Visions For All

People who report vivid religious experiences may hold clues to nonpsychotic hallucinations

Meeting the Almighty takes hallucinatory talent and training. And Hannah, a member of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, has got it down.

Per-Eric Berglund/The Image Bank/Getty Images

HEARING VOICES A recent study looked at what characteristics of auditory hallucinations were shared and which differed among healthy participants and psychotic patients. Members of both groups hallucinated at least once a month. Scientists are not yet sure whether hallucinations in the two groups should be treated as the same phenomenon. K. Daalman et al/J Clin Psychiatry 2011
Some researchers believe Joan of Arc would have developed psychosis had she not been burned at the stake at age 19. ©Christie’s Images/CORBIS
FULLY ABSORBED Members of a Christian group who scored higher on the Tellegen Absorption Scale were more likely to say they experience God in a sensory way — whether by seeing, hearing or feeling the touch or presence of the divine. T. Luhrmann et al/American Anthropologist 2010

She talks with God every day. Sometimes she imagines that God is walking beside her, although no vision of the Almighty appears. On other occasions, Hannah goes on what she calls “date nights” with God. She buys a sandwich, finds a secluded bench and imagines that the big guy is sitting next to her. In both cases, imagination occasionally gives way to a sense of truly hearing God speak.

During these divine experiences, Hannah gets in touch with her unconscious mind, an undercurrent of thoughts and feelings she regards not as her own but as those of the Holy Spirit.

“I recognize that it’s not me, but God inside me, that I’m having a conversation with,” Hannah told Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann. “Which makes this relationship way more complicated … trying to imagine some real but not real figure outside of my own self.”

Luhrmann spent more than four years interviewing evangelical Christians in Chicago and Palo Alto, Calif., for her 2012 book When God Talks Back. Her conversations with Vineyard members, including the young woman given the pseudonym Hannah, are part of an ongoing effort to try to understand how ordinary people can meet God through spiritual hallucinations.

Researchers studying hallucinations often focus on people with schizophrenia and other psychotic ailments who experience incessant, unwanted and distressing hallucinations. But emotionally stable, well-functioning individuals can have unusual sensory experiences too.

Luhrmann’s evidence suggests that this regular-folks brand of hallucinating is much more common than most people think, and understanding such hallucinations could offer new insights into how the mind works. People who effortlessly get caught up in imaginary worlds, nature and music are more likely to have hallucinations, for example. Luhrmann has also identified ways that, through practice, such hallucinatory abilities can be enhanced.

“Given the right training in how to pay attention to one’s mind, it’s easy to go on a walk with God,” Luhrmann says.

Nonpsychotic individuals do have hallucinations, other researchers agree. But, they argue, anyone who experiences hallucinations more than a few times in a lifetime probably falls on the functional end of a psychotic continuum and could be at risk for future psychosis. If true, the claim may bode ill for one Vineyard member.

Hallucination nation

Most of the more than 30 evangelical Christians interviewed by Luhrmann recalled one or a few times when they heard God’s voice or had a holy vision. But hallucinatory experiences don’t affect just the religious.

Surveys conducted over the last century find that 10 to 15 percent of U.S. and British adults report having been startled by briefly hearing a voice when alone or seeing something that could not be seen by others. About three-quarters of bereaved adults acknowledge having heard, seen or otherwise sensed their departed partners. People everywhere, including millions of Americans, have waking nightmares in which they lie frozen, eyes wide open, tormented by hallucinations of demons or other evil presences that sit on their chests as breathing becomes difficult (SN: 7/9/05, p. 27).

Westerners usually keep these experiences secret for the same reason that Vineyard congregants tend to stay tight-lipped about God talk outside of church — because they know that people who have hallucinations are often assumed to be mentally ill.

Elsewhere in the world, people openly discuss their hallucinatory experiences. In many non-Western cultures, such as Thailand’s Buddhist society, troubled minds are viewed as open to manipulation by ghosts and other forms of invisible, supernatural energy, Luhrmann says. In an upcoming issue of Religion and Society, Stanford anthropologist Julia Cassaniti and Luhrmann report that Thai college students and villagers often report having had waking nightmares, run-ins with ghosts and other supernatural encounters during periods of personal turmoil.

Luhrmann refers to congregants’ vivid encounters as well as other culturally driven hallucinations as sensory overrides, to distinguish them from the psychotic type of experiences.

Sensory overrides depend on a person’s capacity for getting caught up in his or her own imagination, or in nature, music and other worldly objects of interest, Luhrmann proposes. This tendency is called absorption, and she tests for the characteristic using a questionnaire developed in 1974 as a measure of susceptibility to hypnosis.

Luhrmann argues that sensory overrides emerge from healthy brains that reorganize and stitch together external information based on expectations about what’s supposed to be out there. Given a perceptual system that seamlessly fills in the blanks of an uncertain world, those who trust their imaginations or know how to focus deeply on their thoughts and feelings occasionally see or hear things that no one else does.

In an effort to explain how modern people come to know God via sensory overrides, Luhrmann has turned up evidence that absorption forms a mental bridge from the act of praying to seeing or hearing the divine. “Absorption-related sensations of God’s presence are rare, brief, can be trained and are viewed as reassuring by those who report them,” she says.

In the March 2010 American Anthropologist, Luhrmann and her colleagues reported that the way 28 Vineyard members responded to an absorption questionnaire predicted whether they experienced God as a person through prayer. Those who scored high on absorption portrayed God as someone they talked to easily, laughed with, got angry at and who talked back from time to time.

After affirming nearly all 34 absorption questions, one volunteer told Luhrmann, “The man who created this scale lived inside my head.”

Not so for congregants with low absorption scores, who didn’t like praying because God never seemed to speak to them.

A prayer-challenged participant wrote next to one absorption item, “There are such people?”

Crucially, the volunteers who endorsed at least half the absorption questions were far more likely than the others to report sensory overrides, such as hearing God’s voice, feeling the Almighty’s touch or glimpsing an angel’s wing.

“The capacity to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows lies at the heart of experiencing God,” Luhrmann says. An aptitude for absorption can also influence experiences outside of startling religious shout-outs. It enables, for instance, temporary escape from one’s troubles by reading a book and entering an imaginary world.

All-access deity

A rare breed of otherwise healthy folks seem to take absorption to the extreme. Luhrmann calls this brand the “Joan of Arc” pattern, a reference to the 15th century French girl who said that she heard and sometimes saw two saints and the archangel Gabriel every day. These emissaries of God purportedly told Joan to lead the king’s army against England and gave her battle strategies — eventually leading to her capture and death.

Luhrmann met one Vineyard member who exhibited this pattern. This calm, well-respected churchgoer with a good job, whom Luhrmann calls Jane, constantly heard God talking to her. Jane said she heard “a little voice” as a child that she couldn’t make sense of. The voice fell silent for a while until she joined an evangelical church as a young adult. God then spoke to her often while she prayed and at other times, providing counsel and encouragement.

Jane probably inherited a genetic propensity for absorption and for unusual sensory experiences that can contribute to schizophrenia in people with other brain and emotional vulnerabilities, Luhrmann suggests. “But that doesn’t mean that she is ill.”

Luhrmann thinks of schizophrenia as a collection of traits — including disorganized thinking, blunted emotions, impulsiveness and hallucinations — that get stirred into a toxic brew by environmental factors such as harsh and traumatic experiences growing up.

Many psychiatrists suspect that a genetic predisposition, combined with prenatal brain damage and the psychological turmoil of young adulthood, orchestrates schizophrenia.

Given a relatively benign upbringing and a steadfast temperament, hearing God’s daily pronouncements made Jane feel good, as well as useful at church. But Jane’s case highlights a divide that exists between Luhrmann and other researchers. While Luhrmann regards the young woman as one of many mentally healthy folks who experience hallucinations, others view Jane as part of an understudied segment of the population consisting of people who function well despite displaying psychotic symptoms capable of flaring into mental illness.

Sensory overrides probably stand apart from psychotic hallucinations, but Jane’s hallucinations signal a vulnerability to schizophrenia, says psychiatrist Iris Sommer of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. In fact, an unappreciated number of people who work and live on their own experience hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms that are signs of a susceptibility to mental illness, she says.

Sommer regards sensory overrides as rare illusions among the healthy, such as a Catholic seeing a Mary statue cry or a wife who hears her late husband call her name. Schizophrenia symptoms, in contrast, take precious few breaks. Signs of mental deterioration usually appear around age 20, when patients find that they can’t handle adult jobs and relationships. Many of those who seek treatment have heard friendly voices since childhood, as Jane has, says Sommer. Those same voices turn threatening in young adulthood, and patients often develop paranoid delusions.

“If Joan of Arc had lived a little longer, she may have undergone the same transition,” Sommer suggests. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at age 19.

Jane, now in her late 20s and holding down a good job, still stands a decent chance of eventually descending into psychosis, in Sommer’s opinion.

Some adults harness hallucinations successfully for several years — say, a charismatic leader of a religious sect — before psychosis flares and requires treatment, Sommer says. Conversely, some psychotic patients that she has treated have tamed their hallucinations enough to live independently.

Sommer’s clinical observations fit with surveys conducted in England and Wales by psychologist Louise Johns of the Institute of Psychiatry in London and colleagues. Johns finds that 4 percent of the white population reports recent hallucinations that she believes signal a vulnerability to psychosis. She regards that figure as a conservative estimate. “Some people who hear God through prayer may have a vulnerability to psychosis, although there are many people who experience hallucinations and don’t develop psychosis or need mental-health care,” she says.

Preliminary evidence indicates that childhood sexual abuse and other traumas boost hallucination proneness, possibly by causing people to become psychologically detached from their emotions, bodies and surroundings, Johns says.

Sommer’s team has studied 111 people who hallucinate at least once a month but have no psychiatric or brain disorders. Many work as mediums, psychics and spiritual healers. Volunteers described hearing voices as loudly and as vividly as 118 patients with schizophrenia and related disorders, the researchers reported in the March 2011 Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. But healthy individuals generally heard nice or neutral voices, whereas patients heard insults and commands to kill themselves.

Brain scans of 21 individuals from each group, taken while they said they were hearing voices, revealed similar activity for those with and without psychosis. Language production and comprehension areas of both hemispheres sprang into action, consistent with participants silently talking to themselves, Sommer and her colleagues reported in a paper published online last year in Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Studies conducted by other researchers with small numbers of hallucinating volunteers suggest that when people hear voices out of nowhere, their brains are failing to identify internal thoughts as self-generated, Sommer says. In other words, neural activity reflects a mental state in which imagined statements are interpreted as coming from someone else. Confusion about the source of one’s own thoughts could apply to sensory overrides as easily as to psychotic hallucinations, Luhrmann says.

Trained visions

However minds and brains instigate hallucinations, cultural training may lie at the heart of sensing the immaterial, Luhrmann says.

Consider that different religions ascribe special meaning to different senses. Protestants emphasize hearing as appropriate for experiencing God, as do evangelical Christians and Muslims. Members of these faiths typically hear God’s voice but don’t see God. Catholics and Hindus privilege sight as a holy channel and more often have super­natural visions.

Many non-Western cultures assume that one person’s mind can be occupied by another’s mind, or by supernatural forces. Sensory overrides appear to occur more easily among people in these societies, such as the Thai Buddhists studied by Cassaniti.

Cultural encouragement to focus carefully on inner thought, a characteristic of Islam, also prompts sensory overrides. And a study by Luhrmann has shown that evangelical Christians can develop a capacity for absorption by learning to focus on inner thoughts and feelings while praying. After a month of practicing this kind of prayer, many congregants reported that they had heard God’s voice for the first time.

“Anthropologists and psychologists don’t know much about the effects of cultural training on how people think about their own minds,” says anthropologist Rita Astuti of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who studies a fishing community in Madagascar. Members of that community frequently report being temporarily possessed by invisible spirits.

Ways in which cultures promote everything from spirit possessions to hearing God’s voice also remain largely unexplored. Luhrmann predicts investigations of the religious faithful will yield further insights into what personal characteristics other than absorption spark hallucinations.

She also thinks that regardless of what scientists turn up, Hannah will continue to enjoy date nights with God as much as ever.


The Tellegen Absorption Scale was described by its conceivers as a measure of a person’s “openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences.” In its original form, the test had 34 true/false questions (some below); today, researchers sometimes allow participants to reply on a four- or five-point scale. Participants are instructed not to consider experiences they have had under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

  • If I wish, I can imagine (or daydream) some things so vividly that they hold my attention as a good movie or story does.
  • I sometimes “step outside” my usual self and experience an entirely different state of being.
  • When listening to organ music or other powerful music, I sometimes feel as if I am being lifted into the air.
  • If I wish, I can imagine that my body is so heavy that I could not move it if I wanted to.
  • I can sometimes recollect certain past experiences in my life with such clarity and vividness that it is like I am living them again or almost so.
  • I like to watch cloud shapes change in the sky.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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