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.