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Observations placeholder

Lyall Watson - Trance dancing as a cure



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

The Romeo Error – Lyall Watson

William Sargant has made a worldwide study of trance behaviour and finds that the state is induced everywhere by a combination of rhythmic stimuli and over-breathing. In Zambia, traditional healers cast out evil spirits by holding a patient's head under a blanket and over a smoking brazier, where he is forced to hyperventilate by breathing very rapidly and shallowIy. In Ethiopia, village priests exorcise devils by spraying holy water into the faces of the possessed for so long that they almost suffocate and have to over-breathe.

"Bringing down the Holy Ghost" in Trinidad involves hand clapping and rhythmic heavy breathing. The pocomania ceremonies in Jamaica are built around “tromping", which is a rhythm of foot-stamping and peculiar breathing sounds. Warriors of the nomadic Samburu and Turkana tribes in Kenya dance themselves into frenzy and collapse to the accompaniment of sustained drumming.

When recordings of all these rhythms are played to European audiences, they are equally effective in putting non-tribal people into the same trance states. Comparisons have been made between these patterns of sound and the old iambic rhythm which was thought to be so powerful that it was banned in ancient Greece unless a priest was in attendance.

After the epidemics of plague in medieval Europe, dancing to the point of collapse became quite common and was added to the more drastic techniques like flagellation to bring the nervous system to the final state of trance and collapse.

The point of inducing trance states in all these systems is to heighten suggestibility and to create faith and obedience, but they also have the side effect of releasing nervous tensions, sometimes even those severe enough to be pathological. They produce dramatic cures in cases of severe depression, paranoid schizophrenia and enduring trauma by inducing excitement that leads to exhaustion, collapse and a permanent alteration or restoration of brain function.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari call the collapse state "little death" and make no distinction between that induced by rhythmic dancing and that which occurs in epilepsy.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Music therapy