Possession Trance and Suicide in a Colombian tribe
Sergio Schilling Universidad Internacional SEK Santiago, Chile

Between June 12 and 19, 2005, the film production team for “Unknown Factor,” a Discovery Channel documentary for its Latin America network, visited the Embera tribe to collect information about supposed “possession trance” episodes and suicides among the youth of that community. DSM-IV describes “possession trance” (PT) as “the replacement of a customary sense of personal identity by a new identity, ascribed to the influence of a spirit, power or deity, and associated with stereotyped involuntary movements and amnesia” (APA, 2000, p. 532). Possession trance is classified inside the category of “dissociative disorder not otherwise specified (NOS)." Other authors have developed similar descriptions of this phenomenon (e.g., Bourguignon, 1976; Cardeña, 1992), assuming that it has a psychological origin. The objective of this research was to gather data to determine if some other possible disorder exists that could provide an explanation of the symptoms displayed in the Embera tribe that would lead to additional information related to suicidal behavior.

The Community
Embera Union is a community of 350 people located in the northwest frontier of Colombia, near the Panama border. Since 2001, 28 suicides and 26 possession trance (PT) episodes have affected young persons in the village, especially women between the ages of 11 and 23 years. These events were painful and concerned the entire community. Until 2000, the Emberas had no history of suicide in their community, nor even an Embera word to describe it or any references to it in the legends of the community. Many of the villagers believed that the spirits of the deceased were taking possession of the young people, inviting them to death by throwing themselves into rivers or over precipices or simply kneeling down, tying a rope around their necks, and strangling themselves. For several weeks prior to the suicides, surviving victims reported feeling a strange force; they became aggressive, insulting the community’s wise persons, and changed their voices and suffered amnesia. They also entered into a state of melancholy and became passive. They felt themselves vulnerable, which was the time that they felt that the spirits impelled them to commit suicide. The community requested the services of Atensio Salazar, a spiritual guide or Jaibana (a word that comes from the expression “jai,” meaning “spirit”). Salazar told the villagers that "they are not killing themselves; those deaths do not originate from their own will. Bad spirits introduce themselves inside these weak and sad people, and they hang themselves. It originates with people who have been killed during war and who haven’t been buried” (translated from Spanish). The war that Salazar referred to was a battle between the Colombian army and guerilla groups in December 2001, after which the villagers found bodies of 30 paramilitary troops hanging in trees and many other corpses near the river.

The Parapsychological Association Convention 2007


Community Census The sample of 308 people consisted of 48.5 language. Genetic Analysis Repetition of surnames in the community indicated that there are many consanguineous links. 4 men with PT and 22 women with PT. Neurocysticercosis is the most common cause of acquired epilepsy worldwide (Fayaca & Ibañez. thus increasing the probability of homozygosis and consequent appearance of anomalies with a recessive autosomic genetic base. intracranial hypertension and meningitis (Del Brutto. 81 normal men. including 26 people affected by symptoms of PT. making a community census. interviewing survivors and their parents. 2 Proceedings of Presented Papers . The community had many sanitary risks that made possible the existence of neurocysticercosis. The Salazar lineage. 2002). 1992). Infestation is acquired by egg ingestion. Supplementary data about diseases. we can estimate expected phenotypic frequencies in a sample of families and statistically evaluate the distance or difference between the empirical sample and a theoretical sample. for example. or 25% of the village.Schilling METHOD The methods of gathering data to support the initial hypothesis that the disorder was PT rather than a pathology of organic origin consisted of testing fecal samples from pigs. When an individual characteristic manifests in two ways within the population. Infected people present seizures. Fecal Samples from Pigs Fecal samples from 7 pigs were analyzed. generally via fecal contamination of food. In all these calculations. The order of birth is inconsequential. Interviews of Survivors and Their Parents Qualitative data were obtained through observation of the community and a semi-structured diagnostic interview of 7 surviving girls. which is the encystment of larvae or eggs of the tenia solium in cerebral tissue. There were 113 children under age 10. we can estimate the probability that subjects belonging to family w have phenotype p. 1954). and performing a genetic analysis of community members. 88 normal women.. includes 77 members in the community. nutrition and the history of village were also collected. To evaluate this possibility. we used the computer program Simple Segregation Analysis. the average age was 18. Following these parameters. where there was at least one case of PT in any one of their modalities.4% men and 51. endogamy is quite feasible.6% women. so (s! /w! x!) pwqx (Neel & Schull. A genetic analysis was done in search of anomalies that could explain some of characteristic episodes. and that x have phenotype q. implemented with Microsoft Quick BASIC4. and it is one of the major conditions that differentiates psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES) from epileptic seizures (ES). it may correspond to a simple genetically based phenotype. A segregation analysis was applied to data of 5 nuclear families. their parents and the community’s spiritual leader (Atensio Salazar). Among the most extensive lineages.

respectively. (In boldface.df=1). data from families Nº 29th and 59th are incompatible with a dominant gene distribution model (Figure 1). If we hypothesize a recessive autosomic genetic pattern.082. people suffering PT). we could not accept the segregation analysis results as definitive. because it is a small sample. With an assumption of a recessive autosomic genetic pattern. Probabilities of such a pedigree’s being associated with a dominant gene or a recessive gene disease are 4.355.4%. selected because they had the presence of the symptoms in at least one individual. included 12 young people expressing symptoms of PT. Perhaps some of the symptoms were due to a genetic origin but. expected frequencies are 6 children with disturbances and 6 normal. The Parapsychological Association Convention 2007 3 . When the supposition is dominance. Further.3% and 24. and the differences in observed frequencies among the selected families were statistically relevant (X=4. the expected frequency is 7 children with disturbances and 5 normal. df=1). the differences in observed frequencies in the selected families were not statistically relevant (X=1. the result fits well with an autonomic recessive heritage model.Schilling RESULTS Segregation Analysis The 5 families. Thus. Figure 1: Analyzed families genogram.

Schilling Symptom Comparison among Men and Women Table 1 compares the frequency of PT in young men and women. TABLE 1 No PT 81 Men 4 PT 85 [73. the Chi-square should be higher than or equal to 3. although there was no linkage to sex (inheritance of chromosome X). The much higher preponderance of women among PNES patients in our sample replicates previous studies about the relationship between gender and PNES. Distribution is significant. pp 111. so there is adequate evidence to say that PT is not independent from sex.3] 88 22 110 [95.7] [11. since there are families with healthy parents who have children with this disturbance. Chi-square=9. Freedom degrees: 1. Women in the general population present much higher levels of somatoform disorders and a greater probability of developing post-traumatic stress 4 Proceedings of Presented Papers . Women presented symptoms at rates 5 times higher than that of men.62.3] [14. 2000). DISCUSSION Physiological or Psychological Symptoms? The PT cases in the Embera tribe appeared to have been related to genotype and sex. cited in Litwin & Cardeña.84.05 level.7] Women Total 169 26 195 Note: Observed frequencies are in boldface and expected frequencies are in brackets. A recent review of research on gender and psychogenic non-epileptic seizures concluded that the female to male ratio in PNES is about 4:1 (Gales & Rowan. For significance at the . 2000.

Laboratory analysis was negative for the presence of tenia proglottis or larvae of strongyloides. Wilson disease. CT. which has its onset in women in their 20s to early 30s. like Sydenham's chorea. Bourguignon. There was some evidence that data we received concerning the seizures and suicides were adjusted to the initial hypothesis of PT. We ruled out paranoid subtype schizophrenia. Bowman. and catatonic subtype schizophrenia.C: American Psychiatric Association. 1994). The Parapsychological Association Convention 2007 5 . Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 64. Diagnostic and statistical manual: DSM-IV-TR (4th Ed). R. Greenberg. Garrett Library Fellowship. Clinical Neurology (6th Ed. It also must be mentioned that in some reports (see Litwin & Cardeña. and the Eileen J. fewer years of recurrent seizures.Schilling disorder after traumatic events. Possession. The different diagnosis of epilepsy. which has its onset at 25-40 years. (2005). the same authors points out that there could be differences in the onset and characteristics of seizures across cultures. Those who reported experiences related to PT were often oppressed women with few options to protest who win social support and find a way to prosecute their demands through PT (LewisFernandez. 2000). Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis and Lyme disease. Results are unfavorable for the neurocysticercosis hypothesis. P. D. The increased probability of somatoform disorders and dissociation in women might be partly explained by the greater rate of sexual abuse of women than of men (Litwin & Cardeña. op cit). M. E. theories related to some subjacent hereditary illness could not be discarded because of the results of genetic analysis. and Simon. (Bowman & Cons. 1994). dissociative identity disorder and dissociative disorder not otherwise specified.. While there was no sign of neurological illness that could explain the symptoms. Norwalk. results obtained in the interview and our film record of PT in girls aims at PNES. PNES patients had a significantly later mean age of seizure onset (thirties for PNES. Acknowledgements The author acknowledges the kind and invaluable assistance of Waldo Mora. bizarre behavior. REFERENCES American Psychiatric Association Committee. 2000).However.). Aminoff. San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp. (1976). Lange Publishers. PNES are paroxysmal changes in behavior that resemble epileptic seizures but are without organic cause. & Coons. Washington. although Tourette’s syndrome has an autosomal dominant genetic trait and is four times as likely to occur in men as women. D. The relationship between auto destructive behavior and suicides with syndromes of PT has also been reported in investigations of cultures in Southeast Asia (LewisFernandez. minor motor movements. (2000). and generalized movements. twenties for ES). They are psychological in origin. It is possible that the villagers’ tales about PT misinterpreted Tourette’s syndrome (characterized by presence of multiple physical and vocal tics) as a possession. PNES symptoms include unresponsive staring. We did not find evidence supporting other differential diagnoses. Stanley Krippner. (2000). however. E. pseudoseizures. related with temporal lobe disorders) could be the underlying disease. 164-180. Temporal lobe epilepsy and/or catamenial epilepsy (seizure exacerbation in relation to menstrual cycle. and more seizures per week (in PNES patients). The previous findings were reported in North American samples.

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