Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

The authors of a recently published article explore cultural aspects of dissociation in mediumship: Everton de Oliveira Maraldi, Ricardo Nogueira Ribeiro, and Stanley Krippner, Cultural and Group Differences in Mediumship and Dissociation: Exploring the Varieties of Mediumistic Experiences. International Journal of Latin American Religions, 2019, 3, 170-192. (for reprints write to the first author: evertonom@usp.br)

Abstract

“The mental state of mediums has often been explained in the anthropological, psychological, and psychiatric literature in terms of dissociative trance. Even though mediumistic experiences involve, by definition, many of the elements of experiences referred to as dissociative, there is some controversy about the role played by dissociation in mediumistic practices and there are few cross-cultural studies on the phenomenology of mediumship. Despite its influential contributions to elucidating the clinical and neurophysiological correlates of dissociative experiences, the biomedical model has been criticized for its emphasis on psychopathological aspects of experience and the superficial consideration of cultural and psychosocial factors at the origin of mediumistic experiences, particularly in non-clinical contexts. In this paper, we review the evidence pertaining to a series of psychiatric and anthropological investigations of mediumship carried out in Brazil and abroad in order to illustrate how group and cultural differences impact the phenomenology, definitions, and meanings attributed to mediumistic experiences. To do so, we explore the differences that exist (1) between mediums from the same religious affiliation, (2) between mediums from different affiliations, and (3) between mediums from different cultural contexts, focusing on a comparison of cases from Brazil and the UK. We argue that mediumistic experiences and beliefs are highly variable across (and even within) cultures to support a single and monolithic classification. Based on multiple evidentiary sources, we challenge the pathologically oriented biomedical model of mediumship by pointing out the complexity and diversity of these experiences and mediumship’s many cultural interpretations and phenomenological variations. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of the studies reviewed for the definition of mediumship in terms of dissociation and trance.”

The authors conclude:

“Our emphasis in this paper was in the phenomenological characteristics of mediumistic experiences and the many relations between mediumship and dissociation. However, several other aspects of mediumship deserve also a detailed psychological and anthropological analysis, such as the relationship of the mediums with the spiritual entities, mediums’ beliefs about the afterlife, the medium’s social role and status within the group, and the impact of institutional dynamics in the practice of mediumship.”

“Many other cultures not mentioned here could be compared in their varieties of mediumship practice, including other countries in Latin America, such as Cuba and Argentina. Future studies could eventually benefit from the same comparative model of analysis to reflect on the diversity of mediumistic practices around the world. We hope that the discussion raised in this work will promote a constructive debate about the viability of concepts such as trance and dissociation in the understanding of experiences deemed mediumistic.”

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