Interview With Boon-Ooi Lee

The next few months we’ll be highlighting authors who have published in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.

Boon-Ooi Lee, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is interested in culture and mental health, in particular, indigenous healing systems, multicultural therapy, cultural psychopathology, alteration of consciousness, health beliefs, somatization, embodiment, and phenomenology.

What is your article “Spirit Mediumship and Mental Health: Therapeutic Self-Transformation among Dang-kis in Singapore about?

Early studies usually described spirit mediums as people with mental disorders because of their psychiatric-like behaviors, for example, dissociation, delusions, or hallucinations. But subsequent studies found that mediums were generally in good physical and mental health. To find out whether these positive findings are generalizable to dang-ki healing, a form of Chinese mediumship / shamanism in Singapore, we interviewed eight mediums and assessed their mental health status using psychological questionnaires. Our findings suggest that most of them did not suffer from mental disorders. In fact, they had spiritually transformed through the practice of mediumship, suggesting that dang-ki healing has therapeutic values for the practitioners themselves. It is therefore important to understand mediumship in its cultural context instead of pathologizing it from a Western psychiatric perspective.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests.

I am a counseling psychologist and researcher. I have always been fascinated by the cultural aspects of psychopathology, mental health, and alteration of consciousness in ritual healing. Research in these areas helps us to understand better the interaction between mind and culture.

What drew you to this project?

I became interested in the relevance of rituals and other indigenous practices to mental health after a relative shared with me her personal story. When she was a child, her mother took her to consult a fortune teller because of her frequent insomnia. According to the master, her sleep had been interrupted by a child spirit who wanted to play with her. To prevent the lonely ghost from entering her bedroom, he asked her mother to paste a talisman on their house entrance. Interestingly, my relative slept soundly after her mother followed the instruction. Whether her recovery is a placebo response, a coincidence or due to some unknown reasons, I don’t know. But I think some aspects of cultural beliefs can be integrated into mental health care or psychotherapy for people who subscribe to these beliefs. With this idea, I moved on to study dang-ki healing, a popular indigenous healing system in the Chinese Singaporean community.

Initially, I focused my research on people consulting dang-kis. Later, I became interested in the dang-kis’ own transformative experiences after reading a study on digital self-representation conducted by Yee, Bailenson and Ducheneaut (2009). They found that the characteristics of an avatar had shaped how a user behaved both inside and outside of a collaborative virtual environment. Although virtual online game differs from spirit mediumship in many aspects, I wondered whether the same transformation would happen to a medium who enacts the “role” of a deity in a particular context as some researchers have perceived spirit possession as a form of social role enactment. In this sense, the “deity” is like an “avatar” while the religious context functions as an online virtual environment. Since a deity usually represents an ideal self with positive qualities, I conducted the current study to find out if a dang-ki would transform by internalizing the divine qualities through recurrent possession.

This transformation may help to explain the therapeutic aspects of the mediumship practice. Although this seems to be the case based on our ethnographic study, I plan to conduct an experiment to triangulate this finding by using the technology of virtual reality to see if a person can modify her behaviors by embodying the disposition of a “deity”. For example, past research has found that immersive virtual reality may induce illusions of ownership over a virtual body (in this sense, a deity’s body).

What was one of the most interesting findings?

The possible internalization of the deity’s disposition, as mentioned earlier. This finding will help to understand the interaction between the mind and body in cultural context

What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?

Mainly Western and Eastern philosophies such as phenomenology, existentialism, and Taoism. I am now reading “The Path: A New Way to Think about Everything” by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, “The Phenomenological Mind” by Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, and “How Forests Think: Toward An Anthropology Beyond The Human” by Eduardo Kohn. In the evening, I immerse myself in Tang Dynasty poems, sci-fi movies on Netflix, or Tess Gerritsen’s novels.

If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be?

To be open-minded, do not stereotype or even pathologize anything we are not familiar with, learn from people from other cultures, and there are local knowledge and healing systems relevant to mental health care.  

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