Tulpas – The latest thinking about thought forms from Stanford

Anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann gave a  preview of soon-to-appear psychological research in an interview with Jill Wolfson, which is featured in the current issue of Stanford University’s alumni magazine,


Based on her guarded description, Professor Lurhmann’s experimental work contributes to a venerable series of investigations into what may be a  shared basis for vivid religious, paranormal and psychological depth experiences.

Luhrmann has already published a book about her field work with a group of American Christians, When God Talks Back. Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God  (Knopf, 2012). Seeking to experience her subjects’ sense of having a “real, personal and intimate” relationship with God, Luhrmann immersed herself in their style of prayer. As Wolfson describes it,

Luhrmann’s provocative theory is that the church teaches pray-ers to use their minds differently than they do in everyday life. They begin by holding conversations with God in their heads, modeled on the kind of chummy conversations they’d have with their best friends. As they talk to Him, tell Him about their problems and imagine His wise counsel and loving response, they are training their thoughts, much as people use weights to train their muscles. The church encourages them to tune into sounds, images and feelings that are louder or more intense or more unfamiliar or more powerful—and to interpret these internal cues as the external voice of God.

This variety of contemplation is called kataphatic. There is conscious engagement with words and images relevant to the object of contemplation. This is opposed to an apophatic style, for example, a mantra meditation, where the focus is on the repetition of the mantra, not developing its images. Carl Jung’s active imagination is kataphatic; Herbert Benson’s method for eliciting the relaxation response is apophatic.

Luhrmann was already experienced in kataphatic mental exercise. For her dissertation work on the culture of modern witches in the United Kingdom, Luhrmann had also practiced their mental disciplines. Luhrmann describes this earlier work in an essay entitled “Magic,” (link updated July 2015)


To understand how they came to believe in magic, I joined their groups. I read their books and novels. I practiced their techniques and I participated in their rituals.

For the most part, the rituals depended on techniques of the imagination. You shut your eyes, and saw with your mind’s eye the story told by the leader of the group.

In the late afternoons, I practiced these techniques following the instructions I was given. Here is an example from one of my early lessons (with credit to one of my early teachers, Marian Greene), which I did, in some form, for thirty minutes a day for nine months:

Work through these exercises, practicing one of them for a few minutes each day, either before or after your meditation session.

1. Stand up and examine the room in which you are working. Turn a full circle, scanning the room. Now sit down, close the eyes and build the room in the imagination. Note where the memory or visualizing power fails. At the end of the exercise briefly re-examine the room and check your accuracy. Note the results in your diary.

2. Carefully visualize yourself leaving the room in which you are working, going for a short walk you know well, and returning to your room. Note clarity, breaks in concentration, etc, as you did before.

3. Go for an imaginary walk. An imaginary companion, human or animal, can accompany you. Always start and finish the walk in the room that you use for the exercises. Note the results, etc, as before.

4. Build up in your imagination a journey from your current physical plane home to your ideal room. Start the journey in real surrounds then gradually make the transition to the imaginary journey by any means you wish. Make the journey to and from the room until it is entirely familiar..

Did the magic work? Luhrmann thought she improved her skills of using mental imagery, that her concentration had improved, and that her real senses were more “alive.” She also reports having awoken one morning to a  vision of six druids gathering outside her upper-story window, the morning after she had read about Arthurian Britain and the ancient Celts. Compare, perhaps, Jung’s visit from a crowd of spirits which precipitated his writing Seven Sermons to the Dead (in the “Confrontations with the Unconscious” chapter of Memories, Dreams, Reflections).

Experiments: meeting God and Leland Stanford, Jr.

To test whether techniques like those used by the magicians would work similarly with her Christians, Luhrmann devised an experiment which she describes in her book. One group listened to daily half-hour recorded lectures about the Gospels. The treatment group also listened to recordings, but theirs invited them to imagine interacting with God, talking with Jesus, and imagining a Bible passage vividly. The results were parallel to what Luhrmann reported of herself in her “Magic” essay quoted above, including that the treatment group reported more “unusual sensory expereince” than the controls,

And now for the as yet unpublished part. A colleague asked Luhrmann whether similar results might be observed with a different object of contemplation. Instead of God, what if subjects were asked to imagine a personal relationship with Leland Stanford, Jr., the Nineteenth Century railroad tycoon and benefactor for whom the University is named?

There should be no suspense about the answer. Napoleon Hill wrote about his imaginary conjuring of historical figures (Think and Grow Rich, chapter 14). He made himself a board of not one, but nine, counselors such as Lincoln and Emerson, with whom he held nightly sessions.

After a while, Hill became anxious that the imagined meetings were so realistic, and each participant seemed so individual and autonomous, that he would lose sight that the meetings were imaginary. So, Hill stopped, until one night Abraham Lincoln appeared at Hill’s bedside, and urged him to resume. Hill wasn’t sure the next morning whether Lincoln’s appearance was a dream or a waking vision, but whichever it was, it was a vivid experience. Hill not only promptly resumed the meetings, but added more historical figures to the original nine.

Wolfson describes Luhrmann’s experiment and its outcome.

Luhrmann made audio tracks similar to the ones that she used in her evangelical study, and Stanford undergraduate volunteers were invited to listen and use their inner attention to “experience” Leland. She’s uneasy saying much about this experiment, its results not published. But some students did report uncanny experiences “and some of them reported seeing young Leland and feeling that he spoke back.” Something about created inner dialogue is obviously “very, very powerful.”

Tulpas and Philips

Luhrmann’s results, then, appear to add to the documentation of a human capacity to experience imagined people and other beings as vivid presences who act and speak autonomously. A generic term for such imagined beings is the Tibetan word, tulpa, which entered Western languages through the travelogues of Alexandra David-Neel. Her 1929 Magic and Mystery in Tibet tells of both native Tibetan versions of autonomous thought forms, and her own fruitful experimentation based on Buddhist practices. David-Neel’s experiments were roughly contemporary with Jung’s Philemon era.

Experimental investigations of the phenomenon notably include the “Philip Experiments.” In Toronto beginning during 1972, a small group headed by Alan Robert George Owen (then on hiatus from an academic career in genetics and statistics) invented a fictitious Seventeenth Century Englishman, Philip Aylesford, and then set out to “contact” him.


A brief television documentary segment was made of the group


Unsurprisingly, the emphasis in the video is on photogenic “table tipping,” probably an “ideomotor” effect,  which is movement of the participants’ voluntary musculature without conscious awareness or with misestimation of the force, direction, terminal position, etc. of the movement. On the other hand, a little fortuitous physical manifestation is never out of place when thought forms visit. In Jung’s report of the gathering of the spirits, for example, there was “frantic” ringing of the doorbell just before the spirits arrived, with nobody visible at the door.

The original Philip experiment inspired a number of replications, with different imaginary targets, and variations in protocol. For example, there are versions where the participants didn’t create the target, but were simply issued a fictitious biography and set to work conjuring as a class project. The phenomenon of the participants’ eventually having some vivid experience related to the target seems reliable. That reliability cannot be a complete surprise, since there is a long-time strong-selling consumer product with similar features, the Ouija board.

There is an obvious anecdotal quality to so much of this existing evidence. While there are questions where, contrary to proverb, the plural of anecdote really is evidence, it is welcome to see a new controlled experiment performed by a scholar working at an elite institution, tied directly into investigations of other aspects of the phenomenon.

Update: The experiment with religious subjects has been published in T.M. Luhrmann, H. Nusbaum and R. Thisted, “‘Lord, teach us to pray’: Prayer practice affects cognitive processing,”  J. Cognition & Culture 13, 159-177, 2013. The paper is available free online here (link updated July 2015):


The visualization of Leland Stanfod, Jr, has apparently become a regular undergraduate teaching excercise.  From T.M. Luhrmann, “Response,” Spiritus 13, 1, 138-140, Spring 2013:

I train my undergraduates in a-theological prayer techniques, and now they report the presence of young Leland Stanford Junior, dead these hundred years. He sat at the foot of the bed of one of my undergraduates, and soothed her back to sleep.

This artcle is no longer avaible free online, but may be free to many readers using library access:




Filed under Psychology

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