JR'S Free Thought Pages
The God Helmet by Robert Hercz (Saturday Night Magazine – National Post Supplement) ~ October 2002
"Now remember, these are subtle effects," says Michael Persinger. "Don't try to force anything. Just relax and go with the experience." I feel him adjust the yellow motorcycle helmet, studded with electromagnets that I'm wearing. I hear him step out of the soundproof chamber and pull the heavy door closed behind him. If all goes well, I am about to have a powerful mystical experience.
The time - a Saturday night in May - certainly feels ripe. Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, is between semesters and eerily deserted. Besides Persinger and Linda St-Pierre, a research associate, the only living creatures I've seen on campus are lab rats preparing to die for science. Now I'm alone in an unnaturally quiet room with wires attached to my head, I'm wearing a blindfold, and someone working a control panel is about to bathe my brain in complex magnetic fields.
Astonishing things have happened in this chamber. One woman believed her dead mother had materialized beside her. Another felt a presence so powerful and benign that she wept when it faded. British journalist Ian Cotton understood that he was, and always had been, a Tibetan monk. Psychologist Susan Blackmore, writing in New Scientist, said she felt something "get hold of my leg and pull it, distort it, and drag it up the wall.... Totally out of the blue, but intensely and vividly, I suddenly felt angry.... Later, it was replaced by an equally sudden attack of fear." Over a thousand volunteers have worn the helmet, and 8o per cent of them, Persinger says, experience a "sensed presence - the feeling that someone's standing near you, the feeling there must be something greater, the feeling of infinite possibilities." I want some of that.For the first half of my 6o-minute session, though, nothing happens. When something does, it is - alas a subtle effect indeed. The field of swirls and blotches on the inside of my eyelids - the ordinary optical noise your brain generates when your eyes are closed - begins to brighten. The usual dull reds and browns give way to glowing purple streaks and zigzags with sharp, well-defined edges. It's a silent, vivid little light show that pleases me greatly, but it is over in a minute or two. More silence, more nothing. Then suddenly I feel my head being lifted, expanding, filling the chamber. It's a brief, disorienting, yet enjoyable sensation - but it's not the Meaning of Life.
Ah, but I wasn't a good subject for the experiment, Persinger explains afterwards: I had come with expectations. Usually, subjects are told only that they're participating in a relaxation exercise, but I knew that my brain - specifically the fist-sized regions under my temples, the temporal lobes - would be stimulated with a magnetic field that can evoke unusual experiences. That knowledge broke the spell. If those subtle effects had come unexpectedly (when I was alone on a mountaintop, perhaps) they might have taken on a much greater significance. And people have such experiences, on mountaintops, in deserts and on roads to Damascus, because the yellow helmet is optional. Some people, Persinger says, create those weak, complex fields by themselves. Others are particularly sensitive to the magnetic fields, natural and manufactured, that wax and wane around us. People who experience a presence that feels powerful, invisible and sentient often associate it with the supernatural. Not surprising - but wrong, Persinger believes. Religious experiences, he says, are creations of the brain.
My results aside, Persinger's work has put him at the forefront of a new field called neurotheology, the attempt to understand religion from the brain's point of view, or why, as another neurotheologist has said, "instead of God creating our brains, our brains created God." Such quests may capture the imagination of the public, but Persinger's efforts are disdained by the general scientific community. He expects no less. "Most scientists follow the wave. That's what drives granting ... everybody follows like a herd," he says. "There are very few scientists who have the courage to pursue the essence of human existence."
Michael Persinger didn't build his helmet to find God. He set out to locate (and perhaps summon) the creative state necessary for scientific discovery. A common type of epileptic seizure without obvious convulsions - an electrical storm in the brain that has long been associated with mystics and visions - is centred for the most part in the temporal lobes. Persinger guessed that by gently tickling those areas with a magnetic pattern programmed to resemble an epileptic seizure, he might induce similar feelings of insight and significance. Sure enough, his first subjects reported meaningful experiences, most commonly the "sensed presence." When asked to describe them, they didn't call the feelings creative or inspirational, but religious.
From these results with ordinary - that is, not epileptic - subjects, Persinger hypothesizes that true temporal-lobe epileptics aren't different from the rest of us in kind, but in degree. On the spectrum of temporal lobe excitability (or lability), they're the most extreme cases. Plenty of people ("most of your musicians, artists or writers") have sensitive temporal lobes that undergo what Persinger has termed "micro-seizures." These aren't accompanied by outward signs such as convulsions, but they are sometimes accompanied by a mystical experience. The least temporally sensitive among us have microseizures only under extreme conditions such as anxiety, bereavement or prolonged fasting.
My less-than-supernatural experience with the helmet suggests that my temporal lobes aren't very excitable, which disappoints me. I wanted to be in the sensitive artists group. There is an upside, though. "If you're too temporally labile, you tend to self-medicate with booze and things," Persinger says. Maybe he's just trying to make me feel better.
Research into consciousness is in its infancy, so what actually conjures the sentient presence is anyone's guess. Current studies suggest that the sense of self - which maintains the boundary between you and the outside world - is created in the left temporal lobe. When you lose that boundary, you feel integrated with the whole universe; that's one kind of religious experience. Stimulating the right temporal lobe evokes a right-hemispheric equivalent sense of self, which the brain interprets as another entity. The "sensed presence," in other words, is the right hemisphere's sense of self, which we're only aware of when the signals in the right lobe rise above normal levels. There are reports of such experiences in every culture, Persinger notes. The ancient Greeks called it the Muses. Moses, St. Paul, Joan of Arc and Mohammed - all of whom were probably epileptic, say some scientists - called it the voice of God.
After my session, we negotiate the basement warren of labs and offices that belong to the Neuroscience Research Group (essentially an alias for Persinger and his grad students) and settle into one of them to talk. Over Persinger's left shoulder are shelves of brains - rat, bear, human, whole, sliced and quartered - sealed in Tupperware. Persinger, immaculate in a three-piece pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt and gold cufflinks, looks a little incongruous in juxtaposition, but no one has ever seen him in any other attire. "He mows the lawn in a three-piece suit," Linda St-Pierre tells me, which makes me laugh., "No, I'm serious," she says. Persinger later confirms this is true.
Michael Persinger was a navy brat, born in Florida to a chief petty officer attached to an atomic bomb delivery squadron (which took him away for six months at a stretch). He grew up in Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin. As a boy he was less academically inclined than "extraordinarily inquisitive," testing electricity's effect on tadpoles and blowing apart bell jars in an attempt to recreate the beginnings of life.
According to his navy father, real men didn't go to college, so Michael was a double disappointment when he entered the University of Wisconsin (on a track and field scholarship) and then became a draft dodger. Coming to Canada in 1969 was a serious step; he believed he was leaving the United States forever. He arrived at the border prepared for a life of exile and conflict, both political and professional.
"I realized that the objectivity and methodology of science often brought you into confrontation with the society of the day," he says. "I knew from the history of science that this was not unusual."
Persinger (who became a Canadian citizen in the early 1970s has spent his entire career in the psychology and biology departments at Laurentian. While in recent decades science has been sliced into increasingly narrow specialties, Persinger remains a big-picture thinker, as much natural philosopher as scientist. His personality precludes anything else. Ask him a question, and Persinger, talking rapidly, switching from chemistry to biology to psychology, will deliver a riff on the myriad associations your question has triggered. He wishes more scientists thought his way.
"We're frontier researchers, the cutting edge, not necessarily because we're great, but because we do interdisciplinary research," he says. "And interdisciplinary research, unless we change our university system, is going to be gone. Most contemporary scientists are super-techs, the super technicians - and that's not an insult, that's the nature of the technology of our society. But we have to realize that certain problems aren't going to be solved unless you have the integrators. And this problem - the idea of mystical experience, the nature of consciousness, the brain basis to God - isn't going to be solved by any single discipline because it's human experience, which is not a single discipline."
He's an atheist, says religious belief is "a cognitive virus" and proclaims on his Web page that his research has been "encouraged by the historical fact that most wars and group degradations are coupled implicitly to god beliefs." But he wants to be clear: he is worried not about religion itself, but about the way it polarizes society. In fact, he says, being religious might be a valuable adaptive strategy, letting us "minimize the fear of death," through "the possibility of immortality." It has to be, or we wouldn't have evolved the capacity for it.
"Suppose you can anticipate your personal demise. Well, that precipitates tremendous anxiety, and anxiety is devastating to cognitive processes. So from a natural selection point of view, you can see why individuals would have been selected if they could minimize that anxiety," he explains. "The minute a person can affiliate themselves with this concept of infinite and forever, there is no personal death, and consequently there is no reason to have anxiety. You can see why people become addicted to it." When Karl Marx wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses, he thought he was being metaphorical. Persinger thinks there's a good chance Marx was writing the literal neurochemical truth.
This is just the sort of talk that has moved small groups to hold occasional prayer meetings on his office doorstep, but Persinger doesn't see why his helmet should ruffle feathers. He's only claiming that our brains are predisposed to generate religious experiences. He's not saying there is no God, though the way he delivers that message won't gladden the hearts of the faithful. "The existence of God is basically irrelevant," he says. "The way God is defined - infinite, forever - is an empty hypothesis. You can't test it one way or another. Perhaps everything is created by non-physical, invisible pink elephants."
Despite its mystical reverberations, Persinger foresees plenty of practical applications for his work. He's adapting the helmet technology for treating depression and pain; in tests on rats he's found a magnetic pattern that has the effect of morphine. He's also testing it as a means of preventing epileptic seizures. And he thinks the brightly coloured spots I experienced, properly directed, could send visual information directly into the brains of the blind, a kind of "visual Braille."
There are more exotic applications. The technology's apparition-conjuring ability has already been used for ghost-busting. In 1993 Don Hill, a broadcaster who hosts the CBC radio program Tapestry, bought a house in Canmore, Alberta, which he became convinced was haunted. He had such disturbing experiences that he sold the house in 1994 and began a four-year investigation, which led him to Michael Persinger's lab. In the soundproof chamber Hill re-experienced the ghost that had terrified him in Canmore. Persinger, monitoring Hill's brain activity from outside the chamber, stopped the experiment when Hill panicked. But Hill had seen enough, and the experience liberated him: knowing the ghost was a creation of his own brain extinguished his fear.
Persinger thinks that same sort of demonstration might have a salutary effect on the sorts of people who fly airplanes into buildings. "If we understand more about how the God experience occurs, the idea that it's truly true, without doubt, will at least be challenged. If I can imitate these experiences with a very simple technology, then we know it's coming from the brain, so when someone hears a voice saying, `Hello, this is Allah, God, Buddha, whoever, go and smash your neighbour's head in,' then maybe there's another way of looking at it." Persinger's surveys show that an astonishing 40 per cent of Canadian male university students who have temporal lobe lability, go to church once a week and had a religious experience before their teen years agree with the statement "If God told me to kill, I would do it in his name."
Finally, we come to Persinger's greatest hope for the helmet technology. "Can we use it to decrease the anxiety in an increasingly secular world?" he asks. "People dying of cancer, who don't believe in God - we could use that stimulation to allow the feeling of wholeness, to allow the feeling of personal development. In the future, you may find a space in the average home, much like in the Eastern tradition, which is basically your God centre, where you sit down, 'expose' yourself - it may not be a helmet by then - where you would be able to pursue your personal development. Do we have a technology here that will allow us to pursue the last greatest mystery, which is your own introspection?"
A consummation devoutly to be wished. Also a fine irony: the technology replacing the God it helps unseat.
Persinger’s work on religious experiences has attracted a good deal of attention - he's been featured in stories in Wired and New Scientist and in a neurotheology cover story in Neweweek, among many others. But his God-in-the-head work is only a small fraction of his output. In 30 years, he has published more than 300 papers and seven books, and, except for the neurotheology material, the mainstream press doesn't even mention them in passing. Why? Because neurotheology is safe, and the rest is not. (If neurotheology weren't safe, it wouldn't have made the cover of Neweweek. The new discipline's findings are absolutely consistent, after all, with what science has been doing to religion for 500 years No one should be shocked. Titillated, maybe, but not shocked.) But Persinger's other interests? The world may not be ready.
The minute I met him, Persinger mentioned that Sean Harribance, a famous psychic, had come to Sudbury to be studied. He sat in the soundproof chamber while handling photographs in sealed envelopes, describing what he couldn't see. "He was remarkably accurate. It's not just random, it's actually tied to [brain] activity," Persinger enthused. "His brain is quite different." After September 11, the Pentagon sequestered Harribance with some photos of its own, Persinger says. "I have a hunch who the pictures were of," he adds.
Persinger has also studied UFO sightings, and here too he occupies a unique spot on the skeptical divide. He believes UFOs aren't alien spacecraft, but electromagnetic discharges created by stresses in the tectonic plates that form the earth's crust. According to Persinger's Tectonic Strain Theory, these discharges can create real, luminous shapes in the air, or generate the inside-the-brain lighting I enjoyed under the helmet. He's found that UFO sightings are correlated with earthquake activity: as the tectonic strain that precedes an earthquake increases, so do the number of reported sightings. (Calling these phenomena spaceships, ironically, is merely a marker of our secular, science-orient-ed times, Persinger notes. He has published a paper pointing out that in 1968 and 1969, thousands witnessed luminous phenomena over a church in Egypt as seismic activity increased tenfold in the region. They were sure they'd seen the Virgin Mary. In other eras, they would have seen a sprite or demon.)
There's more, much more, almost all of it built on the belief that we are influenced, in ways we have only recently been able to measure, by the magnetic fields around us. Those fields are thickening. "We're living more and more in a complex electromagnetic environment where the experiences of the effects may not be obvious," he says. Will he use a cellphone? "If I ever had to because of an emergency, yes."
Persinger has written dozens of papers illustrating these effects, describing everything from a young woman who slept with an electric clock 2o cm from her head and claimed to have been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, to geomagnetic storms - high solar activity that creates a worldwide disturbance of the earth's magnetic field - that apparently make epileptic rats more aggressive and increase the rate of sudden cardiac death. But can these investigations (in truth, more speculations than investigations, most showing correlation, not causation) be called science? Other scientists don't think so, Persinger admits.
"Generally the response from scientists is two-sided - and two-faced," he says. "Under the anonymity of grant reviews, it's always,'Nonsense,' 'Why do it?' When they're in front of you, however, it's always, 'This is fantastic," This is what science is, the pursuit of the unknown.' Initiatory research has never been accepted."
I've experienced that reaction myself, on Persinger's behalf. A few weeks ago, a retired scientist I know asked me what I was working on. I got as far as "There's this researcher who's built a helmet that lets you experience God - " when he interrupted: "In other words, a kook."
When they're on the record, as Persinger notes, scientists are much more generous, offering only mild or no criticism. Andrew Newberg, an assistant professor in the department of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has used brain imaging to study people in meditation and prayer. He, like Persinger, has concluded that the brain is pre-wired to experience spiritual states. Newberg is willing to quibble with some of Persinger's theories, for example that temporal lobe seizures cause all religious experiences (if they did, then most temporal-lobe epileptics should have such experiences; in fact only a small fraction actually do), but overall, he says, Persinger's brain research is sound. Still, as far as Persinger knows, not a single researcher has been intrigued enough by his magnetic stimulation to start experimenting with it, which is not an encouraging index of its impact. It also exacerbates Persinger's isolation, since in science there is no credibility without replication.
Funding agencies, where grant applications are peer reviewed under the protection of anonymity, offer another index of Persinger's status in the research community. For 30 years, Persinger has applied to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for a research grant, and 30 times he's been turned down (he's planning to apply again this year). Laurentian provides the space, but almost all of his research has been financed out of his own pocket from the money he makes as a clinical psychologist (which explains why his equipment looks more Canadian Tire than NASA). Last year, he got a small grant, his first in decades, from the Bial Foundation in Portugal, which funds the "scientific study of both physical and spiritual Man."
"The real cutting-edge individuals never are funded because funding is a social decision, not a scientific one," Persinger says without a trace of bitterness. "The minute you refer to a peer group to see if they like it, you're asking for social consensus."
Speaking of peers, I'd like to talk to some. Who at Laurentian knows him best? "Actually very few people know me here at Laurentian. This may sound sad, or maybe arrogant, but there really isn't anyone that I interact with," he answers. Anyone? Not even at other universities? "That is correct. I interact more with my wife on these topics than any other peers." In fact, Persinger considers his wife, who has a master's degree in biology, to be his closest peer.
I'm sure his wife thinks he's a real scientist, and for what it's worth, I do, too - an indie scientist. As is the case with indie filmmakers, being an outsider leaves him underfunded and ignored, but it gives him the freedom to do what he wants. Unlike them, however, being an "indie" scientist is not yet cool. That makes it all the more admirable.
The first explorers who reached our continent didn't spend years examining and cataloguing the beach they landed on. They wandered exuberantly over the whole face of the new terrain, noting its most prominent features. They wrote subjective impressions in diaries and drew inaccurate maps. They didn't bring home the gold or spices they were looking for, but oddities like tobacco, coffee and cocoa, whose future value there was no scale to measure. Persinger is the same. Because of a rare personality defect (or strength), he does not require peer approval or recognition. He's a loner content to explore his terra incognita, the magnetic ether we live in. And religious considerations aside, he has found at least one prominent feature of that landscape: with his helmet he seems to have shown that we can perceive a weak magnetic field not with our eyes, ears, nose, mouth or skin, but directly with our brains. That hints at something quite profound: the brain is a sense organ.
If he's right, paradigms will shift and he'll be celebrated. But even if he's wrong, it's still science.