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On the Universality of Mystical and Ecstatic Conditions


William Sheehan, M.D.
Minnesota Department of Human Services
1702 Technology Drive NE
Willmar, Minnesota 56201

Yasuhiro Kishi, M.D.
Department of Psychiatry, Saitama Medical Center, Saitama Medical University Kawagoe, Saitama 350-8550, Japan.

Steven Thurber, Ph.D., ABPP
Woodland Centers
1125 SE Sixth Street
Willmar, Minnesota 56201


Transcendental human experiences, involving altered states of consciousness, have occurred across cultures and throughout recorded history. We suggest that this universality relates to common neurological underpinnings with reference to the temporal lobe of the brain and factors that promote changes in cortical activity levels. Exemplars from Shamanism, transcendental possession in ancient Greece and 19th century Japan, and clinical experiences of the authors with patients in America (multiple personality) and Japan (animal possession) are presented. Explanations for altered consciousness conditions are provided by extant belief systems with current psychiatric diagnostic classifications (e.g., dissociation; multiple personality disorder) having no clear ascendancy over explanations from pre-scientific formulations (flights of the soul from the body) or cultural folklore (e.g., fox possession in Japan).


Altered States of Consciousness; Cultural Explanations; Fox Possession



The pervasiveness of transcendental and other altered states of consciousness is a reflection of the fact that we all have, in some sense, the same brain, a common mental constitution. The fundamental characteristic of altered states of consciousness (ASC) is, as William James pointed out (James, 1936), ineffability, i.e., they defy expression in words; they must be directly experienced to be understood, being in this respect “more like states of feeling than states of intellect.” And yet, though like feelings, they also seem to those who experience them to be states of knowledge, “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect….Illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain. Similarly, certain religious experiences may involve induced mental states “interpreted as witnesses to the existence of cosmological realms….and supernatural beings.” (Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005).

Brain Mechanisms

The mixture of inarticulate feeling with meaning stamps their place of origin as the temporal lobe —the part of the cortex mediating emotion and meaning—and indeed, all of the experiences one thinks of as mystical and ecstatic have been reported as symptoms, at one time or other, by patients with temporal lobe seizures. For example, the French writer Gustave Flaubert gave the following description of his seizures which is classic for temporal lobe epilepsy (Flaherty, 2004):
They tended to start with a sense of doom, followed by a feeling that the boundaries of his self were dissolving. He wrote that his seizures arrived as ‘a whirlpool of ideas and images in my poor brain, during which it seemed that my consciousness, that my ‘me’ sank like a vessel in a storm.” He would moan, have a rush of memories, see fiery hallucinations, foam at the mouth, move his right arm automatically, fall into a trance of about ten minutes, and vomit.

Not surprisingly, given the temporal lobe’s extensive connections with other parts of the brain and its heightened sensitivity to electrical stimulation from other neurons, the most common type of seizure involves the temporal lobe, and the bewildering but fascinating phenomena that occur during these episodes have been experienced—and induced—by representative people in all known epochs of time. In traditional belief systems, these experiences were interpreted either as flights of the soul from the body—the phenomenon of ecstasy, which reflects the fundamental belief of Shamanism (called the oldest religion in the world)—or as possessions by spirits, benign or malignant, entering into the body from outside. In both cases, connections with epilepsy—presumably of the temporal lobe variety—are common. Mircea Eliade (1964), in his pioneering work on shamanism, notes that many of the shamans or medicine men have physical defects or a hereditary condition that makes it easier to come by their magico-religious vocations; these include physical and nervous disorders, sometimes innate and inherited, sometimes acquired—for instance, he cites some that became ecstatics after falling from a tree. Of the Yakut Shamans, he writes of their initiatory ecstasies and visions: “The candidate becomes meditative, seeks solitude, sleeps a great deal, seems absent-minded, has prophetic dreams and sometimes seizures” (Eliade, 1964).

Induction of altered states of consciousness


Seizures involve changes in cortical activity and arousal. Voluntary activities that produce deficits or excesses in energy supplied to the brain can also result in altered states presumably via connections with the temporal lobe. Sexual activity and activities leading to physical exhaustion, for example, can provide conditions that affect cortical energy changes and resultant ASC. Throughout recorded time and across cultures, rhythmic auditory stimulation such as drumming and body movements that occur in dancing have played an important role in inducing such altered states (see Vaitl, Birbaumer, Gruzelier, Jamieson, Kotchoubey, Kubler, Lehmann, Miltner, Ott, Putz, Sammer, Strauch, Strehl, Wackermann, & Weiss, 2005).

Thus, the Shaman will rely on drumming to initiate the ecstatic condition (Eliade, 1964). This can be followed by shamanic imitation of the actions and voices of animals, which can pass as a “possession”: “The shaman … turns himself into an animal, just as he achieves a similar result by putting on an animal mask” (Eliade 1964, p. 93). This suggests that—except in the interpretation--ecstatic flights of the soul out of the body and possession are not neurobiologically distinct or separate from each other; instead the underlying phenomena are the same and indeed, at least to some extent, interchangeable. That is, there are changes in cortical arousal and temporal lobe involvement, with distinctiveness related to culturally-related belief systems. The belief in spirit-possession as the explanation of the pathogenesis of disease is implicit in the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels—most of which, by far, involve exorcisms of possessed individuals. Not surprisingly, at least some of those possessed are identified as epileptics.

In essence, we posit that mystical experiences that occur across time and cultures- including modern, rational, and scientific societies-are based in the common functioning of the human brain, and that extant cultural belief systems are employed to explain these dramatic changes in consciousness. Culturally-dependent interpretations can include out-of-body experiences and intrusions of some foreign element or supernatural being, animal possession, extraterrestrial visitations, imagined or false memories of sexual abuse, alien abductions, and multiple personality (see Persinger, 1989; Spanos, 1994).


The following cross-cultural, cross-time epoch accounts all describe what seem to be similar phenomena, although each is interpreted differently depending on the prevailing belief-system.
Siberian Shaman. “An early voyager among the Lapps has left a vivid description of the weird performance of one of these strange emissaries into the kingdoms of the dead. Since the yonder world is a place of everlasting night, the ceremonial of the shaman has to take place after dark. The friends and neighbors gather in the flickering, dimly lighted hut of the patient, and follow attentively the gesticulations of the magician. First he summons the helping spirits; these arrive, invisible to himself…. The shaman uncovers his head, loosens his belt and shoestrings, covers his face with his hands and begins to twirl in a variety of circles. Suddenly, with very violent gestures, he shouts: ‘Fit out the reindeer! Ready to boat!... He drags burning logs out of the fire with his naked hands. He dashes three times around each of the women and finally collapses, ‘like a dead man.’ … While he reposes now in trance, he is to be watched so closely that not even a fly may settle upon him… The women in attendance whisper to each other, trying to guess in what part of the yonder world he now may be. If they mention the correct mountain, the shaman stirs either a hand or a foot. At length he begins to return. In a low, weak voice he utters the words he has heard in the world below. Then the women begin to sing.” (Campbell 1968)
Possession in ancient Greece. “Diodorus tells us that in many Greek states congregations of women assemble every second year, and the unmarried girls are allowed to carry the thyrsus and share the transports of the elders… Their character may have varied a good deal from place to place, but we can hardly doubt that they normally included women’s orgies of the ecstatic or quasi-ecstatic type described by Diodorus, and that these often, if not always, involved nocturnal mountain dancing… There are … certain resemblances in points of detail between the orgiastic religion of the Bacchae and orgiastic religion elsewhere… The first concerns the flutes and tympana or kettledrums which accompany the maenad dance in the Bacchae and on Greek vases… They could cause madness, and in homeopathic doses they could also cure it… A second point is the carriage of the head in Dionysiac ecstasy. This is repeatedly stressed in the Bacchae: 150, ‘flinging his long hair to the sky’: 241, ‘I will stop you tossing back your hair’; 930, ‘tossing my head forwards and backwards like a bacchanal’; similarly elsewhere the possessed Cassandra ‘flings her golden locks when there blows from the God the compelling wind of second-sight.’… The gesture is not simply a convention of Greek poetry and art; at all times and everywhere it characterizes this particular type of religious hysteria. I take three independent modern descriptions: ‘the continual jerking their heads back, causing their long black hair to twist about, added much to their savage appearance’; ‘their long hair was tossed about by the rapid to- and fro- movements of the head’; ‘the head was tossed from side to side or thrown far back above a swollen and bulging throat.’ The first phrase is from a missionary’s account of a cannibal dance in British Columbia which led up to the tearing asunder and eating of a human body; the second describes a sacral dance of goat-eaters in Morocco; the third is from a clinical description of possessive hysteria by a French doctor. (Dodds 1951)
Possession in Japan. “After a short incantation the maeza removed the wand and gave it to the t?h?, the ‘eastern heaven,’ who held it ready in his hands. The nakaza came forward and solemnly seated himself where the gohei had been, facing the altar. Folding his legs under him, he drew his robe carefully round him, and tied the ends of it together as one would a bundle-handkerchief… Such is the conventional Ry?bu-Shint? attitude during possession. Whether this by no means easy pose is modeled after that of the contemplative Buddha, or is merely the exalted seat of old Japan, is doubtful. The two differ in certain technical details of the knot that one ties in one’s legs… The tying is done to tether the possessed that he may not prove too violent in the trance. For, as may be imagined, the pose is one from which it is next to impossible to arise. Nevertheless, I have seen a god hop round on this his pedestal with astounding agility.
“After a little private finger-twisting and prayer, the nakaza folded his hands before him and closed his eyes, the others of course incanting. The maeza took the wand from the t?h? and put it between the nakaza’s hands… As the measured cadence rolled on, suddenly the wand began to quiver; and the chant increased in energy…. Slowly, as it shook, it rose till it reached his forehead. The paroxysm came on and then the wand settled with a jerk to a rigid half-arm holding before his brow, a suppressed quiver alone still thrilling it through. The god had come. “
“The maeza leaned forward, bent low before the outstretched gohei, and reverently asked the god’s name. The eyes of the possessed had already opened to the glassy stare typical of trances, the eyeballs so rolled back that the pupils were nearly out of sight. In an unnatural, yet not exactly artificial voice, the god replied, “Matsuwo.”… (Lowell 1895).

Shamanic flights—bacchanalian dances—demonic possessions (which were common even in the United States, especially in rural areas in the nineteenth century, though they are now rarely reported), the dramatic posturing of the Grand Hysterics, the incarnations of gods and fox-possessions among the nineteenth century Japanese—all exhibit what is at bottom the same neurobiological substrate. These cases—uncanny enough for those who witness of them—are appropriated to categories of explanation deemed plausible by their cultures. In our own day, we describe them (no less according to the fashion of the time) in terms like dissociation or multiple-personality disorder, though it appears that even these concepts may be no less metaphysical or culturally determined than the others.  Shamanic ecstasies in which the shaman may become an animal—possessions by demons or gods--dissociations in which various “alters” take over a person’s identify do at least seem to share in common the manifestation of brain-states in which abnormal activity in the temporal lobe can be demonstrated (Mesulam 1981).

We have already reported the case of a patient who had been severely abused over a period of several years in whom we witnessed several dramatic inductions into states in which “alters” appeared (Sheehan, Thurber, & Sewall 2006). There can be little question that in another time and place these phenomena could be “seen” as straightforward manifestations of possession—seen in the sense meant by philosopher of science Norwood Russell Hanson when he says of observers who in one sense “make the same observation since they begin from the same visual data. But they interpret what they see differently. They construe the evidence in different ways” (Hanson 1958). Though the patient, who was a teacher, had originally experienced these episodes spontaneously, she had learned to induce them seemingly at will—causing at least one of her previous physicians to feel that he was being put on. The features of her states of dissociation—or possession—were very similar to the Japanese possessions described above and included agitation and nervous excitement along with changes in vital signs, anesthesia to pinprick during the trance and—what was most uncanny--an unnatural, though not exactly artificial, voice, which again is similar to what has been described in the Japanese possessions. Thus Lowell (1895) writes:

The development of the voice is always an acquired art; dumb possession preceding the ability to converse in the trance. It takes the god no inconsiderable time to learn to talk. When he does so the tone is peculiar. It is not the man’s natural voice, but a stilted, cothurnus sort of voice, one which a god might be supposed to use in addressing mere mortals. It would be theatrical were it not sincere. It is the man’s unconscious conception of how a god should talk, and commends itself artistically to the imagination.
In the case of our patient, she sounded as she believed she would have sounded as a young child (and this peculiarity extended also to the form and style of her writing). Her “alters” did not seem to be directly aware either of each other or of the patient’s dominant personality, and the latter could intuit but not describe directly what had been expressed or enacted in her “absence.” Rather dramatically, when the performance was over and the dominant personality re-emerged, the patient rolled or closed her eyes, seemed semi-stuporous for a few moments, then gradually regained orientation and awareness over a period of twenty or thirty seconds. There was a post-ictal quality to the re-emergence of the presumed dominant personality, as if marking a transition from a state of trance. At her request, this patient had Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) scans performed in both the dominant and in the altered state; the results showed a visually apparent increase of activity in the left mesial temporal lobe compared to that on the right in the “dominant adult” state; there was no such asymmetry in the “alter.” This finding was consistent with a previous case-report (Saxe, Vasile, Hill, & Bloomingtion, 1992). These findings do suggest subtle transitions of hemispheric dominance—from the verbal, logico-deductive, usually dominant left hemisphere to the non-verbal, intuitive usually silent right hemisphere—may underlie these remarkable phenomena, a subject yet to be fully investigated.

Possessions in Japan; Changes in Frequency and Interpretation.

Though in the West most cases of this kind that are now observed are regarded as dissociative disorders, multiple-personality disorders, or psychogenic reactions (jargon from the American Psychiatric Association), we are interested in the way that these phenomena are now interpreted in Japan. Until the end of the nineteenth century, divine possessions, including cases of fox possession, were routine in Japan and could even be produced on command for curious Western visitors like Percival Lowell and Lafcadio Hearn (Lowell, 1895; Hearn, 1894). Currently they are now considered exceedingly rare. Significantly, Japan, beginning with the Mejii restoration, has undergone a remarkably and almost unprecedented transformation of attitudes—a process of Westernization and secularization; most Japanese psychiatrists have now largely adopted Western diagnostic formulations such as those of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM; American Psychiatric Association, 1994), which has been in general use in Japan since around 1990. One of authors—Kishi—is a psychiatrist practicing in Japan; neither he nor his colleagues have seen a fox-possessed patient in more than 10 years. When he was a resident, he saw a middle-aged patient who believed herself to be possessed by a fox. She was a woman who had belonged to a religious cult. During the cult ceremony, which might lead to an ecstatic trance, she believed herself to be possessed by the fox; she spoke like a fox, using “kon kon” (onomatopoetic words of a Japanese fox growling!) and became agitated. Under the observation of family members, she did not improve to normal; her family took her to the emergency room, where she was seen by Kishi. She could not talk but growled, and instead of walking, she crawled on all fours. She was very agitated and psychomotorically excited. She was placed under sedation but was not admitted to the hospital because of a bed shortage; instead she was left in the emergency room and when seen again 10-12 hours after the intravenous injection, she was awake, and was once more behaving as a human being. She could not recall anything of what had transpired. The psychiatric diagnosis was “psychogenic reaction.”
Several Japanese colleagues were also asked about their experiences. Many had seen fox-possessed patients, as well as dog-possessed or horse-possessed patients. Again the diagnosis given was “psychogenic reaction.”

All of the cases—Siberian shaman, Greek Maenad, person possessed by god, demon, fox or dog—seem to be examples of the same phenomenon, hypothesized as involving change in cortical arousal and disturbance of the temporal lobe. The interpretation given to the phenomenon is in the terms of extant theological, folklore, or medical principles dominant at the time and place. Whether the DSM categories such as “psychogenic reaction” or “dissociative states” can be regarded as more informative than “possession” or “ecstasy” or just as culture-dependent—and provisional--is doubtful. There is reason to believe that excitatory or seizure-like activity of the temporal lobe, produced under certain conditions of intense emotional excitement or under the influence of religious preoccupations, is likely to provide a more illuminating explanation of this phenomenon. Further scientific investigation is needed, though the increasing rarity of these cases presents a challenge.


Research in the neurosciences is providing data about brain structures and functions that underlie the bewildering conditions that fall under the rubric “altered states of consciousness.” Whereas the neurological substrata appear much the same, the variegated behavioral and emotional manifestations and related interpretations appear specific to time epochs and extant cultural belief systems.


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Copyright Priory Lodge Education 2008 -

First Published July 2008

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