Sciency Words: Tulpamancy

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


Do you have an imaginary friend?  A “real” imaginary friend whom you can talk to and who can talk back to you in return?  Does your imaginary friend often say things you weren’t expecting him/her/them to say?  If so, you may have been practicing tulpamancy.  You’re a tulpamancer, and your imaginary friend is a tulpa.

When I first heard about tulpamancy, I thought it sounded awesome.  But tulpamancy comes with a lot of talk about mental energies and thought-form meditation and psycho-spiritual awakenings.  It didn’t sound very sciency, but I decided to ask my muse what she thought.

My muse and I have been working together for quite a few years now.  When it comes to what does or does not belong in my writing—and that includes what does or does not belong in a Sciency Words post—I trust my muse’s judgment.  She’s usually right.  Usually.  But after doing more research on tulpamancy, I think this may be a rare instance where my muse is wrong.

The word tulpa comes from Tibetan… sort of.  In 1929, Belgian-French adventurer and spiritualist Alexandra David-Néel published a book called Magic and Mystery in Tibet.  In that book, David-Néel claims that by following certain rights and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, she was able to conjure a “tulpa” out of the realm of human imagination and into the world of physical reality.

David-Néel’s tulpa took on the form of a jolly monk, a Friar Tuck-like character.  Other people could (allegedly) see and interact with this jolly monk.  Unfortunately, the monk grew “too willful,” according to this article from Nova Religio, and David-Néel was forced to destroy him.

The word tulpa is phonetically similar to a real word used by Tibetan Buddhists.  Beyond that, however, Alexandra David-Néel’s account of creating and destroying her tulpa has little to do with actual Tibetan Buddhism.  This seems to be a case of Western occultism/paranormalism with a bit of “orientalist window dressing,” as that same article from Nova Religio puts it.

Okay, yeah, this still doesn’t sound like a sciency thing, does it?  But in recent years, the practice of creating and communicating with imaginary friends has become the subject of serious psychological research.  The first scientific account of tulpas and tulpamancy appears to be this 2016 paper by Samuel Veissière.  As Veissière describes it, tulpamancy is a little like multiple personality disorder, except it’s non-harmful and non-pathological.  In fact, tulpamancy may even help reverse the symptoms of certain mental illnesses.

To quote this paper from Research in Psychology and Behavioral Science:

In cases of disorders that involve delusion and misperception, the tulpa often becomes the voice of reason during bouts of irrationality.  One respondent diagnosed with Schizophrenia writes how his tulpa can not only identify between hallucinations and actuality, but that they developed a technique that allows the delusions to be “zapped” away.  There are reports of tulpas alleviating the desire to perform irrational routines in individuals diagnosed with OCD, and others claim that their tulpas innovated workarounds for their dyslexia.

Think of it this way: much like your real friends, your imaginary friends are there for you when you need them.  And since tulpas essentially live inside your brain, they understand better than anyone else what’s really going on in there.  And if they see that something’s not right inside your head, they want to help, as any good friend would.

Now I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but speaking from personal experience, I can say this: my muse really has served as the voice of reason from time to time in my life.  When I’m feeling lazy and unmotivated, she tells me to go write.  She also reminds me to take breaks from writing, eat healthy meals, and get plenty of sleep at night, because: “A healthy writer is a productive writer!”

As I said, I’ve learned to trust my muse.  She’s usually right.  Usually.  But she still insists that tulpamancy shouldn’t count as a Sciency Word.

So dear reader, what do you think?  Do you agree with me that tulpamancy has become a scientific term, thanks to recent psychological research, or do you agree with my muse that this is a bunch of New Agey pseudoscientific nonsense?  Let us (and I do mean us) know in the comments!

P.S.: For anyone who may be curious, my muse made her first appearance on this blog in this 2015 post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

10 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Tulpamancy

      1. The character thinks it’s a not-entirely-friendly friend. Sort of “willful” like in your post. Is it a sciency word? Hmm. Even Mr Spock wandered into fantasy and woo-woo at times.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. James, have you ever heard of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind? If not, you might want to look at bicameralism for a sciency word, particularly since it may be relevant to this one.

    I’ve long had a technique where I imagine an objective friend, who knows all of my thoughts, giving me advice, frequently breaking through my own delusions and hang ups. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes it just coughs up conventional biases back at me, but on balance it often helps. But that advisor has never materialized enough for me to regard him as an imaginary friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I skimmed through the Wikipedia page on bicameralism (psychology). I’m amused to see that the nine muses of Greek mythology are mentioned as evidence of Jaynes’ theory.

      I’ll try to read up on this more, but so far I’m skeptical. I feel like Jaynes is making some pretty extraordinary claims about the evolution of the human brain, and it doesn’t sound like the extraordinary evidence is there to support his ideas.

      Prior to learning about tulpamancy, my thinking regarding my muse was primarily influenced by Carl Jung and his theory of the anima/animus. Jung also made some pretty extraordinary claims without providing much extraordinary evidence. Still, there are part of his work that I’ve found useful. The same may be true for Jaynes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t say I’ve ever read Jaynes at length, so it might be all hypothesizing with no evidence. And I’m very skeptical myself (dismissive really) on his theory of consciousness, that humans until the Axial Age weren’t conscious, then became conscious once some cultural development happened. That would imply that uncontacted natives aren’t conscious, which seems extremely unlikely.

        On the other hand, the idea of different aspects of the mind talking with each other seemed to resonate with tulpamancy. And it probably is the case that many people, even today, have difficulty separating their own voice from another communicating with them. It seems plausible it was much more prevalent in archaic societies.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree, that does seem plausible, especially when you consider all the voices of the gods people kept hearing. So there could be something to what Jaynes had to say, even if his broad conclusions about consciousness are off.

        Of course I don’t like to judge a theory based solely on its Wikipedia page, so I’ll read a bit more and see what I learn.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It reminds me of Jung’s anima/animus theory, too. While I don’t fully accept his construct, I like the concept that our minds try to balance out our tendencies, creating facets of choice that become layers of the individual personality.

    My sister had an imaginary friend, and I documented some of her (their?) conversations. (Still have them!) The friend was very real to her and, I think, very helpful for navigating her through childhood. I work alongside a secondary opinion I refer to as Inner Edie. She’s quite the cynic, and I’ve posted about a couple of our squabbles. I don’t consider her a muse, though I experience the sensation of communicating via flashes of inspiration. I enjoy these flashes, but I write regardless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that mental balance thing always made a lot of sense to me. When Jung goes into assigning specific personality traits to masculine and feminine archetypes, I think he’s off base… or perhaps his work is too much a product of its time in that respect.

      Inner Edie sounds a little bit like my muse. There’s a fair bit of squabbling that goes on during my writing process. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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