Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’

As I have responded to Tanya Luhrmann’s book elsewhere and am on record in terms of thinking it makes a major contribution to the cognitive science of religion (CSR) both in terms of its argument and its use of mixed (ethnographic and experimental) methods, I decided that rather than recycling comments that I have already made, it would make much more interesting to give you something of a meta-review of the scientifically-oriented reviews of her book. My initial thought was to focus on the review symposium in Religion, Brain & Behavior from last winter, but with help from Luhrmann, who graciously emailed me some additional reviews, I decided — at the last minute — to expand my scope.

But let me begin by summarizing what I take to be the scientific heart of her study, that is, her effort to offer a scientific answer to the question of how people — in this case, evangelical, charismatically-oriented Christians in Vineyard congregations in Chicago and the Bay Area — come not only to believe that it is possible to talk to God and God will answer but to experience this as actually happening. In her introduction, she explicitly positions her study in relation to some of the research in CSR that stresses the prevalence of belief in gods and other invisible beings, making the case that, while this belief may be widespread, people have to learn to actually hear God and this learning process is (1) difficult, (2) more difficult for some than others, and (3) when it occurs actually changes how people process information.

Each of these claims required different methods. The first, documenting the learning process, was primarily an ethnographic task, which she accomplished through two years of intensive involvement not just with the congregations but with small groups in which people learned to pray that were attached to the churches in both Chicago and the Bay Area. She discovered that some found it easier to learn to hear god than others through participant observation as well. There were the “prayer warriors” at one end of the spectrum and the poor guy, who was raised in the Vineyard church, who desperately wanted to hear god, but never did, at the other extreme. But Luhrmann didn’t just observe these differences. When they started to become apparent, she had them fill out several psychological scales, some of which they liked better than others. Their responses on a scale that reports their tendency to lose themselves in something — to become absorbed — correlated with their ability to learn to hear god. That was an interesting discovery that suggested that individual differences made a difference in how easily people learned to hear god, but it didn’t say if the learning process itself — the religious practices and spiritual disciplines changed how people processed their perceptions and sensations. To test this, she designed an ingenious field experiment in which she gave people iPods with tapes that they had to listen to for 30 minutes six days a week for four weeks (202-210). The experimental group got a modified version of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises in which they were asked to place themselves in a biblical scene and interact with the characters. The control group got a series of Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on the New Testament. They were given a series of cognitive tasks before and after the experiment to see if the imaginative exercises made a difference in how they processed information, e.g., resulted in their seeing mental images more vividly. She described these as “training effects” and there were connections between the training effects and individual differences on the absorption scale.

Luhrmann took these measurable changes in how they were processing information as suggesting that they were learning a new theory of mind. Here’s the key passage from the introduction:

In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to interpret the familiar experience of their own minds and bodies as not being own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. … To do this, they need to develop a new theory of mind. That phrase theory of mind — has been used to describe the way a child learns to understand that other people have different beliefs and goals and intensions (Luhrmann, 2012, xxi-xxii).

This insight led to an expanded project, which she launched shortly after the book went to press and is still under way, in which she is comparing charismatic Christians in India (Chennai) and Ghana (Accra) to see if she finds local variations in theory of mind, that — she is hypothesizing — would suggest that culture influences the inferences we make about other people’s minds.

From a CSR perspective, this is actually her most controversial claim. Controversial, because theory of mind, which refers to our capacity to attribute mental states to ourselves and others is a central topic in developmental psychology and ethology, the study of other animals, where researchers are asking how this capacity develops in humans and whether it is present in other animals. What makes her claim controversial is that most developmental psychologists think this is a universal human capacity. There are other lines of research that question this and argue that “the standard psychological model for theory of mind is distinctively Euro-American.” Luhrmann is thus using her Vineyard research to raise the possibility that there are different theories of mind — local theories of mind — and asking whether these cultural differences make a fundamental difference in the way people draw inferences about another person’s intentions, feelings, and so on (Luhrmann, 2014, 83).

In the reviews I have looked at so far, reviewers did not address this controversial point head-on, but instead addressed it indirectly. Thus, some in the RBB symposium found her approach “too cognitive” – too dependent on an “information processing approach” — and advocated approaching the problem in light of research on embodied cognition (Strawn & Brown 2014), they and another reviewers thought she ought to pay more attention to explaining differences in terms of attachment processes (Strawn & Brown 2014, Sandage 2014). Others highlighted the role of emotion and still others the need to attend to motivation (Alcorta 2014, 54).

Whether her approach is “too cognitive” depends on how cognitive is defined. There is a narrow and a broader sense in which the term is used. Here I quote John Tooby & Leda Cosmides (1992, 65) on the definitional issues: “Some researchers use it in a narrow sense, to refer to so-called ‘higher mental’ processes, such as reasoning, as distinct from other psychological processes, such as ’emotion’ or ‘motivation’; that is, to refer to a concept that corresponds more or less to the folk notion of reasoning while in a calm frame of mind. In contrast, we [Tooby & Cosmides] are using the word cognitive in a different and more standard [cognitive science] sense. … We use … cognitive and information processing to refer to a language or level of analysis that can be used to precisely describe any psychological process: reasoning, emotion, motivation, and motor control can all be described in cognitive terms, whether the processes that give rise to them are conscious or unconscious, simple or complex. In cognitive science, the term mind refers to an information-processing description of the functioning of an organism’s brain.” So a cognitive science approach, as they and many others understand it, is a language for describing how we process all the incoming information available to us from our bodies and the entire environment in which we are situated – social, cultural, natural — in functional terms, that is in terms of what we do with it.

In terms of this understanding, what many of the reviewers distinguish as “not cognitive”, i.e., bodily sensations, emotions, and motivations, all can and should be considered within a cognitive, information processing approach as either input to be processed or output of the processing. Attachment processes are one of the ways of processing information. So in my mind, most of these reviewers missed the key question, which I think has to do with learning. If Luhrmann wants her work to speak to a CS audience, which I think she does, we need to be able to think about how Vineyard folks were learning — more or less well — in cognitive terms.

Pascal Boyer’s review for the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory symposium basically does this, which to my mind makes it the most important — and illuminating — of the science-oriented reviews. Pascal Boyer is the author of Religion Explained and has been a leading figure in terms of CSR. His review firmly positions Luhrmann’s work within a cognitive, information processes perspective. Boyer picks up on Luhrmann’s central point: that people have to work hard to learn to hear God. He makes the obvious point that believing in god — however fervently — is not the same thing as feeling you are in the presence of and communicating with god. He points out that many anthropologists have glossed over this distinction, referring all the time to what the people they are studying believe and then offering this as an explanation for their behavior. Boyer generalized from Luhrmann’s research to suggest that most people hold their beliefs in a more tentative fashion, as a conjecture, that they have not necessarily, or perhaps only fleetingly, experienced first-hand as “real” in the sense that Luhrmann uses the term.

Boyer links this distinction between believing and experiencing to a basic cognitive science distinction between “intuitions,” which are normally processed rapidly and unconsciously, and “reflective beliefs” or “reflective processing” or “metacognition.” Most of what we find out about people’s beliefs are “reflective beliefs.” We process most bodily sensations, perceptions, and emotions intuitively without any reflection on the process at all. As he points out — and this is the key link — “religious representations are potentially much more compelling, attention-grabbing, and memorable when they are associated with intuitive content, preferably with perceptions” (Boyer 2013, 353). In other words, through slow learning processes we can learn to associate reflective beliefs with intuitively processed sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Doing so allows us to experience the reflective beliefs in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do. So the point here is that from an information processing perspective, the evangelical’s Luhrmann studied are learning to connect their conscious, reflective belief in god with intuitive, unconsciously processed emotions, perceptions, and sensations in a way that allows them to distinguish some of their inner thoughts as “theirs” and others as “god’s”.

So, let me tie this back into the theory of mind (ToM) issue. In her response to the RBB symposium, Luhrmann referred to a meeting of anthropologists and psychologists that she arranged at Stanford to see whether they had sufficient evidence to argue for “local theories of mind.” They came up with at least six such theories, one of them “the Euro-American modern supernaturalist theory of mind” (Luhrmann 2014, 82-83). In light of Boyer’s distinctions, what Luhrmann characterizes as local theories of mind are best understood as reflective or folk theories of mind. They are the beliefs that we and others have about how mind, body, and world are related. These beliefs may or may not have any relation to the evolved, intuitive, unconscious way that we intuit what is going on in the minds of others. In her RBB response, Luhrmann (2014, 83) acknowledges that there are a range of competing scientific views of ToM and cites two in her discussion – Scholl & Leslie (1999) and Astuti (2012) – that question her approach, stressing that theories about how something works may or may not tell us anything about how they actually work.

Thus, in Boyer’s terms, Luhrmann is asking whether reflective ToMs can influence intuitive ToM.   In asking that, we need to specify what we mean by influence. I think it is much more likely that reflective ToM can influence what inferences we draw about other people’s minds, but not so likely that it influences how we draw inferences about other people’s minds. By calling what people believe about the mind, body, world relationship “theory of mind,” Luhrmann risks over-associating these reflective beliefs with the intuitive process and overlooking the possibility that these beliefs about the relationship between mind, body, and world may come to seem real to people through association with other intuitive processes. So I think we need to consider the possibility that people can attach reflective/folk ToM to a range of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Then the question we would need to ask would be how do people learn to experience THIS particular folk ToM, including our Euro-American secular one, as real?



Alcorta, Candace S. 2014. Modes of knowing: how kataphatic practice impacts our brains and behaviors. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 49-56.

Astuti, Rita. 2012. Some after dinner thoughts on theory of mind. Anthropology of this century 3 available in LSE Research Online at:

Boyer, Pascal. 2013. Why ‘belief’ is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349-57.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God talks back. New York: Knopf.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2014. Response: Knowing God, attentional learning, and the local theory of mind. Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 78-90.

Sandage, Steven J. 2014. Attachment theory, relational spirituality, and varieties of evangelicals. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 59-65.

Scholl, Brian J. and Alan J. Leslie. 1999. Modularity, development, and ‘theory of mind.’ Mind & Language 14 (1), 131-153.

Strawn, Brad D. and Warren S. Brown. 2014. Living with evangelical paradoxes. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 65-72.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind, pp. 19-136. New York: Oxford University Press.

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.


Atkinson, Q. D., & Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(1), 50–62. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.09.002

Barker, E. (1984). The Making of a “Moonie”: Choice or Brainwashing. Oxford & New York: Blackwell Publishers.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

DiAngelo, R. (2007). Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate. Beverly Hills, CA: Rio DiAngelo.

Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. (C. Cosman & M. Cladis, Eds.) (2001 Oxfor.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion (1987 Editi.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lane, J. E. (2011). Ordo ab Chao: Ritual Competence Theory as a Cognitive Model for the Simulation of Religious Sociality. In Society for Complex Systems in Cognitive Science. Boston, MA.

Lane, J. E. (2012). Ritual Schism, Instability, and Form: Agency and Its Effect on New and Schismatic Religious Movements. Saarbrücken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing.

Lane, J. E. (2013a). New Age Religions. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from

Lane, J. E. (2013b). UFO Cults. In Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Springer. Retrieved from

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Layton, D. (1999). Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. New York: Anchor Books.

McCauley, R. N., & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, S. (2006). Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple. United States of America: Public Broadcasting Station.

Newport, K. G. C. (2006). The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reiterman, T. (1982). Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton.

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. S. (1996). A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tabor, J. D., & Gallagher, E. (1997). Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of Calafornia Press.

Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H., Francois, P., Slingerland, E., & Collard, M. (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 3(2), 271–293. Retrieved from

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, H. (2002). Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Socioloplitical Dynamics of Religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 14, 293–315.

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.



[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.