Change search
CiteExportLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link
Cite
Citation style
  • apa
  • ieee
  • modern-language-association-8th-edition
  • vancouver
  • Other style
More styles
Language
  • de-DE
  • en-GB
  • en-US
  • fi-FI
  • nn-NO
  • nn-NB
  • sv-SE
  • Other locale
More languages
Output format
  • html
  • text
  • asciidoc
  • rtf
Varieties of Supernatural Experience: the Case of High-Functioning Autism
University of Gävle, Faculty of Education and Business Studies, Department of Humanities, Religious studies. Södertörns högskola, Religionsvetenskap.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:hig:diva-29589ISBN: 978-91-88663-70-2 (print)ISBN: 978-91-88663-71-9 (electronic)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:hig-29589DiVA, id: diva2:1317515
Public defence
2019-06-07, MA624, Alfred Nobels allé 7, Huddinge, 13:00 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Available from: 2019-05-23 Created: 2019-05-23 Last updated: 2019-05-23Bibliographically approved
List of papers
1. Rethinking Autism, Theism, and Atheism: Bodiless Agents and Imaginary Realities
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Rethinking Autism, Theism, and 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
religion; autism; superhuman agents; mentalizing abilities; imagination; emotional coherence; fantasy proneness; multisensory binding
National Category
Religious Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:hig:diva-26609 (URN)10.1163/15736121-12341348 (DOI)000434436000001 ()2-s2.0-85048224782 (Scopus ID)
Available from: 2018-05-22 Created: 2018-05-22 Last updated: 2019-05-23Bibliographically 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:hig:diva-29591 (URN)10.1080/2153599X.2018.1548374 (DOI)2-s2.0-85060168897 (Scopus ID)
Available from: 2019-05-23 Created: 2019-05-23 Last updated: 2019-05-23Bibliographically 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
2019 (English)In: Article in journal (Other academic) Submitted
Abstract [en]

This article examines the role and function of imagination and parasocial/fictional relations among autistic individuals. Interviews with 17 high functioning young adults diagnosed on the autism spectrum illustrate how they frequently absorption into day dreams, fantasy literature and multiplayer online roleplaying games. Cognitive research however suggests that imagination is limited in autistic individuals; a conclusion which is currently challenged by scholars pointing towards a faulty stereotype. The results suggest that these opposed scholarly views can be bridged analytically and methodologically by separating between interpersonal  and intrapersonal imagination, of which only the former, social aspect is affected across the whole autism spectrum. The results moreover indicate that parasocial relations are used both for pleasure and to cope with adversities, and that imaginary realms serve as optimal ‘autistic spaces’ for simulating and practicing social interaction. Finally, the article provides a cognitive comparison between parasocial and invisible, ‘religious’ (e.g. gods, spirits and djinn) relations.

National Category
Philosophy, Ethics and Religion
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:hig:diva-29590 (URN)
Note

Som manuskript i avhandling. As manuscript in dissertation.

Available from: 2019-05-13 Created: 2019-05-23 Last updated: 2019-06-25Bibliographically 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
2019 (English)In: Evolution, Cognition and the History of Religion: a New Synthesis: Festschrift in Honour of Armin W. Geertz / [ed] A. K. Pedersen, I. Sælid Gilhus, L. H. Martin, J. Sinding Jensen, J. Sørensen, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2019, p. 397-412Chapter in book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

In this chapter I discuss challenges that we are faced with when studying atypical populations, departing from my own research on religiosity in autistic individuals. The central argument is that the study of atypical cognition requires new approaches to terminology and methodology, and difficulties arise when we fail to do so. I will also turn a critical eye to the postulation that mentalizing difficulties are directly linked to atheism by departing from the understanding of cognition as embrained, embodied, encultured, extended and distributed.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2019
Series
Supplements to Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, ISSN 2214-3270 ; 13
Keywords
cognitive science of religion; atypical cognition; autism; embodiment; enculturation; methodology; terminology; anthropology, kognitiv religionsvetenskap; atypisk kognition; autism; embodiment; enkulturation; metodologi; terminologi; antropologi
National Category
Religious Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:hig:diva-28559 (URN)10.1163/9789004385375_027 (DOI)978-90-04-38537-5 (ISBN)978-90-04-38510-8 (ISBN)
Available from: 2018-11-20 Created: 2018-11-20 Last updated: 2019-05-27Bibliographically approved

Open Access in DiVA

fulltext(1625 kB)18 downloads
File information
File name FULLTEXT01.pdfFile size 1625 kBChecksum SHA-512
3923af8a3853f33a5385970166f567cf7f8d952997be9e991636169b3ff2b721c0e6f06c49bdaa4f19bb0defa94408ec94afc95d2d2f81d82eafb39c5a46311e
Type fulltextMimetype application/pdf

Other links

Fulltext

Search in DiVA

By author/editor
Visuri, Ingela
By organisation
Religious studies
Religious Studies

Search outside of DiVA

GoogleGoogle Scholar
Total: 18 downloads
The number of downloads is the sum of all downloads of full texts. It may include eg previous versions that are now no longer available

isbn
urn-nbn

Altmetric score

isbn
urn-nbn
Total: 147 hits
CiteExportLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link
Cite
Citation style
  • apa
  • ieee
  • modern-language-association-8th-edition
  • vancouver
  • Other style
More styles
Language
  • de-DE
  • en-GB
  • en-US
  • fi-FI
  • nn-NO
  • nn-NB
  • sv-SE
  • Other locale
More languages
Output format
  • html
  • text
  • asciidoc
  • rtf