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Varieties of Supernatural Experience: the Case of High-Functioning Autism
Södertörn University, School of Historical and Contemporary Studies, Study of Religions.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-7042-0877
2019 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

It is argued in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) that the empathic ability to ‘mindread’ others underpins  the experience of supernatural communication with gods, ghosts, and spirits. As autism is characterized by mentalizing difficulties, CSR scholars have expected autistic individuals would find supernatural agency incomprehensible. This thesis however turns the question around: why do autistic individuals engage intimately in supernatural relations, despite the social difficulties they face in everyday life?

The thesis aims to provide new insights on autistic and religious cognition through examination of supernatural descriptions provided by 17 young, high-functioning autistic adults (16–21 years of age) who label themselves as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. The research questions explore: (1) cognitive aspects of experienced interaction with invisible agents, compared with human interaction, (2) the prevalence of unusual embodied experiences (e.g. feeling touch and seeing visions without external input) and its role in attributions of supernatural agency, and (3) the psychological function of parasocial (fiction-based) interaction in imaginary realms.

This interdisciplinary project draws on work undertaken in the cognitive science of religion, cognitive and critical autism research, and psychological anthropology. Mixed qualitative and quantitative methods are employed to enable a kaleidoscopic outlook on the topics explored, and to promote a dialogue between idiographically and nomothetically oriented scholars. The study provides first-person perspectives on religious and autistic cognition, which is understood as dynamic interaction between embrained, embodied, encultured and situated input.

It is argued in Publication I that  ‘bodiless’ interaction facilitates mentalizing, also in relation to invisible agents, as no cross-modal synchronization of mimicry, body language and intonation is required. Publication II examines the prevalence of unusual, embodied experiences in autism, and it is proposed that supernatural attributions offer enchantment and sense-making of potentially frightening experiences. Results from Publication III suggest that  imaginary worlds and parasocial relations function as ‘simulators’ that autistic individuals use to rehearse social interaction. Publication IV offers a theoretical and methodological discussion regarding the study of atypical cognition. Importantly, this thesis illustrates that these imaginative autistic participants are not drawn to  supernatural frame- works in spite of, but because of the supernatural and parasocial characters these provide.

Abstract [sv]

Denna avhandling tar avstamp i den hypotes inom kognitionsvetenskaplig religionsforskning som föreslår att människors förmåga till mentalisering också ligger till grund för upplevelser av kommunikation med övernaturliga väsen, som exempelvis gudar, änglar och spöken. Då autistiska personer ofta har svårt att just läsa av andra människors avsikter har forskare utgått från att autistiska individer inte borde intressera sig för, eller förstå sig på, trosföreställningar kring andeväsen med osynliga sinnen. Den här avhandlingen vänder dock på frågan: hur kommer det sig att autistiska personer – trots utmaningar i social kommunikation med andra människor – ändå engagerar sig i övernaturliga väsen som uppfattas ha egna sinnen och viljor?

Genom att undersöka sådana föreställningar hos 17 unga vuxna (16-21 år) med högfungerade autism som alla beskriver sig själva som religiösa och/eller andliga, syftar avhandlingen till att bidra med nya insikter gällande autistisk och religiös kognition. Forskningsfrågorna undersöker: (1) kognitiva aspekter av upplevd kommunikation med osynliga aktörer, i jämförelse med mänsklig interaktion, (2) förekomsten av till synes oförklarliga, förkroppsligade upplevelser som sker utan yttre stimuli, och hur denna relaterar till upplevelser av övernaturlig agens, och (3) den psykologiska funktionen hos parasociala (fiktionsbaserade) relationer i imaginära världar.

Detta tvärvetenskapliga projekt anknyter till forskning inom kognitionsvetenskaplig religionsforskning, kognitiv samt kritisk autismforskning, och psykologisk antropologi. Både kvalitativa och kvantitativa forskningsmetoder tillämpas för att möjliggöra en kalejdoskopisk översikt över de ämnen som utforskas, samt för att främja dialog mellan forskare inom medicinska och humanistiska forskningsdiscipliner. Avhandlingen bidrar med intervjupersoners personliga inifrånperspektiv angående autistisk och religiös kognition, som här förstås som dynamisk interaktion mellan neural, kulturell, förkroppsligad och kontextberoende information.

I Publikation I föreslås att icke-förkroppligad interaktion med exempelvis andeväsen underlättar mentalisering för autistiska individer, eftersom de i vardaglig social kommunikation och interaktion har svårt att synkronisera ansiktsuttryck, kroppsspråk och intonation. I Publikation II undersöks förekomsten av oförklarliga, kroppsliga upplevelser hos autistiska individer. Intervjupersonernas tillskrivande av övernaturlig agens analyseras som en meningsskapande funktion som både skapar förtrollning och får oförklarliga upplevelser att framstå som mindre skrämmande. Resultaten i Publikation III pekar mot att imaginära världar och parasociala relationer fungerar som ’simulatorer’ där autistiska individer konstruerar hanterbar social interaktion, vilket samtidigt bidrar med social övning. I Publikation IV diskuteras teoretiska och metodologiska aspekter kring studiet av otypisk kognition. En central slutsats är att deltagarna i studien dras till överempiriska världar just på grund av de osynliga sinnen som dessa innehåller, eftersom de är särskilt hanterbara för autistiska individer.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Huddinge: Södertörns högskola, 2019. , p. 412
Series
Södertörn Doctoral Dissertations, ISSN 1652-7399 ; 165
Keywords [en]
Autism, religious cognition, supernatural experience, invisible agency, parasocial relations, embodiment, bracketed ethnography, participatory autism research, atypical cognition
National Category
Religious Studies
Research subject
Historical Studies
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-38108ISBN: 978-91-88663-70-2 (print)ISBN: 978-91-88663-71-9 (electronic)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:sh-38108DiVA, id: diva2:1314310
Public defence
2019-06-07, MA624, Alfred Nobels allé 7, Huddinge, 13:00 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Available from: 2019-05-15 Created: 2019-05-08 Last updated: 2019-05-15
List of papers
1. Rethinking autism, theism & atheism: Bodiless agents and imaginary realities
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Rethinking autism, theism & atheism: Bodiless agents and imaginary realities
2018 (English)In: Archive for the Psychology of Religion/ Archiv für Religionspsychologie, ISSN 0084-6724, E-ISSN 1573-6121, Vol. 40, no 1, p. 1-31Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

This anthropologically informed study explores descriptions of communication with invisible, superhuman agents in high functioning young adults on the autism spectrum. Based on material from interviews, two hypotheses are formulated. First, autistic individuals may experience communication with bodiless agents (e.g., gods, angels,and spirits) as less complex than interaction with peers, since it is unrestricted by multisensory input, such as body language, facial expressions, and intonation. Second, descriptions of how participants absorb into “imaginary realities” suggest that such mental states are desirable due to qualities that facilitate social cognition: While the empirical world comes through as fragmented and incoherent, imaginary worlds offer predictability, emotional coherence, and benevolent minds. These results do not conform to popular expectations that autistic minds are less adapted to experience supernatural agents, and it is instead argued that imaginative, autistic individuals may embrace religious and fictive agents in search for socially and emotionally comprehensible interaction.

Keywords
autism; religion; superhuman agents; mentalizing abilities; imagination; fantasy proneness; emotional coherence; multisensory binding
National Category
Religious Studies
Research subject
Historical Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-38105 (URN)10.1163/15736121-12341348 (DOI)000434436000001 ()2-s2.0-85048224782 (Scopus ID)
Available from: 2019-05-08 Created: 2019-05-08 Last updated: 2019-05-09Bibliographically approved
2. Sensory supernatural experiences in autism
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Sensory supernatural experiences in autism
2019 (English)In: Religion, Brain & Behavior, ISSN 2153-599X, E-ISSN 2153-5981Article in journal (Refereed) Epub ahead of print
Abstract [en]

This study examines attribution of supernatural agency in 17 Swedish, high-functioning young adults on the autism spectrum, who describe sensing presence, feeling touch, and seeing visions without input of somatosensory stimuli. These participants report many more such incidents than the matched, non-autistic group participants, and current research suggests that unusual somatosensory experiences are prevalent in the autistic population. Attribution of invisible agency is understood as a sense-making coping strategy, and it is argued that esoteric content in fantasy literature, movies and computer games explain why these young adults prefer to attribute agency to ghosts, spirits and demons, rather than god(s). The study thereby extends and challenges the study of autism and religiosity by exploring the intersection between autistic embodiment and encultured cognition.

Keywords
supernatural experiences; autism; somatosensory processing; agency detection; sense-making; popular culture; enchantment
National Category
Religious Studies
Research subject
Historical Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-38106 (URN)10.1080/2153599X.2018.1548374 (DOI)2-s2.0-85060168897 (Scopus ID)
Available from: 2019-05-08 Created: 2019-05-08 Last updated: 2019-05-08Bibliographically approved
3. A room of one’s own: Autistic imagination as a stage for parasocial interaction
Open this publication in new window or tab >>A room of one’s own: Autistic imagination as a stage for parasocial interaction
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
National Category
Philosophy, Ethics and Religion
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-38131 (URN)
Note

Som manuskript i avhandling. As manuscript in dissertation.

Available from: 2019-05-13 Created: 2019-05-13 Last updated: 2019-05-13Bibliographically approved
4. Dis:order. Cognition explored through a different lens
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Dis:order. Cognition explored through a different lens
2018 (English)In: Evolution, Cognition, and the History of Religion: a New Synthesis / [ed] Anders Klostergaard Petersen, Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, Luther H. Martin, Jeppe Sinding Jensen, Jesper Sørensen, Brill Academic Publishers, 2018, p. 397-412Chapter in book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This chapter focuses at challenges that may arise when studying cognition in atypical populations. The central argument is that scholars need to apply new approaches to terminology and methodology, since traditional tools may lead us towards invalid results. This is illustrated through a critical discussion on the proposition that mentalizing difficulties in autistic individuals would be directly linked to atheism, and it is argued that such claims fail when involving embodied and encultured perspectives on cognition.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Brill Academic Publishers, 2018
Series
Supplements to Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, ISSN 2214-3270 ; 13
Keywords
Cognition; study of religion; atyical cognition; enculturation; embodiment; anthropological approach
National Category
Religious Studies
Research subject
Historical Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-38107 (URN)10.1163/9789004385375_027 (DOI)978-90-04-38537-5 (ISBN)
Available from: 2019-05-08 Created: 2019-05-08 Last updated: 2019-05-08Bibliographically approved

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