A Christmas present, maybe? Maybe not.
A “neurotheology” researcher called Dr Michael Persinger has developed something called the “God Helmet” lined with magnets to help you in your quest: it sounds like typical bad science fodder, but it’s much more interesting than that.
Persinger is a proper scientist. The temporal lobes have long been implicated in religious experiences: epileptic seizures in that part of the brain, for example, can produce mystical experiences and visions. Persinger’s helmet stimulates these temporal lobes with weak electromagnetic fields through the skull, and in various published papers this stimulation has been shown to induce a “sensed presence”, under blinded conditions.
There is controversy around these findings: some people have tried to replicate them, although not using exactly the same methods, and got different results. But however improbable or theologically offensive you might find his evidence, because it is published and written up in full, you can try to replicate it for yourself and find out whether it works. In fact, you really can try this at home: the kit needed to make a God Helmet is fabulously rudimentary.
You can order a commercial product online for just $220 (£119): it is basically eight magnetic coils that fit over the relevant parts of your skull; the signal is generated by your computer’s soundcard, and then played through these magnetic elements, instead of through the magnetic coils of your speakers.
The bit that temporal lobe epilepsy can cause quasi-religious experiences isn’t nonsense. It is a well-characterized medical observation.
Below is a video (in two parts) by neurologist V.S. Ramachandran where he discusses this phenomena and talks with patients with who have this condition:
I looked into this home kit business. Here is a company that claims to sell one called the Shakti 8. (There may be more; I don’t know.)
So, at first I was a little concerned that people would be doing rTMS at home. The negative side effects are usually pretty limited if used as directed (usually headaches or mild, transient memory problems), but if not used as directed it can cause seizures. Also, there are rather large magnets that are involved. As I understand it, the fields used for rTMS in research are usually 1-2 Tesla. For comparison, a MRI machine is usually 1 Tesla. Magnet fields of this strength won’t kill you themselves, but they do require caution lest something metal flying toward them might. (More on MRI safety at Mind Hacks.)
On the other hand, the strength of the magnetic fields involved in these kits are miniscule: around 1 microtesla. (Mentioned in this New Scientist article.) That is about a 1/50 of the Earth’s magnetic field.
I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know enough about this Persinger guy or his research to say whether magnetic fields that small are effective at causing changes in the brain. Color me very skeptical. (Here is a paper that failed to replicate his findings.)
What I do know is that the people who run the above website sound suspiciously like cranks. Check out this bit from the “Safety” section:
3) Be careful about doing too many mind techniques. Traditional spiritual practice can be deepened by adding more practices (such as yoga, prayer and meditation) to your spiritual life. This is supported by many spiritual traditions. Some kinds of monastic lineages will actually fill the entire day with spiritual practices. However, the same does not apply to mind machines. There is a limit to the number of mind machines of any kind that can be combined without ill-effects. Too many, and you can give your mind conflicting instructions. This applies to all mind machines, not just Shakti. Negative effects have occurred in this way. The limit seems to be from three to five devices, depending on the individual. Further study, which may take some time to appear, are needed.
Yeah, we wouldn’t want to mix too much crazy in our brains at any one moment or else our heads might explode and spray chakra and chi all over the room.
Anyway, I would be more concerned about someone buying one of these things if I wasn’t pretty confident that it doesn’t do anything.