The CMB network met on Friday, January 15, 2021, to discuss on going research by Tanya Luhrmann and Michael Lifshitz.

Hearing a voice, feeling the presence of another being, or feeling that another being is present in one’s own body are human experience that are both surprising common, and central to religious practice in many societies. They have been explained, or at least discussed scientifically, in a range of ways—dissociation, hypnosis, absorption, psychosis, reality monitoring and so forth—and there is still no settled consensus about how to make sense of these events or whether they are, in the end, the same kinds of events. All share what a non-faith perspective might call “non-agency”: a person experiences a thought or sensation, but attributes the thought or sensation to a source not themselves.


  • Voice hearing is common.
    • Roughly 5-10% of the general population have had this kind of experience;  phrased differently, the rate can be as high as 70%.
    • Approximately 30% of charismatic Christians say they have heard God’s voice with their ears.
    • About 70% of bereaved.
    • Approximately 60-70% of persons living with schizophrenia
  • Basic feature of human mind from infancy is recognition of own mind vs. other minds.
  • There is also something basic about conflicting intuitions about thought as:
    • Causative
    • Private
    • Located in the body
    • Owned
  • Also something basic about potential for hearing voices.
  • Cultural differences in how people attend to their thoughts.
  • Is there something that is common to training practice that help make thoughts feel more external or vivid? Can we distinguish between kinds of people who have these experiences?
  • To answer these questions, Luhrmann looked at charismatic Christians and okomfo/abosomfo (spiritual experts). After the initial call (if denied, the person will go mad), the initiate trains to hear and distinguish among the gods and respond/enter into possession.
  • In Ghana sample, four patterns of voice hearing, with 1–4 indicating consecutive decreases in audibility, externality , negativity, spontaneity and consecutive increases in pleasantness and internality:
    • Group One: Strong endorsers (of Western audio clip sample of psychotic voice hearing)
    • Group Two: Partial endorsers
    • Group Three: Weak/unpersuasive endorsers (trauma talk)
    • Group Four: Non-endorsers
  • Further distinctions (but unlikely this represents a psychosis continuum):
    • Group One: Psychotic process
    • Group Two: Trauma dissociation process
    • Group Three: Trance lovers
    • Group Four: Absorption/aspirational hearers/sleep (not external experiences)
  • Discussion
    • There is phantom pain; but is there phantom voice?
    • High absorption (personality trait) and porosity (cultural feature) are associated with more reports of voice-hearing experiences.
    • Ghana and Vanuatu report more voice hearing than urban China, Thailand, and the US.
    • What is really us?


  • Focusing on the cultivation of subjective modulations, namely our sense of agency
  • What is really us? 
  • Are these modulations associated with brain changes?
  • Neuroscience imaging work: Charismatic Christians and Tupla practitioners (tulpa is a sentient entirely separate being with agency created in the mind of the practitioner, generally person is social isolated, lonely)
  • Christians rehearsed Lord’s prayer (high agency) – repeating a memorized prayer (controlled); improvised worship prayer (medium agency); spoke in tongues (low agency) – trance-like state
  • In practitioners, with training, one brain supports multiple conscious streams simultaneously via active forcing, an explicit focused practice; or passive forcing, i.e., assume someone is there with you (involves narration). MRI tasks included thinking of a short simple, suitable ending to a sentence stream vis-a-vis self or close other:
Tulpa think

Self write

(tulpa voice)

Friend think

Self write

(simulated voice)

Self think

Tulpa write


Self think

Friend write

(simulated possession)

  • Prelim findings: supplementary motor area activation (planning, thought, action).
  • See, e.g.,  Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, J.-J., & Haynes, J.-D. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 543–545.
  • Lau, H. C., Rogers, R. D., Haggard, P., & Passingham, R. E. (2004). Attention to intention. Science, 303(5661), 1208–1210.


Auditory hallucinating versus imagining hearing the same voice – deactivation of brain’s supplementary motor area during an actual auditory hallucination. Cited, likely:

Raij, T. T., & Riekki, T. J. J. (2012). Poor supplementary motor area activation differentiates auditory verbal hallucination from imagining the hallucination. NeuroImage: Clinical, 1(1), 75–80.

Hypnosis used to induce experiences of alien control and thought insertion also produces deactivation of brain’s supplementary motor area. Cited:

Walsh, E., Oakley, D. A., Halligan, P. W., Mehta, M. A., & Deeley, Q. (2015). The functional anatomy and connectivity of thought insertion and alien control of movement. Cortex, 64, 380-393.