Y2 Commentary: Tulpas and Thoughtforms

In Y2. The House of Eyes Professor Akayama and Jay smoke Anihilato like a cigar, and then Akayama eats Jay. With all Earth’s data accounted for, they return to the Mountain.

A long time ago, I compared Stands in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure to something called Tulpas. In Tibetan Buddhism, Tulpas are theoretical beings or objects created with the mind or spirit. In modern internet parlance, a Tulpa is a theoretical autonomous sentient being coexisting with the consciousness of its creator, a Tulpamancer. Various internet communities share guides, tips, and advice for creating and managing Tulpas.

At first glance, it’s easy to look down on this sort of thing. What kind of grown adult has an imaginary friend? It doesn’t help that many Tulpamancers choose to make Tulpas based on anime characters or My Little Ponies. Even if it’s true that Tulpas are autonomous, and not just imaginary friends whose actions are consciously directed, isn’t that just self-induced schizophrenia, or dissociative identity disorder?

But think about it this way: you can’t help but predict how your closest friend will react to events. You can even finish their sentences, or make them laugh with a knowing glance. In this sense, even if your predictions aren’t always correct, you mentally simulate your friend as a natural aspect of social interaction.

Likewise, in his book I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel Escher Bach) discusses how his late wife, Carol, lives on in his mind:

Friends kept on saying to me (oddly enough, in a well-meaning attempt to comfort me), “You can’t feel sorry for her! She’s dead! There’s no one to feel sorry for any more!” How utterly, totally wrong this felt to me.

…I realized then that although Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it lived on very determinedly in my brain.

Douglas Hofstadter even describes moments where he is Carol, which coincides with the modern Tulpamancer’s notion of ‘switching’ so their Tulpa possesses the Ego, the ‘I’ of their consciousness:

For brief periods of time in conversations, or even in nonverbal moments of intense feeling, I was Carol, just as, at times, she was Doug… I shared so many of her memories, both from our joint times and from times before we ever met, I knew so many of the people who had formed her, I loved so many of the same pieces of music, movies, books, friends, jokes, I shared so many of her most intimate desires and hopes. So her point of view, her interiority, her self, which had originally been instantiated in just one brain, came to have a second instantiation, although that one was far less complete and intricate than the original one.

(In the case of the Tulpamancer with an ‘original character’ as a Tulpa, the Tulpa’s instantiation of consciousness can only be the primary one because it’s not gleaned from another person. For a Tulpa based on a cartoon character, the voice actor’s or animator’s mental conception of the character could be called the primary instantiation, but in that case I’d argue that the Tulpa’s total consciousness is so spread-out across its creators and its audience that there is no proper primary instantiation. Everyone’s idea of Mickey Mouse or Twilight Sparkle is uniquely their own.)

As a writer, I’m used to setting aside part of my consciousness and claiming it’s someone else. I can say Dan is allegorically Dante, or Jay is Jesus, but ultimately, all their words are mine. In that regard, writing a book is like playing with sock-puppets. Fictional characters tread the line between narrative tools and autonomous actors; spend long enough on any writing forum and you’ll hear people claim their characters have spontaneously diverged from the plot they’ve planned.

There’s no way around it: the fundamental structure of consciousness is built to house autonomous sentient beings. The most obvious example is the self. After all, if you’re not an autonomous sentient being, what are you?

If we accept that the brain can generate one autonomous consciousness, why not two? Or hundreds? When thoughts arise from the mind, we naturally label them as being from the self. A Tulpamancer chooses to label some thoughts as being from their Tulpa, ‘creating’ a second sentience which must be as real as the self, as both originate from the mind. One might argue the Tulpa is illusory, but I’d argue the self is illusory to begin with, so it’s a moot point.

To me, the concept is enlightening. Any aspect of phenomenology can be called a Tulpa. Take a look at this post from Tumblr-user “Emphasis on the Homo”:

Oh hay so, nifty tip for dealing w/ invasive irrational thoughts.

Pretend Spock is standing by your shoulder telling you it’s “illogical” or some shit.

Getting invasive thoughts that everyone you know secretly hates you? Spock is there to be all “That is statistically improbable Captain, several of your friends have told you many times that they enjoy your company.”

Paranoid that you’re going to get hit by a car every time you walk by a road? Spock is walking beside you, calmly explaining that “You are mostly like not going to be hit by a car. You’re walking on the sidewalk, and there are no cars in sight.”

Is someone not messaging you back right away, and part of you is terrified that they’re dead in a ditch somewhere? Spock is there to be all “Captain, your friend is currently at work. They’re probably helping a customer, not dead.”

Seriously, I spend a lot of time pretending that Spock is bluntly telling me why all of my irrational, invasive, and paranoid thoughts probably aren’t true. “Spock, someone’s watching me.” “Captain, you are alone in your apartment. Everything is fine.”

In this case it’s explicitly stated that the Spock is “pretend,” but we can imagine someone thinking Spock’s lines and labeling those thoughts as being from a separate, but contained, entity. In this context, not only can Tulpas be advantageous for mental wellness, but it’s not even a terribly outlandish concept.

Or, a Tulpa might be the symptom of mental sickness. It’s possible to convince yourself that aliens are beaming thoughts into your brain, or your dentist implanted a microchip in your teeth to track you. A cynic might delight in saying that particularly religious people, who claim to hear God’s voice, have just made a God-Tulpa without realizing it. If that’s the case, Tulpas are dirt-common.

Taking inspiration from Tulpas, Akayama DanJay treats consciousness as modular. Characters can be merged together or pulled apart. Characters can influence one-another, and that influence leaves an imprint. Anihilato is just a bunch of souls blended Hurricane-style. When Akayama is inside the Mountain, she says her pronoun is “they” because she’s connected to thousands of other sentient minds. Individual worms, representing dabs of psychic data, combine into people, separate, and recombine.

Now’s as good a time as any to talk about whatever the hell was happening in chapter I. Dan smokes centipede and turns into an amoeba. After panicking and turning into teeth, he dissolves into his component worms in a puddle. Faith takes those worms to Anihilato, but the puddle itself turns into Dan. Dan emerges as a man without worms. Perhaps that’s why he feels useless; he’s no longer contributing to the machine-learning algorithm conjuring Earth’s population. It’s like he’s sterile. Maybe that’s why he’s able to combine with Jillian. Or maybe I’m making stuff up as I go along.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I spend a lot of time thinking about consciousness and reality or whatever. It’s nice to have an outlet where I can talk about disparate authors like Douglas Hofstadter and tumblr-user “Emphasis on the Homo.”

Keep eating your worms.

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