The invisible tulpamancers

Last weekend I was having dinner with a good friend whom I will call Maria, and she somehow got to describing a dream she had had about someone who had recently died. She labeled this “really weird,” and in an effort to convince her I didn’t think it was all that weird, I shared that I myself once had a similar dream about someone who had died, but didn’t go into much detail. The conversation moved on at that point, but later that evening I thought about this moment again and emailed her an account of my dream, explaining that I think our culture is overly dismissive of dreams (they’re not real, after all), and the best way to fight that is to be willing to talk about them.

I received a response the next day, from which I quote:

I was reluctant to talk more about dreams during dinner because often people disregard people who talk about their dreams as crazy or delusional, but I pay a lot of attention to my dreams and think about it quite a bit.

Which, well, is pretty close to how I felt!

Maria and I are both excited to have found someone who shares our interest. How long have we been friends without knowing this about each other? About three and a half years. And while it’s not like we talk every day, we’re good friends and well past the surface level where you wouldn’t expect to know most of someone’s interests.

This brings us, through a connection that may not be immediately obvious, to the Illusion of Independent Agency, a term coined by Taylor, Hodges and Kohányi in the eponymous article. This article is somewhat cliché in the tulpamancy community by now, but with good reason. If by chance you’ve never come across it, have a look – it’s well worth the 20 minutes of reading.

For anyone whose culture tends to regard imaginary friends and fantasy as largely the province of children, this article is nothing short of amazing. It investigates the extent to which fifty fiction writers experience the characters they are writing about as thinking and acting independently. (Aside from the label placed on it, many would consider this at least the beginning stages of a tulpa.) 92% of the writers surveyed said they experienced this independent agency to some extent or another. And they didn’t seem to find it weird:

All the participants seemed to understand what we were asking about, and none of them looked at the interviewer in confusion when they were asked questions about whether they interacted with and heard the voices of people who were not real.

But to me the most remarkable statistic, and one that I’ve oddly never seen discussed anywhere, is that five of the writers surveyed – 10% of the sample – reported that they still had an imaginary companion they had created in childhood. Naturally, the sample in this study is biased towards people who are more imaginative and fantasy-prone than the general population: they’re spending hours writing fiction, after all. But if the rate in the general population was even 1%, that would still be a lot compared to the number of adults someone who had not read this article would expect.

This brings me to wondering, as a counterpoint to my assumption last week that plurals of any kind are extremely uncommon, if there aren’t many more people who have tulpas or something like them than we know, simply because it’s not something anybody is willing to risk talking about without knowing how it will be received – just as Maria and I were both unwilling to talk at length about dreams until we knew it would be received positively. Sure, there aren’t many people hanging out in the online tulpa communities, relative to the number of people in the world. But judging by the Taylor et al. article and other accounts suggesting that independent agency is a pretty normal human experience, there are probably tens of millions of people in the world who have experienced it (if we say one in a hundred, which seems like an underestimate, out of 7 billion, that’s 70 million people). If even a fraction of those people experience that independent agency with a character or person whom they have intentionally cultivated or who spontaneously appeared – well, that’s a lot of people who basically meet the definition of plurality. Since talking publicly about conversing with other beings in your head is difficult in most societies, and the resulting lack of conversation suggests incorrectly to people that they’re abnormal, it would hardly be a surprise that this crowd has never found those of us who are more open about it.

Granted, most if not all of my information about this phenomenon comes from studies on and experiences in Western societies. If it’s inapplicable to others, that carves out a big chunk of the seven billion people I based my estimate on. I am merely speculating in this article. I do think that even if I’m off by an order of magnitude, there’s still substantial evidence for this being much more common than most people would guess.

I’m also not claiming that most of those 70 million people talk with their independent agents every day, or have them possess, or that most of them are as thoroughly developed and individuated as mature “tulpas,” or that all of them would choose to identify their agents as “tulpas” if they knew such a label existed. I am claiming that I believe most if not all of the difference between these things is down to attention and practice.

Getting back to Maria, I know that I decided to send that email to her largely because I picked up on certain cues by which she was expressing that though she was labeling her dream “weird” and talking about it as though she wasn’t sure what to make of it, that maybe wasn’t how she really felt. So an open question for the community, or anyone really: In what way can we best send similar cues if we want to talk about tulpas and wonder if some of those around us might have similar experience themselves?

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