Tanya Luhrmann is one of the most interesting scholars I’ve ever encountered. Dr. Luhrmann is an anthropology professor at Stanford who actually sits at the juncture of anthropology and psychology. She uses anthropological research in order to examine how people’s minds work. Her work is very unique – I’ve never found anyone quite like her.
I have interviewed her twice in recent months, once for the live audio social media app Clubhouse, and once when I guest hosted the Classical Ideas podcast (you can listen to my interview of her here).
Luhrmann’s academic (and I think personal) journey began when she embedded herself in a neopagan community in Britain as part of her doctoral studies. While taking part in neopagan community and engaging in daily recommended practices, she began to have very unusual experiences. One morning she woke up to find Druids at her window. They were there, clear as day, until they suddenly disappeared. (I open the podcast by asking her about this).
I don’t want to give away her insights but she used these changes in her experience and her later research with charismatic Christians in the United States to ask questions about these “anomalous” encounters and what they had to say about the nature of our minds.
I think many of us (myself included) see peoples’ diverse responses to religion as depending on how folks interpret their experiences – is this amazing thing that happened to you just a coincidence or is the universe or God telling you something? Luhrmann’s great insight was to realize (and then show using a really brilliant iPod experiment) that engaging in different practices can change not only your interpretations…but actually cause truly different experiences. You can, in short, alter what your mind encounters.
Can everyone do this? Perhaps not: she shows how this “skill” is a combination of both talent and training (like any other skill). Some of her subjects can have these experiences easily while others, despite trying for years, seem unable to find success.
In her more recent work, she brought in cross cultural comparisons to see what impact it would have if one were situated in the USA versus India versus Ghana. She found cultural impacts were real – people in certain cultures will be more likely to have such anomalous experiences and that the nature of the encounters often differs. To give just one example, American Pentecostals often encounter God speaking to them casually as a best friend whereas in Ghana, God speaks with authority and gives orders.
Luhrmann’s final insight is that these encounters lead people into relationships with invisible others. Relationships change us. They are a key part of overcoming trauma, often seen as the central feature in personal happiness, and here are shown to lead to all sorts of gains in both physical and mental health. One of her takeaways is that religions work for people. They bring solace and comfort, ease loneliness and help them overcome heartache. She argues that we focus so much on belief (is religion true or false) and not enough on its effect (does it work or not). Perhaps religion, she posits, is less philosophical and more practical.
Her original book was reviewed by the New York Times and got her interviews on NPR and elsewhere. Her more recent book brings in the cross-cultural questions. You can read her work or listen to her and I talk about it. She will make you think and her work really brings home how deeply diverse we all are.