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Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion

Rebecca Seligman evaluates the impact of deep religious engagement on physical and mental health


Deep religious engagement can have a positive impact on a person’s physical and mental health, IPR anthropologist Rebecca Seligman demonstrates in her new book, Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Spirits coverSeligman’s fieldwork among spirit possession mediums of Brazil’s Candomblé religion enabled her to document the “transformative” experiences of those who became possessed or inhabited by religious spirits.

The Candomblé religion was brought to Brazil by slaves during the colonial period. The religion has remained vibrant, and in recent decades has become increasingly popular in urban areas and among young people. Seligman was drawn by the religion’s rising popularity, since it offered her the opportunity to study spirit possession not as “something that was marginalized and ostracized, but as this enormously popular practice,” she said.

Candomblé ceremonies include choreographed dances and other ritual practices that enable deities to possess certain worshippers. Through observation, ethnographic interviews, and psychophysiological measurements, Seligman found that such transformative religious experiences can improve mental and spiritual health, especially for people who suffered emotional distress before becoming involved in the religion.

She discovered that the autonomic nervous systems of people who were deeply involved in the religion looked different from the nervous systems of people who were involved in less intense ways.

The difference in autonomic nervous system functioning “seems to be correlated with the positive health benefits that these people experience by becoming involved in the religion,” Seligman said.

She observes that the book’s investigation of religious devotion can serve as a jumping-off point for understanding the links between mind and body that affect peoples’ lives in many ways.

The mind-body connection can “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.”

Rebecca Seligman is an assistant professor of anthropology and an IPR fellow.

Read the original press release from Northwestern News, here.