The ‘Sensed-Presence’ effect: What do we know?

The Felt Presence, or Sensed-Presence (SP) phenomenon has been identified in research as an experience of ‘Other’ cognisant presence, alien to the experiencer’s sense of self, and considered in part to be the phenomenological basis for visitation by gods, deities, spirits, and extra-terrestrials (Persinger, 1993). This phenomenon is often experienced in relation to hypnopompic and hypnogogic experiences during sleep paralysis (or just before sleeping/just after waking), or epileptic aura.

Originally, around the late 90’s and early 2000’s, some neuroscientific evidence seemed to suggest that these sensations could be induced via weak trans-cranial magnetic stimulation around the temporo-parietal junction; and so the ‘God Helmet‘ was born (Cheyne 2001; Cheyne & Girard, 2004; Persinger & Cook, 1997; Persinger & Healey, 2002).

However, Sensed Presence induction was heavily disputed due to failed replication, and instead, has been suggested that instead personality type, general anxiety, and suggestibility to be contributors of the effect, as well as the apriori beliefs of the participants to be of importance (Nielson et al., 2007; Granqvist et al., 2005; Pierre & Persinger, 2006).

Taking a look first at a population level, Tanya Luhrmann (2012) describes in her compelling ethnography ‘When God Talks Back’, an Evangelical Christian church, known as the Vineyard, where the extreme sensed presence of God is actively encouraged. In their reported statements, congregants vary in the nature of their experience, from having real ‘dinner dates’ with God, to paying close attention to important images and thoughts that may be messages from the Divine. All are encouraged to actively ‘feel God walking beside’ them in a very visceral way. But are these congregants mad?

Luhrmann makes note that in many contemplative traditions, and even in some disciplines of psychotherapy, the distinction between important imagery and common mental chatter is remarkably important to discern what might be inspirational and what might be discarded. Further, it would appear that the immense feeling of wholeness reported in the congregants with such sensed intimacy is huge.

However on a clinical level, where experiences may be destabilising and related to illness, perceptual hallucination has been suggested to be indicative of aspects of schizotypy and magical ideation (Bell et al., 2006; Landtblom, 2006; Miller et al., 2014; Cooke & Elcoro, 2013), and has been previously positively correlated with measures of social anxiety and social imagery (Solomonova et al., 2008). Clarke (2010) has further suggested that in the context of psychosis, a spiritual experience of an ‘other’ may form a basis of psychotic preoccupation. However, Clarke (2010) also suggests that the meaning behind such experiences should not necessarily be branded as psychotic, but potentially as a punctuation to change that may be occurring in our way of viewing the world; a transliminal experience leading somewhere more aware. So, is this all based on context?

Looking at this experience from both angles, we may have a view of this phenomena which can either lead to destabilising experiences, or indeed may be highly inspirational and healthy. One’s experiential bliss may be another’s nightmare. The sense of an ‘other’ may be a function of a ‘loss of Self’, and hence if this distinction is made, we may further look into how this is represented in psychosis, and indeed why this experience may not be as destabilising from a contemplative standpoint (Barnby et al., 2015).

Whether inspirational or catastrophic, understanding the Sensed Presence phenomena is a path worth pursuing. Through the exploration of this experience, we may further understand neurologically and phenomenologically the distinction we make between ‘Self’ and ‘Other’, why for some this division is more pronounced or integrated, if the experience of an ‘Other’ relates further to any neurological basis, and from a clinical standpoint, we may further elucidate the predisposition of this phenomena into aetiology and treatment of mental illness (Granqvist et al., 2009).


Barnby, J. M., Bailey, N. W., Chambers, R., & Fitzgerald, P. B. (2015). How similar are the changes in neural activity resulting from mindfulness practice in contrast to spiritual practice?. Consciousness and cognition, 36, 219-232.


Bell, V., Halligan, P. W., & Ellis, H. D. (2006). The Cardiff Anomalous Perceptions Scale (CAPS): a new validated measure of anomalous perceptual experience. Schizophrenia Bulletin32(2), 366-377.


Clarke, I. (Ed.). (2010). Psychosis and spirituality: Consolidating the new paradigm. John Wiley & Sons.


Girard, T. A., & Cheyne, J. A. (2004). Spatial characteristics of hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry,9(4), 281-300.


Granqvist, P., Fredrikson, M., Unge, P., Hagenfeldt, A., Valind, S., Larhammar, D., & Larsson, M. (2005). Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields. Neuroscience Letters379(1), 1-6.


Granqvist, P., Fransson, M., & Hagekull, B. (2009). Disorganized attachment, absorption, and new age spirituality: a mediational model. Attachment & human development11(4), 385-403.


Landtblom, A. M. (2006). The “sensed presence”: an epileptic aura with religious overtones. Epilepsy & Behavior9(1), 186-188.


Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. Vintage.


Nielsen, T. (2007). Felt presence: Paranoid delusion or hallucinatory social imagery?. Consciousness and cognition16(4), 975-983.


Persinger, M. A., & Healey, F. (2002). Experimental facilitation of the sensed presence: Possible intercalation between the hemispheres induced by complex magnetic fields. The Journal of nervous and mental disease190(8), 533-541.


Pierre, L. S., & Persinger, M. A. (2006). Experimental facilitation of the sensed presence is predicted by the specific patterns of the applied magnetic fields, not by suggestibility: Re-analyses of 19 experiments. International Journal of Neuroscience116(19), 1079-1096.


Solomonova, E., Nielsen, T., Stenstrom, P., Simard, V., Frantova, E., & Donderi, D. (2008). Sensed presence as a correlate of sleep paralysis distress, social anxiety and waking state social imagery. Consciousness and cognition17(1), 49-63.



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