This post is part of Patheos’s book club for T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. I recieved a review copy free of charge.
This was a fascinating book to read right on the heels of Thinking Fast and Slow, because both books seemed to be mostly about changing our intuitions and heuristics. Luhrmann is embedded in a charismatic sect of Christianity. No snake-handling, but plenty of two-way dialogue with Jesus and what Luhrmann calls ‘sensory overrides’ that might more commonly be called hallucinations.
The visions and auditory overrides don’t come unprompted. Luhrmann describes a variety of techniques that parishoners use to be more open to hearing God. Believers are encourage to keep a prayer journal and organizing it into their own pleas and God’s replies. One of the four keys in a prayer guide Luhrmann reads recommends “writing down the dialogue so it appears real to you.”
Members of this church also practice focused visualization exercises, imagining themselves as witness to the Gospels or at dinner with Christ and trying to feel what they would have felt. The deliberate cultivation of brushes with the divine reminds Luhrmann of psychotherapy — the goal is to remap your emotional responses. And it tends to work.
After living with these charismatic Christians, Luhrmann did an empirical study where she assigned Christian to one of three prayer practices: kataphatic (intense, focused visualization of the Gospels), listening to academic discussion of the New Testament, and centering prayer (listening to pink noise while focusing on a particular world or phrase). The people in the kataphatic group did report that their mental imagery (in prayer and elsewhere) had gotten sharper and they were most likely to be excited about their practice and to report sensory overrides that seemed to come from God. (And one person in the kataphatic group said the prayer tapes cured her acne.)
These results couldn’t be a surprise to Luhrmann. After all, in a previous research project, she had been following Wiccan visualization exercises and had a visual sensory override where she ‘saw’ a group of Druids in her house. This vision felt indistinguishable from normal sensory perception. After reading the book, I’m pretty confident that Luhrmann’s found and formalized a sensory feedback loop that has the power to change our perceptions.
Now, as a transhumanist, I’m really interested in how people decide when it’s appropriate to use a feedback loop to hack their brain in the first place. The parishioners Luhrmann interviews seem to have made a deliberate choice to alter themselves and their minds, in conformance with what God wants for them. These prayer practices let them short-circuit their thought process — it’s the same kind of tactics I might use to subvert an inaccurate intuition or a cognitive behavioral therapist might use with a patient to alter a habit.
The trouble with these feedback loops is that we’d don’t know for sure whether they’re right, we just know that they work. And signing on to change your mind this way will make it harder to change it back or recognize that you’re wrong. How confident should you be before you start trying to hack your intuitions?
Some intuition subversions are easy to justify, you can just do the math out on the Monty Hall problem and realize you’ve been thinking about it wrong. In other cases, aggregated data might teach you that most people who think they’re an exception to a moral rule are wrong and you should be really suspicious of those thoughts. These seem like sufficient reasons to kill (or maim) your ordinary ways of thinking, but I don’t think the charismatic prayer clears those hurdles.
What criteria/data make it less dangerous to change your thinking than to remain as you are?
Is kataphatic prayer or meditation only an unreasonable gamble for skeptics? If you believe in God is the marginal harm a lot lower?
What other kinds of feedback loops work even if you know you’re trying to hack yourself?
Patheos will be hosting a live chat with the author on Friday, April 27th at 2pm EST.