Electromagnetic spirituality: Seeing God and becoming one with the universe using the “God Helmet”

_39244209_ghost_c203.jpg 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.

Hat Tip: Tyler Handley

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4 Responses to “Electromagnetic spirituality: Seeing God and becoming one with the universe using the “God Helmet””
  1. The Vicar says:

    While it is true that the God Helmet is not a proof that god does not exist, it is still a blow against theism because it is a proof that “spiritual” experiences can derive from purely material sources. The existence of this helmet, supposing it to be effective (why has nobody else built one?), shows that “feeling the presence of god” is the result of the stimulation of certain parts of the brain. This, in turn, means that some portion of people who claim to feel the presence of god are in fact experiencing a particular type of neural dysfunction — a “divine seizure”.

    This would not by any means be the first discovery of pleasant mental trouble — Fyodor Dostoevski wrote about pleasurable seizures both in letters and novels, and he described them in religious terms. (And there are other pleasurable seizures, too — in chapter 4 of Newton’s Madness: Further Tales of Clinical Neurology by the late neurologist Harold Klawans, a patient is described whose seizures manifest as spontaneous orgasms.)

    The question, then, becomes: what percentage of “genuine” religious experience (as opposed to direct fraud) is attributable to mental dysfunction. The existence of the God Helmet suggests that the answer is at least higher than zero. The ability of modern science to observe and influence neural states directly gives us the first opportunity to even raise this question in a meaningful way. The actual value would be impossible to find — you can’t make everyone live in an MRI 24/7, which is what it would take. But then, the ability to divert lightning strikes with lightning rods doesn’t prove that there isn’t a god directing the lightning, either, yet how many people still believe that lightning strikes are divine punishment and not plain old electrical discharges?

    To draw an analogy: suppose you own a business which is losing money. It might be because your business plan is untenable and doomed to fail no matter what. Until recently, you have spent all your time in your office, unable to observe the actual operations. But then one day come out into the shop, and you observe one of your employees stealing money from the till. Your business may still be fundamentally flawed, but now there is the possibility that the losses are caused by employee theft which you were previously unable to detect. At the very least, you know that the amount of loss caused by employee theft is greater than 0%.

    Incidentally, this is not the only way in which neurologists have seriously suggested that religion is linked to neural dysfunction. Oliver Sacks (the neurologist on whom Robin Williams’ character was based in the movie Awakenings) pointed out in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales that some Christian mystic visions are eerily similar in description to certain types of migraines.

    Why isn’t all this better-known? Because despite the bad reputation of atheists, we are not actually rude people. Most of us hesitate to say, flat out: “your religious beliefs are quite likely to be based on neurological dysfunction, either your own or others. You and/or the people you trust are sick in the head, go get on some meds.” And theists are staggeringly unlikely to say “my goodness, the matchup between my beliefs and the effects of brain malfunction are very similar, perhaps I should rethink my worldview.” (This is in fact evidence of a higher-level mental malfunction — if I may reference another book, look up Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me on Amazon.)

  2. Jim Lippard says:

    I have not been impressed with any of Persinger’s work, and I think his “god helmet” effects are due to suggestion rather than magnetic effects on the brain. A 2004 study in Nature supports this conclusion:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2004/041206/full/news041206-10.html

    Persinger has long tried to attribute electromagnetic causes to all sorts of paranormal events, including events which have already shown to have other causes (in his book _Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events_, which I reviewed many years ago in _The Arizona Skeptic_). He tried to find correlations between earthquakes and UFO sightings, arguing that tectonic strain causes electromagnetic effects on the brains of those who see UFOs; he called this “tectonic strain theory.”

    I think the chapter on Persinger in John Horgan’s _Rational Mysticism_ casts further doubt on his credibility. I review that book here:

    http://www.amazon.com/review/R3FMNCIH40XEL2/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

    I think Stewart Guthrie, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett have a far more plausible account of the origin of religious views in normal, not dysfunctional, brain processing–we have evolved to see patterns, and in particular patterns from which we infer agency. While some forms of brain dysfunction can produce religious ideation (schizophrenia, for example), this isn’t the cause of the typical believer’s religious inferences.

  3. TRM says:

    There is a publically-available version of this technology.

    See http://www.spiritualbrain.com

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