Experiencing presence: An interactive model of perception

Anna I. Corwin, Cordelia Erickson-Davis


This essay brings literature in experimental psychology and visual perception into conversation with psychological anthropology to propose a new theory of presence. We examine data on Catholic nuns’ experiences of God’s presence, proposing that presence—indeed all perceptual consciousness—can be conceived of as the dynamic and ever-emerging interaction of a perceiver-environment system. By understanding presence as interactional, we shift away from framing experience of the divine as a puzzle to be explained in the face of what we know about the natural order of things toward a model in which perceptual experience is co-constituted by a perceiver and environment in relation. By proposing a common language that can be used to talk across the bounds of the “natural” and “social” sciences, this essay introduces a model that can capture and represent the lived experiences of individuals in a way that both takes that experience seriously and renders that experience open to empirical investigation.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/708542