Mechanism

  • Rebecca SeligmanEmail author
  • Laurence J. Kirmayer
Original Paper


Approaches to trance and possession in anthropology have tended to use outmoded models drawn from psychodynamic theory or treated such dissociative phenomena as purely discursive processes of attributing action and experience to agencies other than the self. Within psychology and psychiatry, understanding of dissociative disorders has been hindered by polemical “either/or” arguments: either dissociative disorders are real, spontaneous alterations in brain states that reflect basic neurobiological phenomena, or they are imaginary, socially constructed role performances dictated by interpersonal expectations, power dynamics and cultural scripts. In this paper, we outline an approach to dissociative phenomena, including trance, possession and spiritual and healing practices, that integrates the neuropsychological notions of underlying mechanism with sociocultural processes of the narrative construction and social presentation of the self. This integrative model, grounded in a cultural neuroscience, can advance ethnographic studies of dissociation and inform clinical approaches to dissociation through careful consideration of the impact of social context.


Dissociation Dissociative disorders Trance Possession Healing Cultural psychiatry 



Preparation of this article was supported by a postdoctoral award to R. Seligman from the CIHR Strategic Training Program in Culture and Mental Health Services (L. Kirmayer, PI) [STS-63312], and by a Senior Investigator Award, to L. Kirmayer, [MSS 55123].


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  2. 2.Division of Social & Transcultural Psychiatry, Culture & Mental Health Research Unit, Jewish General HospitalMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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