Secret Friends

Where is the line between what is real and what is imaginary? It seems like an easy question to answer: if you can see it, hear it, or touch it, then it’s real, right? But what if this way of thinking is limiting one of the greatest gifts of the mind? This week, we meet people who experience the invisible as real, and learn how they hone their imaginations to see the world with new eyes.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Jessica Langman (ph) was 12, she had a favorite TV show.

JESSICA LANGMAN: This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I was crazy about "Star Trek."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Space - the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

LANGMAN: One day, several of the actors came to my hometown. So I begged my mother to take me. And I walked up to a table, and there was Leonard Nimoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

LEONARD NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) Stand by to beam up.

VEDANTAM: It was Mr. Spock, the cerebral star of the show - always calm, ever logical. For years, Jessica had felt a deep kinship with Spock, and now here he was right in front of her.

LANGMAN: And of course, I knew every angle of his face. I knew the curve of his ears. I knew everything about him, or so I felt. And when I put my notebook down for him to autograph, he looked at me with complete blank nonrecognition, and I was so confused in that moment. I knew him so well, but he did not know me.

VEDANTAM: Danny Martinez (ph) understands what it's like to feel a deep connection to someone who doesn't know you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODNEY DANGERFIELD: I tell you I get no respect from anyone, you know.

DANNY MARTINEZ: Oh, my God - Rodney Dangerfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANGERFIELD: I mean, the last week, my wife, she signed me up for a bridge club. I jump off next Tuesday.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTINEZ: I remember when Rodney Dangerfield died, I cried like I had lost my grandfather, and no one could understand why I would care so much.

VEDANTAM: Eric Pallileo (ph) says his connection with a singer named Anohni was transformational. He still remembers the moment he first heard her song "Ghost."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOST")

ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: (Singing) Leap from my heart and find your way.

VEDANTAM: He was 15 at his home in Texas. All of a sudden...

ERIC PALLILEO: I remember just sitting on the couch and, like, not really knowing even how to react. It was so overwhelming.

VEDANTAM: The ordinary became extraordinary.

PALLILEO: Just, like, a dramatic shift in the way that you're seeing the world. And that couch wasn't just the couch, and that room just - wasn't just a room, and this house actually had a meaning to it now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONY AND THE JOHNSON'S "GHOST")

VEDANTAM: Psychologist sometimes refer to such emotional connections as parasocial relationships, one-way relationships. In some ways, they are akin to the imaginary friends that children have. As we grow up, we're told to set such relationships aside, to tuck our stuffed animals away in a closet. Clinging to imaginary companions can suggest that you are lonely or maladjusted. But what if there is more to these relationships than we realize?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN - the thin line between the imaginary and the real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Growing up, Megan Lincoln was different from other kids. She tried to hide it, but her secret always came out, like when her teacher would make everyone go around the room reading aloud from a book.

MEGAN LINCOLN: And then you would read as much as you wanted, and then you would say done, and then you would say someone else's name, and then they would pick up from there. So that would be the worst experience of my life because I didn't know when the person was going to be done and when my name was going to be called. So I would sit there trying to figure out how I could get out of the classroom because I couldn't read.

VEDANTAM: It made her feel ashamed. She had workarounds. She would watch the movie instead of doing the reading or choose the book that had the most pictures or simply figure out a way to get out of the classroom. That was her best strategy - just try to escape. When all the other kids were exchanging their homework for another student to grade, she would raise her hand and say she had to go to the bathroom.

LINCOLN: Yeah, I would stay there forever. I would slowly walk to the bathroom, and then I would hang out there, wash my hands a lot, look in the mirror - just do whatever I could to waste time.

VEDANTAM: But one teacher, Ms. Doyle (ph), noticed Megan getting frustrated when she tried to read.

LINCOLN: And so one day, she pulled me aside, and we were just talking about life and talking about how I was not dumb, really defining dyslexia for me and then telling me that there were other people in the world who were dyslexic, just like me. And, you know, she told me Winston Churchill. She told me Walt Disney. She told me Albert Einstein and Tom Cruise and told me Cher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Sonny and Cher.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: Something clicked in Megan's imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET READY")

CHER: (Singing) Whenever I'm asked who make my dreams real, I say that you do. You're out of sight.

LINCOLN: Cher started popping up in my head all the time.

VEDANTAM: She didn't know why.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET READY")

CHER: (Singing) Look out, baby.

LINCOLN: I mean, I loved Sonny and Cher. I loved their variety show. They were funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SONNY & CHER COMEDY HOUR")

SONNY BONO: I have a photographic mind.

CHER: Sonny, you know the only thing wrong with your photographic mind?

BONO: What's that?

CHER: It never developed.

(LAUGHTER)

LINCOLN: If you look at Cher and she goes on stage, she's not, quote-unquote, your stereotypical normal person.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

PAUL NEWMAN: The winner is Cher in "Moonstruck."

(CHEERING)

LINCOLN: She doesn't care if she's wearing this weird, old black outfit with, like - you know, where her thighs are showing, and she's got these crazy tights on. She doesn't care what people think about her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

CHER: I want to thank my mom because when I was really young, my mom said, you're not going to be the smartest. You're not going to be the prettiest. You're not going to be the most talented, but you're going to be special.

(CHEERING)

LINCOLN: And I think as a young girl, not feeling confident of who I was, having someone who was so strong really made me feel that - why should I care what people are saying about me in the classroom?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: One day, the Cher in her mind did something she hadn't done before - she talked to Megan.

LINCOLN: It was Cher. It was her voice. It was her recognizable Cher voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINCOLN: She was as real to me as my friend next to me. I couldn't see her. I could just hear her. And it was real. It was her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: After this happened a few times, Megan got used to it. She said, OK, it's Cher; she's talking to me.

LINCOLN: She would only talk to me when I was feeling dumb or insecure. And if I was feeling, like, insecure for something that was not school- or reading- or writing-specific, her voice wouldn't appear.

VEDANTAM: Now when Megan's anxiety swirled in, Cher would offer encouragement.

LINCOLN: The one thing I always remembered her saying to me is, if you think you are dumb, then you think I am dumb, and I am not dumb. And then she would tell me to go back to reading or go back to trying to write something.

VEDANTAM: And when she tried to hide out in the bathroom, Cher wouldn't let her.

LINCOLN: I remember her telling me that it was smelly in the bathroom. Why are you sitting in a smelly bathroom? She's like, you're better than this. Go back and take that test. Confront the test. It'll be much better than sitting here in this smelly bathroom. And I would take my deep breath, and I would walk out, and I would smile, you know, and I'd probably curse her out a little bit, and I'd go back into that classroom and take that test. I never felt dumb after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: After her secret friend helped her for a few years, Megan started to feel more confident, and that's when Cher's voice disappeared.

LINCOLN: It's kind of like Mary Poppins - the kids no longer needed her. Something in my head just told me I didn't need her, and she left. Maybe she went to someone other person's head who needed her. I don't know.

VEDANTAM: Today, Megan has multiple degrees - a successful career. She's figured out how to manage her dyslexia. But she's been reluctant to tell people how Cher helped her. It sounds kind of strange.

LINCOLN: You know, who has an inner voice that sounds like some celebrity? Only crazies do. I just tell people I love her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT YOU BABE")

SONNY AND CHER: (Singing) I got you, babe. I got you, babe. They say our love...

VEDANTAM: Megan misses the comfort of Cher's voice. Every now and then, she tries to recreate it.

LINCOLN: But it's me making her voice. It's different. You know what I'm saying? It was an inner voice. Yes, it was myself. I knew it really wasn't her. But I also didn't feel I was wise enough to be as wise as she was to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT YOU BABE")

SONNY AND CHER: (Singing) I got you, babe. I got you, babe.

VEDANTAM: The voices we hear, the secret friends we have, they often don't seem like mere extensions of ourselves. Megan said Cher seemed to be braver than she was, wiser than she was. The Cher in Megan's head knew things that Megan didn't know. How is this possible? How can one part of the mind know something that another part of the same mind does not know?

When we come back, we explore this question in another domain. We look at people who hear not the voice of a singer or a celebrity but the voice of something much bigger.

TANYA LUHRMANN: I mean, fundamentally, the story of God is a story about the human imagination. The human capacity to take seriously the sense that the world that we see before us is not all there is of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. As a young person, Tanya Luhrmann did not believe in God.

LUHRMANN: I couldn't understand how people could believe in an omnipotent, omniscient maker who would allow people to suffer so much. It seemed logically incoherent to me.

VEDANTAM: She was known among her peers as an atheist. She even wrote about it in an op-ed for her school newspaper. Her friends came up with their own version of the headline.

LUHRMANN: The tagline in among my friends was that Luhr person (ph) does not believe in God. And I mean, I was called Luhr person because I was also a feminist and Luhrmann - anyway, that was the way my friends referred to me.

VEDANTAM: Tanya's parents were also actively questioning the idea of religious faith. They had grown up in devout homes. Her mother's father was a Baptist minister. Her father's father was a Christian Scientist. But her father had become a determined atheist.

LUHRMANN: At one point in college, he actually ceremoniously burnt his membership card to The Mother Church in Boston.

VEDANTAM: Her mother kept going to church but loved to read books by Sam Harris, the atheist neuroscientist.

LUHRMANN: You know, my mother also was torn. She just kind of wanted to believe, but it was - she found it logically tough.

VEDANTAM: Although her dad disapproved, Tanya's mom took her to church every Sunday. Tanya found herself fascinated by how smart, good people could reach very different conclusions about God and religion.

LUHRMANN: And I wanted to understand more about how things became real to people and how people came to decide that God was real, how they came to feel that the world was organized in a particular way.

VEDANTAM: As Tanya grew up, she thought briefly about becoming a psychiatrist. Her dad was a psychiatrist but eventually settled on a different profession - anthropology. If psychiatrists have a set of descriptions about what constitutes normal behavior and assess when and how much people deviate from those norms, anthropology demands that you suspend judgment, that you try to understand people on their own terms from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.

LUHRMANN: Anthropologists are, in some ways, little amoebas. We're trying to ask what it feels like to live in somebody else's world. And there's an anthropologist called Clifford Geertz who said that before you judge, you need to understand - and that that was the - kind of the moral impulse of our field. I think the people who become anthropologists want - they're curious about what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. And I think that you don't do that well if you have a pretty clear view from the outside of what that other world is like.

VEDANTAM: Tanya realized she was drawn to this approach. She wanted to immerse herself deeply with people whose frames and norms were different from her own.

LUHRMANN: I mean, at some point, you need to come to a kind of moral reckoning with the world that you are looking at and your sense of who you are in your own world. But I do think that when you - to the extent that you can, when you let go of who you are and you try to become different, you see and feel things differently.

VEDANTAM: In the spring of 1983, when she was 23 years old, Tanya decided to put this idea into practice. She was in England, doing her PhD in anthropology. She focused her field research on a group of people who believed they could cast spells and perform magic rituals. Tanya the rationalist was personally skeptical of these claims, but she had made a commitment to listen openly without judgment. She attended a retreat with about 50 practitioners at a beautiful remote manor house. The leader of the group was Gareth Knight. To Tanya, he looked like Merlin the Wizard.

LUHRMANN: And he had the big shock of white hair. And he had flowing robes. I mean, you know, this was "Harry Potter" long before "Harry Potter."

VEDANTAM: The goal of the weekend was to encounter what Gareth called contacts. He said contacts were highly evolved human beings no longer tethered to their bodies who could offer guidance. They were like wise, invisible people.

LUHRMANN: And so he would just talk about them as if they were friends. He would, you know, stride up and down before the group of 50 people and talk about, you know, how we're going to do a big ritual event.

VEDANTAM: Gareth explained that he would guide them through a spiritual exercise using a mystical set of pictures - a temple, a priestess, a hermit. He lit four candles and told everyone to close their eyes. They were now aboard a ship, he told them. And they were going to accompany him to another world.

LUHRMANN: And what this man did during the weekend was to, in effect, tell story after story about these pictures in a way that he wanted us to experience these pictures as if we were living in a dream, as if we were going down a river or on a boat together. And we would get out of the boat. And we would look up, and we would see a temple. And there was the priestess. And this is what the priestess looked like. And he wanted us to experience those stories as if they were happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Tanya had only planned to record the experiences of the group. But as she imagined the stories along with them at that initial retreat and subsequent meetings, she found that her own impressions were becoming a vital source of data.

LUHRMANN: Over the first three or four months, it occurred to me that my mental images were becoming sharper, that they were becoming richer.

VEDANTAM: She started attending the group's weekly dream interpretation class. And she began to keep a dream diary.

LUHRMANN: And my dreams were becoming vivid and dripping with symbolism. I remember having this dream at one point in which what I knew was my soul was swimming across a river in a thunderstorm to scramble up the other side on this bank of mud. And I kept falling back, and then I'd go forward. And I remember waking up and thinking, oh, my goodness. I'm having different kinds of dreams. And that was a dream about my soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: It was like the work she was doing was changing the way her own mind worked. It was changing what she saw in the world, how she experienced the world.

LUHRMANN: The world felt as if it was becoming more connected. It felt like I was having these synchronicities. Things would - you know, I'd walk to the greengrocer. And the greengrocer would say something that I had been thinking about. And so I would have these experiences. And then over the course of the year, you know, I really saw myself change, felt myself change.

VEDANTAM: When I spoke to her, Tanya thought back to another moment when the line between the real and the imaginary became blurred - it was early during her field research, and she was on a train to meet Gareth Knight for the first time. She was reading a book about magic and mysticism. It was called "Experience Of The Inner Worlds."

LUHRMANN: And it was about the experience of power and this idea of a power outside of me that was present and kind of there in the world. It was kind of new to me.

VEDANTAM: The book was esoteric and complex. And she strained her mind to understand it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: On the cabalistic Tree of Life framework, we see a method of theosophical classification that's able to take in the concept of both creator and the creation. This is not so evident...

LUHRMANN: And he was talking about Tibetan this and cabalistic that and white light that. And I remember kind of just trying to understand the sentences and concentrating so hard. And there are people around me talking. And I was trying to really focus on the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Right then, she started to feel hot.

LUHRMANN: I began to feel power, like an electrical charge that seemed to move through me starting above me and moving through my body and going into the floor. And it was strong. And it was vivid. And I felt fantastic. I felt more alive. I felt completely alert, seeing - like, all of my senses were incredibly sharp.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUHRMANN: And as I was feeling this way and trying to figure out what on Earth was going on, I looked over, and there were wisps of smoke coming out of my bag.

VEDANTAM: A battery-powered bike lamp she had stored in her bag was melting.

LUHRMANN: (Laughter) It's like, the battery was melting in these bicycle lights.

VEDANTAM: Now, there are two ways to think of this. You can say Tanya's thoughts about power melted the battery. Or you can say, huh, interesting coincidence. But the point is if you put yourself in a frame of mind where you expect unusual things to happen, you're more likely to see unusual things happen. The time she spent with Gareth and the others taught Tanya something very important about the imagination. It's a skill. You can improve it, make it sharper. You can practice it. And when you do, remarkable things follow.

LUHRMANN: There's all kinds of things that people experience. But what I can say is that the more time you spend doing what I would call inner sense cultivation, the more likely you are to report these events, that people have these moments in which, in effect, what they're imagining breaks forth into the world.

VEDANTAM: As she did more research, Tanya realized there was a profound disconnect in the way people think about the imagination today and the way they used to think about it in earlier times.

LUHRMANN: I think the emphasis on the imagination as something that is obviously not material emerges with the secular world, with a sense that there - that what is real is the stuff that we walk on and the things that we see that everybody else can see. And that what is other is not that real stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Tanya went on to become a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. In 2002, she began some new fieldwork focused on another group of people - evangelical Christians who wanted to develop an intense personal relationship with God. They were practicing what she calls inner sense cultivation.

LUHRMANN: And I was interviewing some young, blonde Southern Californian who's kind of like - her hair would swing back and forth. She looked like she belonged at the beach. And I was asking her all these pedantic questions, and at one point, she said, you know, if you want to understand God, just have a cup of coffee with him.

VEDANTAM: Other people told her similar things. The way to make an abstract, invisible entity real in your life was to do things with that entity that you would do with a spouse or a co-worker.

LUHRMANN: But, I mean, what people would say is that you needed to get to know God the way you would get to know somebody when you went out for coffee with them. You became a friend of the person. You asked about their life; they asked about your life. You had a back-and-forth. You learn to know each other. You learn to trust each other. And that that's how you should get to know God.

VEDANTAM: It was like what she had learned in London during the dream sessions some 20 years earlier.

LUHRMANN: They're using very similar kinds of what I would call spiritual practices. They were inviting people to use external symbols, props, and internal images, stories, in order to allow the person to enter a world which is not the world of the day-to-day and to come to experience that world as if it is present, as if it's real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Tanya met people who said they had practiced these techniques so often that they could interact with God as if God was a living, breathing person. Ever the skeptical scientist, Tanya decided to see if the things she was hearing from evangelical Christians were reproducible in a scientific experiment. She randomly assigned some Christians to practice prayer that involved imagining a very intense personal relationship with God.

She had them read a story from the Bible in which Jesus was represented in different forms - for example, as a baby, a shepherd or on the cross. Then she asked subjects to interact with Jesus in their minds using all of their senses - sight, sound, smell, touch. Here's an example of one set of instructions related to the Bible's 23rd psalm, which says, the Lord is my shepherd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) See the shepherd before you. See his face, his eyes, the light that streams from him. He turns to walk, and you follow him. Notice his gait. See the heel over which he leads you. Feel the breeze over the grass. Smell its sweetness. Listen to the birds as they sing. Notice what you feel as you followed the shepherd.

VEDANTAM: Tanya invited the volunteers back after a month. She asked them what had happened in their minds in the intervening weeks. People in the imaginative prayer group responded very differently than people in the control group.

LUHRMANN: So I found that people in the prayer group were more likely to say that their mental images were vivid. They were more likely to say that God felt more like a person to them, that they were more likely to have gotten angry at God or become playful with God. They were also more likely to say they'd had a moment, when they had heard God speak in a way they could hear with their ears, or they had seen something that wasn't materially real in the world, or they'd had some vivid sense of God's presence.

They were more likely to say that they'd had an experience as if what had to be experienced in the mind had somehow broken free, and it was experienced with the senses, as if it sort of jumped out side of the mind-world barrier and was felt by them in the world.

VEDANTAM: It was like what happened to Megan. The Cher she imagined in her mind became Cher.

LINCOLN: It was Cher. It was her voice. It was her recognizable Cher voice.

VEDANTAM: As people consciously exercised their imaginations, their imaginations stopped feeling like imagination.

LUHRMANN: I would ask people whether God was like an imaginary friend, and people would always correct me. People would say, oh, no, he's not imaginary. Then they'd talk about him as if he was kind of like an invisible being who walked by their side and who, you know, put his arm around their shoulders. People would tell me about sitting next to God on a park bench, and they were talking to him about their life, and they were asking him about his life. And people - they did that.

VEDANTAM: People told Tanya that they experienced the same curious sensation that Megan experienced with Cher. The voice of God inside their heads may have sprung from an exercise of the imagination, but it somehow seemed to stand apart from their own minds. It seemed to know more than they did. It seemed to know them better than they knew themselves. It became a source of comfort, of guidance.

LUHRMANN: People would, in effect, take bits and pieces of the best parts of their relationships with other people and they'd kind of weave them together so that in this what you might almost call play therapy, they are interacting with these different parts of God and then kind of changing their understanding of God and then talking about God. And so they're always working on their God concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: What does it look and sound like to work on your God concept? How do believers distinguish the voice of God from their own hopes and dreams and desires? And what lessons can these imaginings hold for all people, religious and nonreligious? When we come back, we go to California to meet one of the evangelical Christians at the church where Tanya did her fieldwork. We find out how he trains himself to hear the voice of God.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. It's a beautiful morning in Palo Alto, but then again, it's always a beautiful morning in Palo Alto. Alex Van Riesen shakes my hand and tells me I remind him of Jennifer Aniston. He doesn't know either of us, but it feels like he does.

ALEX VAN RIESEN: I found it ironic that you're doing an episode on people that you think you know but you don't know, and I realize I'm living that experience this morning by meeting you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

We're meeting at the offices of the Vineyard Church in Palo Alto. Alex used to be a pastor at the church and is now a member. Before we head inside, he pulls from the trunk of his car a black metal box. It has silver hatches and a combination lock. Alex is a big guy, but he strains as he carries the box into the office. He puts it down at his feet and pops the locks. Inside are about 30 carefully numbered, large notebooks.

VAN RIESEN: Sort of narrow-ruled. They're like the notebooks you take notes in almost in a science class. They're very narrow because I write small. And so I have all the journals that I've ever had since 1984.

VEDANTAM: Alex tells me that whenever he's worried or angry or wants to figure out something in his life, he takes out a notebook and asks God - more specifically, Jesus - for guidance. It's what he did after he became lead pastor and was feeling overwhelmed. In small, neat handwriting, Alex carries out a dialogue, a question-and-answer session in which he takes on the role of both himself and Jesus. It's one part therapy, one part prayer. He starts with his own side of the conversation.

VAN RIESEN: I had a hard time getting up this morning. I wanted to stay in bed. I think I was just starting to feel comfortable in this role as the lead pastor of the church. I feel stirred up, anxious, worried. Jesus asks me, what's another time you felt like this? And I say, well, I'm noting that I've not felt like this for a while. I have moments, but in general, my life is pretty solid. That gave me hope that things were really changing for me. Then hearing this news and getting all stirred up internally makes me wonder whether I'm growing at all. Jesus says, I'm at work in you, and I'm bringing transformation. You know that I'm about changing people...

VEDANTAM: I have so many questions. Is Alex imagining what Jesus would say, what he thinks he would say? Is he actually hearing a literal voice talking in his ear? Alex says it's not like he just flips a switch and Jesus comes up on his internal radio station. It's a conscious mental practice that has deepened over the years. It's like he imagines what a wise therapist would say, and then he says it to himself.

VAN RIESEN: It's similar. I mean, I even - as I'm reading this - and I haven't read this for a while - some of the questions sound like things like, you know, how do you feel about that? A lot of them are questions that Jesus asked me to go deeper with what I'm feeling.

VEDANTAM: But he says there are things that Jesus can tell him that a therapist never could.

VAN RIESEN: He can make promises - promises like, I'm with you, like, when you feel alone or you feel really trapped. I think that there's promises like, I have a place for you when you're making a decision and you feel really torn, and you don't know which way to decide. And he goes, I will help you.

VEDANTAM: Alex says he was first brought to this way of thinking by a dramatic moment of personal connection with Jesus.

VAN RIESEN: And I was in this worship hall - probably, like, two or three thousand people at this event. And all of a sudden, I felt a hand on my shoulder. But I didn't look around. We were in the midst of worship. And then very close to my ear, I heard a voice whisper into my ear things that I had never told anyone.

VEDANTAM: It was a voice, a literal male voice. The voice seemed to know of mean and hurtful things that Alex had done to other people.

VAN RIESEN: I was like, how could somebody know these things? I think he also mentioned that - I know that your life has been hard. I know it pains you that your mother died at childbirth, that your - you didn't have a close relationship with your biological siblings. And he said, I know these things, and I love you. And I'm with you. And so the minute he stopped speaking, I turned around, and there was no one there.

VEDANTAM: Alex used an analogy to describe what his conversations with Jesus were like. It sounded curiously to me like the language Tanya Luhrmann used to describe what anthropologists do. It had to do with the power of slowing down, listening attentively and then finding yourself seeing things, noticing things that you might have missed.

VAN RIESEN: The analogy I like to use is the difference between driving to your home and walking to your home or riding a bicycle and all the things that you see in your neighborhood when you walk that you don't see when you drive 'cause you're going so fast. And I think that a lot of what we're trying to do in our service and in, really, our lives is to create space that - for God to speak because we believe he's speaking. We believe he's present. But we just don't create the space. And when we create the space, most times, but not always, he'll say something.

VEDANTAM: So how does Alex tell the voice of Jesus from his own voice? He told me that members of the church regularly listen to each other's accounts of what Jesus told them. They'll tell each other, yeah, that sounds like Jesus, or they'll say, no, that doesn't sound right. Alex invited me to listen in on one of these group sessions. We got in his car to go meet a couple of other church members.

Should we pick up some food on the way? What should we do?

VAN RIESEN: Well, we thought about that.

VEDANTAM: OK.

VAN RIESEN: How hungry are you? Where are you at?

VEDANTAM: I'm actually...

As we drove, Alex told me that the voice of Jesus had helped him during one of the most traumatic moments in his life. In the late 1990s, Alex and his wife Susan were trying to have children. They had trouble conceiving, so they looked into adoption. Eventually, they learned about a beautiful baby boy, just two days old. The baby seemed healthy and happy. They brought him home and named him Joshua. But 10 days later, baby Joshua started to lose weight, and it became clear that something was very wrong. Alex and Susan took him to the emergency room and then to the intensive care unit. After 17 terrifying days, a doctor told Alex and Susan the news - their son had a rare disease that might leave him severely disabled. She said that he might never live an independent life.

VAN RIESEN: She sat down, and she went, he could be completely blind. He could have cerebral palsy. He could have very little brain function. He could have no mobility, no ability to speak, no - and she just kept going and going and going. And it was just like, you know, everything in the kitchen sink.

I just remember feeling utterly devastated. In meaning, I was just so, so sad. There was an overwhelming sense of, what have we gotten ourselves into? Like, will I have what it takes to really go the distance with this?

VEDANTAM: Alex thought back to an adoption contract they had signed. It left room for the parents to change their minds. Alex was 39 years old, and his life already felt so full. He had a job in campus ministry, which took up more than 50 hours a week. A disabled child felt like more than he could handle. He told Susan about his feelings. She told him...

VAN RIESEN: If Josh had come to us through biological means, if we had had a special needs baby biologically, there's nowhere to take that baby back to, right? In other words, no one comes to you and goes, we'll take your baby back. And I think she was like, this is - there's no returning here. God was in this, and he has a purpose for this.

VEDANTAM: A few nights after that conversation, Alex went out to a park near their home. He looked up at the sky, searching for answers.

VAN RIESEN: And I sat on a bench. And I said, look, God. This scares the living daylights out of me. I don't know. Are we supposed to give him back? Do you want us to keep him? And I was just looking at the stars. And all of a sudden, it was one of those senses. I didn't hear an audible voice outside my head. But I heard very clearly, you know, I bring children into people's lives all sorts of ways. This is the way I brought Joshua into yours. And boom, like that, I was like, OK. I'm in. And I haven't doubted it since.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: So this is Susan's mother's place?

VAN RIESEN: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: OK. Got it.

VAN RIESEN: Yep. She - really bad parking job. You know, when you...

VEDANTAM: We're at Alex's mother-in-law's condo. Two other members of the Vineyard Church show up soon after.

TERENCE MAGNO: My name is Terence Magno. I am a software engineer.

SUZANNE MAGNO: My name is Suzanne Magno. And I am the director of worship and administration at Palo Alto Vineyard Church. And I'm married to Terence.

VEDANTAM: They explained to me what a group prayer session looks like. It's called a soaking prayer because everyone in attendance is said to be soaked in God's presence. The person they're praying for, the prayee (ph), and the prayers all try to channel what Jesus might say. By inviting Jesus into their minds, they hope to make him vivid, to make him a participant in the conversation. By deliberately exercising their imaginations, by suspending disbelief, they hope to make the invisible real.

S MAGNO: When I first started to pray in this way, it was difficult to discern, is this my imagination, or did God give me this? And I'll be honest. Like, I still doubt.

VEDANTAM: We gather together in a quiet room. The lights are low. Alex pulls up chairs from the dining table. He straddles a chair, sitting backwards, his arms crossed on the back rest. Terence and Suzanne face him so that the three of them are sitting in a triangle.

T MAGNO: So God, we just invite your Holy Spirit to come. So come, Holy Spirit.

VEDANTAM: Terence asks Alex what he wants to talk about. Alex says a friend that he called Steve has wronged him, and he's not sure how to let it go.

VAN RIESEN: I don't want to carry this anger around. I don't. I don't want to chew on it anymore. So I confess that I do have a hard heart towards Steve. And I don't want good for him.

VEDANTAM: Suzanne and Terence ask Alex if it's OK for each of them to place a hand on his shoulder. Alex says yes. His head is resting on his forearms. His eyes are closed.

T MAGNO: So as you give that to God, Alex, what - is there anything arising, anything new arising from that you're feeling?

VAN RIESEN: I think I was more just sitting in how struck I was that what I wanted was, you know, to build up anger and frustration at this person. And I don't know. I'm just struck by that. So I think I'm kind of sitting in that - I don't know - realization.

S MAGNO: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: Suzanne says she sees something.

S MAGNO: I saw you at a tree stump that has already been cut, right? It's just a stump. And you had an ax. And you're angry. And you're, like, raising your fists at God in the sky. And you're like, why do I have to be here? You know, I keep - you know, you're tired. You just keep hacking at the - with this ax. And you're just tired. And you don't want to be there, but somehow, you're there.

VEDANTAM: Terence says he can see something, too.

T MAGNO: There's just this picture I'm getting of - sort of you are seated in a - like, a front porch or a stoop of an apartment building or a house. And Jesus is sort of sitting next to you and has his hand over your heart. But the interesting thing about the picture is that his heart is broken.

VEDANTAM: Alex takes in what Terence and Suzanne have told him. The metaphor of the porch doesn't spark anything inside him, but Suzanne's image does. Alex runs with it. He says he sees Jesus enter the picture.

VAN RIESEN: I see him standing there next to me while I'm whacking away at the stump. And he's standing there, you know? He's relaxed. And I just keep going at it. And I ask him, Jesus, is there something you want to say or you want me to do? And he sits down. He's kind of cross-legged. He just sits down and goes, do you want me to take over? And I'm not sure 'cause I don't know what taking over means from him. And - but I'll say yes. Yes, Jesus, I'm a little worried or afraid about that. Go ahead. I'll let you take over.

S MAGNO: Yeah.

VAN RIESEN: So I hand him the ax, and he puts it down, invites me to sit down next to him.

T MAGNO: Is there anything particular he's saying?

VAN RIESEN: Well, I think he says, this isn't for you to carry.

VEDANTAM: When the soaking prayer is over, Alex genuinely seems to be at peace. I ask Terence and Suzanne how the comfort they have given Alex is different than the comfort that a friend or a psychotherapist might offer.

S MAGNO: I think this is a very therapeutically similar technique. But I think if it weren't for the voice of God, I would not have received the tree trunk image. I mean, yeah, I did see something like that in a movie, but I think God used that picture and said, here, this applies, right? And so I think where - when you add God into the picture, there's a knowing of the person's life and inner workings that, as a friend, we may not know. So I think for us to invite God to speak into Alex's problem is kind of, like, a really great prescription. It's, like, the perfect prescription that could be given to someone who's in pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Too often, religious and nonreligious people get hung up on questions of what is real. Did Jesus actually speak to Suzanne? Did he actually tell Alex to put down the ax, or did Alex imagine it?

Now, there are times when questions like, is this real, and did this actually happen, are useful. If God tells you to go kill someone, it's worth asking if God is actually doing the talking. But when you are looking for a way to put down a long-held grudge while suffering from acute shame because you can't read, it seems silly to question the comfort offered by the voices in our heads.

For some of us, those voices can be religious. For others, they can be the voice of a beloved TV character or a close relative who has died. The human capacity for imagination is one of the greatest gifts of the brain. Our imaginations can certainly lead us astray, cause us to see things we wish to see instead of seeing reality for what it is. Those concerns are well-founded, but they should not lead to a narrow absolutism. Sometimes amazing things can happen when we allow ourselves to listen to our secret friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESS DOMAIN'S "EVERYBODY'S SECRET")

VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Laura Kwerel and Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Thomas Lu, Rhaina Cohen and Lushik Wahba. A special thanks this week to all the voice actors in our show, Kevin Beasley, Jason Fuller. Our unsung hero this week is Stacey Goers. She's the senior product manager for podcasts at NPR, and she's the go-to person for putting out fires and solving all kinds of problems. Without her, our show might not reach your ears. Thank you, Stacey.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If this episode spoke to you, please share it with a friend. Finally, if you have a parasocial relationship with me, why not come and meet me in person, get a selfie. A HIDDEN BRAIN live event will be held in Boston on Sunday, March 15. Details and ticketing information can be found at events.hiddenbrain.org. Again, that's events.hiddenbrain.org.

I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESS DOMAIN'S "EVERYBODY'S SECRET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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