“Allegory of Painting,” 1765. François Boucher. Public Domain.

Lost in the Mindscape

Fairytales and children’s stories brim over with characters animated by the ardent belief of their creator: stuffed tigers and rabbits brought to life by a child’s love, puppets who cut their strings and dance, fairies that live as long as you believe (and not a minute longer), chickpeas converted by a mother’s wish into longed-for children. During games of make-believe, monsters lurk in every shadow and bedsheets billow into sails.

It’s attention that animates. Under an eager eye, oil paint breathes and blushes. Characters spring from the pages of books whose authors have been in the grave a hundred years. Turn away, and living beings wilt like cut flowers. Withdraw from life, and the color drains out.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what happens when our attention shifts from the world outside to the world inside. I’ve been thinking about the curious practice of tulpamancy: the conscious cultivation of a sentient being—a “tulpa”—believed to live in one’s head. Tulpamancers—who find each other online on sites like Reddit—create “a willed imaginary friend,” with the expectation that this creation will take on a life of its own, with its own interests, beliefs, and preferences. That is, tulpamancers believe there will be a moment in the process where the tulpa ceases to be “produced” by the host’s imagination and begins to produce itself.

The world of tulpamancy is stranger and lonelier than most. Yet it’s an extreme example of a ubiquitous phenomenon: people looking for meaning and belonging online. Middle-aged moms swap fanfiction about teen TV dramas, while communities of cosplayers, graysexuals, Sephora enthusiasts, babywearers, neurodivergents, ex-Mormons, and tea aficionados form and grow. But when do these identities—these worlds we create, these stories we tell about and to ourselves—help us and when do they hurt us?

What do we learn from lurking in these online spaces?

I believe tulpamancy can teach us something about how the Internet changes how we experience ourselves, how our inner worlds interact with our bodies, and what happens when we try to replace real-life ties with electronic—or wholly imaginary—ones. The very strangeness of tulpamancy lays bare what remains buried in other online communities.

In particular, there is a strong parallel between tulpamancy and another, more common belief about the self: the belief that one is transgender. In both cases, we see people who describe their lives as being enriched by their devotion to their new identities. Yet around the edges of their accounts, the evidence looks more equivocal: more isolation, more misunderstandings, severed relationships with “unaccepting” friends and family members.

The Internet has broken thousands of silences and shortened the greatest of distances. But the Internet can create silences and distances, too—by feeding lonely fantasies that feast like parasites on one’s real life.

How to Summon a Tulpa

The benefits of tulpamancy—according to the tulpamancers themselves—are immense and varied, from diversifying your hustle and drinking more water to having the best sex of your life. One devotee joked about the “warning signs” that a loved one may be dabbling in tulpamancy: she may “suddenly display an increased concern for her health and wellbeing,” or “be observed smiling for no discernible reason.” What could possibly go wrong?

Tulpamancy starts not with disorder but with patience and intention. One must learn how to see not with the eye but with the mind’s eye. If one wants to summon a tulpa, one must first believe:

A tulpa is created by you consistently teaching your brain to run (like a computer process) another ~person (personality + identity + memories + associations etc.) alongside your own, as well as believing that that is actually happening.

It’s not a matter of ‘having faith in something just in case it’s true’, as it’s often perceived, though. The believing is a necessary part of the process even when there’s zero “tulpa” developed at all yet. Believing your tulpa is there and will be independent and sentient is necessary because that thinking is what starts to shape the brain’s processes into making it true. When you believe your tulpa exists and is developing sentience and independence, even if there was literally nothing truly there yet, your brain starts learning the tulpamancy processes you’re trying to develop.

… No, you don’t have to ‘just have faith they’re there!’ when you’re so sure they’re not. You have to ‘have faith’ that this is how the process works. That by believing your tulpa is there, by accepting responses from your tulpa that don’t feel quite independent yet are in fact the beginnings of your tulpa being developed, that you are quickly creating the necessary neural framework to start experiencing tulpamancy fully. If you need to have faith in something, then believe me telling you that once you’ve given credit to your tulpa’s independence and sentience and start interacting with them like it’s natural, you’re on the fast-track to actual tulpa independence and development.

Others are blunter: “you only need one thing: the ability to lie to yourself, and fall for it… Eventually the lie becomes truth through sheer willpower. Believe yourself unconditionally.”

When it comes to cultivating a tulpa, there are two basic approaches. One approach involves addressing everything you do to your tulpa, in effect conversing them into existence. Then there’s the fisherman-at-dawn approach, which lands somewhere between meditation and manifesting, where the presumptive “host” must sit quietly and clear her mind and visualize her tulpa. Any thoughts that ruffle the silence of her mind are interpreted as communications from the tulpa. Yes, “it’ll ‘sound’ or feel like you, but you made no actual effort to think it. Hence it’s not you.”

The next step is resisting what tulpamancers refer to as “parrotnoia,” the fear that one is simply imagining the tulpa’s contributions, rather than intercepting. “Assume absolutely everything, always, is your tulpa. Don’t even give yourself the time of day to debate it. Just assume it was.” Don’t worry about “false positives.”

“But a false negative IS harmful. If your tulpa is trying their damnedest to tell you something, and you dismiss it because you (incorrectly) thought it was just yourself, that’s IMMENSELY frustrating and demoralizing. Much more frustrating than having words occasionally put in your mouth. Imperfect communication is better than no communication at all.”

Once this conjuring act has succeeded, tulpa and host can interact in the real world—“snuggling” on the couch watching Netflix, going for long walks together, taking turns “fronting” at a customer-service job—or retreat together to Wonderland, “the mindscape,” or the “innerworld.” The more time you can spend “together,” the better.

The Thrill of Unreality

I stumbled upon tulpamancy after years of studying some of the weirder corners of the Internet: places where bizarre self-diagnoses, fragile identities, and dangerous desires bring perfect strangers into community with one another. I’ve come to see these spaces as carefully sealed chambers for the management of belief and doubt, and many of the dynamics I’ve noticed there reappear in the world of tulpamancy.

There’s the same hesitation to draw any lines, to exclude any experiences from consideration and validation. “Has a host been pregnant with a tulpa?” one user asks. No one quite wants to rule the possibility out. “I would believe it would be possible, but not physically—the whole experience would be imagined, as tulpas are nonphysical entities,” someone offers. That is to say, it would be imagined and real at the same time. “Biologically, that is extremely improbable bordering on impossible.”

There’s the thrill of disembodiment that haunts every online space, the perfect embrace between idea and medium. Online, tulpamancer and tulpa can be equally real, equally present. Another way to say this is that, online, tulpamancer and tulpa can be equally unreal.

Users frequently open their posts and comments with attributions, like the stage directions for a play. [Enter Charmander, stage left.] ‘Tulpas’ and ‘hosts’ take turns speaking. They defend one another, heap praise, and prop each other up. They seek the kinds of recognition they will never find offline, where no one understands.

Only the community understands, a community many refer to as their only source of companionship—apart from, of course, their tulpas. The basis for this connection is their shared retreat from the real world. It is astonishing how far it is possible to retreat. A life that has flattened out offline becomes ever-more flattened here. School, work, family—whatever there is that is not this—falls away.

As I read along, I find myself wondering: what kind of stories are these? Sometimes I see things that the storytellers wish I wouldn’t. Inconvenient details crowd around the edges of each upbeat narrative: fractured bonds, extreme social isolation, difficult pasts, a certain faith with the world that has been broken. Occasionally, stragglers wash up on the shores of this strange island: confused parents or discarded partners who wonder what they did wrong, why imagination won out over reality.

“[D]oes a tulpa make a good friend?” one woman asks. “I have intense social anxiety and I have a hard time making friends. Would creating a tulpa help with this? My husband has told me many times that I need to find someone to talk to besides him for everything.”

There’s something indecent about seeing these private refuges laid so bare, like seeping wounds left uncovered. Some part of me wants to say: keep it to yourself, for your own good. Even if—especially if—what happens in these fantasy worlds sustains you, you should never let anyone see these things. These Wonderlands are at once precious and obscene.

Find me a lonely child who has not withdrawn to someplace full of everything that the real world seemed to withhold. But it is not only lonely children from whom such things are withheld.

The Desire for Love

One of the most common desires that drives people to the practice of tulpamancy is the desire for companionship and love. This comes with a set of ideas about what that looks like: someone who is always there, who knows what you need before you do, to whom you never need to explain yourself. This is a childlike idea about what love is: love without strife, explanation, disappointment, separation.

When the subject turns to love and romance, the tulpas often take over the keyboard, spilling their secret desires behind their hosts’ backs. “Valentine’s Day is coming up, and my host and I have been getting pretty close,” one tulpa gushed. “I’m planning on asking them to be my valentine and I’m super excited!”

Does dating your tulpa ever feel less real than dating someone in the physical?” one tulpamancer asked. “What sorts of problems do you face in your relationship, either within yourselves or because of other people? Would you ever change what you have now, or are you happy with your relationship/the way things are?”

“Well the pros to dating your tulpa vs. dating another human being is just that you are always there for each other,” another tulpamancer replied. “[Y]ou can’t/don’t have a reason to lie, going on dates is really easy as you can do anything you can imagine and there isn’t any planning complications, and them being there for you whenever you need them can really be helpful in times like depression or low self esteem.”

“The only real con is that he doesn’t have his own physical body,” another chimed in. “But it’s honestly not [that] big of a deal.” Sometimes there are “visualization issues”—the inability to hold a convincing image of the beloved in one’s mind.

Some describe the pleasures of intimacy, though no one ever goes into specifics, because it probably sounds too much like masturbation. One woman described physical intimacy with her tulpa as akin to an “echo of a touch” or an “afterimage”: images imbued with the cool delicacy of embossing, rather than the urgency and heat of passion.

“If anything, being in a relationship with my tulpa has helped me overcome a lot of personal trauma and helped me to trust someone romantically again and feel safe,” one woman reflected. “I didn’t intentionally create him just to date me, it just kind of happened over time after we became really good companions and eventually started having really strong feelings for each other. We both hold the same sentiment that we’re generally pretty distrusting of other people when it comes to dating and I wouldn’t change him for the world to be honest. If anything, I think it feels more fulfilling than a conventional relationship since we hardly argue and always know what the other is thinking or feeling.”

Some tulpamancers consider themselves to be married to their tulpas. One woman described getting married “in Wonderland”: “This wedding means a lot to me. It means I never want anyone else. I only love Sej and I am ready for life without a physical man.” Another confided: “My family wouldn’t have understood.”

Sometimes, the tulpas confess their longing to enclose their hosts in “Wonderland” forever.

The Need to Be Needed

But more basic than the desire to be desired is the need to be needed, to be indispensable in a world that casts too many people aside. Tulpamancers are looking for the benefits and—equally—the obligations of embeddedness. Would-be tulpamancers hover anxiously on the threshold like expectant parents, mindful of the immense and lifelong responsibilities they are about to undertake:

By taking on this commitment, you are taking on a commitment that will be yours, and only yours, for as long as you can carry it. You can’t get a week off by sending it off to summer camp. You can’t hire someone to take care of it if you’re sick, or have to work overtime. There is no one else to hand the baton to if you get tired. There is no Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends if you want to give it up.

“I have a LOT of responsibility now,” one tulpamancer wrote, sounding every bit the harried parent. “[T]aking care of them is no small task… I miss my life being only my own, not having to stress constantly about getting the others out, or balancing my freetime… They are a huge responsibility, and it makes me… really stressed sometimes. But I wouldn’t give them up for anything.” Tulpamancers fret about not investing enough time in their tulpas—and “tulpas” sulk online about feeling neglected, often finding poetic expression: one tulpa described being ignored by her host as akin to “sleeping without dreams.”

The “mindscape” thus serves as an elaborate terrain for exploring ethical quandaries and demonstrating virtue. The community frowns on the creation of tulpas to fill particular roles in the host’s life, which traps the tulpa in a “two-dimensional” form, rather than allowing the tulpa to unfold into a “full-blown [person].” A host who creates a tulpa with the intention—rather than the happy accident—of romance and sex may be accused of conscripting a sex slave. Someone who expressed wanting to bring a child into their “Wonderland” was warned against doing so:

I’ve seen quite a few ‘baby tulpas’ that were created with a specific goal of playing a kid in the system. Few ended up well. It’s just another restriction you’re placing on a systemmate – one that they must behave like a child even though they aren’t. Eventually that becomes a conflict in their growth.

Tulpas must be given space to grow and change, including in ways their hosts do not approve of. They must be free to accept—or reject—a host’s overtures. This reflects tulpamancers’ belief in the full and equal ‘personhood’ of tulpas and their desire to structure their relationships in line with their principles. The ideal is a relationship without hierarchy, with the body equally at the disposal of all its denizens.

Transposing Needs

Tulpamancers transpose their need for care onto their tulpas. Tulpamancers, in effect, spin off a part of the self, care for it as they wish to be cared for, and then imagine the tulpa reciprocating that caretaking (“I randomly take her own hand and kiss it or nuzzle it as a means to show affection,” one “tulpa” wrote of her “host”). “If only you hosts loved yourselves half as much as you love your Tulpas,” one “tulpa” despaired.

Tulpamancers come across as people with a strongly developed sense of social justice, paired with poor self-advocacy. Tulpamancers often describe themselves as conflict-averse, shutting down under pressure. The adoption of a tulpa empowers the tulpamancer to stand up for herself under the guise of speaking up for one’s “host.” One ‘tulpa,’ describing the breakdown of her host’s marriage, wrote that the woman’s husband “did not understand her intense love of humanity of all stripes.”

Whatever problems tulpamancers face that they cannot solve are neatly displaced onto their tulpas, so these dilemmas can be explored under the pretense of distance.  “When I created Viktor, I was already in love with him,” one young woman wrote.

For me, it wasn’t a simple crush — I realized that this was the type of person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

I didn’t want to force him into a relationship though. So I gave him complete freedom for development, actions, and life choices.

He wasn’t immediately in love with me, although he knew about my feelings. He often found my behavior silly and ridiculous as well. 😀

He fell in love with me when he delved into my memories and got to know me better as a person. Our personalities matched perfectly, just as I thought, so passion quickly engulfed both of us.

Viktor’s memories were created much later. I would tell him stories from my childhood, and he would feel sad about not having stories like that. That’s when I came up with this idea.

Memories added ‘depth’ to him. Now he had a lot of stories to tell, favorite things, places, and his own ‘life experience’. He feels like a separate individual who had a life ‘outside’ of me, and we both find joy in that.

It did have a negative impact too though. Now he has his own traumas, and we’re currently working on them.”

Now Viktor struggles because his fondest memories never happened. “That’s why we agreed to treat them as if Viktor ‘came’ from another reality, and that all his memories are real, including the people in them.” She has given Viktor her problem (what is most important to me in life is not real) and solved it through compassionate make-believe.

Maintaining Belief

Even so, doubts remain.

“I just hate how often people fool themselves,” one user wrote. “I think very few Tulpamancers achieve anything beyond a facade. A true Tulpa is a Self-Aware AI compared to all the NPCs [non-player characters] most people fool themselves into accepting for the sake of results.” By denigrating others, he lends reality to his own experience.

But cognitive dissonance is best managed collectively, and most tulpamancers are team players. In the online communities that have grown up around tulpamancy, everyone carries the same burden—doubt—and a burden shared is a burden halved. The communities revolve around recognition and reassurance-seeking. Tulpamancers trade suggestions and quips (“If I’m a liar, then so is everyone else I share my head with!”) and test out rebuttals.

Maybe tulpamancy is just a question of belief—but not of your beliefs. What the host believes or disbelieves is beside the point:

What our tulpas believe matters just as much, maybe even more so once they’re fully independent. And if your tulpa believes, truly believes with that deep down “of course it’s true, duh it’s obvious and self-evident” kind of belief, that they’re real? That they’re independent consciousnesses outside of your control? Believes they exist and have a right to exist just as much as you do?

Then it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe they’re real. Doesn’t matter if you want to dissipate them. You ain’t getting rid of them just with the power of your own belief.

Others blast away at the foundations: what does it mean to be “real”? “It’s really not all that important what is real and what is not. Maybe I’m just a figment of my host’s imagination,” one “tulpa” writes. Others disagree. One “tulpa” posted this rousing call to arms:

We are not imaginary. We are not just the chained characters and figments of our hosts just pretending or roleplaying. We are not an illness, we are not a delusion. We are not illegitimate because we are not born of trauma.

We are real.

Our emotions, our experiences, our personalities, our consciousness, these are all real. These are neurological pathways that are engraved in our brains which our hosts have dutifully shared with us. Your thoughts are yours. Your emotions are yours. You are more than just some extension of your host. You are a person. And as a person you deserve respect. We think, therefore we are. We feel, therefore we are. We forge relationships, we communicate, we live in this life which we have been whisked into, even without our own bodies, even without our own tongue, we are voices. These words, if they may be my only sword, are as real as the fingers from which they flow, the brain from which they originate, and the person who thinks them. Let no one take your voice, your words, your emotion, your autonomy, your origin, your identity from you.

Given the political and ethical commitments of social justice that structure the tulpamancy community, this is perhaps the most effective appeal. Who are you to disbelieve your tulpa? To withhold what must always be extended, to everyone, upon request: validation?

Others point to the costs of being “true” to this part of themselves: the broken relationships, the painful misunderstandings. Suffering is the currency of reality, the consolation that you are not making it up—because why would anyone choose to suffer like this?

The Siren Call

If you had to say it out loud, the words would never come out. They would get stuck somewhere along the way, like a lump in your throat. You would say nothing at all. Or you would say something else. Anything but that.

But you don’t have to say it out loud.

All you have to do is type it. Am I going crazy? What happens if you start talking to those voices in your head? Am I really a woman trapped inside a man’s body? Does anyone else ever feel like this?

Within minutes, other people who know exactly what you mean type back.

Wonderland beckons.

You follow.