Have you ever seen what seemed to be a spirit? Or heard a voice from an unseen source? Or maybe just sensed a presence and found yourself with goosebumps all over? These kinds of experiences can be incredibly powerful— life-altering, in fact—but they don’t happen often, and they don’t happen to everyone. So what drives this individual variation? Why do some of us have these extraordinary experiences while others never do? Could it be something about our personalities? Or our cultures? Could it have to do with the way we understand our minds?
My guests on today’s show are Tanya Luhrmann, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, and Kara Weisman, a postdoc at UC-Riverside (formerly in the Psychology department at Stanford). Along with nine collaborators from across institutions, Tanya and Kara recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS) titled ‘Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths.’
This episode is nominally in our “behind the paper” series, but really it tells the story of not just this one paper but a much larger project: The Mind and Spirit project. The project was an unusual effort in scope: it included anthropologists and psychologists; it involved fieldwork in Ghana, Thailand, China, Vanuatu, and the US and practitioners of different faith traditions; it used both in-depth interviews and large-scale survey testing with thousands of participants. The particular paper we’re discussing today probed the basic idea that so-called “spiritual presence events”—those tingly, jarring, extraordinary experiences that some of us have—could be due to two main factors, factors that vary across individuals and cultures. The first proposed factor is how people understand the mind-world boundary. People who conceive of the mind as fundamentally leaky or “porous” might be more likely to have these kinds of experiences. The second proposed factor is how likely people are to get absorbed in their sensory experiences, to lose themselves in music, art, nature, movies, and so on.
In our conversation, Tanya, Kara, and I talk about the deeper history behind this work; we break down what the constructs of porosity and absorption mean exactly and how they chose to measure them; we discuss the challenges and rewards of cross-disciplinary collaboration; and we talk about why I really need to read more William James.
I wanted to feature this paper the moment I learned about it—it’s such an impressive piece of research on several levels. It’s also just certifiably cool. It’s dealing with cultural differences. It’s dealing with individual differences. And it’s dealing with variability in, to use the authors’ words “something as basic as what feels real to the senses.”
So let’s get to it. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Tanya Luhrmann and Dr. Kara Weisman. Enjoy!
The paper we discuss is here.