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Hearing Voices Across Cultures: From the Voice of God to the Voices of Psychosis

Date and Time: 
Friday, December 2, 2016. 04:00 PM - 06:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Stanford Humanities Center Board Room
Workshop: 
The Material Imagination: Sound, Space, and Human Consciousness
Meeting Description: 

This talk makes the argument that the way people think about thinking shapes the way they experience the voices of invisible others, both in the case of hearing God, and in case of hearing the voices associated with psychosis. I begin with a project comparing the way people in similar churches in the Bay Area, Accra and Chennai—churches where people expect to hear God speak back—actually do experience God’s voice. I find that these congregants hear God speak differently, to some extent. They seem to have different patterns of intense spiritual experience, and to represent God in somewhat different ways. I argue that this is not because of theological differences, but because different emphases in attending to mental events actually alter the kind of unusual events people experience. I call these differences different local “theories” of mind. I then go on to compare the way people with psychosis hear invisible others in the Bay Area, in Accra and Chennai. I find that what they hear differs in ways that resonate with the differences in the way people hear God speak. The way we think about our minds affects the way we pay attention, and that changes what we hear. But perhaps the most striking observation is that this experience of hearing invisible others is not, in fact, rare. Humans hear voices far more often than most of us imagine.

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor in the Stanford Anthropology Department. Her books include Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, (Harvard, 1989); The Good Parsi (Harvard 1996); Of Two Minds (Knopf 2000) and When God Talks Back (Knopf 2012). In general, her work focuses on the way that ideas held in the mind come to seem externally real to people, and the way that ideas about the mind affect mental experience. One of her recent project compares the experience of hearing distressing voices in India and in the United States.

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