This Is Your Brain on God
Michael Persinger has a vision - the Almighty isn't dead, he's an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.
By Jack Hitt
Over a scratchy speaker, a researcher announces, "Jack, one of your electrodes is loose, we're coming in." The 500-pound steel door of the experimental chamber opens with a heavy whoosh; two technicians wearing white lab coats march in. They remove the Ping-Pong-ball halves taped over my eyes and carefully lift a yellow motorcycle helmet that's been retrofitted with electromagnetic field-emitting solenoids on the sides, aimed directly at my temples. Above the left hemisphere of my 42-year-old male brain, they locate the dangling electrode, needed to measure and track my brain waves. The researchers slather more conducting cream into the graying wisps of my red hair and press the securing tape hard into my scalp.
After restoring everything to its proper working position, the techies exit, and I'm left sitting inside the utterly silent, utterly black vault. A few commands are typed into a computer outside the chamber, and selected electromagnetic fields begin gently thrumming my brain's temporal lobes. The fields are no more intense than what you'd get as by-product from an ordinary blow-dryer, but what's coming is anything but ordinary. My lobes are about to be bathed with precise wavelength patterns that are supposed to affect my mind in a stunning way, artificially inducing the sensation that I am seeing God.
I'm taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His theory is that the sensation described as "having a religious experience" is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain's feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a "sensed presence."
Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use - Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the presence as one's grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.
It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn't shy about defining our most sacred notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.
To those of us who prefer a little mystery in our lives, it all sounds like a letdown. And as I settle in for my mind trip, I'm starting to get apprehensive. I'm a lapsed Episcopalian clinging to only a hazy sense of the divine, but I don't especially like the idea that whatever vestigial faith I have in the Almighty's existence might get clinically lobotomized by Persinger's demo. Do I really want God to be rendered as explicable and predictable as an endorphin rush after a 3-mile run?
The journey from my home in Connecticut to the mining district north of Lake Huron is, by modern standards, arduous. Given what's in store, it's also strangely fitting. When you think of people seeking divine visions, you imagine them trekking to some mountainous cloister. The pilgrimage to Persinger's lab is the clinical counterpart.
The trip involves flying in increasingly smaller puddle-jumpers with increasingly fewer propellers until you land in the ore-rich Ontario town of Sudbury, a place that's been battered by commerce, geography, and climate. Jags of red rock and black iron erupt from the landscape, often bolting right out of the pavement. The weather-beaten concrete exteriors of the city's buildings speak of long, harsh winters.
A short car ride through stony suburbs ends at a forlorn cluster of a dozen buildings: Laurentian University. Near Parking Lot 4, I am met by Charles Cook, a grad student of Persinger's. He leads me into the science building's basement, then to the windowless confines of Room C002B, Persinger's lair.
Waiting there is Linda St-Pierre, another graduate student, who prompts me to sit down, then launches into a series of psychological questions. I answer a range of true-or-false statements from an old version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a test designed to ferret out any nuttiness that might disqualify me from serving as a study subject. When read individually, the questions seem harmless, but as a group they sound hopelessly antiquated, as if the folks who devised the exam hadn't checked the warehouse for anachronisms in five decades:
I like to read mechanics magazines.
Someone is trying to poison me.
I have successful bowel movements.
I know who is trying to get me.
As a child, I enjoyed playing drop-the-handkerchief.
I'm escorted into the chamber, an old sound-experiment booth. The tiny room doesn't appear to have been redecorated since it was built in the early '70s. The frayed spaghettis of a brown-and-white shag carpet, along with huge, wall-mounted speakers covered in glittery black nylon, surround a spent brown recliner upholstered in the prickly polymers of that time. The chair, frankly, is repellent. Hundreds of subjects have settled into its itchy embrace, and its brown contours are spotted with dollops of electrode-conducting cream, dried like toothpaste, giving the seat the look of a favored seagulls' haunt.
In the name of science, I sit down.
Persinger's research forays are at the very frontier of the roiling field of neuroscience, the biochemical approach to the study of the brain. Much of what we hear about the discipline is anatomical stuff, involving the mapping of the brain's many folds and networks, performed by reading PET scans, observing blood flows, or deducing connections from stroke and accident victims who've suffered serious brain damage. But cognitive neuroscience is also a grab bag of more theoretical pursuits that can range from general consciousness studies to finding the neural basis for all kinds of sensations.
As the work piles up, many things that we hold to be unique aspects of the "self" are reduced to mere tics of cranial function. Take laughter. According to Vilayanur Ramachandran, professor of neuroscience at UC San Diego, laughter is just the brain's way of signaling that a fearful circumstance is not really so worrisome. At a conference earlier this year, he posited that the classic banana-peel pratfall is funny only when the victim gets up, and that we laugh to alert "other members of [our] kin that, 'Look, there has been a false alarm here; don't waste your resources rushing to help.'" He calls laughter "nature's OK signal."
Of course, this type of deromanticizing has been going on for a while - Persinger's brain manipulations have crude antecedents in the 1950s, the roaring decade for behaviorism. Back then, Yale physiologist Jose Delgado earned national renown by implanting electrodes into the brains of live animals and attaching them to a "stimoceiver" under the skull. In a technique called ESB - electronic stimulation of the brain - Delgado sent radio signals through the electrodes to control the animal. In one demonstration in the early 1960s, he used his electronic gizmo to halt a charging bull.
Delgado's relatively coarse stunts were a long way from Persinger's quest for the God spot, but Persinger is not the first to theorize that the Creator exists only in the complex landscape of the human noggin. In his controversial 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist, argued that the brain activity of ancient people - those living roughly 3,500 years ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness such as logic, reason, and ethics - would have resembled that of modern schizophrenics. Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics, the ancients heard voices, summoned up visions, and lacked the sense of metaphor and individual identity that characterizes a more advanced mind. He said that some of these ancestral synaptic leftovers are buried deep in the modern brain, which would explain many of our present-day sensations of God or spirituality.
Among practicing neuroscientists, there is no overarching consensus on whether such notions are correct. Persinger is certainly out on a frontier where theory meets the boldest sort of speculation, but there's nothing inherently bizarre about his methods or the questions he's asking. William Calvin, a professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that Persinger's line of inquiry is no more mysterious than another pursuit that intrigues neuroscientists: trying to understand the sensations of déjà vu or its opposite, jamais vu - the feeling, during a familiar routine, that we're doing it for the first time. Maybe these feelings, like God, are just more fritzing in the electricity arcing about our brains.
Persinger arrives soon after St-Pierre has judged me sane enough to enter Room C002B.
"I see that Mr. Cook has been as punctual as usual," he says, extending a hand in greeting. Persinger, 54, blends a crisp, scientific demeanor with a mischievous smile, but overall he's a very serious man. His erect posture is enhanced by a dark, pin-striped, three-piece suit with a gold chain swag at the bottom of the vest. His sentences are clipped and stripped of any vernacular - so painstakingly scientific that they can be coy. For example, he tells me that he is actually an American who "moved to Canada in July of 1969, because I had a rather major ethical disagreement with my government." It takes me a follow-up or two before I realize he had dodged the draft.
As the researchers fit my helmet, I ask: Has anyone ever freaked out in the chair? Persinger smiles slightly and describes when a subject suffered an "adverse experience" and succumbed to an "interpretation that the room was hexed." When I ask if, say, the subject ripped all this equipment from his flesh and ran screaming from the dungeon, Persinger curtly replies: "Yes, his heart rate did go up and he did want to leave and of course he could because that is part of the protocol."
One more time: Has anyone freaked out in the chair? "His EKG was showing that he moved very, very quickly and dramatically," Persinger offers, "and that he was struggling to take off the electrodes."
Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.
Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."
A new one, the Linda Genetic Pulse, is named for my psychometrist, Linda St-Pierre. Persinger says St-Pierre is conducting a massive study on rats to determine the ways in which lengthy exposures to particular electromagnetic pulses can "affect gene expression."
After spending a little time with Persinger, you get accustomed to the fact that his most polite phrases demand pursuit. Affect gene expression? It sounds so simple, but what he's really talking about is stringing together a number of different electromagnetic fields to prompt a complicated chemical reaction on the genetic level - for example, directing the body's natural self-healing instincts.
"We want to enhance what the brain does to help heal the body," Persinger explains. "Among more sensitive individuals, tests show that their skin will turn red if they believe a hot nickel has been placed on their hand. That's a powerful psychosomatic effect of the brain on the body. Suppose we could make it more precise?"
Persinger envisions a series of EM patterns that work the way drugs do. Just as you take an antibiotic and it has a predictable result, you might be exposed to precise EM patterns that would signal the brain to carry out comparable effects.
Another possible application: Hollywood. Persinger has talked to Douglas Trumbull, the special-effects wizard responsible for the look of everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Brainstorm. They discussed the technological possibility of marrying Persinger's helmet with virtual reality. "If you've done virtual reality," Persinger says, "then you know that once you put on the helmet, you always know you are inside the helmet. The idea is to create a form of entertainment that is more real." But he adds, sounding like so many people who've gotten a call from the coast, "we haven't cut a deal yet."
I am being withdrawn from my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness.
Soon enough, it's time for the good professor to wish me well and lob this last caveat: "If, for whatever reason, you become frightened or want to end the experiment, just speak into your lapel microphone."
When the door closes and I feel nothing but the weight of the helmet on my head and the Ping-Pong balls on my eyes, I start giving serious thought to what it might be like to "see" God, artificially produced or not. Nietzsche's last sane moment occurred when he saw a carter beating a horse. He beat the carter, hugged the horse while sobbing uncontrollably, and was then carried away. I can imagine that. I see myself having a powerful vision of Jesus, and coming out of the booth wet with tears of humility, wailing for mercy from my personal savior.
Instead, after I adjust to the darkness and the cosmic susurrus of absolute silence, I drift almost at once into a warm bath of oblivion. Something is definitely happening. During the 35-minute experiment, I feel a distinct sense of being withdrawn from the envelope of my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness, a deep sensation of waking slumber. The machines outside the chamber report an uninterrupted alertness on my part. (If the researchers see the easily recognized EEG pattern of sleep, they wake you over the speakers.) Occasionally, I surface to an alpha state where I sort of know where I am, but not quite. This feeling is cool - like being reinserted into my body. Then there's a separation again, of body and soul, and - almost by my will - I happily allow myself to drift back to the surprisingly bearable lightness of oblivion.
In this floating state, several ancient childhood memories are jarred loose. Suddenly, I am sitting with Scott Allen on the rug in his Colonial Street house in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1965, singing along to "Moon River" and clearly hearing, for the first time since then, Scott's infectiously frenzied laughter. I reexperience the time I spent the night with Doug Appleby and the discomfort I felt at being in a house that was so punctiliously clean. (Doug's dad was a doctor.) I also remember seeing Joanna Jacobs' small and perfect breasts, unholstered beneath the linen gauze of her hippie blouse, circa 1971.
Joanna was my girlfriend when I was 14. When I was sent off to boarding school, she and I recorded cassette tapes to one another. As a teenager, Joanna was a spiritual woman and talked a lot about transcendental meditation. Off at boarding school, I signed up and got my mantra from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right around the time Joanna dropped me to move on to a tougher crowd.
If I had to pin down when I felt this dreamy state before - of being in the presence of something divine - it would be back then, in the euphoric, romantic hope that animated my adolescent efforts at meditation. That soothing feeling of near-sleep has always been associ-ated with what I imagined should have happened between Joanna Jacobs and me. Like the boy in James Joyce's The Dead, Joanna was a perfect memory - all the potential of womanly love distilled into the calming mantra-guided drone of fecund rest.
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.
So: Something took place. Still, when the helmet comes off and they shove a questionnaire in my hand, I feel like a failure. One question: Did the red bulb on the wall grow larger or smaller? There was a red bulb on the wall? I hadn't noticed. Many other questions suggest that there were other experiences I should have had, but to be honest, I didn't.
In fact, as transcendental experiences go, on a scale of 1 to 10, Persinger's helmet falls somewhere around, oh, 4. Even though I did have a fairly convincing out-of-body experience, I'm disappointed relative to the great expectations and anxieties I had going in.
It may be that all the preliminary talk about visions just set my rational left hemisphere into highly skeptical overdrive. Setting me up like that - you will experience the presence of God - might have been a mistake. When I bring this up later with Persinger, he tells me that the machine's effects differ among people, depending on their "lability" - Persinger jargon meaning sensitivity or vulnerability.
"Also, you were in a comfortable laboratory," he points out. "You knew nothing could happen to you. What if the same intense experience occurred at 3 in the morning in a bedroom all by yourself? Or you suddenly stalled on an abandoned road at night when you saw a peculiar light and then had that experience? What label would you have placed on it then?"
Point taken. I'd probably be calling Art Bell once a week, alerting the world to the alien invasion.
But then, Persinger continued, being labile is itself a fluctuating condition. There are interior factors that can exacerbate it - stress, fear, injury - and exterior sources that might provoke odd but brief disturbances in the usually stable electromagnetic fields around us. Persinger theorizes, for example, that just prior to earthquakes there are deformations in the natural EM field caused by the intense pressure change in the tectonic plates below. He has published a paper called "The Tectonic Strain Theory as an Explanation for UFO Phenomena," in which he maintains that around the time of an earthquake, changes in the EM field could spark mysterious lights in the sky. A labile observer, in Persinger's view, could easily mistake the luminous display for an alien visit.
As we sit in his office, Persinger argues that other environmental disturbances - ranging from solar flares and meteor showers to oil drilling - probably correlate with visionary claims, including mass religious conversions, ghost lights, and haunted houses. He says that if a region routinely experiences mild earthquakes or other causes of change in the electromagnetic fields, this may explain why the spot becomes known as sacred ground. That would include the Hopi tribe's hallowed lands, Delphi, Mount Fuji, the Black Hills, Lourdes, and the peaks of the Andes, not to mention most of California.
From time to time, a sensed presence can also occur among crowds, Persinger says, thereby giving the divine vision the true legitimacy of a common experience, and making it practically undeniable.
"One classic example was the apparition of Mary over the Coptic Church in Zeitoun, Egypt, in the 1960s," he continues. "This phenomenon lasted off and on for several years. It was seen by thousands of people, and the appearance seemed to precede the disturbances that occurred during the building of the Aswan High Dam. I have multiple examples of reservoirs being built or lakes being filled, and reports of luminous displays and UFO flaps. But Zeitoun was impressive."
Persinger says there were balls of light that moved around the cross atop the church. "They were influenced by the cross, of course. It looked like a circle with a triangle on the bottom. If you had an imagination, it looked like a person. Upside down, by the way, it was the classical UFO pattern. It's curious that this happened during a marked increase in hostilities between Egyptians and Israelis, and both interpreted the phenomenon as proof that they would be successful. It's just so classical of human beings. Take an anomalous event, and one group will interpret it one way, and another group another."
Might it surprise anyone to learn, in view of Persinger's theories, that when Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni before founding Mormonism, and when Charles Taze Russell started the Jehovah's Witnesses, powerful Leonid meteor showers were occurring?
Taken together, Persinger's ideas and published studies go awfully far - he's claiming to identify the primum mobile underlying all the supernatural stories we've developed over the last few thousand years. You might think Christians would be upset that this professor in Sudbury is trying to do with physics what Nietzsche did with metaphysics - kill off God. Or you might think that devout ufologists would denounce him for putting neuroscience on the side of the skeptics.
"Actually, it's more a mind-set that gets disturbed than a particular belief," offers Persinger. "Some Christians say, 'Well, God invented the brain, so of course this is how it would happen.' UFO types say, 'This is good. Now we can tell the fake UFO sightings from the real ones.'"
Oh, I have no doubt. I mean, who among all the churchgoers and alien fiends will let some distant egghead with a souped-up motorcycle helmet spoil their fun? It goes without saying that the human capacity to rationalize around Persinger's theory is far greater than all the replicated studies science could produce. The real tradition Persinger falls into is that of trying to explain away mystical experience. Jaynes thought visitations from God were mere aural detritus from the Stone Age. And just recently, another study suggested that sleep paralysis might account for visions of God and alien abduction.
Who knows? Perhaps mystical visions are in fact nothing more than a bit of squelchy feedback in the temporal lobes. But that's such a preposterously small part of what most people think of when they think of God, it seems insanely grandiose to suggest that anyone has explained away "God." It's almost ironic. Every so often during one of America's little creation-science tempests, some humorless rationalist like Stephen Jay Gould steps forward to say that theology is an inadequate foundation for the study of science. Noted. And vice versa.
But Persinger's ideas are harder to shake off than that. When I return to America, I am greeted by the news that massive intersections of power lines do not, in fact, cause cancer. For years scientists had advanced the power line-cancer connection, based on the results of Robert Liburdy's benchmark 1992 study. But a tip to the federal Office of Research Integrity initiated an investigation of Liburdy's work; it found that his data had been falsified.
Persinger's experiments and resulting theories suggest some new ideas about our waning 20th century, which began with Thomas Edison convincing the world to cocoon itself inside electrically wired shelters, throbbing with pulses of electromagnetic fields. Granted, those fields are quite weak, arguably too tiny to affect our physical bodies in ways Liburdy had suggested. But what about Persinger's notion that such fields may be tinkering with our consciousness?
Is it a coincidence that this century - known as the age of anxiety, a time rife with various hysterias, the era that gave birth to existentialism - is also when we stepped inside an electromagnetic bubble and decided to live there? We have never quite comprehended that we walk about in a sea of mild electromagnetism just as we do air. It is part of our atmosphere, part of the containing bath our consciousness swims in. Now we are altering it, heightening it, condensing it. The bubble is being increasingly shored up with newer, more complicated fields: computers, pagers, cell phones. Every day, entrepreneurs invent more novel ways to seduce us into staying inside this web. The Internet is well named.
Naturally, many people would presume that such a change must be a malignant force when directed at the delicate gossamer of consciousness. Yet evolution is a tricky business. Accidental changes often turn out to be lifesaving preparations for some other condition that could never have been predicted.
A few might see a world of possibility in Persinger's theories. His booth has helped us discover and confirm our true predicament. "Seeing God" is really just a soothing euphemism for the fleeting awareness of ourselves alone in the universe: a look in that existential mirror. The "sensed presence" - now easily generated by a machine pumping our brains with electromagnetic spirituality - is nothing but our exquisite and singular self, at one with the true solitude of our condition, deeply anxious. We're itching to get out of here, to escape this tired old environment with its frayed carpets, blasted furniture, and shabby old God. Time to move on and discover true divinity all over again.