Pure Pedantry

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.

Two comments.

Comment #1:

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:

Comment #2

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Anon
    March 12, 2008

    Having read quite a few of Persinger’s papers, I find the whole thing fascinating (if perhaps a bit overstretched; I, too, am skeptical of the geophysical claims). I do prefer Persinger’s phrase, a “sensed presence”, as the effect the helmet gives. Whether that sensed presence is another person in the room, or god watching you, or the ghost of dear departed Aunt Emma, depends on the wearer. It is not a “sense of god” area of the brain, but rather a more general thing that happens to be tapped into by this particular religious notion.

  2. #2 G
    March 12, 2008

    I’ve actually read quite a lot about Persinger’s research. Effectively, what the helmet he’s designed seems to do is, in some (but not all) patients, disrupt the ordinary operation of a part of the temporal lobe that functions in a primarily spatial fashion: It distinguishes self and other, establishes the mind’s sense of “here” and “there” with relation to bodily space. Disable that, and you’re at one with the universe, dude.

    Not every patient describes a “sensed presence,” necessarily. But pretty much everyone who is affected at all seems to have some experience described variously as a sense of oneness or connection with everything, or a loss of boundaries between self and non-self, or a sense of moving out of one’s body – along with all sorts of interesting knock-on effects tied to spatial/bodily awareness. Whether or not there’s also an “other” experienced (or interpreted into the experience by the mind-set of the patient) seems much more variable.

    It was inevitable that hucksters would attempt to commercialize Persinger’s research, especially once the “God helmet” was slapped onto it (by someone other than Persinger, as I recall). As far as I can tell, Persinger himself has carefully avoided doing anything sensational or commercial with his research, even though funding is tight. The closest he’s come to sensationalism is, for the purposes of a few legitimate science documentaries, let some skeptic/scientists (Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore) try it out (in addition to his usual array of test subjects gotten by ordinary means). Dawkins reported feeling nothing at all, and Blackmore didn’t like the experience much.

  3. #3 The Neurocritic
    March 12, 2008

    For more on the failure to replicate, it’s interesting to read Larsson et al.’s reply to Persinger and Koren’s objections to their paper, if one has access to the journal:

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2005.03.059

    Larsson et al. go into great detail explaining how their conditions replicate those of Persinger. Plus, here is a choice quote:

    “Regarding double-blindness, which we believe to be the most important reason for the different results between our laboratories, we have not read all of the several hundred articles published by Persinger in this and related areas. However, we have carefully checked the methodological descriptions of the studies that were cited in the response by Persinger as representing truly double-blind procedures. As far as we can judge, none of them was double-blind according to the conventional definition of the term…”

    I found it hard to believe there were several hundred articles by Persinger et al. in this area, but a quick PubMed search reveals this to be the case (I stopped reading at page 4 of 16). Most of those papers are in low-quality journals, with the exception of some of his animal studies.

  4. #4 TRM
    June 23, 2009

    Actually, the Shakti 8 can not cause seizures. There is a warning not to use it if you have epilepsy, but all ‘mind-machines’ have that warning.

    There is now a device that replicates the “God Helmet” on that site. The Shakti does not have the same capability. It comes close, but isn’t an exact match. The “God Helmet” uses four USB sound devices, and the other uses just one.

  5. #5 Doug
    September 26, 2009

    Detached fragmented comments offered to play with…

    Fundy background…let go of in favor of enlightment which just started happening one day. So why did it happen?

    Throughout lifetime (now 62)..occasional sightings of fairly nearby flying spheres, typically lit yellowish or orange and at night…once in day and iridescent. Why? Other observed odd phenomena…why?

    Mind and/or brain has stored images and image parts, and is capable of assembling them into complex coherent motion pictures with seeming sound, and some seemingly physical experience…night dreams, day dreams, in between dreams…and some say, regular experience of day-to-day life dreams. Why? How? Lots of talk in science about brain does this here, that there, etc., but how? why?…little known, but slowly coming along with it.

    God helmet. My physicist bro-in-law told me about it and was going to build one, but hasn’t as yet. Cool if it works…and interesting regardless of how it works or why, or whatever repercussions in various belief systems, etc.

    There is no reason to believe that some of mankind has not developed beyond what we typically think of as “advanced science” etc., and in a manner of speaking, have transcended what we regard as our day-to-day mundane world of appearnaces, observations and experiences. There is also no reason to believe that other non-mankind entities are not similarly developed and capable of understanding the details of all the above, how these things fit together and much more, like a huge puzzle.

    Regular earth…an experiential learning, training center with radical extremes of experience possible…as experience…and all generated by manipulating the brain’s connectivity to mind (which needs no such container or control mechanism, but is so ensconced). Whatever advanced folk of whatever ilk that may be, easily and simply (their viewpoint…humongously complex to us) guide minds…including not just thoughts, feelings, experiences, but seeming environments, relationship, juxtapositionality availabilities per moment in time, etc. Time, space and matter as we think of it, all a fluid matrix of manipulable experience to flow, pattern and format in mind…evoking whatever is desired for whatever purpose. Whether ordinary, ecstatic, spiritual, seemingly beneficial, evil-demonic, seeming detrimental (or fatal), on and on and on. Formatted experience beamed to certain glands and brain areas to evoke as needed. No need to have complex equipment, just the capability to “transmit” with uniquely encoded bio-keys matching what DNA (and other) for an individual are preset to receive on all its channels…and the experience comes into view, or changes, or ends, etc., and is sequenced to frequencies (and similar) which we interpret as time, as space, as matter and so on.

    Bio Flight Simulator

    Na!!! Just random lightning strikes creating entire complex biospheres, galaxies and more according to laws. hmmm laws set in place by what? Methinks a day will come when “event horizon” will be greatly redefined. If not, we can always take two and call an expert in the morning…very comforting. Oneness…just what is that? Better yet…just what are you? (especially if you read this far…smile)

  6. #6 Jenny Diehl
    August 9, 2010

    My mother suffered a basal brain anueryism which ultimately led to almost complete destruction of her right temporal lobe. Immediatly after the event (within 24 hrs) she could not use language that made sense. However, when I asked her if she wanted to pray, she responded and on her own said a perfect version of the Lord’s prayer. Her faith and concept of her God still exsisted without the help of her right frontal lobe. This tells me that God resides in more than one place.

  7. #7 Tim W.
    August 22, 2010

    It’s obvious that the “God Helmet” merely opens the third eye of the subjects in question and that they are thus able to experience other dimensions and the beings that populate those dimensions.

  8. #8 satan
    October 14, 2010

    I am on earth.

  9. #9 Scott
    June 17, 2011

    Instead of buying that kit, I may just decide to make one myself. I would need to purchase the magnets and know exactly how to position them though. Anyone with basic electrical knowledge can try that I assume. It sounds fun and is worth a shot.

  10. #10 Michael Pomerantz
    October 26, 2011

    where can I buy a Koren Helmet for 200 plus dollors. Or where to I get the info to make my own.

  11. #11 Wilfrid
    December 15, 2011

    Two friends and I have used the God Helmet for over a month now. All of us have had profound and positive effects from our sessions, but these have been different for each of us. Each of my two friends has told me of specific instances of what most people would call psychic experiences since we began using the God Helmet (reading other people’s minds or becoming aware of feelings others had experienced in a particular place, both validated by checking with the other people in question). I have found that the quality of my meditation practice has improved dramatically, with profoundly deeper states of relaxation during meditation. So far, all three of us are very favorably impressed and keenly interested in continuing our sessions with the God Helmet.

  12. #12 Dave Schauweker
    May 21, 2012

    The Shakti 2, 4, and 8 coil machines and the Shiva (a replacement for the “God Helmet”) 32 coil machine are for sale on the site of their inventor, Todd Murphy, who is a protege of Dr. Persinger. The site is http://www.shaktitechnology.com.

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