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iZombie and intuitions about spirit possession

So I’ve been binge-watching the show iZombie on Netflix recently. It’s a supernatural legal drama type show in which zombies exist, and the protagonist has been turned into one against her will. She’s not your typical mindless shambler, however, and actually is pretty much a normal human, apart from the incessant need to consume human brains, a penchant for spicy food, and her pallid appearance.

As a human, Liv was a doctor, which is beneficial to her in finding a way to continue existing as a zombie without murdering anyone, because she’s able to find a new “life” working in the morgue. There she can feast on the brains of the already-dead, and in doing so discovers that she experiences “flashbacks” of memories from the deceased, and also takes on some of their personality attributes.

Yesterday I got to an episode in which Liv does something that grievously upsets her romantic partner (also a zombie), and she “blames the brain”– she attributes her actions to the character remnants of the brain’s previous owner.  Suddenly I was reminded of my dissertation, which examined how the concept of the soul works in moral psychology. I loosely defined the “soul” as an immaterial essence of a person which is the locus of moral responsibility, and spent some time discussing how intuitions about spirit possession work– “spirit possession” being (again, loosely) defined as any time someone’s soul is wholly or partially transferred to a different body.

So to my eyes, the effects of eating a human brain on iZombie appeared to be similar to the imagined effects of being possessed by a spirit. I decided to pull up my dissertation and revisit the discussion on spirit possession. The remainder of this post will be that excerpt.

Once we have acquired the ability to recognize others as having an identity which is separate and distinct from our own, we can begin to practice true cognitive empathy, imaginatively projecting characteristics of that person’s mind based on both our simulation of what we imagine they think and feel as well as our accumulated knowledge—our “theory”—of how other minds work. That being the case, I think it is important to consider for a moment how this projection works when it comes to separating a person from their body.

Possession—the occupation by one person of another person’s body—is a familiar concept to most people. The film Freaky Friday told the story of a mother and daughter swapping bodies and trying desperately to play it off so that no one would realize. In the television show Quantum Leap, main character Sam Beckett leaps through time to land in the bodies of random people, faced with the task of solving some problem in their lives. In Being John Malkovich, a nerdy puppeteer discovers a portal that leads directly into the mind of the famed actor, allowing him to take over Malkovich’s body and change his career. The term for this storytelling device when used in television and film is “body swap” and it is an easy concept for the viewer to grasp.

We can accept what has happened and move on with the plot without stopping to think “Wait a minute, so which traits of the original character will now be displayed in this other body?” We can easily understand what is happening when, in the 2003 version of Freaky Friday, the mother’s character (who now occupies the body of her teenage daughter) suddenly realizes that she can eat French fries with impunity despite having denied herself the pleasure before, since her daughter’s teenage body can metabolize them much faster and won’t put on weight like her mother’s body would.

Anthropologist Emma Cohen (now Emma Hathaway) has been investigating folk concepts of spirit possession from a cognitive standpoint, in order to find out where inferences about theory of mind come in when we think about people switching bodies. In order to do so, she traveled to the city of Belém in northern Brazil to study a community of Afro- Brazilian (culto afro) cultists whose rituals involve trance and possession. In these rituals, the mediums would become possessed by one of the orixás, or personal spirits, for a temporary period. Mediums are capable of channeling different orixás for different purposes.

Cohen was particularly interested in finding out if, during this period, the observers and the mediums themselves perceived the medium’s agency to be displaced by the possessing spirit, or if rather there is some fusion of the two which takes place. Cohen spoke to the pai de santo (the leader of the worship community where she was staying), who told her that when the spirit possesses a medium, it merges with the essence of that medium. This would explain why the same spirit could possess different people with differing results each time, as well as that if Cohen spoke to the spirit Ogum while he possessed person A, and then again the next day when he possessed person B, Ogum might not remember some of the things she had discussed with him.

When Cohen spoke with other mediums, however, who had been exposed to much less of the culto afro teachings than the pai-de- santo, the depiction of possession was notably different.  Cohen reports that “a senior member clearly described possession as the joining of the body of the medium with the spirit of the entity. These two parts, he claimed, make up the new (possessed) person. Another senior ranking member described possession as the moment in which one’s own spirit withdraws ‘and another spirit comes and throws him/herself into your body.’ Drawing a clear demarcation between medium and spirit, another member describes her possession episodes as follows: ‘I don’t know where my spirit goes. I don’t know. I only know that I switch off. I don’t remain in me.’ Another person stated, ‘Possession for me is a state of unconsciousness… in which we are  not answerable for our actions, our bodily movements …we don’t have control of our bodies anymore. It’s the total loss of control of the body and the mind. Something else controls – it is the spiritual being.’”

If you were unaware that a person was currently possessed, Cohen notes, and addressed them by the person’s name rather than the name of the entity possessing them, the person would say “I am not [person’s name]; I am [entity’s name].” Mediums spoke of  their spirits lying down or dreaming while possessed, allowing the possessing spirit to take control and dominate them. This would seem to indicate that when speaking non-reflectively, the mediums viewed possession strictly as a matter their spirit being displaced, even if the more “theologically correct” version of the event said differently. After describing this, Cohen notes an intriguing aspect of possession as displacement from anthropologist Erika Bourguignon: “When the spirits take over, women can do unconsciously what they do not permit themselves to do consciously. The demands that are made, the orders that are given, are those of the spirits’ doings and sayings. They are neither responsible for nor aware of what is going on and do not remember it after the fact. They have ultimate deniability.”

Cohen and Barrett then decided to examine beliefs about minds and bodies in a community which does not (presumably) practice rituals involving possession—undergraduate university students in Northern Ireland. They wanted to find out if there was a strong inclination either way concerning which aspects of a person are subverted when possessed and which are not. The participants read ten different scenarios about two characters, Ann and Beth, in which hypothetical mind-switching takes place. One example: “Ann is very good at maths. She regularly gets excellent marks on 7-point quizzes – usually around 6 out of 7 of her answers are correct. Beth is very poor at maths. She regularly gets poor marks on 7-point quizzes – usually around 2 out of 7 of her answers are correct. Once when the girls were in maths class, somehow Beth’s mind went into Ann’s body. How well do you think that the girl will do in the maths test?” Each scenario included typical Ann behaviors and typical Beth behaviors, as in this example.  Subjects could then give their answer to each question on a seven point scale.

What Cohen and Barrett found from this experiment appears consistent with what initiate mediums in the afro culto told Cohen about being possessed. They treated possession as a kind of displacement when talking about behaviors with a strong mental component (such as doing well on a math test). When asked about behaviors with a strong physical  or biological component, such as seeing with precision, respondents were much less likely to treat that behavior as being subverted in the possessee by the possessor. “These results suggest a tentative conclusion,” reported Cohen and Barrett. “ Northern Irish young adults tend to spontaneously infer that when one person’s mind is transferred into another person’s body, the normal ‘host’ mind is displaced. Displacement was spontaneously inferred significantly more frequently than fusion, even though both options were equally available as valid responses. This suggests that participants’ responses were guided by a tacit one mind-one body principle.”

The reason for this, Cohen and Barrett went on to suggest, may be that dualism truly is intuitive and therefore children come to understand a principle that only one mind is responsible for the behaviors exhibited by one body. This might explain why displacement theories are advocated even by people who have been given authoritative teachings to the contrary.

Sources for this section:

Cohen, Emma

2007 The Mind Possessed. Oxford University Press

Cohen, Emma & Justin Barrett

2008 “When minds migrate: conceptualizing spirit possession.”

Journal of Cognition and Culture, Volume 8, No. 1-2, 23-48


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