Bioethics Blogs

Varieties of Tulpa Experiences: Sentient Imaginary Friends, Embodied Joint Attention, and Hypnotic Sociality in a Wired World by Samuel Veissière

“The intention to know”, from Annie Besant & C. W. Leadbeater (1901) Thought-Forms. London: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Introduction

This article presents a summary and discussion of key findings from ten months of experimental cyberethnography among tulpamancers.[i] Tulpas, a term reportedly borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism, are imaginary companions who are said to have achieved full sentience after being conjured through ‘thought-form’ meditative practice. Human ‘hosts’, or tulpamancers, mediate their practice through open-ended how-to guides and discussion forums on the Internet and experience their Tulpas as semi-permanent auditory and somatic hallucinations.

Studying Tulpas and their hosts is fascinating on many counts, not least because it provides an opportunity to observe an emerging culture and the mediation of new kinds of persons – in this case, that of multiple humanoid and non-human persons ‘hosted’ in single bodies and a large-scale sociocultural matrix of ‘healing’ generated without physical interaction between members. As an anthropologist who underwent retraining in cognitive science, however, I am less concerned with the seemingly ‘strange’ and ‘exotic’ aspects of Tulpamancy and am most interested in what the practice can reveal about fundamentally human mechanisms and processes. Thus, I seek to investigate (but in no pre-determined order) how neurocognitive, attentional, and narrative processes invariably shape all forms of sociality and experiences of personhood on the one hand, but also how social, political, and technological processes invariably shape mechanisms of attention, cognition, and perception. I gravitate toward sociocognitive, enactive models of hypnosis as ways of mediating sociality and personhood.

My investigation is grounded in the study of interactions between environment, cognition, and culture.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.