Electromagnetic spirituality: Seeing God and becoming one with the universe using the “God Helmet”
In an article in Wired, Jack Pitt discusses the research of Laurentian University Cognitive Neuroscientist Dr. Michael Persinger on the “spiritual” brain. Persinger and colleagues have developed an apparatus which by altering electromagnetic brain fields can induce “spiritual” experiences, such as “seeing God” or feeling an altered sense of self and a sense of oneness with the universe. At the time of Pitt’s writing (November, 1999), Persinger had “tickled the temporal lobes” of over 900 people. According to Persinger, different subjects would attribute the unusual phenomenological experiences to their culture’s endorsed spiritual referents (e.g., Jesus, Elijah, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit). Some subjects had more Freudian interpretations (e.g., describing the presence of a one’s grandfather), while UFOists sometimes gave reports that sounded like an alien-abduction story. What appears to be happening is that Persinger’s “God Helmet” is creating the sense of an external presence, which participants sometimes label in accordance with previously held supernatural beliefs. Persinger is pictured left setting up one of his many subjects.
Relatedly, Pitt’s experience with the God Helmet involved a different variety of spirituality: the out of body of experience. The out of body experience is not uncommon in the Persinger lab. In many ways, his description of his experience resembled how seasoned meditators describe successful meditation sessions. He described a sense of being “set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness”. He was relaxed and highly alert. He also experienced vivid memories of a high school sweetheart. He remarked “I’m not sure what it says about me that the neural sensation designed to prompt visions of God set loose my ancient feelings about girls. But then, I’m not the first person to conflate God with late-night thoughts of getting laid – read more about it in Saint Augustine, Saint John of the Cross, or Deepak Chopra.”
In addition to being able to induce out-of-body experiences and the feeling of a second external presence (which sounds suspiciously similar to schizophrenia), the God Helmet is alleged to be able to generate senses of euphoria, anxiety, fear, and even sexual excitement. Pitt reports that Persinger has had negotiations regarding the development of the next generation of virtual reality simulators that will be informed by his technology so as to make the experience that much more real.
A quick remark on the allusion to schizophrenia. I imagine that a specified type of rather prevalent schizophrenia-esque delusion would not come as a significant shock to the mental health research communities. In taking an abnormal psychology course, one of the first things that a student learns is that many psychopathologies (e.g., depression, anxiety, autism, attention deficit, hyperactivity, paranoia, retardation) exist along a continuum. It’s not that people are either autistic or they’re not. There is a spectrum. Some of the people that we classify as autistic are severely autistic, while others have milder forms of the pathology. Similarly, there are surely people in the undiagnosed population that exhibit some symptoms of autism. Why could this not be the case for schizophrenic delusion? Just as those diagnosed with schizophrenia can vary substantially in the severity of the condition, presumably those in the undiagnosed population could also vary in the degree to which they exhibit some of the symptoms of the disorder. Just because mental health scientists and professionals (or any type of scientist or professional) draws a particular line in the sand, it does not mean that they have necessarily hit some objective sharp boundary. Julian Jaynes, a former Princeton psychologist who proposed a cognitive evolutionary account of schizophrenia and spirituality is discussed briefly by Pitt.
So, does this mean that there is no God?
No. To argue that no supernatural referents exist based on the fact that we can induce experiences of culturally endorsed supernatural referents by altering neurological activity would be a lot like arguing that burnt toast does not exist based on the fact that we can induce experiences of burnt toast by altering neurological activity. A foundation of the cognitive sciences is that cognitive experiences (illusory or not) are the product of neurological states. The God Helmet represents the outcome of mapping out special brain activity that occurs during supernatural experiences and attempting to recreate it using technology.
However, as I have argued ad nauseum, the cases for these supernatural referents, as I have heard them made, are devestatingly weak.