Thursday, March 8, 2012

Possession by spirits

Possessed by father’s spirit

Ms. V. is a higher secondary student. She is a bright student, but recently she became gloomy and moody without paying much attention to her studies. One evening she started talking in her father’s tone and behaved just like her father who committed suicide six months ago. He was diagnosed in the work up in a cancer centre as having lung cancer. He became depressed when he came to know about the killer disease gnawing his lungs. Psychiatric treatment was of no avail and he committed suicide. This was a great shock to the whole family but, the only daughter Ms. V. was made virtually numb by father’s unexpected demise.
Her mother took her to the priest of the nearby Hindu temple and told the story. The priest immediately concluded that she is possessed by her father’s spirit. The Hindus believe that the spirits of those who die of unnatural causes like suicide and homicide wander in the premises until they are pacified and settled finally in the ethereal world by elaborate religious rituals.  If the rituals are not done in time the spirit would get into the body of somebody who was near and dear in former life; that is common belief among the Hindus all over India. This was the reason for the priest to jump into conclusion that Ms. V. is possessed by her own father’s spirit, because she was emotionally very much attached to her father.   The priest proposed usual elaborate and costly religious rituals which were duly carried out by a team of priests. The chief of the priests assured the family that the spirit is laid to rest in the ethereal world eternally.
But to the amazement of everybody in the family a few weeks later Ms. V. once again started talking in her father’s voice. This time the spirit possessing Ms. V. was angrier and shouted at her mother for involving the priests to exorcise him from the body of his beloved daughter.  Ms. V. possessed by the spirit tried to assault when the mother contacted the priest again. The priest expressed his inability to pacify the angrier spirit and advised to take her daughter to a psychiatrist.
When I saw Ms. V. there was no spirit in her. She co-operated with psychiatric interview. She admitted that she became very sad and lacked any motivation to study. She even thought of ending her life. When I requested her to communicate with her father’s spirit she started meditating. At the end of ten minutes’ meditation she started talking in an imitated male voice. She told me in the male voice: “I will never leave my daughter. I want her with me. I will take her with me.”
For me these imitated male voice appeared to be the girl’s own suicidal ruminations. Obviously she was in depression of severe degree. So, she required medication combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. It took nearly six months to bring her depressed mood to normal levels. When she got rid of the depression, the “spirit” stopped annoying her. She restarted her studies and is now preparing for the examination.

The concept of possession by spirits

The renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Ralph B. Allison MD writes: 
The concept of possession by disincarnate spirits as a cause of mental illness is as old as mankind itself. This is still extant in regions of the world where European and American psychiatric belief system have not replaced older, ritualistic patters of belief. Scientifically trained observers have reported such cases in modern literature from exotic locations such as India, Egypt, New Guinea and Ceylon. The most common explanation for such observations is that ‘spirit possession is a culturally sanctioned, heavily institutionalized and symbolically invested means of expression in action for various ego-dystonic impulses and thoughts’. Closer to home, similar cases of apparent possession have been reported in Latin American countries, such as Columbia. Cases occurring in the United States may be given the Greek label of “cacodemonomania” that is having the delusion of being possessed by demons. The cases described by Schendel and Kournay were of families involved in the charismatic branches of both the protestant and Catholic religions, leaders of which believe that spirit possession is a major cause of all physical and mental diseases. 
‘The possession syndrome on trial’ American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry Vol. VI Number 1, 1985 p.46-56

In the history

Possession by spirit was considered as a form of hysteria in the past. The term hysteria is derived from the Greek word hysteron which means uterus. It was believed that hysteria was caused by ‘wandering of uterus in the body’. Naturally the hysteria was designated as a disorder of women. But later on it was established that men also suffered from different forms of hysteria such as hysterical paralyses and hysterical loss of memory etc. Sigmund Freud published the book Studies in Hysteria in 1893 and thereafter hysteria was designated as ‘conversion reaction’. It was thought by Freud that various symptoms of hysteria are produced by the conversion of conflicts in the unconscious mind into physical and mental symptoms. Hence the name conversion reaction was given to hysteria.

Modern concepts

The diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, IV edition, Text Revision (DSM – IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association include possessions by spirits under Dissociative Disorders.
Normally human mind is the integrated function of consciousness, memory, identity and perception of the environment. The DSM-IV-TR states: “the essential feature of the dissociative disorder is a disruption of in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment. The disturbance may be sudden or gradual, transient or chronic.”
Following are the dissociative disorders listed in the DSM-IV-TR:
  • Depersonalization disorder: periods of detachment from self or surrounding which may be experienced as "unreal" while retaining awareness that this is only a feeling and not a reality.
  • Dissociative amnesia: noticeable impairment of recall resulting from emotional trauma
  • Dissociative fugue: physical desertion of familiar surroundings and experience of impaired recall of the past. This may lead to confusion about actual identity and the assumption of a new identity.
  • Dissociative identity disorder: the alternation of two or more distinct personality states with impaired recall, among personality states, of important information.

Location of spirit in the brain

Recent research has focused on clarifying the neurological basis of symptoms associated with dissociation by studying neurochemical, functional and structural brain abnormalities that can result from childhood trauma.  Functional imaging studies established that the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain plays a crucial role in possession of spirits and other dissociative identity disorders.  One of the least explored and least understood regions of the primate cerebral cortex is the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobe that lies on the roof of the orbit.

Case of Phineas Gage

Phineas P Gage
Phineas Gage (1823-1860) was an American railroad construction foreman now remembered for his improbable survival of an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain's left frontal lobe, and for that injury's reported effects on his personality and behavior – effects so profound that friends saw him as "no longer Gage".
In recent years, diverse functional studies have identified activations in the orbitofrontal cortex, suggesting that this prefrontal field is a component of brain systems critically engaged in memory, reward and decision-making mechanisms. These functions may well be considered as basic components of higher emotional and social behavior presumably involving this part of the cortex. 


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