Tanya Luhrmann, Halloween, and Ghost Pets

I want to begin this consideration of paranormal experiences with the first line of the Wikipedia entry under T. M. Luhrman.[1]

“Tanya Marie Luhrmann (born 1959) is an American psychological anthropologist best known for her studies of modern-day witches, charismatic Christians, and psychiatrists.” 

Luhrmann 1How could anyone not be drawn to a scholar who studies witches, charismatic Christians, and psychiatrists?  And besides that, she studies charismatic Christians as an anthropologist studies an interesting local population.  She is with them, she learns their language, she is trusted by them, but she is not one of them.  Yet.

She is beginning to raise some concerns, however, and this post will be about those concerns.  Here is her Halloween column, including some really good stuff about the origins of the seasonal celebration.  Let’s start with the first two paragraphs.

When my dog Dorothea died — she was the first dog I’d chosen for myself, and she had looked at me in a certain way when I visited the shelter, making me feel that I could not leave without her — she left a nearly unbearable ache in my heart. Dogs do this: They hold joy and love and solace in a way humans can’t, and then they die. But after she died, I heard her. I was sitting at my desk and the sounds of her nails tap-tapping down the wood floor of the hall came to my ears, and only when I turned to look for her did I remember that she was gone. Sometimes I felt her presence, like a heaviness on my lap or at my side. Sometimes I still do.

It turns out that this is not uncommon. As many as 80 percent of those who lose loved ones report that they sense that person after death. These are real sensory events. People hear a voice; they feel a touch; they recognize a presence. A friend told me that a year after her husband’s death, she would still find him sitting on that bench in the park, waiting for her. She liked that. In fact, one of the central research findings in this area is that post-bereavement experiences are helpful. They’re also more likely to occur after long and happy marriages. (There appears to be no research yet on pet loss.)

The word I want you to see is “recognize,” in the fourth sentence of that second paragraph.  “They recognize a presence,” Luhrmann says.  Do they?

Luhrmann says she “heard” the sound of Dorothea’s nail tapping on the wood floor.  Did she? Luhrmann 2 What does it mean to “hear” something?  Luhrmann says that she sometimes felt a heaviness on her lap.  OK.  Or she felt it “at her side.”  That one makes me uncomfortable.  How about you?   Is the dog this man is petting “really there?”  Does he know the dog is there?

These are, Luhrmann says, “real sensory events.”  She means by that, I think, that her ears did actually record the sound of the tapping on the wood floor.  I think Luhrmann would say that a properly placed sensor would show her ears hearing something.  Actual neurons are used in this process.  I think that’s what she means by a “real sensory event.”

So people “hear a voice.”  I’m OK with that.  I myself would say I thought I heard a voice, but perhaps that is just a matter of rhetorical style.  “They feel a touch.”  OK.  They “recognize a presence.”  Uh oh.  This might just be a casual use on her part, but I don’t think so.  I think her choice of “recognize” means that the person who was sensed was “there,” in some way, and was the person he or she was “sensed” to be. That’s what I would mean if I wrote that line.

Not to get all lexy or anything[2] but here’s the Oxford English Dictionary on “recognize.”  This is meaning 5a: “To know again.  To perceive to be identical with something previously known.”  The word comes apart easily.  To cognize = “to know” and re- has its common (but not invariant) meaning of “again.”  The difficulty is with “identical with something previously known.”  In context, this means “identical with my late husband,” and that means “is” my late husband.

Luhrmann is not, herself, a charismatic; she is an anthropologist.  She is a scientist.  It is her job to say that her informants say that they “heard a voice.”  It is her job to say that the informants believed that the voice belonged to a well-known relative who had died some time ago.  When she says they are right in believing what they do—and that is what “recognize” means to me—I think she has stepped over a line.  She has, at the very least, taken me out of my comfort zone.

Still, lines like the one Luhrmann stepped over, don’t always stay where we draw them.  What causes the pain from a “phantom limb.”  We have long known that people can feel pain from limbs that are no longer there.  This pain is “a real sensory event.”  It means that the neurons what once had the job of passing along to the brain the events in the arm have continued to send messages about that arm when there is no longer an arm.  This isn’t paranormal activity.  Ways have been found to successfully treat phantom pain, at least some of the time.

I don’t think that’s what Luhrmann is writing about.

I could be helped a good deal if Luhrmann would separate the sensory event and the interpretation of the event.  Luhrmann feels a heaviness on her lap.  It is like the heaviness she used to feel when her dog, Dorothy, lay there.  Her interpretation of that sensory event is what is at stake in her column.  Is she remembering Dorothy?  Is she recalling the times she sat there with Dorothy on her lap?  Does she think that Dorothy is there right now, producing the same sense of weight she always did, although Dorothy no longer has a body?  Or no longer has a visible body.  Or something.

I am not, as you can tell, attracted to paranormal interpretations.  “Feeling the weight in her lap” is fine with me.  Her neurons are doing what neurons do.  The part of the brain that responds first identifies that weight as consistent with or evocative of those times with Dorothy.  But then another part of the brain says, “Wait.  Could this be?”[3]

I say No.  Luhrmann says No sometimes and Yes other times.  That’s the way I read her.  Her expression “recognize a presence” in the second quoted paragraph is a Yes response as I see it.  Do you see it that way?



[1] Also to distinguish my use of Wikipedia from Sen. Rand Paul’s use of it.  According to the clips I saw on the Rachel Maddow show yesterday, he looks right at the teleprompter and reads whole paragraphs of Wikipedia material as if it were his own.  I don’t want anyone to think I am doing that. 

[2] Proposed new word, belonging to the family of “truthiness.”  I could have said “lexicographical,” sure, but my son, Doug, and I are working our way through Anne Curzan’s lectures on linguistics and I am feeling daring.

[3] In other writings, Luhrmann emphasizes that some people have more natural capacity for attributions like this and that you can get better at it if you work at certain skills.  Those distinctions are not what this column is about.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Tanya Luhrmann, Halloween, and Ghost Pets

  1. thinkydoug says:

    Darnit, I was going to use the “phantom limb” thing in my reply to you, and then I saw that you beat me to it.

    But you may be surprised that I have a bone to pick with you here. You said:

    These are, Luhrmann says, real sensory events. She means by that, I think, that her ears did actually record the sound of the tapping on the wood floor. I think Luhrmann would say that a properly placed sensor would show her ears hearing something. Actual neurons are used in this process. I think thats what she means by a real sensory event.

    This confuses a point you’re trying to make. If a sensor confirmed something that her ears heard, that would confirm the presence of an external and measurable source of sound. But by going on to talk about neurons being used takes it back into the brain, which is the most likely source of the phantom events you’re talking about. You’re going from external and measurable to internal and perceived.

    Great post, though. And I’d love to dig into what she says about charismatic Christians. Ha!


    Doug Hess Area: Cincinnati, OH Mobile: 804-677-0747 Email: doug_hess@live.com

    Date: Thu, 31 Oct 2013 18:08:01 +0000 To: doug_hess@live.com

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