Trance, Dissociation, and Shamanism: A Cross-Cultural Model

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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  • 1 Center for Mind and Culture, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA
  • 2 Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center, Old Dominion University, Suffolk, VA

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Abstract

Religious practices centered on controlled trance states, such as Siberian shamanism or North African zar, are ubiquitous, yet their characteristics vary. In particular, cross-cultural research finds that female-dominated spirit possession cults are common in stratified societies, whereas male-dominated shamanism predominates in structurally flatter cultures. Here, we present an agent-based model that explores factors, including social stratification and psychological dissociation, that may partially account for this pattern. We posit that, in more stratified societies, female agents suffer from higher levels of psychosocial trauma, whereas male agents are more vulnerable in flatter societies. In societies with fewer levels of formal hierarchy, males come into informal social competition more regularly than in stratified contexts. This instability leads to a cultural feedback effect in which dissociative experiences deriving from chronic psychosocial stress become canalized into a male religious trance role. The model reproduces these patterns under plausible parameter configurations.

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