Why20 Some20 See20 Spirits
Oct 31, 2023

Why Some See Spirits with Tanya Luhrmann & Kara Weisman (podcast)

A discussion about sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths.

By Templeton Staff

"The sensory presence of gods and spirits is central to many of the religions that have shaped human history — in fact, many people of faith report having experienced such events," say Tanya Luhrmann, Kara Weisman, and their research partners. "But these experiences are poorly understood by social scientists and rarely studied empirically." In this episode of Many Minds they talk about why some people might have these experiences.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"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] 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; and we discuss the challenges and rewards of cross-disciplinary collaboration."

Play the episode with the above player.

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Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.