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Spirit Possession Provides Understanding of Broader Human Experience

Northwestern anthropologist’s book offers insights on links between spirituality, health

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A new book by a Northwestern University anthropologist explains how certain kinds of religious participation can positively influence people’s physical and mental health.

In “Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion,” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) author Rebecca Seligman tells the stories of ordinary people who come to experience a deeply intimate relationship with their religious spirits -- so intimate that they become possessed or inhabited by those spirits at times.

“The book documents how transformative this experience can be for individuals, especially those living with high levels of emotional distress prior to their religious engagement,” said Seligman, assistant professor of anthropology and global health in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and faculty fellow with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. 

“What’s more, the book reveals that people engaged in their religion in this deeply intimate way show a markedly different pattern of cardiovascular functioning than others involved in less intense ways,” she said.

For example, these people demonstrate a pattern of cardiac autonomic regulation that has been associated with better health outcomes in other studies. The link to positive health outcomes is supported by the finding that participants overwhelmingly report an improvement in mental and physical health following their religious involvement.

The big take away of the book, Seligman said, is the insight that this investigation of intense religious devotion offers into the ways in which human minds and bodies are linked together. Such devotion is a dramatic place to see how much people’s attitudes, expectations and attributions affect their health and well-being. 

But those kinds of effects are taking place around us all the time in perhaps less dramatic, but equally important ways, Seligman said.

“These include lots of negative effects -- like the ways that discrimination, stigma and loneliness adversely affect health,” Seligman said. “But also more positive effects -- like the health benefits of social support and praise or the positive health outcomes associated with practices like yoga and mindfulness.”

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