Why belonging matters: Fellows Friday with Chelsea Shields Strayer

How did human emotions evolve to help us survive? For the last decade, cultural anthropologist Chelsea Shields Strayer has studied the indigenous healing practices of the Ashante people of Ghana, discovering that emotional pain serves useful purposes — including the relief of physical pain. In this conversation with the TED Blog, she tells the fascinating story of how she struggled to free herself from her gender-biased Mormon culture to study another culture far away, in the process gathering important information about the physiological basis of the placebo effect, learning how social ostracization affects physical well-being, and getting a new perspective on the community she comes from.

How did you end up studying traditional healing cultures in Ghana?

I grew up in a very conservative Mormon culture in Utah. My father works for the church educational system, and my mother is a stay-at-home mom of eight. None of the women in my family have ever gotten a higher education or worked outside the home, so I didn’t have any role models outside my own culture, or any within it of women pursuing less traditional paths. I was a four-sport athlete and had straight As during high school, but it never even crossed my mind that I could go anywhere besides the church university, where traditional gender roles were reinforced everyday. My female pre-med friends were told that if they got into medical school they would be “taking the spot of a man that needed to provide for his family.” I never even had a female professor until my senior year.

Because of the rigid modesty culture that makes you a “good Mormon girl” I had never even kissed anyone until college. At 19, I started to date my first boyfriend. Everyone, including my church leaders, wanted me to marry him. There was a lot of pressure. So I remember feeling really trapped and very confused. I believed in my religious leaders; I believed they received revelation from God. But I did not want to marry; I was so young, and had so many things I wanted to do.

So I very quixotically said, “I can’t do anything until I accomplish my goal — which is go to Africa someday.” My boyfriend said, “Okay, I guess we could do that later, when we’re married. We can go as missionaries.” Again, so much pressure not to do my thing. I was almost like a drowning person. I just had to do something, to get out. So eventually I just did it. I bought a plane ticket to West Africa. I left the country for the first time, at 20 years old, all by myself.

What did your parents think?

No one had ever been to Africa, so they didn’t know anything. We were all just super naive. I don’t think they realized how scary it was. I don’t think even I realized. I remember my dad taking me to San Francisco International Airport and it hit me. This silly plan of mine was actually coming to fruition! I had no idea what would be on the other side of the world when I stepped off the plane. It was terrifying. The best moment, however, was when my mom called me and with tears in her voice said she was really proud of me — proud that I had a dream and that I was making it happen. How rare and special that was. I think that is what gave me the strength to get on the plane and not just live in SFO airport for six months, which was my Plan B.

I attended the University of Ghana in Legon for a semester as an international student and lived in the dorms with Ghanaian roommates. I made a lot of friends, attended my local Mormon ward in Ghana and spent the entire time immersing myself in the culture, backpacking and traveling throughout West Africa.

Being in a completely different culture was good for me, but it was really hard. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t understand the social norms. I would see Ghanaian street vendors selling things on their head and I didn’t know what was food or soap (I only made that mistake once)!  It took a good four or five months of being completely out of my comfort zone and changing everything about my life (what I ate, where I slept, how I went to the bathroom, how I showered, what I wore, how I communicated, how I spent my time, etc) until resilience kicked in and I adjusted to this new lifestyle.

You see, in my culture women are supposed to be very beautiful and high-maintenance because your job is to look attractive so you can get married someday. And here I was sitting in this country where my makeup is melting off in the 100% humidity, my nice clothes are dirty in two seconds via the dirt paths and crowded tro-tros, my padded bras are completely uncomfortable in the two 12- mile walks you take everyday to get anywhere, and I was blow-drying my hair (when there was electricity) while sweating so much it would re-wet my hair. Very quickly, I had to get rid of all those cultural symbols I had about who I was and what made me special. I was stripped of everything I knew, and it forced me to create a new worldview where my decisions were based a little less on what I was “supposed” to do and a little more on what I “wanted” to do.

Shields Strayer dances with a healer as he prepares to go into spirit possession.

How did you get involved with the healing community in Ghana?

When I got back to Utah, I had enough perspective and strength to start making decisions about what I wanted. I broke up with my boyfriend, said I didn’t want to get married before I got a degree, decided to major in anthropology and helped start a study-abroad program to Ghana at my university. I ran that program in different capacities for about five years while I finished school.

All along the way, I had to fight and push against invisible patriarchal boundaries that exist in my culture. Even though I was a top anthropology student, it surprised faculty, family and friends when I applied to graduate school, but I received a Foreign Language and Area (FLAS) full-ride scholarship to Boston University for an MA/PhD in anthropology and African studies.

Over the course of the last twelve years I went back to Ghana five times, for a total of 26 months. I became friends with some Asante healers early on, and have maintained those relationships over the last decade. I’ve watched them go from apprentices to master healers, I’ve been invited to attend everything from very private ceremonies to public performances for the Asantehene King, I have even had healers who allow me to record and take measurements of them in spirit possession.

Was your interest in anthropology always focused on healing culture?

Not at first. My BA, MA and PhD were in cultural anthropology, and I was studying the religious and social aspects of Asante indigenous healing. At first, I was more concerned with what all of the cultural symbols in ritual healing meant, rather than how it worked. Halfway through my research, though, I realized that my informants and I were talking past each other. They would tell me about witchcraft cursings, familial discord and the process through which they cured a patient, and I would build an ethnomedical explanatory model — which explained Asante sociocultural constructions of sickness and healing. They were talking about ritual healing ceremonies as effective techniques for altering physiological pathologies, and I was describing why they thought that. I was not discovering if ritual ceremonies actually alter physiological processes or how and why they do it. I did not have the tools to understand, frame or measure those claims. So I went back to Boston University and completed all of the PhD requirements in biological anthropology as well.

Why did you need to study biological anthropology?

The healers I’ve worked with don’t think that they are just building the community, easing tensions or creating social support. They say they are healing — affecting a physiological change. I felt that no matter how I wrote about what they were doing, from my academic perspective, I was belittling their biophysiological claims of ritual healing unless I could understand and explain why and how social processes can influence physiological ones.

What I learned from the healers was that because the body is made up of both spiritual and physical matter, variables affected in one state can manifest in the other. Since non-physical or psycho-social  (social, psychological, spiritual, etc.) variables can influence bodily states, the healer’s job is to manipulate those psychosocial processes in order to elicit specific reactions from the body. This is not a foreign concept in mind-body medicine. We know that psychosocial factors such as stress, fear, inferiority, ostracism and negative expectations exacerbate physical and mental ailments and inhibit healing processes. We also know that relaxation, expectations, empathetic relationships and meaningful interventions can activate and even enhance healing processes. What we are talking about are the context-specific physiological effects of the ritual of medicine, the provisions of care. Another word for this phenomenon is the “placebo effect.”

There’s a lot of confusion around the placebo effect. How do you approach it?

Having studied it for the last eight years I can tell you that most people don’t really understand what it is. The most common understanding is that a placebo effect means that nothing is happening when the opposite is actually the case. Something biochemically is happening — it is just that the cause is psychosocial rather than physical. An inert sugar pill has no physical effect on the body, but that same pill — when wrapped in all of the rituals, meanings and social interactions of healthcare and imbued with encultured expectations — has incredible and powerful effects of the body! A handful of anthropologists have been talking about this for years, the effect that meaning has on the healing process. What I contribute to this dialogue is describing the effect that social interaction has on the healing process. I meticulously go back through our evolutionary history and show how encephalization and increased sociality, infant dependency, juvenility and attachment make human bodies particularly vulnerable to changes in our psychosocial environments. I show how for our ancestors, belonging and ostracism were literally the difference between life and death and how we evolved very powerful prosocial emotions (psychological and physiological warning systems) that are hypersensitive to cues in our social environments. Because the fitness consequences of prosocial behavior was so costly to our ancestors, our bodies are full of somatic “warning” systems that keep us from being too anti-social.

For example, one of these warning systems is social pain, or the unpleasant sensory experience we feel when we make a social misstep; that moment of cringing or embarrassment when we’ve put our foot in our mouth or the anxiety-riddled feeling right before a speech, interview or performance. Like many of our adaptations, the social pain warning system evolved out of and on top of preexisting structures in our bodies — in this case our physical pain warning system. This is called the pain overlap theory, and basically states that because these two warning systems occupy the same neural pathways, you can inhibit the one by activating the other.

The best examples of this are when someone self harms or cuts themselves in order to numb the psychosocial pain they are experiencing or, on the opposite side of the coin, when someone’s social environment determines how much physical pain they experience. (Think about a skateboarder having a horribly painful fall but getting up quickly and laughing it off because he doesn’t want to lose status in front of his friends, or a baby who falls and then looks up to her mother to determine whether she should cry or not.)

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>