It's notoriously challenging to apply science to spirituality — to quantify the mysterious or explain the supernatural. Why do some people report being possessed by demons or recall being visited by angels? Why do others have no interest in matters of the divine?
In a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers find psychological clues that influence this divide.
According to interviews and surveys of over 2,000 people across the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu, two pivotal factors shape people's perceived experience with a spiritual presence: porosity and absorption.
Porosity refers to the degree to which people view their internal mind and the outside world as permeable, while absorption references how much individuals tend to "lose themselves" in sensory experiences. These factors can predict whether a person is likely to report vivid experiences with gods or spirits.
"What we experience is shaped by how we pay attention," study co-author Tanya Luhrmann tells Inverse. Luhrmann is a medical and psychological anthropologist at Stanford University.
"Our pattern of paying attention really does affect what comes to feel real."
Whether a message from God or a sign from the heavens truly exists isn't addressed in the study. Instead, researchers tracked the spiritual experiences of individuals and found cultural perceptions shape whether people feel they live in a world of angels and demons or not. A propensity for porosity and absorption, meanwhile, is often influenced by these cultural perceptions.
The mind sculpts our experiences while culture sculpts the mind, study co-author Kara Weisman tells Inverse. Weisman is a psychology researcher at Stanford University.
"Whether it's the voice of God or the more ordinary aspects of mental life, our experiences are always being filtered through our minds and, by extension, through our cultures," Weisman says.
Documenting spirituality — While profound spiritual experiences — like hearing the voice of God — are seemingly extraordinary, they are also surprisingly common, according to social scientists. According to a 2009 poll, 49 percent of Americans report having at least one spiritual experience in their lifetime, defined as a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening."
"These experiences are not just stuff that pious people say."
Despite their prevalence, what actually causes these experiences and drives some to report divine encounters is poorly understood by scientists.
Luhrmann says the "elusive" nature of these experiences is partly to blame. Data is typically spiritual memories provided by study participants, and self-reported data is subject to biases and limitations.
What's new — To pinpoint the possible factors driving divine encounters, the team conducted four studies including 2,356 people across a range of cultures and faiths in the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu.
Over the course of the three-year research project, people across five distinct cultures and a range of religious practices were asked about their spiritual experiences and they view their minds via written surveys and in-person interviews.
The team asked questions about anomalous events, both spiritual and not, such as a voice heard when alone, something seen not materially present, or voices of a spirit spoken audibly or experienced in the mind.
"These experiences are not just stuff that pious people say," Luhrmann says. "These are real events that behave in patterned ways, and some people have more of them than others."
Digging into the details — The researchers also designed questionnaires to capture people's levels of porosity and absorption.
In the study, absorption refers to an individual’s personal tendency to be engrossed in sensory or imagined events. People with a greater capacity for absorption tend to “lose themselves” a song, movie, or other sensory experiences, and are capable of conjuring vividly imagined events, the authors explain.
It's an "immersive style of attention," where people often use their imagination to understand something beyond the present, to watch for signs of the presence of a being that cannot be seen — therefore constructing a supernatural event, often subconsciously.
Porosity is the idea that the boundary between “the mind” and “the world” is permeable. In practice, people who view the world through the lens of porosity believe their wishes or curses might come true — or strong emotions might linger in a room to affect others.
In different contexts, the researchers worked with local leaders of faith affiliated Methodism in the United States, African traditional religion in Ghana, Buddhism in Thailand and urban China, spirit mediumship in rural China, Presbyterianism in urban Vanuatu, and ancestral “kastom” practices in rural Vanuatu.
They also worked with faith leaders of evangelical Christianity, the fastest-growing religion in the world. Evangelical Christianity has relatively consistent theology and practices across different settings. These faith leaders represented various countries: United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu.
All the faith leaders helped recruit study participants. The team also recruited study participants in public places and university campuses.
What was discovered — The team pinpointed porosity and absorption as strong predictors of spiritual presence events, regardless of people's religion or community.
This link was replicated three times in the various studies and across cultures and religions, lending strength to the results.
Across the results, participants in relatively more secular settings like the United States and urban China reported fewer spiritual presence events.
Meanwhile, participants in less secular settings like Ghana or Vanuatu reported more of these divine encounters. Charismatic evangelical Christians in all countries also reported more of these encounters with gods or spirits.
A similar pattern emerged for porosity: participants in Ghana, Vanuatu, and Thailand generally maintained more porous models of the "mind–world boundary." Participants in the United States and urban China viewed the mind and world as more divided and distinct.
There wasn't a clear association for absorption, suggesting this factor varies from individual to individual, rather than differs primarily from culture to culture.
Supernatural science— Together, porosity and absorption appear to shape how people interpret and engage with their own inner lives as "more vivid, material, and potent," the authors say. This propensity then increases the likelihood of experiencing a divine encounter.
"Of course, this is no proof of God’s realness — but these events are often very powerful for those who feel them," Luhrmann says.
Neither factor is the same as religion. Rather, porosity and absorption may be part of the "scaffolding on which religions build."
Years ago, Luhrmann observed this finding first hand when she was studying a charismatic Christian church that was teaching people to experience God in their minds.
"When people experience God vividly, they are more likely to feel that God is real," Luhrmann says. "That’s why revivals that teach people to feel God are often so effective."
People are also likelier to experience supernatural encounters not only when they believe in God, but when they imagine their minds in a certain way. It’s "not just about the church," Lurhmann says.
Ultimately, both absorption and porosity in effect "blur the boundary between inner mental events and an outer world," the team writes in the study.
Whether or not any spiritual event can or can't be "proven" by science is besides this study's point. "These are human experiences, whether or not they tell us about ultimate reality," Luhrmann says.
There are still leaps and bounds needed before scientists begin to fully grasp divine intervention. This study does suggest it is possible to stretch science to explain the supernatural, even if we're left with more questions than answers.
Abstract: Hearing the voice of God, feeling the presence of the dead, being possessed by a demonic spirit—such events are among the most remarkable human sensory experiences. They change lives and in turn shape history. Why do some people report experiencing such events while others do not? We argue that experiences of spiritual presence are facilitated by cultural models that represent the mind as “porous,” or permeable to the world, and by an immersive orientation toward inner life that allows a person to become “absorbed” in experiences. In four studies with over 2,000 participants from many religious traditions in the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu, porosity and absorption played distinct roles in determining which people, in which cultural settings, were most likely to report vivid sensory experiences of what they took to be gods and spirits.