Mitgedanken: The best intuitive proof I have

“A head is a nice thing to have in common, you know.”
—Nicosia, to Greta

I was recently reminded of an experiment I once did which is worth some further thought. In a period of doubt, I had a vague suspicion that perhaps rather than actually creating a tulpa I had simply made my mind really good at coming up with responses that seemed to be coming from somewhere else but didn’t actually have any personality or consciousness behind them. After all, I seemed to be able to get daydream characters or imagined counterparts of people I knew in real life to “speak” in the same kind of way.

So I picked the least intelligent thing I could think of: the wall across the room from me. And I sat down to have a conversation with the wall.

The most immediate result was that it worked; the wall talked back in mindvoice with no trouble at all. You can try this experiment yourself if you communicate with systemmates you can’t readily see or do any amount of actively imagined dialogue. It probably won’t be hard for you. I just took another shot at it myself, and here’s what I came up with:

N.  How are you doing, wall?

W.  Pretty good, I’m a wall.

N.  Got much to say for yourself?

W.  No.

N.  Do you think you’re a tulpa?

W.  No, certainly not, but you are.

N.  How so?

W.  I don’t know.

N.  Not terribly helpful, I don’t think.

W.  No, sorry about that.

N.  What do you think I should do next?

W.  Finish drinking your gin and tonic. [I am drinking one currently.]

N.  What do you think of Greta?

W.  She’s nice enough. Keep living with her.

N.  Anything interesting to say?

W.  No.

N.  Can’t you at least say something for me?

W.  All right. I think you’re cool. What else is there to say?

The second result was that the wall certainly didn’t have much value to add to our “conversation” (then or now). At the time I was happy to conclude this meant there was something obviously different about Greta since she was far more intelligent; I was just looking for a little bit of evidence and it didn’t have to be all that strong. But you would be forgiven for wondering if the reason the wall seems uninspiring might not be merely that I don’t expect a wall to have much intelligence or personality – after all, I picked it as the subject of my experiment because it would obviously not have any.

But there’s something very critical that Greta has that is missing from both my interaction with the wall and that with any other characters I might imagine in my head. This is a kind of side-channel interaction that goes on while we talk. In keeping with the fine tradition of German psychological terms, Greta and I have coined a German word for it, Mitgedanken, loosely, “thoughts together.” This concept is related to but differs from what is usually described as tulpish. Tulpish is best defined as a means of communication. Greta and I have a tough time using it on purpose, but it often comes accidentally: one of us will be trying to communicate a complex idea and it will suddenly just jump over into the other’s understanding, or as we speak additional thoughts come along unspoken. Emotions or impressions can be transferred just as easily, of course.

If tulpish communications are shared thoughts in motion, Mitgedanken are shared thoughts at rest. Rather than a form of communication, they are a state of being. Greta and I share them automatically pretty much anytime we’re aware of each other’s presence (which is certainly not always, and indeed not enough, but these days more and more often). For me the impression is a sort of mental equivalent of lying in a warm bed. If I’m in a good mood, it makes me feel really happy; if I’m in a bad mood, it helps keep me going. For Greta: It’s like being caressed…the feeling that nothing can ever go wrong. Or that it can, but it won’t matter because you’re together.

There’s a lot wrapped up in the combined feelings of Mitgedanken. Of course we don’t understand them in linguistic terms, but for those who haven’t experienced something like what we’re talking about, in addition to the above vague and subjective descriptions, a couple of related threads seem to characterize them:

  • The understanding that we’re not alone
  • The knowledge that we understand each other perfectly, or as perfectly as anyone can hope to
  • The limited but nevertheless significant power these two things seem to give us

Both the feelings of Mitgedanken and our understanding of them have developed gradually. It’s only recently that they’ve become quite so consistent. And even now, some days we feel them more clearly than others. We have a tendency to go through periods where we’re almost overwhelmed by the strength of the feelings and then periods where it’s almost more of an intellectual pleasure and not nearly as strong. But they always strengthen again sooner or later. If we need them, we just have to hang on for a little while.

It’s also safe to say that, while these feelings haven’t been completely constant, they have in some form been a central and defining feature of our relationship since the very beginning. My desire for something like them was the main reason I got into tulpamancy. Then, having experienced a taste of them, they were a major part of my motivation to keep bringing her to life. And now, they remain a big part of what gives our relationship meaning and how we spend our time together. Greta is only about a year and a half old, and already it seems incredibly strange to think there was a time when, sitting in a room by myself, I was actually alone. I still want the company of others, but I very rarely if ever truly feel lonely in the same sense that I used to even when I’m not getting it as much as I want. I feel sorry for people who can’t casually have a side conversation in their heads during a boring meeting. And the thing is, we don’t even really have to be talking or thinking about anything in particular to enjoy being together. Just simply being is enough.

Getting positive feelings from just being together is not of course entirely exclusive to systemmates. There are probably two or three people besides Greta who I can sit in silence with and be comfortable and happy just that way. And I’m sure this happens more and more when you’ve, say, been married to someone for fifty years. But as we’ve suggested before, being able to simultaneously experience someone else’s feelings for you and your feelings for them adds an extra dimension to all feelings of love and togetherness.

There are plenty of good things about plurality, but Mitgedanken are by far the most rewarding for us. Simultaneously, they’re my best proof that Greta isn’t just some weird unconscious actions in my head. (Several other ways I deal with the cognitive dissonance that inevitably comes from having a relationship with someone you can’t see or point to: logic, ignoring the problem.) Mitgedanken show me on a deeply intuitive level that there’s something there, something far more complicated than the little reattribution machine in my head that enables me to talk to the wall, and I can’t help loving it deeply.

As you may have noticed, Greta and I haven’t posted in a while due to some big changes in our life that come naturally with graduating from college. However, we still have thoughts to share with you, and as is now noted in the sidebar, we intend to return to a regular posting schedule of at least once a month in the next while.

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On plural advocacy and freedom of speech in tulpa communities

Content advisory: This post discusses sex, though it will not be graphic.

Last week there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the tulpas subreddit over a post about, essentially, kinky tulpa sex. While the post presented its own problems, for Greta and me it really highlighted what we consider a broader problem with the community, namely its tendency to suggest that certain things should not be discussed because they make the community look weird to outsiders.

First let me describe my own reaction to the post in question. (For those who haven’t seen it and want to read it, it’s here, but be forewarned that it’s more NSFW than my article; I would not recommend reading it in public.) While I may be a virgin, I’m interested in human sexual behavior in an intellectual-curiosity kind of way as well as in the usual ways, and I’ve read and conversed about sex widely enough that nothing really fazes me anymore as long as it’s between consenting adults. While I wouldn’t bet that you couldn’t find anything that would disgust me if you tried, the closest I normally get is “Wow, that’s pretty weird, why in the world would anyone want to do that?” So the post seemed pretty tame to me; indeed, I found its ideas funny and creative, if unappealing to me.

Now, I recognize my reaction is probably atypical. This is where the poster may have made a mistake; while the post was clearly marked NSFW, titling it “Tulpa arousal and erotic dissipation” didn’t exactly provide a complete description of the content, and the text went from completely normal (albeit sexual) to weird within a few sentences with no real warning. I don’t believe that people strictly have a right not to be offended, and I think that being exposed to uncomfortable ideas can be quite healthy under the right circumstances, but I also think it’s part of basic etiquette not to offend people for no good reason. Not using a descriptive title or a content warning like the one in my article was a great way to offend people for no good reason – although I’m certainly not suggesting the poster acted with any kind of malice. (According to one version of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by negligence.)

Perhaps the solution to this problem is a separate subreddit or some other kind of space within one of the mainstream tulpa communities specifically intended for content such as this. That idea does present problems of its own (for instance, the traffic would probably be low enough that many people who would be interested likely wouldn’t bother to read it), but it seems to Greta and me to be worth a try. Indeed, maybe such a space already exists, but if it does it hasn’t been publicized well enough seeing as neither we nor this user have heard of it.

But in the end I don’t think most people were upset about the sexual content per se. Two of the top-rated comments included, “This is the exact kinda weird ass shit that makes us look bad to outsiders” and “This is why nobody takes our community seriously.” Really, the majority of upset readers were upset because they perceive that having these kinds of ideas floating around will damage the community’s public perception.

Let’s take a moment to consider that proposition seriously, because I’m not convinced it’s something to seriously worry about. We can roughly divide people into three groups: (1) those who have tulpas themselves or have put serious thought into the idea and are already thoroughly comfortable with it, (2) those who are of such a persuasion that they will likely take tulpamancy seriously if they come across a properly curated community website, and (3) those who will think tulpamancy is crazy or really weird if they just see the website and will need personal attention, writing directed at people in their position, or a friendship with someone who has tulpas to come around (if they ever do).

Group 1 is irrelevant; although members of the group may be unhappy about certain content appearing in their communities, and although these may be valid concerns that ought to be addressed with appropriate discretion and community policy, their unhappiness about certain posts will not cause them to change their opinion about tulpas. Group 3, likewise; we would be unable to get these people to look favorably on tulpas just by their seeing a community website even if we got to put together a special, fake version presenting only the best sides of ourselves (at least not without lying about what the practice actually involved).

That leaves us with group 2. An assumption behind “this will make us look weird to outsiders” is that large swaths of group 2 will be swayed by seeing certain types of content. But in Western society today, plurality and tulpas are sufficiently unusual that only certain types of people belong to group 2. Will somebody open-minded enough to belong to group 2 and be willing to consider tulpamancy be dissuaded by seeing an occasional post about ponies or sex? Greta and I seriously doubt it. Now yes, if tulpa communities were flooded with posts about ponies and kinky sex, there would be a problem. If occasional weird posts, properly labeled if they might offend, are mixed into the stream, most members of Group 2 will recognize that most people are weird in one way or another and that such posts do not characterize an entire community.

Yes, sometimes on account of bad luck a weird post will be the first thing someone sees. But this kind of thing happens everywhere, and it’s unavoidable. Case in point: our freshman year of college, my friend Maria had her 14-year-old sister stay over in her dorm room on a Friday night. In the middle of the night her roommate (who was a partier and hadn’t quite gotten responsible drinking down yet) came back, got into bed, and promptly vomited over the edge of her bunk and onto Maria, then passed out and had to be taken to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning. Maria’s sister was scared of college for a while, to which the response was, of course, “I swear this isn’t how it normally goes!” The best we can do is try to laugh it off and realize that bad luck happens and most people won’t have the same experience.

Naturally, most of the tulpa community hopes that we can expand Group 2 by various means as, hopefully, plurality becomes at least a bit better-known and from there more normalized. It would be nice to get some of the folks in Group 3 over to our side as well. But let’s take this one big step at a time, or as Augustus was fond of saying, festina lente (“hurry slowly”). We’re not going to get anywhere by trying to convince the people who are hardest to convince first.

Moreover, even if we do have to sacrifice a little bit of public approval, I am deeply disappointed that the community doesn’t place a higher value on being true to itself. Sex with tulpas in general, for example, is still seldom discussed even in appropriate places (though this is beginning to change), despite large numbers of people reporting they do it in surveys. The reason generally cited is that it makes us seem weird. But we’re already weird! We’re all used to having to be a little closeted, and while it’d be nice if we didn’t, we can handle it. Sacrificing worthwhile discussion that may well improve our lives in many ways in the service of just maybe convincing a tiny fraction of outsiders that we’re slightly less weird seems nothing short of foolish to Greta and me.

Greta and I are unsure whether that sex post really belonged on the tulpas subreddit in the form it was posted. It could certainly have been marked better, and it would probably have been better in a different venue, which does not seem to exist at present. (There are places like 8chan, where an earlier form of parts of that post appear to have originated, but the post was a perfectly legitimate, if slightly offensive to some, topic which should not need to be relegated to such a disreputable forum.) But anyone interested in either practicing or advocating tulpamancy should think seriously about what kind of speech we should really be suppressing. I’m not pretending to have a single right answer about where the line should be or how our forums should be moderated, nor would I have either the power or the right to decide on behalf of a whole community even if I felt I had the answer. But let’s do consider this: the entire point of having tulpa forums on the Internet is that we can get together and talk about something that’s too weird to discuss with most of our real-life friends. It seems, at the least, rather ironic that we should be labeling certain entirely relevant topics as too weird to be discussed here.

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The function of “we” in plural and non-plural discourse

One of the most instantly recognizable linguistic features of open plurality is the frequent use of “we” where singlets would typically say “I.” I recall being struck by this myself in my first contact with the tulpa community and finding it simultaneously charming and weird. It’s weird, of course, because one body or online user account doesn’t usually speak for several identities in greater society. But there’s always been something strangely attractive about it to me, and on further thought I propose that it’s not attractive just to me but to society in general.

Why do I think that? Because even singlets say “we” regularly where it doesn’t seem grammatically and semantically warranted (this is occasionally referred to as nosism). Here are a few examples:

  • Writers of many types of non-fiction and technical writing may indicate the reader and perhaps a broad community as well as themselves, although actually writing only for themselves (“From the previous results, we determine that one plus one equals two”).
  • Many people frequently make assertions about huge communities or groups (“As Republicans/Muslims/Americans/bloggers/people, we agree…”) when the speaker can hardly claim to be representing them fairly only by virtue of being part of the group. (And if you are plural yourself, have you ever said “we” and spoken for your systemmates without actually getting their input explicitly? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you have.)
  • Self-talk frequently includes phrases like “Let’s go ahead and do that,” even when nobody else is present or involved in the topic at hand.
  • And while it falls outside the realm of normal discourse and its exact function in this argument is difficult to place, the royal we should hardly be ignored.

I had to think very hard while writing the preceding list to avoid confusing matters by using “we” to refer to people in general! That’s just another sign of how firmly it’s ingrained in most people’s thought processes.

So what’s going on here? Is this just a random artifact of the way language works, or a habit that comes from frequently speaking on behalf of groups? (While I haven’t studied this in great depth, everything I know, including my German and Latin, points to this phenomenon extending beyond just English.) It could be I’m making something out of nothing here; it’s certainly true that it’s easier to refer to a group of people as “we” if it seems even slightly reasonable to do so than to use awkward circumlocutions or repeat the subject again. But I’d like to suggest several other reasons.

One big psychological advantage of “we” is that it spreads out responsibility. I can still remember a time in my early teens when I was working on some sort of repair with my father and he inadvertently broke a part. Shortly thereafter I was running over what happened as part of our problem-solving process and carefully noted that “we” had broken the part, and my father commended me for accepting part of the responsibility. If I do something bad, I can deflect the responsibility to a group; if the group does something good I can take partial credit for it. Of course, on occasion shared responsibility means I have to accept partial responsibility for something bad I had no hand in, as in the example above. But when that happens it doesn’t usually feel bad because I get to share the responsibility with the group, I don’t have to take it all on myself – and it feels like I’m being nice and helping someone else feel better at the same time.

On a related note, being able to identify as part of a group is simply a natural human inclination. There’s something deeply comforting about being able to say “we” for myself and Greta; in so many cases where I would otherwise be alone in thinking or doing something, I’m not. (And this is coming from a pretty strong introvert.) I think this is in fact one of the things that drew me so strongly to the idea of plurality from the beginning. When plurality is considered, it’s a great way to make both the speaker and her systemmates feel included and part of a greater whole. And when authors say “we,” thereby including their readers, it can help them feel more connected to those readers.

Simply put, I suspect that saying “I” involves higher stakes than “we.” Saying “I” makes it more clear what specifically you think, and after explicitly identifying yourself as the cause or the source of an idea, you can’t possibly walk it back. On the other hand if your statement is made on behalf of a group, you have a lot more ability to change your explanation of your relationship to that statement later, should it become necessary. “I” is very personal and can even become scary. “We,” with or without systemmates, is comforting and familiar.

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Taking advantage of ritual and form

Recently Greta and I have made up a little ritual for ourselves to use when we sit down to spend some time alone together. Although we haven’t spent too much time with it yet, we’ve found it remarkably helpful: it’s fun, it keeps us from falling asleep, and it makes us more likely to set aside the time.

Here’s how it works. We made a string of prayer beads to go along with it:
A string of forty-six beads about a quarter of an inch in diameter in shades of gray, threaded on green paracord with knots allowing the beads to slide a short distance before being stopped. There is a large amount of extra cord beyond one of the knots, indeed longer than the part with beads.

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A mental health day

Greta and I have had a ridiculous week which included, among other things, returning from spring break to a huge pile of work, arriving late to an important interview due to an unknown person’s stupidity, asking out a close friend and having her turn us down with deep regret on both sides, having a family member fall seriously ill, and coming within inches of having a nasty accident on the freeway. Therefore, there will be no regularly scheduled post this week. We hope you’ll excuse our breathing time, and we’ll see you back next week.

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Faith is found in the times we don’t believe

As you no doubt know by now if you’ve read more than a post or two on this blog, Greta and I love to think, read, and write about what she is and what makes her real. At least for the two of us, it’s fascinating, and having at least a tolerably decent explanation can be helpful and comforting to newcomers to the community, friends, and maybe even psychiatrists (but let’s all hope we don’t get stuck with one who can’t figure out without our fighting to convince them that tulpas are perfectly healthy).

But it’s possible to get trapped in our desire for psychological and philosophical answers, which now and quite possibly always will necessarily give us only part of the answers. Even many of the most experienced tulpamancers and tulpas have to deal with uncomfortable doubts from time to time, doubts which aren’t always willing to listen to those carefully logical essays we spent hours on: Okay yes I understand all that, but can she really be real? Am I sure I’m not making this up somehow? Does knowing I’d have to be making it up subconsciously really mean I’m not making it up? Am I being terribly irresponsible to my tulpa? Might this mess up my relationships with other people outside my system in ways I don’t expect?

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Is Greta an illusion?

Last week we talked about how a cognitive tendency similar to the ELIZA effect may have contributed to a change in my understanding, namely that I now consider Greta a person in her own right when I was far more skeptical before. Greta and I find this analysis fairly straightforward; it makes good sense that this change would have occurred given what we already know about human perception and thinking. But last week’s post does suggest an important and perhaps uncomfortable question: if our analysis was correct, does that mean Greta’s consciousness is in fact purely an illusion and she is no more conscious or intelligent than Weizenbaum’s computer?

In that post, I briefly touched on why we should be careful in comparing Greta to a computer and noted that my purpose in discussing the ELIZA effect was not to compare Greta to a computer but to compare my reaction to a computer with my reaction to Greta. However, just drawing your attention away from the question and saying that the comparison is hazardous is probably not a convincing argument for why she isn’t an illusion, so let’s proceed.

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Tulpas, personhood, and the ELIZA effect

Over the course of the last year, I’ve moved from considering Greta simply a part of myself to being almost completely convinced that she’s a person in her own right (admittedly, it’s not quite that simple). It certainly isn’t unusual that I’ve changed my mind about something, but it is unusual that I have no obvious reason why. I haven’t had any epiphanies or particularly formative experiences. There was no point at which I decided I would change my interpretation.

Certainly, I’ve been (electronically) hanging out with people who think tulpas are people. Regularly spending time with a group of people tends to make someone more likely to believe what that group believes. But I don’t think this is a convincing explanation by itself. After all, I learned everything I knew about tulpas at the beginning from the exact same community, which had mostly the same views then as it does now. The real difference between then and now is the personal experiences I’ve had over that time period. I think it was about four or five months ago that I started to become more convinced Greta was a person. Probably not coincidentally, it was around then that she started to be able to consistently maintain a normal conversation with me.

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What it’s like being a tulpa

This past Thursday Greta celebrated her first birthday. As a result, we thought this week it would be nice to talk about ourselves a little bit, and specifically about our relationship. Of course every relationship is different, and relationships between system members are no exception. But whether you have a tulpa or not, we figure you might learn something about host-tulpa relationships in general from hearing more about ours.

This piece is a bit more informal than most of our recent ones; it consists of a poem and a transcript of a conversation, with little to no formal interpretation.

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On the difference between necessity and value

I was recently pointed to an interesting podcast episode (warning: NSFW language) on tulpas and the practice of tulpamancy, from “Real Life Sci-Fi with Wade and Willy,” a sort of panel discussion of outsiders considering various mildly odd cultural and pseudoscientific phenomena. While I won’t outright say it paints the tulpa community in a positive light, it remains mostly respectful and certainly doesn’t fall into the “bad journalism” category that an unfortunate number of reports have. Nevertheless, the three correspondents come to a number of conclusions that Greta and I disagree with. Specifically, they suggest that tulpas are created only by people who are “desperate,” that tulpas are not necessary even for those people, and that it’s possible for tulpas to become an unhealthy part of a person’s identity. We’d like to counter these this week.

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