Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: Rebecca Seligman

Examining Mind-Body Interactions Across Cultures


Rebecca Seligman

How do social and cultural experiences become embedded in physical and mental health? This is one of the central questions driving IPR anthropologist Rebecca Seligman’s research—and one that has intrigued her since she was a teen attending her first large rally in Washington, D.C. 

“It had this unbelievable emotional impact on me,” she recalled. “And it made me wonder—why did it feel so good to participate in this collective ritual?” 

Seligman went on to study the impact of such rituals by delving into the field of anthropology, eventually obtaining her PhD from Emory University. Her wide-ranging research agenda encompasses examinations of spirit possession in Brazil to investigations of mental health among Mexican-American teenagers, but all of it is united by an interest in mind-body interactions and sociocultural influences.

“My research looks at how psychological practices affect bodily processes, and vice versa—and how cultural and social factors get internalized, both in the mind and in the body, and influence those mental and bodily process in really deep ways,” Seligman said.

Embodiment in Afro-Brazilian Regions

For her recent book, Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), Seligman studied the spirit possession mediums of Brazil’s popular Candomblé religion, which is an African-derived religious tradition originally brought to Brazil by slaves.

Seligman observed Candomblé ceremonies, which include choreographed dances and other ritual practices that enable deities to possess certain worshippers. Through observation, interviews, and a kind of psychophysiology measurement called impedance cardiography, Seligman found that such transformative religious experiences can lead to improved mental and spiritual health in followers.

The mind-body connection responsible for these effects can include negative outcomes “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.” 

Mental Health Among Mexican-American Adolescents

For her most recent project, Seligman is in the early stages of researching Mexican-American youth being treated for mental health problems in a psychiatric clinic.

Mexican-American adolescents are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and have a higher tendency for suicidal behavior than their non-Hispanic, white counterparts, but almost nothing is known about their experiences of being diagnosed and treated in clinical settings. 

Studying these adolescents is important, Seligman said at a recent IPR colloquium, because they “occupy a particularly complex position” in the United States: “They are a minority group vulnerable to social and economic hardship; they are youth who have transnational social and cultural affiliations; and they are also figures in politically volatile debates over immigration.”  

Seligman is observing and interviewing clinicians, as well as the adolescent patients, who are undergoing treatment in a psychiatry clinic, and their families. She will then examine the “fit” between the care expected by the adolescents and that which the clinicians provide. For instance, if Mexican-American culture emphasizes family obligation but psychiatric norms focus on a patient’s individual needs, then a clinician evaluating treatment options might wind up selecting a less effective treatment because he or she did not account for how culture comes into play. 

Seligman hopes that this research will shape how researchers and practitioners think about global mental health policy and interventions.

Bringing Culture into Neuroscience

While Seligman’s research examines the relationship between psychological and biological states, there is one area she still wants to investigate—neurological states. 

“I’ve always harbored a desire to use neuroscience methods in anthropology,” she said. “There was a running joke in graduate school about how people needed to invent a portable PET scan [positron emission tomography], so I could take it to the field and see how people’s brains were working in trance states.”

While this kind of portable brain-scanning technology is still not available, Seligman continues to examine links between anthropology and cultural neuroscience—an emerging field that studies how cultural values, beliefs, and practices shape, and are shaped by, the brain.

In two recently published articles, Seligman and Ryan Brown of the RAND Corporation explore the ways in which neuroscientific methods could be used to investigate questions of culture. One issue the researchers highlight is neuroscience’s reliance on laboratory research, as opposed to fieldwork. 

Seligman urges those interested in cultural neuroscience to adopt a two-step process. She suggests researchers should first gather measurements for “peripheral” nervous system activity—measures that will provide insight about what’s going on in the central nervous system. They then can form hypotheses from these data and test them in the lab. 

“The field is where you can actually see people’s real practices,” Seligman said.

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

Photo credit: Jim Ziv