Neural Correlates of a Trance Process and Alternative States of Consciousness in a Traditional Healer

Brain Sci. 2021 Apr 14;11(4):497. doi: 10.3390/brainsci11040497.


Trance processes are a form of altered states of consciousness (ASC) widely reported across cultures. Entering these states is often linked to auditory stimuli such as singing, chanting, or rhythmic drumming. While scientific research into this phenomenon is relatively nascent, there is emerging interest in investigating the neural correlates of altered states of consciousness such as trance. This report aims to add to this field of ASC through exploring how the perception of an experienced Sangoma (traditional South African healer) entering a trance process correlates to blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal modulation with auditory stimuli. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data were analyzed using a General Linear Model comparing music versus no music condition multiplied by the percept of experiencing trance (High or Low). Positive BOLD activation was shown in the auditory cortex in both hemispheres during a trance process. Other brain regions tightly correlated to trance perception were the right parietal, right frontal, and area prostriata (p < 0.05, Bonferroni corrected). The orbitofrontal cortex (part of the Default Mode Network) was negatively activated and most correlated with music when trance was high, showing the largest differential between high and low trance perception. This is the first study to directly correlate BOLD signal variations in an expert subject's percept of trance onset and intensity, providing insight into the neural signature and dynamics of this unique form of ASC. Future studies should examine in greater detail the perception of trance processes in expert subjects, adding other neuroimaging modalities to further investigate how these brain regions are modulated by trance expertise.

Keywords: area prostriata; auditory (A1); brain; dance; learning; plasticity; trance processes.

Publication types

  • Case Reports