Hearing voices is often associated with mental illness. But this belief doesn’t always reflect reality, with much research suggesting that many people who hear voices experience no distress and have never had contact with psychiatric services. Religious hearing of voices also has a tradition outside of what we might consider “pathological”: St. Augustine’s recognition of the voice of God, to use one very famous example.
Why do some of us hear otherworldly voices, while others don’t? According to Stanford University’s Tanya Marie Luhrmann and team, it could be related to two factors: “absorption” and “porosity”, both of which concern our beliefs and experiences about how the mind interacts with the world. In a study in PNAS that spanned a range of faiths and cultures, the team examined exactly how porosity and absorption can facilitate different kinds of spiritual experience.
“Porosity” refers to the view that the boundary between the mind and the world is permeable — that emotions “linger in a room”, or that some people can read minds. Porous views tend to be contrasted with the more secular idea that the mind is a discrete space, separate from the world. “Absorption”, on the other hand, is the tendency to be engrossed in sensory or imagined events — being able to “lose yourself” in music, films, or nature, for example.
The researchers looked at how these two factors were related to spiritual experiences among participants from the US, Ghana, Thailand, Vanuatu and China. Religions ranged from evangelical Christianity to Methodism to Buddhism to ancient practices found in Vanuatu.
The first study saw 300 adults with strong religious beliefs, either evangelical Christianity or a locally relevant religion, take part in two in-depth interviews conducted by on-site fieldworkers in churches, shrines and temples. One explored their experience of events in which they had felt a spiritual presence, and the other looked at how they understood and thought about the mind.
In the second interview, researchers probed belief in both porosity and absorption. Participants were presented with brief stories, each with different implications for the boundary between the mind and the world, and indicated how much they believed such an event could happen (e.g. the likelihood of someone becoming physically unwell because of a friend being angry with them). For absorption, participants indicated how much they agreed with statements such as “when I listen to music I can get so caught up in it that I don’t notice anything else”.
The second study replicated these methods with 766 adults from the general population in each country and 236 evangelical Christians, who were also asked how much they agreed with specific statements related to porosity (e.g. “spirits can read our thoughts and act on them even if we don’t speak them out loud”).
Interviews in both studies prompted stories about sensory experiences of otherworldly beings. Christian participants reported feeling the presence of god, whilst one Thai Buddhist participant, a nurse, told of an experience in which she calmly saw ghostly figures in the hospital where she worked. And while experiences differed across cultures, porosity and absorption were clear predictors of experiences of spiritual presence in different religions.
In the final study, 505 participants from each country, who were all based in cities, completed the two measures of porosity, the absorption scale, and the two measures of spiritual presence events used in previous studies. They also completed two measures of “secular” or non-spiritual hallucination-like experiences (responding to questions such as “I hear the telephone ring and find that I am mistaken”) and the paranormal (e.g. “I am completely convinced that it is [impossible/possible] to send a “mental message” to another person”).
Again, higher levels of absorption and porosity predicted experience of spiritual events. Interestingly, this was also the case for secular events — hearing the phone ring, for example, or hearing music when it’s not being played — suggesting that porosity and absorption may have an impact on unusual sensory experiences even outside of religious contexts.
The results add further evidence for the need for openness around unusual sensory experiences. Both secular and religious experiences were recorded during the course of the study, with many participants not only unafraid but actively peaceful or calm, as in the example of the Thai Buddhist nurse. Christian participants also talked about the comforting presence of God.
The study suggests that unusual sensory experiences are common even among those who do not suffer from mental illness. But perhaps studies like this, which broaden our understanding of the nature and frequency of unusual sensory experiences, could also help break down the stigma of disorders in which such experiences often occur.