Trance In-Class Activity

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View exercise overview

Exercise ID: 1.261
Class size: Any
Level(s): I II III
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Multiple subjects specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: Trance, Altered states of consciousness, Revelation, Divination
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: Middle America
Culture selection: Set by teacher
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable: Garifuna, Haitians, Huichol, Kuna, Miskito

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Jack Dunnington, Carol R. Ember, Erik Ringen, Alissa Jordan, Human Relations Area Files

Adapted from eHRAF Teaching Exercise Altered States of Consciousness by Jack Dunnington, Carol R. Ember, and Erik Ringen.

Download In-Class Activity PDF



In this exercise, you will read, compare, and contrast ethnographic work on Middle America and Caribbean trance practices.

Exercise Details

● Time: 35 minutes
Materials Required:
● HRAF Access
● Worksheet and pen or other materials for recording answers
Student Learning Outcomes:
At the end of this exercise, students will be able to:
● describe and explain differences in possession and trance phenomena
● demonstrate knowledge of how these differences have been organized into types by anthropologists
● use the possession typology to categorize trance and possession phenomena in the ethnographic records of multiple societies.
● construct effective and efficient search strategies in eHRAF in order to retrieve data relevant to a specific topic/assignment.

Trance and Shamanism

Trance and other altered states of consciousness are strongly associated with healing practices of shamans, a subset of magico-religious healers.

Among shamans, trances are usually induced by mechanisms such as singing, chanting, drumming, or dancing, after which the shaman in training or practice collapses and becomes unconscious and has intense visual experiences.

Trance States

These experiences presumably induce a state of relaxation that replaces fast brain activity in the front areas of the brain with slow wave activity representing more emotional information (Winkelman 1986)

Type A Trances

Institutionalized trances are generally divided into experiences in which the soul is believed to leave the body, we will call those Type A…

Type B Trances

…and experiences in which a person’s body is possessed or taken over by a spirit, we will call those “Type B”…

Methods of Induction

Different methods are used to induce trances cross-culturally. These methods can require excessive physical movement (including shamanic drumming and dancing mentioned above), but may also involve sleep deprivation, fasting, sleep, and psychoactive drugs.

Correlations in trance induction methods

These types of behaviors are not haphazard; if sleep deprivation is present, fasting and social isolation are often also present, such as when a young person goes alone into the forest on a quest for a guardian spirit. Moreover, these types of induction methods rarely are associated with possession trance (Winkelman 1986)

Sleep trance

If sleeping is the induction method, trance usually involves a non-possession trance such as a soul journey. Possession trances, on the other hand, are associated with subsequent amnesia, convulsions, and spontaneous onset of trances (Winkelman 1986).

Assignment Part 1

1. Using “ADVANCED Search” in eHRAF, search for the subject altered states of consciousness (trances) using its corresponding OCM code (Ecstatic Religious Practices, 786 OR Revelation and Divination, 787) in conjunction with the word trance*.
2. Narrow your search to include only cultures within the Middle America and Caribbean subregion.
3. Browse through the search results of these 5 cultures: Garifuna (Gonzalez document), Haitians (Laguerre document), Huichol (Myerhoff document), Kuna (Chapin document), and Miskito (Conzemius document). Look for examples of each type (A or B) of institutionalized trance and note them.

Assignment Part 2

Question #1: How many examples of each type (A & B) did you find? (5 minutes)

Question #2: What criteria did you use to identify them? (5 minutes)
assignment part 3

Question #3: How does the definition of “types” in anthropology, such as types of ritual behavior as we discussed here, become useful for ethnographic or anthropological research? (5 minutes)

Question #4: Are there limits to the value of “types” and “models” for grouping and explaining human variation? If so, please describe. (5 minutes)?

Question #5: How should anthropologists balance the benefits of “typologies” with the limits of typological models? (5 minutes)


1. Assignment Rubric in Attached PDF
Further reading
● For more information on altered states of consciousness across time, space, and society check out the Altered States of Consciousness module by Carol Ember and Christina Carolous in HRAF’s Explaining Human Culture database.
● For a more detailed version of this particular exercise with additional questions and activities check out eHRAF Teaching Exercises 1.26 Altered States of Consciousness by Jack Dunnington, Carol R. Ember, and Erik Ringen.
● Check out the Advanced Search Tutorial for detailed instructions on conducting searches in eHRAF World Cultures.
● For more exercises and teaching resources related to human societies past and present, explore Teaching eHRAF
● Winkelman, Michael. 1986. “Trance States: A Theoretical Model and Cross-Cultural Analysis.” Ethos 14 (2): 174–203. doi:10.1525/eth.1986.14.2.02a00040
● Winkelman, Michael. 2006. “Cross-Cultural Assessments of Shamanism as a Biogenetic Foundation for Religion.” In The Psychology of Religious Experience, edited by Patrick McNamara. Vol. 3. Where God and Science Meet. Westport, Ct.: Prager Publishers.