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Maddalena Canna, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow

PhD Anthropology, School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences – EHESS

Research Interests

Bio-social anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Anthropology of Consciousness, Contemplative studies, Embodiment, Sexualities, Anthropology of the Self, Neuroanthropology and cognitive sciences, Integrated epistemologies.


My research explores the social variability of human consciousness, with a particular attention to altered states (ASC), embodiment, Self-awareness and Self-transformation processes.

I joined Northwestern in 2019 as a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Fyssen Foundation with a project on the role of paradoxical and non-ordinary states of consciousness in the emergence of belief. My methodological approach is integrative, bringing together anthropology, neurocognitive sciences, biology and critical studies. 

Current inquiries:

  1. The cultural variability of dissociation

In my PhD thesis (Martine Aublet Award 2018) I studied grisi sknis, a form of pathogenic trance diffused among the Miskitos of Nicaragua and Honduras. Experienced as demonic possession, triggering an aggressive behavior and hallucinations, grisi siknis is an example of the cultural diversity of dissociative phenomena. Whether pathogenic, ordinary or perceived as a cultural skill, I am currently comparing different forms of dissociation across societies, with a particular interest in the biomedical construction of Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES), and functional disorders (FNSD) and their intersections with hallucinations and visionary images. 

  1. Embodied ambivalence and the Self

    Drawing on my ethnography of grisi siknis trance, I am exploring the embodiment of contrasting affects, namely sexual desire and fear. I am particularly interested in conceptualizing erotic ambivalence (e.g. attraction/repulsion, pain/pleasure), whether in informal or in codified traditions (e.g. the ritual use of pain in BDSM practices).  Particular attention is paid to the processes of Self-transformation connected to extreme bodily experiences.
  1. Meditation, paradox and Belief

In 2017 I advanced the hypothesis that paradox and non-ordinary states are pivotal in many spiritual traditions. As kōans in Zen Buddhism, paradoxical formulations can be used as triggers for modifying Self-consciousness. I am exploring the notion of “transcending couples of opposites” in Vedanta, by conducting an integrative study on the experiential and psycho-physiological underpinnings of enlightenment in yogini and yogi meditators.

I am also developing a line of collaborative research on the applicability of mindfulness-based therapies for the treatment of conversion/functional disorders and PTSD. 

Affiliations and Research Groups

 ALIUS – Interdisciplinary Research Group on the Diversity of Consciousness

Member of the American Anthropological Association

Member of the Society for Psychological Anthropology

Member of the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale - LAS (EHESS/CNRS/Collège de France) 

Selected publications available here 

Selected talks 2019 

2019 SPA Biennial Meeting – Society for Psychological Anthropology, Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, 4-7 April

Visceral Visions

Modelling the bio-looping between interoception and Self-consciousness through the lens of hallucinatory trance (grisi siknis, Nicaragua).

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