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Observations placeholder

Dr William Sargant - The Traditional healing of the Samburu



Type of Spiritual Experience


Dr William Sargant was born in Highgate, London, in 1907 and educated at Leys School and St John's College, Cambridge.  Up to 1972 he was Physician in Charge of the Department of Psychological Medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, London. He was Associate Secretary of the World Psychiatric Association and on the staff of the Maudsley Hospital, London for many years, He was also Registrar of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard University and Visiting Professor at Duke University. He was also the author of Battle for the Mind, and The Unquiet Mind.

A description of the experience

The Mind Possessed  - Dr William Sargant

During our stay with the Samburu we saw four different groups dancing. On each occasion the women began the dancing by themselves, then the men started to dance in their own group, and finally towards the end both sexes joined in the dancing together. When the men danced, they sometimes repeatedly jumped in the air, which seemed to be another way of inducing a mild form of trance. The women were not allowed to go into full trance, but some of the photographs taken show them in a highly suggestible and almost ecstatic state. When one woman did go into full trance, the others stopped her and led her away.

I got the impression that the reason for not allowing the women to fall into trance was possibly because then the chiefs could not control the situation created. Wives sometimes dance with unmarried Moran, and one could see how many emotional transferences could be built up if trance was freely allowed in mixed dancing. Trances were much more common in the male groups. The male dancing was far more energetic and so led on to semi-trance, and full trance in some cases. The men used a form of intensive rhythmic over-breathing with a grunting expiration.

 I was most interested, a year or two later, to witness the same type of over-breathing in Trinidad in 1964 while studying trance states induced by religious pocomania. It was almost uncanny to see the same type of special over-breathing used to attain similar mental states in both a tribal and a Christian religious setting. A somewhat similar chanting and over-breathing technique also occurs among the Arabs on certain occasions, when they want to go into trance.

While the Samburu were overbreathing and harshly expelling their breath, they were also rhythmically dropping back hard on to their heels. The whole movement required much muscular effort -and obviously would soon start to cause bodily and nervous exhaustion. I showed a film of this nomadic dancing to a research bio-chemist, who felt that, if it had been possible to take arterial blood samples, a high degree of blood alkalosis would have been found, leading to brain alkalosis. We know that brain alkalosis tends to produce suggestible behaviour and trance.

Undoubtedly the heavy stamping and rhythmic dancing would create more lactic acid in the blood stream, because of the excessive muscular effort involved, which might counteract some of the alkalosis produced by over-breathing. However, the total effect on the biochemistry would still seem to be an increasing tendency to brain alkalosis, which is what is required if a state of trance is to be fairly rapidly induced.

Had these tribal ceremonies been more spontaneous, instead of being specially prepared for us, we might have seen more than one real trance ending in collapse, for we were told that these trance states and collapse phenomena occur much more frequently when the Moran are dancing in full tribal ceremonies. One man, who did go into trance, left the group and went away by himself; he was followed by two others who supported him while he continued to over-breathe very rapidly. It was very similar to what one sees in a state of hysterical hyperventilation in some Western patients.

The overbreathing went on for quite some time and he obviously lost consciousness at the end, although he did not drop to the ground as he was being supported. However, I managed to get photographs of the final collapse with a dropping to the ground in other Samburu ceremonies. On talking to the man after the attack was over, he confirmed that when one wakes up there is a loss of all fear and tension.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps