Researchers identify two factors in experience of otherworldly phenomena

Stanford researchers find both socio-cultural and personal characteristics influence how individuals experience the presence of gods and spirits.

By Sandra Feder

Human history has been shaped by vivid experiences of gods and spirits, from Augustine’s conversion to Christianity after hearing a disembodied voice to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision, after hearing God’s voice, to move ahead with the Montgomery bus boycotts.

Now Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, the Howard H. and Jessie T. Watkins University Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, has identified two attributes, porosity and absorption, that make individuals more likely to have these kinds of experiences. Over the course of four studies of more than 2,000 participants from many different religious traditions in the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China and Vanuatu, Luhrmann and her team demonstrate the power of culture in combination with individual differences to shape something that we normally think of as a given – what feels real. Their findings are detailed in a study published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The central puzzle I’ve always grappled with is that often when I walk into a faith setting, I see that God becomes more real for people,” Luhrmann said. “But it’s not a given. It’s an experience that’s made more vivid for some people. How that works, and why some people experience this more than others, has always been a deep fascination for me.”

Luhrmann and Stanford postdoctoral fellow Kara Weisman, both co-first authors on the paper, found that cultural models that represent the mind as porous, or permeable to the world, affect the likelihood of an individual having otherworldly experiences.

“We have adopted the term ‘porosity’ to refer to ideas about how a person might receive thoughts, emotions or knowledge directly from outside sources,” the authors write. These might include divine inspiration, divination, telepathy or clairvoyance. Porosity also describes the way individuals’ thoughts and feelings are believed to impact the world, such as through witchcraft, healing energy or shamanic powers.

The second key factor is having an immersive orientation toward inner life that allows an individual to become absorbed in experiences. “People with a greater capacity for absorption ‘lose themselves’ in the sensory experiences and are capable of conjuring vivid imagined events,” the authors write. Examples of this kind of absorption include getting so caught up in listening to music that nothing else is noticeable or being moved by eloquent or poetic language.

“Porosity is a cognitive factor which is influenced by one’s broader social setting, while absorption is an experiential factor, which captures how an individual relates to the world,” the authors explain in the paper. In other words, porosity and absorption capture different aspects of the ways people relate to their minds.

The three-year research effort relied on both qualitative and quantitative techniques from both anthropology and experimental psychology. Other authors of the paper come from the fields of anthropology, cultural psychology and neuroscience.

The project involved four different studies. The first two used open ended, face-to-face conversations and the final two employed surveys. Spiritual presence events – the often vividly sensory events that people attribute to gods, spirits or other supernatural forces – were examined across a range of cultures, faiths and levels of formal education.

“These results are the cleanest, clearest, most robust I’ve come across doing this type of work,” Weisman said.

For the first study alone, field workers conducted over 300 in-depth, intimate interviews that then had to be transcribed, translated, judged by the field worker and coded by the researchers, resulting in 30,000 pages of data.

The overall study also examined these phenomena amongst those with a shared theology, but with different cultural norms. Looking at evangelical Christianity in particular, the researchers investigated why spiritual events were not experienced by all members of the religious community and why they were experienced more often in some settings than in others. Once again, the researchers found that porosity and absorption were good predictors of spiritual presence amongst individuals.

Across all the studies, participants living in more secular settings, for example, in the U.S. and urban China, reported fewer spiritual presence events, while those in less secular settings reported more. Evangelical Christians in all countries reported higher numbers of events than non-evangelical Christian religious populations.

“We’re now starting to think about ways that individuals could shift their mindsets and what ramifications that might have for their spiritual lives,” Weisman said. “Porosity is a social-cultural construct, and if you want to have a different cognitive model, you might join a community of people who have that. Absorption is more individual, so you might have individual practices, like meditation, that might create a shift.”

Other co-authors on the paper, titled “Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths,” include Felicity Aulino, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Joshua D. Brahinsky, University of California, Santa Cruz; John C. Dulin, Department of Behavioral Science, Utah Valley University; Vivian A. Dzokoto, Department of African and African American Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University; Cristine H. Legare, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin; Michael Lifshitz, Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, McGill University; Emily Ng, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam; Nicole Ross-Zehnder, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University; and Rachel E. Smith, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

Funding for the research was provided by the John Templeton Foundation.

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