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Viewpoints
Demonic-Possession Phenomenon Merits Scientific Study
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 6 page 12-12

The belief in possession by jinni is not limited to less-developed countries. During my last two years' practice in Canada, I came across three patients who firmly believed that they were possessed by jinni. Their symptoms did not fit into any of the clinical conditions we come across in everyday clinical practice.

Jinni have been described as living entities that are invisible to human beings, can assume various shapes, and have the ability to overpower the human brain and in turn lead to different manifestations that are similar to mental disorders, but have the distinction of not being amenable to medical treatment.

Having worked for a number of years in a developing country, seeing several patients with different clinical conditions expressing belief in jinni possession, all of whom had a low literacy level, I was surprised initially when I came across such a situation in Canada. Though I had theoretical knowledge of such types of beliefs and syndromes, which are prevalent all over the globe, the practical experience of dealing with such patients was a fascinating experience for me.

A patient I recently saw came with the complaints of a strange urge to bite people who were passing on the road. He also felt that his body was changing anatomically. There was an element of paranoia about the ill doings of family members and that he was destined to turn into a monster.

A thorough mental status examination was inconclusive apart from the possibility of “possession syndrome.” The patient was seeking treatment from a shaman simultaneously. Possession syndromes have found a place in current classification systems, and there is now an emphasis on exposure of psychiatry residents to the ways in which religion affects some people's mental health and other aspects of their lives.

Possession by jinni has been described extensively in ethnopsychiatric literature, which provides insight into this phenomenon. The most frequent psychiatric symptoms attributed to demonic possession include hallucinations, mental disorders with strange and antisocial behavior, conditions of extreme unrest, change of voice, claims to predict the future, talking in foreign languages of which the person had no knowledge before, having seizures, and acquiring tremendous physical strength.

A diagnostic category of schizohysteria has been discussed to describe this phenomenon, but such a diagnosis has not yet found a place in psychiatric classifications.

Among psychiatrists who study traditional beliefs and attitudes, possession has been recognized as an important causative factor for some mental disorders. Demonology has been explained as a culturally or socially determined cause of certain problems that cannot otherwise be explained in sociological, psychodynamic, psychological, or psychiatric terms. Scientists have frequently expressed doubts regarding this phenomenon, and many psychiatrists view it with much skepticism.

Broadly speaking, it appears unreasonable to dismiss something so culturally pervasive just because it cannot be proven scientifically. A large portion of current medical practice is still awaiting scientifically sound evidence from trials. If possession syndromes deserve so little recognition, one could reasonably ask, what is the point of establishing and emphasizing the importance of a spiritual dimension in the psychiatric literature? Jinni possession is an important concept in many traditional as well as nontraditional societies, and many patients who are given psychiatric diagnoses based on symptomatology don't necessarily respond to medications, yet have been known to benefit from shamanic treatment. Epilepsy is sometimes associated with magical thinking or the influence of demons, and in many parts of the world is being addressed by shamans and faith healers.

Some patients who were considered affected by demons and treated with neuroleptics subsequently experienced remission, suggesting strong support for a biochemical theory. There may also be a possible explanatory role related to abnormal functioning of brain-stem structures in the region of the fourth ventricle, whether caused by genetic or environmental factors or a combination thereof.

Scientists continue to argue against possession as an etiological factor responsible for mental illness, but the fact remains that refuting something that science cannot prove is inappropriate on the basis of our limited understanding of the world and its creations. There should always be room for new ideas, theories, and beliefs. In the aforementioned context, it may be acceptable to say that jinni may be a scientific entity, which, if understood by more psychiatrists, could revolutionize the field of psychiatry and human behavior. So let's continue the journey in search of a scientific basis for demonic possession. ▪

Amin Muhammad Gadit, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.

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