Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths

Tanya Marie Luhrmann* (Corresponding Author), Kara Weisman, Felicity Aulino, Joshua D. Brahinsky, John C. Dulin, Vivian A. Dzokoto, Cristine H. Legare, Michael Lifshitz, Emily Ng, Nicole Ross-Zehndera, Rachel Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2016649118
Number of pages8
Issue number5
Early online date25 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank the research teams and participants in each field site (see extended Acknowledgments in SI Appendix) and Hazel Markus and Ann Taves. This material is based on work supported by John Templeton Foundation Grant 55427. K.W. was also supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (DGE-114747) and a William R. & Sara Hart Kimball Stanford Graduate Fellowship.

Data Availability Statement

This article contains supporting information online at doi:10.1073/pnas.2016649118/-/DCSupplemental.
All study data are included in the article and/or supporting information.


  • religion
  • porosity
  • absorption
  • spiritual experience
  • voices


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