Synopses & Reviews
The cognitive science of religion has made a persuasive case for the view that a number of different psychological systems are involved in the construction and transmission of notions of extranatural agency such as deities and spirits. Until now this work has been based largely on findings in experimental psychology, illustrated mainly with hypothetical or anecdotal examples. In The Mind Possessed
, Emma Cohen considers how the psychological systems undergirding spirit concepts are activated in real-world settings.
Spirit possession practices have long had a magnetizing effect on academic researchers but there have been few, if any, satisfactory theoretical treatments of spirit possession that attempt to account for its emergence and spread globally. Drawing on ethnographic data collected during eighteen months of fieldwork in Belém, northern Brazil, Cohen combines fine-grained descriptions and analyses of mediumistic activities in an Afro-Brazilian cult house with a scientifically-grounded explanation for the emergence and spread of ideas about spirits, possession and healing.
Cohen shows why spirit possession and its associated activities are inherently attention-grabbing. Making a radical departure from traditional anthropological, medicalist and sociological analyses, she argues that a cognitive approach offers more precise and testable hypotheses concerning the spread and appeal of spirit concepts and possession activities.
This timely book presents new lines of enquiry for the cognitive science of religion (a rapidly growing field of interdisciplinary scholarship) and challenges the theoretical frameworks within which spirit possession practices have traditionally been understood.
"Who is dancing before me: my neighbor or a powerful spirit? Where do minds go when the body is occupied by someone else? The Mind Possessed details the colorfulness of spirit possession while rendering it understandable. This gracefully written book potently models how the cognitive sciences should impact the study of culture and religion. Cohen demonstrates that a sophisticated understanding of human minds enriches anthropology and religious studies with scientific insights. Simultaneously she shows that careful ethnography can highlight questions for psychological sciences that might otherwise go unnoticed, in this case, complex issues concerning human minds and bodies. -- Justin L. Barrett, Senior Researcher, Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God?
"The Mind Possessed is an extraordinary accomplishment. Drawing on her fieldwork in Brazil, Emma Cohen explores the fascinating phenomena of spirit possession-the belief in, and experience of, immaterial beings taking over people's bodies. What's really unusual here is how Cohen integrates her fieldwork with contemporary theories of cognitive development, evolutionary psychology, and, most of all, the cognitive science of religion. This is the rare book that should be seized upon by scholars from several disciplines-and by non-specialists as well. Cohen is smart, knowledgeable, and knows how to tell a hell of a story. The Mind Possessed is a joy to read." -- Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, and author of Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human
"The first major ethnography of this region of Brazil in over thirty years, this book blazes a trail in applying new theories in the cognitive science of religion to a complex cultural setting. Her critique of earlier approaches to the study of spirit possession carries the weight and authority of a new field behind it. All anthropologists and historians interested in possession phenomena should read this important new study." -- Harvey Whitehouse, Head of thet the School of Anthropology, Oxford University, and author of Inside the Cult
"This is an important work that adds a crucial perspective to a controversial and fascinating topic. Highly recommended." --Choice
"Cohen's book is admirable not only for its original hypotheses, but also for its attention to conceptual clarity...I highly recommend this compelling, original, challenging work." --Journal of Religion
About the Author
is a Researcher at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford