Monday, May 07, 2007

How to Wire Your Brain for Religious Ecstasy

By John Horgan

Eight years ago, I flew to Laurentian University in Midwestern Canada to test a gadget that some journalists called the "God machine." The device consisted of computer-controlled solenoids that fit over the skull and stimulate the brain with electromagnetic pulses. Its inventor, neuroscientist Michael Persinger, claimed that it could induce mystical experiences, including, as Wired magazine put it, visions of "Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit."

I sat in a ratty armchair in a soundproof chamber and pulled the God machine onto my head as, outside the chamber, a graduate student tapped a computer keyboard. As he bombarded my brain with electromagnetic bursts patterned after brain waves of epileptics in the throes of religious visions, I waited for God or even a minor deity or demon to appear—in vain. Persinger told me later that the device doesn't work on skeptics, implying that it "works" merely by exploiting subjects' suggestibility.

Persinger is one of the more colorful characters in the fast-growing, flakey field of neurotheology, which studies what is arguably the most complex manifestation—spirituality—of the most complex phenomenon—the human brain—known to science.

Given that brain researchers have no idea how I conceived and typed this sentence, I doubt they will ever account for religious experiences in all their vast diversity and subtlety. Nor will they solve the riddle of whether God actually exists or is a figment of our evolved imaginations, like unicorns or superstrings. Neurotheology may nonetheless have a profound social impact, by yielding more potent, reliable methods of inducing spiritual experiences.


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