What Causes Trance States in African Drum Rituals?

Rhythm-induced trance is one of the many documented modes of altered states of consciousness.  It has been subject to much scrutiny in research, and often coincides with spirit possession in sacred African dance rituals.  Spirit possession, where one experiences spirits controlling his/her mind and body, is a common feature in cultures worldwide. Is the trance state caused by spirit possession, or can it be explained by science?

The context of trance possession varies between different ceremonies and cultures.  Steven M. Friedson (1996) describes, in detail, his experience in Malawi with the Tumbuka people, a Bantu speaking group known for their expertise in healing. Their healing rituals are characterized by all-night sessions with continuous drumming and singing.  A learned healer is commissioned to facilitate these sessions, and oversees spirit possessions occurring in the group.  Friedson describes the ritual as follows:

This kind of spirit-possession trance [in which the conscious will is taken over by the spirit] usually occurs during the treatment phase, when the particular drum modes are sounded.  Following homeopathic principles, the drum modes resonate with the particular mode of the vimbuza spirit, heating it past a critical threshold into the world of living.  It is during this musical treatment that the vimbuza takes over the personality of the patient and “comes out,” expressing themselves through the vimbuza dance. – Steven Friedson, Dancing Prophets, p. 114

A possession ritual in Liberia, however, looks pretty different.  Ceremonies may last only a couple of hours.  It is much more based in Christianity, where congregates dress in all white, chant psalms after possession, and claim to be in contact with God.  The rhythm on the drum is monotonous, and doesn’t use specific modes as in the Tumbuka ceremony.  What this ceremony does have in common with the former is the trance state itself.  People convulse, dissociate from themselves, and feel a loss of conscious control.

Some say that trance states are the result of drumming’s effects on the central nervous system.  Andrew Neher, a researcher from the 60s, is one of these people. The point is made that multiple frequencies of drums activates multiple neural pathways, similar to light frequencies.  Rhythmic light induces similar brain patterns to drumming, where brain waves respond to amplitude and frequency of the stimulus (aka visual/auditory driving).  Brain wave frequency is noted to be in between 8 and 13 cycles per second, varying between individuals, but stays constant in the individual himself.  Several ceremonies in Africa are noted to have rhythmic frequencies between 7 and 9 cycles per second.  The rhythms in these ceremonies are often slowly increased, eventually matching everyone’s individual brain frequencies.  The body’s stress increases the release of adrenaline and decreases blood glucose, resulting in the release of adrenochrome, a substance chemically related to hallucinogens.

These trances can also be a result of highly focused attention. Long term potentiation (LTP) is the continuous activation of neural networks that strengthen and reinforce cognitive processes.  Different states of consciousness activate different sets of neural networks, or tunings, made possible by LTP.  In this interpretation, trance possession is not translated as a reduction in brain activity, but rather as an alternative brain function.  This is comparable to REM sleep (dream sleep), where the brain shows patterns of working thought despite an individual being asleep and not fully conscious.

Though we have these theories, scientists are limited in their understanding. One reason is because you can’t really put on an African dance ritual in the lab. Also, there are limits in our knowledge and understanding of the human brain.  Though many theories have been put forth, such as the “tuning” of neural networks, they are difficult to test.  New theories are coming out often to debunk previous ones and there is no absolute true theory to human brain science.

But maybe the trances are the work of spirits?

For a full research analysis, Advocating for an Interdisciplinary Approach (for Studying Trance States in African Drumming Rituals) is available in PDF. Please consider donating $6 for this download.

Also, I recommend that you blast some funky rhythms with these speakers:
Edifier M3200 Multimedia Speakers

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7 thoughts on “What Causes Trance States in African Drum Rituals?

  1. I’ve always been of the “It’s both” school of thought: The drumming lowers the mental barriers to contact with the spirits, allowing them to come to us (or us to go to them, as in shamanic journeying). People can hear the drumming without spiritual experiences; others can contact the spiritual realms without drumming. Put them together, though, and certain things start to happen that don’t usually happen otherwise.

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    1. That’s a total possibility. Do you think that spirituality/the ability to perceive spiritual experiences may be a genetic trait? And certain people inherit this trait while others may not have that ability?

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      1. I believe it’s an inherent human ability, or maybe a better word would be ‘talent’. We all have it, but there are degrees of the talent and its development. Some people (many, it would appear) never access it. Some get a glimpse or two in their lives. Some see a lot more. Some can travel back and forth freely, with training. I’ve likened it in the past to driving. Assuming you get the chance to get training, pretty much everyone can drive. Some do it badly. Most do it competently. Some drive professionally. Some drive race cars.

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      2. The short answer is, I don’t know. That’s why I prefer the word ‘talent’. Why, given the same training and amount of practice, are students of a musical instrument going to break into clusters of ones who are good, competent, and bad, and occasionally one who’s brilliant?

        I believe when it comes to matters spiritual, there’s the additional factor of the spirits. They create possibilities for those they want. I’ve been working as a shaman for most of the past 30 years, and something I’ve seen over and over is that if they call someone, that person will go to them, often with little or no effort to begin with (The training for those people teaches control of the state, and effectiveness in it.). If the spirits aren’t interested, you end up with a whole lot of people who think a guided meditation they paid a lot of money for at a weekend seminar was a shamanic journey.

        I don’t know why the spirits chose me, and that was definitely the case. My first call was when I was 9 years old, and the second was at 18. I had no idea what a shaman was, beyond what Westerns very inaccurately said they were. Keep in mind, I was 18 in 1986. No internet, and maybe half a dozen books, none general-knowledge, and yet it happened. Doors opened for me, the spirits taught me what I needed to know, and things got started for me. Why me? The only answer I have is that I have the talent, and the spirits recognized it. Ask me what talent (in anything) is, where you go to point at it, and all I can do is shrug.

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