Out of Thin Air: Why People Are More Plastic Than You Think

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Note: Names and identifying details have been changed heavily to protect anonymity.

If you talked to other people, they’d say she made friends with the wrong person. That she did something she shouldn’t have. That, if given the chance, she should take it back, retrace her steps, and stop what she did.

Yet, she wouldn’t say that. She’s young, 17, quiet, open, and in high school.

It starts when Sam starts thinking.

When you and I think, a basic pattern emerges: An image of a cheeseburger floats in my head, I engage with the thought, and then — it’s gone. It either ends with me biting into a cheeseburger, or me crying softly in my sleep. Yet, when Sam starts, it’s at 17 that her thinking became a little different.

Sam would imagine a wise, young girl. The girl was courteous, polite, and probably had a curtsy that would make the Queen of England resign. Over a period of months, Sam, in her head, built the scaffolding.

Between a flurry of physics and teachers and instruments and crushes, she edited. Again and again, she’d conjure up the mental image, talk to it, ask it questions, sharpen the features, change the mannerisms, and tweak the qualities. Sam was in the business of editing a human being.

Months in, she changes her mind. She imagines someone else, and for months, tweaks again like a sculptor. More classes, more physics, and Sam is tweaking, tinkering, tailoring.

That’s when it happens. Sam is at the grocery store. She’s working her shift, stacking bread, when she hears it: someone crying.

“I thought it might’ve been a baby in one of the aisles,” Sam begins.

But it wasn’t. It was a teenage boy with red hair and red flannel. He felt and looked real in the same way that a cheeseburger — lovingly wrapped, cheese melted just perfectly — looks real.

Yet, this is the difference: the boy wasn’t real. No one but Sam could see him. And for Sam, this was all part of the plan. She was the conductor, building to her crescendo. Except, she didn’t know when the final note would drop. She just knew that it would.

A couple days later, Sam names him. We’ll call him Argo, and before we go any further, I’d like to point something out.

This makes no fucking sense.

 

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Just how malleable are our minds? How suggestible are they to change?

To understand Sam, you need to understand Tanya Luhrmann — a psychological anthropologist. She’s smarter than all of my Indian ancestry combined, and she wrote a lovely paper about something she saw. It starts with this: many religious people say they have a relationship with God.

Yet, there’s a very real difference between reporting you have a relationship with God, and actually hearing the voice of God in your head. Her research (nor this article) doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not God is real, but what Luhrmann focuses on, is this: why do some people hear voices, and others don’t? Luhrmann interviewed multiple churchgoers:

“When I was starting to be a Christain,” one man said, “people would be like, so what’s God saying to you? And I’m like, heck, I don’t know.”

Another man, trying to explain his relationship with God:

“It’s a different sort of voice. I mean, I know my own voice. If I thought of your voice I would think of how your voice sounds, and if I think of my voice I think of how it sounds, even if I’m not hearing anything. It’s a different tone of voice.”

A few of the people Luhrmann interviewed felt like the relationship with God wasn’t exactly all swing dancing and jazz hands:

“I don’t have these super powerful experiences that make me fall to my knees,” one congregant said.

This, of course, is expected. But there’s another case. Here, pulled straight from her study¹, are people who heard something else:

Congregant 1: “I was walking up the lake and down the lake and I was like, should I go home now? And he [God] is like, “sit and listen.”
Ethnographer: “Did you hear that outside your head or inside your head?”
Congregant 1: “That’s hard to tell, but in this instance it really felt like it was outside.”
Ethnographer: “How many times do you think you’ve heard his voice outside your head?”
Congregant 1: “Two or three.”

And another:

Congregant 2: “I remember praying for a job and I interviewed and I didn’t know whether I was going to take it or not. Then when I was cleaning out my room, I heard a voice say, “that’s not the one.” And then I said, what? I looked around, and I’m like, maybe that’s someone outside. Then I realized: I clearly heard God say, “that’s not the one.” I have no doubt in my mind that it was God.”

So why did Sam see Argo and the congregants hear God?

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To understand Sam and to understand the congregants, you need to understand an idea in evolutionary psychology called agent detection.

When I was a kid, I saw something I shouldn’t have.

It was a man — black shirt, black pants, black ski mask — who walked into a house. It was night time. The door of one of the bedrooms creaks open — he props up a shotgun — and points it at a kid, sleeping. He waits a second and — bang — the shotgun goes off.

The bad news is that I never forgot this. The good news is that I saw all of this on a TV show.

Yet, that didn’t stop the desperate pleading that convinced my parents to get an ADT security system. It’s the system that, if one dish breaks, the system will assume you’ve been shot by seven people, and call 911 on your behalf. A man came to our house and installed the system. My parents wrote him a check.

It didn’t stop me from imagining. A creak in the stairs was a lone gunman. The deafening silence was another lone gunman. A small gush of wind was a third. And by the time I was ready to fall asleep, there were probably ten gunmen in my mind, all with a concordant plot to shoot me in the face.

This idea, of course — the idea that we imagine people to be there when they aren’t — shares its roots in the evolutionary idea of agent detection. Psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner write: “The high cost of failing to detect agents and the low cost of wrongly detecting them has led researchers to suggest that people possess a Hyperactive Agent Detection Device…”² Meaning — if it’s 2 million years ago, you’re on your own, and in the silence, you hear something, it’s in your interest to assume that there’s an agent (a lion, a bear, ten gunmen, etc.) that’ll rip your face in half, even though it’s probably just the wind. The cost of you feeling afraid for a few minutes is much less than the cost of you getting mauled by a bear, and therefore, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Yet, while agent detection partially explains our fine-tuned ability to imagine people who aren’t there, it doesn’t completely explain why Sam saw Argo and the congregants heard God. Because imagining a deadly agent, and seeing that agent right in front of you, are qualitatively two different things.

I left one little detail out.

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Sam is now 18. She considers herself friends with Argo. Argo is her confidant, her gatekeeper, her best friend. And she’s driving home from school, when, to her peripheral, she sees someone she forgot.

“She was on the brink of falling out of my memory,” Sam recalls, “and she was making a last ditch attempt to reach out to me in order to survive.”

It was the girl. Wise, dignified, and “trapped”.

Technically, this is a “hallucination”¹. Through agent detection we’re predisposed, through natural selection, to see and imagine things that aren’t there. But, here’s where it gets weird: what if you practiced to give yourself a hallucination? What if you could practice to hear God?

When Sam edits a human being, she’s treating the sensations in her head in a very specific way — a way that you and I don’t. There’s a difference between treating a mental image as real, and treating a mental image as simply a mental image.

Sam, through months of what Luhrmann calls practice, acted as if the person she wanted in her head was as real as her mother. It was months later that for Sam, that person came to life.

Most churchgoers who wanted a closer relationship to God would simply reinterpret their lives through scripture¹. Yet others did the opposite: they tried more fervently than others to tune in¹. Through months of training, Luhrmann says, the ones with both practice and proclivity did it: the voice of God appeared in their heads. They did it through absorption:

“What does God’s voice sound like? It takes practice. There were times when I just sat back and I was like, okay guys, I don’t hear anything. … [Then] I felt like I was starting to hear from him more.¹”

When you’re reading a book and you’re carried away by the story, that’s a form of light absorption. When you’re watching a movie, everything melts away, and it’s just you and the characters, that’s a form of light absorption. It’s the idea that our heads gets “caught up in ideas or images or fascinations”¹ that we pull them into.

Now imagine going deeper. You treat the characters in the movie as if they were real. Your “sense of time and agency begin to shift.”¹ And down the continuum, “more imagery and more sensory phenomena, sometimes with hallucinatory vividness”¹ start happening. Then, after a breaking point, you slip into a “sensory override”¹.

Your brain acts as if it’s real. Reality starts to bend, and you too, bend with it.

 

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These are rare cases, and they’re non-normative. For Luhrmann’s study, the sample size was — unsurprisingly — small. Hallucinations are complicated.

But, to make a point: I remember once walking toward a cliff. It was beautiful out, the birds were singing “Take Me Home Tonight” by Eddie Money, and I edged closer to the cliff. My insides started to solidify.

Placed firmly on the edge itself, my chest dropped straight to my stomach. A thought popped into my head.

Jump.

I’m willing to bet you’ve had a similar experience, whether it’s “jump” or “RKO your mother-in-law in front of the entire family”.

Sometimes, when your head says things you don’t like, you freak out, remember Freud, and realize that the reason this all happened — in reality — was because you really just wanted to kill your dad and have sex with your mother. Thank god I figured it all out.

Yet, empirically, Freud isn’t right, and to psychologists Daniel Wegner and Jonathan Haidt, thoughts are “random associations” that are just that — random associations³. The content might’ve been scary and shameful and that’s why it stuck, but it’s not because you’re Oedipus Rex or you’re harboring deep, dark inclinations to RKO your relatives at the next available opportunity.

It’s how we think about the thoughts that sneak into our head, that matters. I remember afterwards thinking: what did it mean? Why did I think that? Do I really want to jump off of cliffs? It made no sense, especially given the fact that, for what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of jumping off of cliffs.

Yet, how seriously we treat a thought or how seriously we don’t, is highly variable from person to person. And to add — the atmosphere of the mind itself might be more subject to change than we think.

After a specific age, our views solidify and our intellectual habits get rusty. Some people — like the adage goes — don’t change. But framed within this claim, is the incomplete picture.

I have a feeling people are more plastic than we think. Some meditate everyday and become quieter. Some practice Tennis and become stressed. Some write and become angry.

And some — a rare few — are so plastic that they can hear crying in grocery aisle 4, just because they wanted to.


 

Special thanks to Kevin Sanji, Vysali Soundararajan, and Justine Brumm for providing feedback over this piece.

 

References

  1. Luhrmann, T. M., Nusbaum, H., & Thisted, R. (2010). The absorption hypothesis: learning to hear God in evangelical Christianity. American Anthropologist112(1), 66–78.
  2. Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Blaming God for our pain: Human suffering and the divine mind. Personality and Social Psychology Review14(1), 7–16.
  3. Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Basic Books.
  4. Varieties of Tulpa Experiences: Sentient Imaginary Friends, Embodied Joint Attention, and Hypnotic Sociality in a Wired World | Somatosphere. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://somatosphere.net/2015/04/varieties-of-tulpa-experiences-sentient-imaginary-friends-embodied-joint-attention-and-hypnotic-sociality-in-a-wired-world.html
Mohnish SoundararajanWriting