Society for Psychological Anthropology Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness Invited Session

Friday, November 18

4:00 PM – 5:45 PM

Hilton, Room: Salon B

Session Description: One of the central observations of psychiatric anthropology is that specific conditions (depression, schizophrenia, panic) present with somewhat different symptom profiles in different social worlds. There have been a number of ways to describe this phenomenon. Hacking called it “looping” (see too Seligman and Kirmayer), Csordas “the sensory mode of attention,” Desjarlais and Throop “modes of existence,” and Kirmayer, most recently, “enacting.” A recent volume by Hinton and Good, Culture and Panic Disorder, edited by Devon Hinton and Byron Good, shows how these looping processes play out for panic disorder. Another edited volume by these same editors, Culture and PTSD explores the complex fit between the DSM-5 understanding of trauma and the way in which PTSD appears in different social settings, and the way that broader socio-emotional concerns like “ontological security” shape the salience and expression of symptoms. All these approaches suggest that phenomenological experience is always the result of the interaction between expectation, cultural invitation, spiritual practice and bodily responsiveness. This panel explores this phenomenon using the “kindling” concept to theorize cultural variation in bodily expression. The “kindling” hypothesis was first articulated by Emil Kraepelin, who observed that to the extent that actually demoralizing events—a job loss, a breakup, a bad relationship—play a role in a first episode of depression, they play a less important role in later ones. If someone has ever been clinically depressed, it takes less in terms of real life knocks to lead them into depression a second time. Becoming depressed becomes a habituated response. Cassaniti and Luhrmann suggested that the kindling phenomenon could arise when the local culture served a similar function in a religious setting in shaping the way people attend–what they sense and feel in search of evidence of the spiritual and lowering the threshold of its identification through the body. More specifically, we suggested that some phenomena are more responsive to kindling than others. We suggested that: First, a phenomenological experience is an interaction between cultural invitation and bodily physiology. By “cultural invitation” we mean the implicit and explicit ways in which a local social world gives significance and meaning to sensation, whether mental or bodily, and the behavioral practices (like meditation) that may affect sensation. Second, when a local social community gives significance to specific sensations, either fearing them or desiring them, sensitivity to having an experience of the supernatural increases, requiring a lower threshold for such experiences, than in a community in which people do not have such supernatural experiences and in which such fears and desires are hypocognized or unelaborated. Third, the more (or less) that the experience of the supernatural is associated with a specific physiology (like sleep paralysis) the more (or less) the frequency of the event will be constrained by an individual’s vulnerability to these experiences. The panels offers a wide variety of different examples to discuss the best way of understanding this phenomenon.

Organizers: Tanya Luhrmann Stanford University & Devon Hinton Harvard Medical School

Chair: Devon Hinton Harvard Medical School

Discussant: Laurence Kirmayer McGill University, Canada


Julia Cassaniti Weighted Idioms: Categories of Lightness and Heaviness in Thai Spiritual Phenomenology 


Cordelia Erickson-Davis Kindling a Sense of Presence: Lessons from Virtual Reality

Pablo Seward Delaporte A Comparative Critical Phenomenology of Drug Addiction Among Mestizos in the Upper Huallaga Valley, Peru

Jeffrey Snodgrass Fostering Emotional “Immunity” to Terror and Trauma: Ritual As a Source of Health Resilience for Indigenous Indian Conservation Refugees

Devon Hinton Supernatural Assaults Among Cambodian Refugees with PTSD: Nightmares, Sleep Paralysis, Hallucinations, and Migraine-like Auras

Discussant: Laurence Kirmayer