The God Helmet (Updated)

The God Helmet (Updated)

Nov 06

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THE GOD HELMET

God helmet refers to an experimental apparatus in neurotheology. The apparatus, placed on the head of an experimental subject, stimulates the brain with fluctuating magnetic fields. Some subjects reported experiences using the same words used to describe spiritual experiences. The leading researcher in this area is Michael Persinger.

Be sure to read the summary below by Robert Perry that challenges Persinger’s claims.

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RELATED LINKS:

Wikipedia on The God Helmet

God Helmet Controversies

Wikipedia on Michael Persinger

Michael Persinger Web Page

Commercial God Helmet ($649.00, plus shipping)

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PERSINGER’S GOD HELMET CLAIMS CHALLENGED
Summary by Robert Perry

In Chris Carter’s new book, Science and the Near-Death Experience, on pages 180-183 he includes a devastating review of Persinger’s claim that his “God Helmet” reproduces the near-death experience. This review consists of two things. First, he shows a table of the actual experiences reported by subjects wearing the helmet. Looking at the table, it is immediately apparent that there is only the most tenuous resemblance with near-death experiences. Out of fourteen items on this table, most don’t particularly sound like an NDE. For instance: “Dizzy or Odd” (75% experienced this — it was the most frequent item), “Tingling Sensations” (73%), “Vibrations in Body”(54%), “Odd Tastes” (13%), and “Odd Smells” (6%) don’t particularly remind one of an NDE at all. A few sound vaguely NDE-like, such as “Left Body/Detached” (39%) or “Thoughts from Childhood” (35%), or “Sense of Presence” (30%). But even these sound much vaguer and weaker than the corresponding elements from NDEs. Further, we merely have Persinger’s report on what fell into these categories. Carter notes, “Persinger has never agreed to any of my requests for access to his subjects for interviews.” So it sounds like we don’t really know what specific experiences were classed under “Left Body/Detached,” for instance. In view of all this, Carter says that Persinger’s “boast” that he has reproduced “all of the major components of the NDE” (Persinger’s words) “seems, in retrospect, to have been hyperbole.” Even Persinger himself has admitted to a lack of resemblance, saying that “these induced experiences are fragmented and variable, whereas in NDEs these sensations are integrated and focused within a brief period.”

The second thing Carter reports is an attempt by a Swedish team to replicate Persinger’s findings, using equipment from Persinger’s own lab. This team was led by Pehr Granqvist and used a double-blind protocol, so that neither experimenters nor subjects knew what was being tested and who, while wearing the helmet, had the magnetic fields turned on (those fields being what supposedly causes the experiences). What Granqvist found was extremely important. Under these conditions, he found that the magnetic fields had no effect whatsoever. In other words, the subjects had the same experiences whether the helmet was turned on or off! The only thing that predicted who would have experiences was suggestibility. Carter: “subjects who were rated ‘highly suggestible’ on the basis of a questionnaire reported strange experiences when they were wearing the helmet, whether the current was on or off.” Persinger cried foul, saying that the team didn’t turn the helmet on long enough. But Granqvist’s response is significant: “Persinger knew ahead of the experiments there would be two times of 15-minute exposures. He agreed to that time. His explanation now comes as a disappointment.” In light of this, it is not the helmet’s magnetic fields, but apparently its simple appearance as a high-tech gizmo that is the relevant factor. That seems to be what causes highly suggestible people to have strange experiences.

These two points seem devastating. The experiences obtained while wearing the “God Helmet” do not bear a strong resemblance to NDEs, and the effects of the helmet have failed to be replicated. As the skeptics are so quick to remind us, science requires replication. One wonders why Persinger’s research has been so covered by the media and so embraced by skeptics when it has not been replicated.

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GOD ON THE BRAIN
BBC Two
2003

Original Link

Rudi Affolter and Gwen Tighe have both experienced strong religious visions. He is an atheist; she a Christian. He thought he had died; she thought she had given birth to Jesus. Both have temporal lobe epilepsy.

Like other forms of epilepsy, the condition causes fitting but it is also associated with religious hallucinations. Research into why people like Rudi and Gwen saw what they did has opened up a whole field of brain science: neurotheology.

The connection between the temporal lobes of the brain and religious feeling has led one Canadian scientist to try stimulating them. (They are near your ears.) 80% of Dr Michael Persinger’s experimental subjects report that an artificial magnetic field focused on those brain areas gives them a feeling of ‘not being alone’. Some of them describe it as a religious sensation.

His work raises the prospect that we are programmed to believe in god, that faith is a mental ability humans have developed or been given. And temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) could help unlock the mystery.

Religious Leaders

History is full of charismatic religious figures. Could any of them have been epileptics? The visions seen by Bible characters like Moses or Saint Paul are consistent with Rudi’s and Gwen’s, but there is no way to diagnose TLE in people who lived so long ago.

There are, though, more recent examples, like one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Movement, Ellen White. Born in 1827, she suffered a brain injury aged 9 that totally changed her personality. She also began to have powerful religious visions.

Representatives of the Movement doubt that Ellen White suffered from TLE, saying her injury and visions are inconsistent with the condition, but neurologist Gregory Holmes believes this explains her condition.

Better Than Sex

The first clinical evidence to link the temporal lobes with religious sensations came from monitoring how TLE patients responded to sets of words. In an experiment where people were shown either neutral words (table), erotic words (sex) or religious words (god), the control group was most excited by the sexually loaded words.This was picked up as a sweat response on the skin. People with temporal lobe epilepsy did not share this apparent sense of priorities. For them, religious words generated the greatest reaction. Sexual words were less exciting than neutral ones.

Make Believe

If the abnormal brain activity of TLE patients alters their response to religious concepts, could altering brain patterns artificially do the same for people with no such medical condition? This is the question that Michael Persinger set out to explore, using a wired-up helmet designed to concentrate magnetic fields on the temporal lobes of the wearer.

His subjects were not told the precise purpose of the test; just that the experiment looked into relaxation. 80% of participants reported feeling something when the magnetic fields were applied. Persinger calls one of the common sensations a ‘sensed presence’, as if someone else is in the room with you, when there is none.

Horizon introduced Dr Persinger to one of Britain’s most renowned atheists, Prof Richard Dawkins. He agreed to try his techniques on Dawkins to see if he could give him a moment of religious feeling. During a session that lasted 40 minutes, Dawkins found that the magnetic fields around his temporal lobes affected his breathing and his limbs. He did not find god.

Persinger was not disheartened by Dawkins’ immunity to the helmet’s magnetic powers. He believes that the sensitivity of our temporal lobes to magnetism varies from person to person. People with TLE may be especially sensitive to magnetic fields; Prof Dawkins is well below average, it seems. It’s a concept that clerics like Bishop Stephen Sykes give some credence as well: could there be such a thing as a talent for religion?

Brain Imaging

Sykes does, though, see a great difference between a ‘sensed presence’ and a genuine religious experience. Scientists like Andrew Newberg want to see just what does happen during moments of faith. He worked with Buddhist, Michael Baime, to study the brain during meditation. By injecting radioactive tracers into Michael’s bloodstream as he reached the height of a meditative trance, Newberg could use a brain scanner to image the brain at a religious climax.

The bloodflow patterns showed that the temporal lobes were certainly involved but also that the brain’s parietal lobes appeared almost completely to shut down. The parietal lobes give us our sense of time and place. Without them, we may lose our sense of self. Adherants to many of the world’s faiths regard a sense of personal insignificance and oneness with a deity as something to strive for. Newberg’s work suggests a neurological basis for what religion tries to generate.

Religious Evolution

If brain function offers insight into how we experience religion, does it say anything about why we do? There is evidence that people with religious faith have longer, healthier lives. This hints at a survival benefit for religious people. Could we have evolved religious belief?

Prof Dawkins (who subscribes to evolution to explain human development) thinks there could be an evolutionary advantage, not to believing in god, but to having a brain with the capacity to believe in god. That such faith exists is a by-product of enhanced intelligence. Prof Ramachandran denies that finding out how the brain reacts to religion negates the value of belief. He feels that brain circuitry like that Persinger and Newberg have identified, could amount to an antenna to make us receptive to god. Bishop Sykes meanwhile, thinks religion has nothing to fear from this neuroscience. Science is about seeking to explain the world around us. For him at least, it can co-exist with faith.
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4 comments

  1. I don’t agree they have duplicated the mystical experience – neither did Acid.

    There is transcendence and immanence of a very particular kind in the ‘real’ states, usually together with sidhis.

    These artificial states are helpful but they are only signposts.

  2. James

    Another way of looking at this is not that the “god experience” is generated by the brain but seeing that the brain is serving as a conduit that makes possible these experiences by providing access.

    It reminds me of the relaxation and visual preparations associated with some types of yoga which are aimed at preparing for the experience of samadhi.

  3. More Info

    Persinger’s side of the story is here:

    http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/The_God_Helmet_Debate.htm

  4. Thanks for posting this link, More Info!

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