Are we all capable of going into a trance? Can this second state – which we associate with shamans – be a therapeutic tool? A study in this direction has just been launched at the University Hospital of Liège (with ULiège) and will, for the first time, be conducted with patients.
Science has recently taken an interest in trance as aaltered state of consciousness. The starting point of all this scientific research is the experience of trance, in Mongolia, of the ethno-musician Corine Sombrun, and from which the film ‘Un monde plus grand’ is inspired. To understand trance, it is necessary to come back to it.
Corine Sombrun discovers herself as a ‘shaman’ in Mongolia
In 2001, as part of a report for the BBC, Corine Sombrun attended a shamanic ceremony in Mongolia. To the sound of the drums, the ethno-musician spontaneously enters a trance. To her great surprise, she thinks she is turning into a wolf, howls like the animal and loses control of her body. The Mongolian shaman then announces to Corine Sombrun that she has been chosen by the spirits, that her reaction shows that she is a shaman.
Skeptical at first, the ethno-musician will allow herself to be convinced to be initiated into shamanism. For 8 years, Corine Sombrun will make regular round trips to Mongolia to follow her training. She will finally come back with one conviction: trance is a particular state of the brain. To establish it, Corine Sombrun then turns to science.
Collaboration with scientists
“She took the approach of partnering with scientists to understand what was going on in her brain when she was in a trance state”, Explain neuropsychologist Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, who coordinates the Liège study on trance with his colleague Olivia Gosseries.
By comparing the activity of Corine Sombrun’s brain when she is in trance and then ‘out of trance’, the scientists note, in fact, that “the brain works differently in a trance state”explains Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse.
Most people have access to this altered state of consciousness.
The trance is then called ‘cognitive’ because “decontextualized from any ritual”explains the neuropsychologist. “The majority of people have access to this modified state of consciousness. But there are different sensitivities, which make each person experience it more intensely or not”, she continues.
But what is trance for? Could this modified state of consciousness have therapeutic virtues? At the Liège University Hospital and at ULiège, Olivia Gosseries and Steven Laureys, both FNRS researchers, Charlotte Grégoire, as well as Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse are looking into this question. During a study that should last four years, the team will compare the effects of hypnosis, meditation and trance on a hundred patients who have had cancer.
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“We know meditation and hypnosis well, their added values and their particularities”, explains Steven Laureys, “but we don’t yet have enough perspective on cognitive trance and we would like to offer a scientific basis”.
Compared to hypnosis or meditation, explains Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, “the subjective state of the person in trance is still different. It is really intense and very particular”.
Our perception of the environment is changed
The neuropsychologist herself has already experienced this state. And explains: “In trance, our perception of the environment is altered. We can perceive things that we do not always see with the naked eye. Our self-awareness is altered. the people next to us, with nature, the world.” Furthermore, she adds, “compared to hypnosis, which is very calm, the Cognitive trance is very bodily. She’s going to go through a lot of moving, singing, screaming.”
However, specifies Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, even if there are certain generalities, everyone will experience trance in a unique way.
How to enter “in trance”?
To set up their study, the Liège team collaborated directly with Corine Sombrun. She created sound loops to listen to patients to allow them to enter a trance. “With the help of two researchers, Corine Sombrun modeled sounds based on the sounds of Mongolian drums and vocalizations produced in trance. We created sound loops.”explains Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse
How do patients go into a trance? “The very first time, the patient is told to listen to the sounds, and to let what will appear come. These sounds will provoke in him particular bodily sensations, spontaneous movements”describes the neuropsychologist.
Then, she continues, “The patient will gradually learn to recognize these movements and sensations. The trainers will teach him to self-induce the trance by amplifying them, making vocalizations, shouting, singing and moving. It is the movement that establishes the state.”
An intense state that can be dangerous
However, the researchers remain very cautious and insist on the importance of supervising such experiments. “Only trained people have access to these sound loops because they can induce a really intense state in the patient”, emphasizes Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse.
“Trance can be very powerful and can bring out traumas, negative emotions. It can cause decompensation and it can be dangerous if you suffer from psychoses for example”, warns the neuropsychologist. For this reason, she adds, “we always plan to accompany patients with a doctor and a psychologist.”
Trance, a tool among others?
For Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, the long-term goal is to be able to offer different tools to help people get better: “Everyone could find the method that suits them, depending on their pathology and sensitivity.”
Read also: What if we learned to sleep again?
Trance, hypnosis and meditation are “all different tools, but they also have things in common“, explains Steven Laureys, neurologist and FNRS researcher. “Many of my medical colleagues have not necessarily positive preconceptions about it. Some consider it a bit esoteric. I regret”, laments the neurologist.
“I myself prescribe hypnosis and meditation to my patients,” he continues, “Some people tell me that they find it unfortunate that they had to wait for their burnout to discover these techniques.”
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“Trance” as a therapeutic tool is studied in Liège, but what is it exactly?
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