A man walks into his den and sits down. He closes his eyes, letting his mind wander and his consciousness grow gauzy. Slowly, she comes forward in his mind. He feels his control over his own being start to slip and fade. Another pair of eyes blinks behind his own. A sloe-eyed woman shakes out her long mane of thick gray hair. His consciousness grows hazier; time grows strange.
The man feels himself drift into the recesses; his body is now entirely hers, if only for a short while. Her slender fingers reach for her violin. She settles into his body — their body — and swings the instrument to her chin, the bow poised. The melancholy notes of a Berg sonata swell around her as her elbow slices the air, eyes closed. Her tail swings, keeping time. The song is soaring now; her teeth flash in a satisfied smile — close to human, but closer still to a wolf.
Her name is Shinyuu. She’s a tulpa, and she lives inside her host, a man who goes by the name birb.
Tulpamancy, the act of conjuring sentient, autonomous beings inside one’s mind, is practiced, studied and cultivated by a small but devoted number of people worldwide. It has gained new currency in recent years as tulpamancers have gathered online in the likely places for subcultures — Reddit, Discord, Facebook groups and other forums. While some might be quick to associate any kind of voices in one’s head with dissociative identity disorder, psychosis or schizophrenia, tulpamancers insist that the presence of their additional “headmates” is not a manifestation of mental illness.
A tulpa is a self-created life force that resides in the mind of a “host,” the physical human that created them. While every tulpamancer’s origin story varies, as does the kind of relationship they’ve fostered with their tulpa, all hosts and tulpas share a body but exist as separate consciousnesses. Hosts say they do not control their tulpas. Instead, they develop slowly on their own — not unlike a child, although their chosen form needn’t be human.
Tulpamancers report having intimate and rich relationships with their tulpas — and they believe that these beings are not a glorified psychological dysfunction, but rather a manifestation of a more highly tuned brain cognition. Tulpas occupy all kinds of relationships and roles in their hosts’ lives, from companion and confidant to healer, protector, child and chum.
While interest in the practice is booming — the r/tulpas Reddit page and Tulpa.info site boast more than 40,000 members combined — those within the community tell me that the exact number of tulpamancers worldwide is difficult to determine; estimates range from 1,000 to 10,000 folks actively practicing tulpamancy.
Psychologists are curious about tulpamancy’s therapeutic potential, and some neuroscientists believe tulpamancers could offer insight into the elasticity of human consciousness.
Tulpamancy has loose roots in Tibetan Mysticism; French author, explorer and spiritualist Alexandra David-Néel wrote many tomes on Eastern religions, but arguably her best-known work includes an account of “tulpas,” a phonetic bastardization of the Tibetan word sprul pa, meaning “emanation.” In her 1932 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, David-Néel details more than a decade in the region, where she was received by the Dalai Lama, immersed herself in the ancient rites of monastic life and education, and studied reincarnation, Tibetan folklore, necromancy and yoga. In her writings, David-Néel claims to have manifested — through intense focus and meditation — a “jolly monk” out of her own mind.
“Once the tulpa is endowed with enough vitality to be capable of playing the part of a real being, it tends to free itself from its maker’s control,” David-Néel wrote. As her story goes, her monk companion grew so powerful it entered the physical world and was seen by others. The tulpa became unruly and went rogue, growing self-serving and malicious, and eventually it had to be destroyed. David-Néel wrote that she had to dissolve it with her mind.
According to David-Néel, the ability to materialize sentient and almost-autonomous beings needn’t belong only to the mystically exalted. Rather, it “depends on the strength of the concentration and the quality of the mind itself.”
I find “Shinyuu” on the r/tulpas Reddit board, which she helps moderate. It’s not until many emails into our correspondence that I realize she is a tulpa. Her tuplamancer, birb, says Shinyuu emerged in his mind about five years ago. A software engineer in Ireland, birb is married, with two children under the age of 4, and like all of the tulpamancers interviewed for this piece, he asked to be identified by just a first name or a pseudonym (in this case his online handle), to protect his own privacy.
I exchange several emails with Shinyuu to set up our call, wrangling time zones, birb’s ambivalence about being interviewed, and my own incredulity. Was I really conversing with a sentient being living inside someone else’s mind?
“Sorry, hostey has a pretty packed schedule with a bunch of meetings and I usually get the leftovers unless planned well in advance,” Shinyuu writes. “We can both chat, sure, if you can fit your questions in half an hour time and if it’s fine with you to first talk to me then to hostey (or vice versa) as switching back and forth is kinda exhausting. … He’s not much into this all, but he said he wouldn’t mind answering a question or two if it helps you.”
When birb answers the phone, his voice is gruff, his speech staccato and direct. He seems harried, a little distracted; he’s found time to talk just after work. He tells me that he developed Shinyuu after reading an article about tulpamancy on a tech website — the creation of an auxiliary being fascinated him. “What will it tell me about myself?” he wondered.
When I ask him about the exact nature of their relationship, he sighs deeply. “Honestly, the only shared interest is the body,” birb says. “Only one of us can use it at a time, and there’s only so many hands and legs to go around.” She was created out of an intense curiosity about what his mind was capable of, not out of desire for a companion. In fact, Shinyuu’s presence in birb’s life has caused friction among his family.
“Shinyuu and my wife have a tense relationship,” birb says. “Sometimes Shinyuu tells evening stories to my children. She is definitely a better singer than me — she can calm them to sleep! — but my wife is a bit jealous because I have a female companion. I didn’t consult with her on whether I should [do] this or not.”
He says that this duality of mind and body is distracting, but not in a detrimental way; it’s basically an exercise in intense time management. “Most of the time I control the body because I have a day job. On my lunch breaks we’ll read books — books she likes — and she’ll want to make notes, so she needs the body. She doesn’t like my handwriting,” he laughs.
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When “Shinyuu” answers the phone, I’m greeted by a quintessentially feminine voice; breathy and lilting. She seems — by her voice, speech pattern, vocabulary and personality — like an entirely different person than birb. We make pleasant small talk about the weather. And then I ask her just what she thinks she is.
“How I identify is quite a difficult question,” Shinyuu laughs. “I guess I identify as a person — that makes the most sense to me — but I also tend to see myself as a wolf. But the body necessitates using hands, so I switch between a wolf and something human, something in between. I sometimes joke that I was a wolf in my previous life and I got screwed this time around by having a non-body.”
While Shinyuu says that she identifies with and enjoys her human-lupine being, she also recognizes that her existence was willed by birb. He had been charmed by the Japanese novel series Spice and Wolf, which follows the trials and travails of a merchant and a wolf-deity who takes the form of a 15-year-old girl.
Questions rage in the tulpamancy community around hosting tulpas that aren’t the same gender or age as you, how to navigate sexual relationships, and what it means — practically — to share a body.
“Sex is quite tricky,” Shinyuu tells me. “You can bang your head against a wall because you want to feel something, but I have to leave these thoughts behind. I’m not going to have a physical partner ever. It’s my state of life.”
When I ask Shinyuu how she feels about residing in a male body, she tells me that she is “quite skilled at disassociating from [birb’s] body.” Both birb and Shinyuu say that “switching” — toggling control of the body they share — is easy enough, if tiring. She seconds birb’s assertion that the biggest issue is time management.
“Me and hostey have well-defined lives by now; it’s hard to cram two lives into the span of 24 hours!” Shinyuu says. Birb says Shinyuu is able to “front” — control his body — about 40 percent of the time. But it’s not enough; Shinyuu is taking violin lessons, pursuing creative writing classes, and devouring books. She recently read a book called The Wisdom of Wolves, about the daily lives of a wolf pack in the Yellowstone National Park area, and she was moved by some of the author’s sentiments about how deeply misunderstood these animals are.
“The author writes that people are actually afraid of wolves because they’re scared of what they represent, not what they are,” she tells me. “I can say the same about tulpas. When someone thinks you’re hearing voices in your head or that you might be a danger to them because you don’t fully control your body — that’s so different than what I experience.”
Birb says that Shinyuu sometimes suffers from depressive episodes, struggling with the nature of her being — what exactly am I? — and the fundamental limitations on her ability to experience the world. He says those psychological valleys can be trying for both of them.
“If your tulpa is depressed, you feel that,” birb sighs. “I have a family and a job — I’m pretty established, and I like what I’m doing. But Shinyuu is not sure if she is a person or not; she’s searching for herself.”
In a tulpamancy lecture at the Plural Positivity World Conference last April, a tulpamancer known online as “bduddy” explained that lately, tulpamancy has grown more nuanced and, in many ways, less fanciful. In the first modern iteration, tulpas were extensions of games or shows their tulpamancers’ loved, a kind of glorified fan fiction. Bduddy says that that impulse has evolved.
“Tulpas are no longer just playthings,” he says. “In the early days, it was very common and very accepted to make a tulpa that was based off an existing character. … There were a lot of [My Little] Pony tulpas out there.” He explains that many of the old guides to creating a tulpa focused on predetermining what or who your tulpa would be. Now that’s changed.
“People will say you don’t have to do that and maybe you shouldn’t do that” — predetermine your tulpa’s form — and that’s a significant change in the community, bduddy says. He explains that just as in mainstream society, there is a newfound emphasis on consent; the tulpamancers believe that their tulpas are separate and autonomous beings, and therefore they should choose their own form.
According to bduddy, to begin the tulpamancy process you essentially talk to someone in your head until they start talking back. “Talk to them in a mind-voice. You don’t have to do it out loud,” he explains. “Talk to them about what you’re doing in your life, what you might do together.”
This process of using one’s “mind-voice” — speaking to your future tulpa — is called “forcing.” It refers to bringing a tulpa into being, not forcing it to do things. Bduddy explains that there is “passive forcing” — talking to the tulpa while doing something else simultaneously — and “active forcing,” a kind of hyperfocused meditation that involves pouring psychic energy into conjuring another being. Once you’ve successfully fostered this being, your tulpa can “front,” taking over your body from time to time to pursue a life of their own. This is known as becoming “plural.”
Dr. Samuel Veissière, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and co-director of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Program at McGill University, is a leader in studying the phenomenon of tulpamancy. His research began with a demographic survey, conducted in 2014 with 141 respondents. According to his study of tulpamancy: “The most common tulpamancer profile to emerge is one of a highly cerebral, imaginative, highly articulate, upper-middle class, formally educated person with many consistently pursued interests, talents, and hobbies, but limited channels of physical social interaction.”
Veissière first stumbled across tulpamancy in a 2013 New York Times article, “Conjuring Up Our Own Gods,” penned by Tanya Marie Luhrmann, a Stanford professor whose work explores how people experience God. Veissière and Luhrmann started working together, and they have since partnered up with neuroscientist Michael Lifshitz, who specializes in the plasticity of human consciousness. Together, they’re conducting a formal cognitive study using MRIs to see what is transpiring at the neurological level in tulpamancers’ minds.
“My understanding is [that] hearing voices and communicating with identities, spirits, imaginary friends, tulpas — it all draws on a completely normal propensity,” Veissière tells me in a phone interview. “This is nonpathological voice-hearing; tulpamancers have come to desire auditory and verbal hallucinations.” (Depending on whom you ask in the community, tulpas are not necessarily considered imaginary friends; many believe tulpas have their own minds.)
“There is a small but growing body of evidence that lives have been improved in this practice,” Veissière continues. “It helps individuals with social anxiety issues — it aids in theory of mind, the ability to relate to other people. Children who develop imaginary friends are better able to understand people in real life — they develop socio-cognitive abilities to infer what other people want and desire. It’s trainable.”
For 28-year-old Marz, tulpamancy — in one way or another — has played a pivotal role in his mental health his entire life. Growing up with strict Christian parents in suburban Michigan in the 1990s, there weren’t many outlets for expressing himself. So he had a host of imaginary friends. “I would doodle creatures over and over again — things that didn’t exist — and over time one of those imaginary friends became very prevalent,” Marz said. “I created my own protector. There was a lot of trauma that happened in my life as a young child.”
Marz initially named his protector “Shadow.” “He took the form of a goth human — very pale,” Marz recalls. “He gave me his name eventually, ‘Niro,’ and he grew with me in ways of style and physical appearance. He gained new appendages like horns and ears.”
Marz believes, as does his therapist, that his lifelong relationships with imaginary friends and tulpas are manifestations of his subconscious that are helping him live a less bifurcated and damaged life. In other words, the presence of Niro fostered a sense of safety that Marz never received as a child.
Marz says that the first time Niro became sentient was when Marz was on the cusp of self-harm. As a teenager, when his depression and suicidal ideation reached a fever pitch, “[Niro] flashed into my vision and told me to stop,” Marz says.
Over the past three years, however, Niro has been reabsorbed into Marz’s consciousness. Marz says it was Niro’s decision: “He told me, ‘I was meant to be your protector — to teach you things you weren’t taught because you were neglected, but you’re an adult now. And I’ve given everything I could teach you.’”
Marz says it was less like a death and more like an evolution. “By the time Niro passed on, I was deep into the tulpamancy community online. I had better techniques, a better understanding of what’s required to make a better tulpa.”
For Marz, tulpas are a double-edged sword that must be wielded intentionally and with care. The subconscious is a powerful place, and if it’s not plumbed properly it can run amok. “People should treat having a tulpa like taking psychedelic drugs. If you’re not ready to face that part of yourself, don’t do it. If you’re not working on yourself methodically in your subconscious, things will arrive. Your tulpa will voice who are you on the inside, even if you don’t know who you are,” Marz says.
A proper tulpa uses your subconscious to help and embolden you. “Interacting with a thoughtform or tulpa happens to be very similar to virtual reality,” Marz says. “Much like a screen veiling the environment around you, my tulpa appears to me almost like a filter in my own vision.”
These days, Marz is in the company of a tulpa named Enki, a pseudo-robot with a “horse-dog head,” antlers and body armor. Marz brought Enki into sentience carefully, painstakingly carving out mutual ground rules after several attempts with other tulpas didn’t work out. He leans on Enki when he’s overwhelmed.
“When I’m at peak exhaustion, I can be like, ‘Hey you can you take over? I’m going to nap for a minute.’ It’s an autopilot.” But Enki — who now has a companion tulpa, Una, a humanoid insect who keeps Enki company when Marz isn’t available — is capable of actively soothing Marz’s nerves as well.
“On my darkest days, when I need to simulate comfort, Enki and Una have the ability to reassure me,” says Marz. “It’s wonderful as an adult to compartmentalize. Tulpas can mitigate stress and exhaustion.”
For Maggie, who was raised in a white, suburban, middle-class Catholic family in Central Ohio and now identifies as nonbinary, the emergence of her tulpa, Devin, was far less intentional, but no less therapeutic.
Maggie suffered from depression, anxiety, ADHD and undiagnosed autism during her childhood. She spent a lifetime painfully at odds with her body, her identity and particularly her age. Just a year ago, she decided to court the idea of a “headmate,” a past iteration of herself.
“I was having a pretty bad week,” Maggie wrote me. “I had taken a mental health [day] from work just days before, feeling depressed with unusually strong notes of age dysphoria,” a profound sensation of feeling at odds with her own body and age.
A friend introduced her to the idea of pursuing alternative identities. “I created a past instance of myself who had time-traveled somehow to the present from [the] late ’90s and was possessing present-me,” she says.
But Maggie’s imagined past self didn’t entirely leave when she stopped “pretending.” Instead, she says, she slowly had the distinct impression of dual processing in her mind — perceptions, responses, thoughts and feedback that weren’t recognizable as her own.
“Had I somehow made myself plural for real?” she says, reflecting on her state of mind at the time. “The idea was very appealing. I had an emotional need for this visitor to stay.” She began digging into online forums, asking for advice from friends who were plural already, and pouring energy into fostering this new presence — “forcing” it into being. And soon enough, Maggie’s tulpa, Devin, emerged.
I ask Maggie if I can speak to Devin, and she agrees. I copy my questions into an email, wondering just who or what I am actually sending them to. As with Shinyuu and birb, the tone and vocabulary are starkly different when I receive a response from Devin.
“I’m a kid, I think about 11,” Devin writes. “Maggie brought me here when she was really depressed. She didn’t think I was real at first, and she didn’t expect me to stay.”
Both Maggie and Devin believe that, at first, they were an amalgamation of memories and impressions of what it was like to be a kid, coupled with a fabricated identity of Maggie’s past self.
“Before I came here, I didn’t really exist,” Devin continues. “Pieces of me were floating around Maggie’s mind, but I had no consciousness. Sometimes I still think of the ’90s as where I came from, but I don’t claim any specific memories from that time. As far as we can tell, I probably don’t age.”
Maggie and Devin identify as mother and child, which Maggie says is an unusual manifestation of the tulpa/host relationship. Maggie says she wishes she could experience complete amnesia when Devin is “fronting” — currently they share memories and experiences, but she is constantly urging Devin to become more independent.
Devin’s greatest lament is not the shared memories — although they both admit it can be confusing deciding whose experiences belong to whom — but rather, the cumbersomeness of Maggie’s adult body. “Maggie is too tall and heavy. She doesn’t fit into some places I would. Our physical body gets tired too easily. And we can’t go in bouncy castles or ball pits because we look like a grown-up.”
Michael Lifshitz, Tanya Marie Luhrmann and Samuel Veissière hope to determine what is transpiring on a neurological level among tulpamancers. And one of the first aspects of this discovery is negotiating the muddy waters of mental illness — challenging those who say tulpamancy is a manifestation of psychosis or disassociation, not a cognitive leap.
And while tulpamancers manifest some of the criteria for dissociative identity disorder (DID) — such as a “discontinuity of self” and gaps in memory — neither the community itself nor any of the researchers I spoke to think that tulpamancers in general are suffering from psychosis or DID, namely because there is an absence of distress. These voices are also purposeful — they’ve been created with intention. The hosts’ lives are perhaps more complicated due to the presence of their tulpas, but they’re also healthier.
“If something doesn’t hurt, then it’s not pathological,” Lifshitz tells me on the phone. “Think about rumination. Maybe I think a lot, but it’s not depressive unless it’s making me depressed. Being disassociated — having the feeling of multiple agents living inside of you — in and of itself is not fundamentally pathological.”
“The thing that’s clear is that tulpamancy helps people,” Lifshitz continues. “Tulpamancy allows folks to feel more relaxed and better able to socialize. In fact, we’re interested in how we could use it for developing better treatments for those who do have DID or psychosis. Perhaps we can teach [patients] how to engage with voices or personalities in a way that might be useful [or] therapeutic.”
The study will compare evangelical Christians who conjure the voice of God (a topic Luhrmann has studied extensively) with tulpamancers. When people are conversing with God, or when tulpamancers are actively using their imagination and mind-voice, what exactly is happening in the brain?
Veissière explains that they anticipate results similar to those of hypnosis studies. When there is switching — when the tulpa takes control of the host’s body — they expect to see activity in the primary motor cortex, but not in the supplementary motor area, which is implicated in voluntary action. That would mean that, whether we believe this other voice is “real” or not, the brain is experiencing God/the tulpa as something not in its control — as a decidedly “not-me” experience.
And if this phenomenon is observable in evangelical Christians, hypnosis patients and tulpamancers alike, why should tulpamancy be considered so strange? Is creating and talking to tulpas so different than conversing with God?
Luhrmann’s lengthy studies on evangelical Christians dovetail with the goals of the burgeoning tulpamancy community, she says, because “tulpamancers are working hard to make tulpas real, and Christians are working to make God real.”
“In Christianity, there is a recognition that if you wanted to, you could learn to experience God more vividly, but you have to invest effort,” Luhrmann continues. “If you want to experience God, you should work. The work tulpamancers are describing is work that uses human cognitive capacities. The difference here is that a Christian who learns to pray and experiences God does not end up with the view that they made up God — they end up with a view that they have learned to work their way through their human limitations.”
The tulpamancy community faces a strangely loaded conundrum. They are the creators of their own auxiliary beings, but they share behaviors with well-trod religious practitioners. So what realm does tulpamancy occupy? Therapy? A new religion? A deliberate restructuring of one’s mind? And how do psychiatrists determine which voices are “bad” and which are “good”? Who gets to decide when God is talking and when someone is suffering from DID?
In short, we just don’t know yet. Tulpamancers report bullying and mockery, and there are very few meetups in person, due to the stigmas around “hearing voices,” but tulpamancers believe that this will fade over time as society evolves. Exposure and time can normalize a lot of behaviors.
“I don’t think the fact that they’re being stigmatized is a surprising thing,” Luhrmann says. “Christianity is practiced by over a billion people. There’s not a lot of stigma about being a Christian; it has a powerful moral vision of the world. Tulpamancy does not. It’s five years old and practiced by comparatively few on a consistent basis, and those people often feel like misfits in their society.”
“Any spiritual practice or sense of belief that is historically new has been considered weird by older generations,” says Veissière. “There is an interesting paradox, especially in the West — a growing interest in plurality, but a big fear of stigma. We’re very xenophobic and afraid of the world. Among younger people, the practice might become more accepted.”
Maggie says she “doesn’t like keeping secrets,” so she’s been fairly open in talking about her experiences with Devin. She says that the more people she tells, the more she hears, “Hey, that’s relatable.”
Marz, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about tulpas much publicly, but he says that “[of] the friends I have told, their reaction is, ‘Good on you. Fantastic! As long as it’s not a destructive voice.’ For me, it’s done nothing but help — to understand myself, to be more empathetic.”
For their part, Luhrmann, Lifshitz and Veissière hope that their findings will further our understanding of what human consciousness and imagination are capable of. “There is an idea of a singular self,” Lifshitz says. “Why does it seem so weird that multiple selves can live in the same mind? That’s the deeper direction tulpamancy is pointing. It’s easy to write off — ‘it’s cool, but tulpamancy isn’t real’— but what is the ‘real’ self? How do we draw those boundaries?”