Decoded: What makes people sense God and spirits

New Delhi: Two attributes, porosity and absorption, make people more likely to have vivid experiences of gods or spirits, report researchers. Human history has been shaped by these experiences — 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.

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, the researchers 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 appear 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,” says Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann. “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.”

Absorption and porosity

Luhrmann and 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 affect 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.

Experiences of gods or spirits

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 says.

The overall study also examined these phenomena among 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.

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