Godless physiology?

The "neurotheologist" Michael Persinger is a fellow with an interesting idea: that the sensation of god is a product of activity in the brain. He induces activity in the brain with electromagnetic fields, and some people feel a sense of oneness with the universe or that aliens are peering over their shoulder.

Richard Dawkins is an infamous atheist who needs no introduction here.

Put the two together, have Persinger strap his electromagnetic helmet on Dawkins' head and stimulate the temporal lobes, the apparent seat of spiritual sensation, and what happens?

Nothing.

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.

I guess some people are more resistant to the god delusion than others, even when spirituality is injected directly into their brains on a wire. It makes me wish I could try this gadget out.

(via Amused Muse)

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Interesting. Next step is to wonder (and test hopefully?) if this is cause or effect -- is Dawkins (and presumably others) atheistic because he's resistant, or resistant because he's atheistic?

Then, is it an an inborn trait, one that develops early perhaps as a result of early learning and maybe some inborn physical characteristic, or mostly learned?

Whatever the underlying reason, it would be a very cool toy to play with.

I think it's pretty well documented that hyperreligiosity is especially common among people with temporal lobe epilepsy, too.

i had plenty of religious/spiritual experiences, when I was a teenager on LSD.

not so many now. though, if the Church started advocating LSD use for it's parishoners, that would be pretty damn funny.

Have you read Robert J. Sawyer's "Hominids," "Humans," and "Hybrids"? It's a science fiction trilogy; part of what he does is riff on this idea, that the religious impulse is nothing other than a succeptibility in the brain which some people have more than others.

Is the evidence on religiousity in TLE sufferers really good? I mean, it's often hard to get lots of TLE people to come forward, other than getting medical help, because TLE is the most difficult form of epilepsy to successfully treat and there's an amazing amount of rather odd prejudice against epilepsy sufferers, esp. those who have uncontrolled seizures.

I know this because Nancy Tanner, the anthropologist I've mentioned here before, had uncontrolled (partially controlled at best) TLE and I had to deal with people's reactions to it all the time. It's amazing how weird their reactions were (I developed some ideas on why this is). She was, BTW, very non-religious except for a brief flirtation with it during undergrad college -- that was over soon after she graduated (at 18) and some years before she developed epilepsy (late 20s).

Is the evidence on religiousity in TLE sufferers really good?
As an atheist with TLE myself, I don't claim that one necessarily leads to the other, but there does seem to be a strong link (probably depends where the lobe is damaged), and it fits in with what Persinger is saying, too.

Hate to play the skeptic (!), but we should hesistate to draw conclusions from this. It's a fun demonstration of TMS and what it can and sometimes can't do, but concluding that atheists lack some kind of God Nucleus in the temporal lobe is a pretty far reach from a sample size of one. From the sentence "some people feel a sense of oneness with the universe or that aliens are peering over their shoulder," remember that the first word is "some." I'm willing to bet that even some majorly religious people don't get anything out of it.

Would love to see a proper controlled study of this though... or be in one!

This is, IMO, remarkably stupid, at many levels.

The first is the seemingly implicit presupposition that a God feeling has to be extrasensory.

The second is e.g., that happiness is an illusion, because some drug concoction or electrical stimulation can make you experience the same feeling.

The third is akin to trying to make your computer do some specific computation by putting it in a electrical or magnetic field - why would something of such complexity be expected to have a simple response?

Anyway, we see here the truth that God - whether one is for or against - renders the subject silly.

I think labeling the feeling "God" here is really just a convenience, one that most readers will be able to identify with. "Numinous" or "mystical" might be a better blanket term for the feeling they're describing.

Ditto on the "remarkably stupid" comment above.

"The sensation of God is a product of activity in the brain"? So is any other sensation, or idea, or belief I can have. So what's the point, exactly?

If a "sense of oneness" I feel with the universe is somehow falsified by its being a product of my neurochemistry, why isn't anything else I sense? How about if a feel a sense of the absence of a god from the universe?

The presupposition is that the god sensation is non-sensory -- it's the product of some kind of internal processing. That doesn't seem stupid at all.

Happiness is an internal state. This kind of study doesn't challenge that at all.

Brains are very, very good at making order out of chaos. It's not surprising at all that random input to some region of the brain would be parsed and interpreted in some predictable way, generating something like the perception of another being. Why not?

Have you read Robert J. Sawyer's "Hominids," "Humans," and "Hybrids"? It's a science fiction trilogy; part of what he does is riff on this idea, that the religious impulse is nothing other than a succeptibility in the brain which some people have more than others.

I thought it was kind of silly. They find out that the God gene is responsible for all kinds of evil in H.sapiens society: then they spend a better part of a novel wondering whether a human-neanderthal hybrid should have the gene. Hmm, tough one.

I guess some people are more resistant to the god delusion than others, even when spirituality is injected directly into their brains on a wire. It makes me wish I could try this gadget out.

Either that, or Dr. Persinger's hypothesis is falsified.

To further play devil's advocate, no pun intended, maybe the temporal lobe is the sensory organ through which we perceive God. TMSing that area would then be roughly equivalent to showing you a video of a dog and concluding that dogs therefore don't exist. Though I always thought the pineal gland would be a better candidate... :)

Neurotheology, eh? Lovely neologism.

I had to look twice to see it wasn't neuroethology, the well-established field which studies behaviors which have identifiable neural correlates, usually emphasising their evolution (despite the impression left by the wikipedia's article) Such behaviors are rare, and almost entirely non-human.

A quick perusal of Persinger's site suggests the neologism is due to the BBC, not to him. Or is it a serendipitous malapropism?

PZ: I still like the idea of a helmet that meddles with brain function.

I thought all guys were born with those.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 11 Apr 2006 #permalink

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.

Every time I've heard about the temporal lobe connection to religious/mystic experiences, the implications get spun in this direction by the popular media. Isn't this exactly backwards? If religious experiences are what (some) people get when their temporal lobe goes haywire, via epilepsy or drugs or magnetic zapping or whatever, doesn't that suggest that we're designed not to have such experiences?

I mean, you can whack someone in the head with a 2x4 and have them seeing stars, but that's hardly evidence that seeing stars is something their brain evolved for.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 11 Apr 2006 #permalink

This is interesting. I've always felt that being athiest was sort of like being gay...in that it's *not* a "lifestyle choice" but just the way I am.

A lot of athiests I know have gone through stages where they tried to "fake" belief, especially coming from religious families (I know I tried for my muslim father for a long time). But I was just kidding myself...I don't have any capacity to accept religious belief into my life.

It would be cool if some more in-depth research on this was done.

While most of what I've read about Persinger's god helmet sounds plausible, I have to wonder about Persinger and would like to see some replication of his results.

He's done a lot of work on fringy topics, some of which seems fringy but maybe right, and some of which seems pretty darned iffy---e.g., work on remote viewing, in which he claims that Ingo Swann is actually good at it, and measures variations in his performance due to other things.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&li…

Huh? Isn't remote viewing a pseudoscientific scam?

Jack Hitt wrote an interesting article for Wired back in 1999 about visiting Persinger's lab and undergoing his neural stimulation. His experience was a flashback to minor episodes from his youth, notably a glimpse of his girlfriend's breasts at age 14 (his age, maybe hers too) [this part of the article can be found at http://wired-vig.wired.com/wired/archive/7.11/persinger.html?pg=3&topic… ].

At that age, I would've considered such a vision a heavenly peek experience also. Possibly Persinger has invented a drugless flashback generator - he's just getting god talk because that's associated with strong emotional reactions in many people.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 11 Apr 2006 #permalink

concluding that atheists lack some kind of God Nucleus in the temporal lobe is a pretty far reach from a sample size of one.

Surely the statement that the brains of atheists differ in some way from the brains of Believers is mere common sense. As a non-neuroscientist I can't really bring myself to care whether it's the temporal lobe that's implicated or some other brain part or concentrations of some chemical or something else.

Now what would be interesting in all sorts of ways is finding out whether these differences are genetic or learned or caused by being dropped on the head as a baby or womb chemistry.

but concluding that atheists lack some kind of God Nucleus in the temporal lobe is a pretty far reach from a sample size of one.

I remember some years ago when it was first published that certain epilepsies produced "religious visions". it certainly wasn't a sample size of one, and the researchers noted that those that did not already believe in a diety did not interpret their experiences as religious.

So this is actually confirmation of something already notied.

My guess is that a feeling of oneness is something that naturally comes to people. The last time I had a few glasses of Jameson's I had a feeling of oneness, a true generosity of spirit.

My guess is that a belief in a higher power, i.e., God, is the default in most cultures because most (all?) cultures are immersed in religion. It's the difference between being drunk and having everyone around you tell you that you are seeing God and being in a situation where you are seeing God but you know you that are drunk.

We all have those mystical moments. It's all in the interpretation of those moments.

Brains are very, very good at making order out of chaos.

"It" is only chaos because you call "it" chaos. Undifferentiated phenomena is not necessarily in a state of "chaos" nor, when perceived by a human and the data is interpreted by the brain, is it necessarily non-chaos. There is a presumption of perception here that is beyond the ken of such perception. And if all "feelings" can be ascribed to areas of the brain like so many keys on a piano, who or what is it that experiences these "feelings?" Who is the who in the "who are you?" Just another key on the piano? Whose piano?

Chaos is a term of convenience, not unlike the word "god."

+++

More bad physics being marketed as "medical" wonders. Has Persinger cooperated in a controlled experiment, with some people only being told they had EM wave treatment and some actually getting it? I confess to just shooting from the hip here, but it looks like some people have had the suggestion planted that they will "see" God.

Sounds like magnetic therapy, copper bracelets, that kind of pseudo-scientific cure-all stuff. Humbug.

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.

Every time I've heard about the temporal lobe connection to religious/mystic experiences, the implications get spun in this direction by the popular media. Isn't this exactly backwards?

Yes. Unfortunately, it's not just in the popular media.

I found D'Aquili and Newberg's book Why God Won't Go Away very interesting and credible up until about two thirds of the way through, but then they went and ruined it by putting that kind of spin on it themselves.

D'Aquili and Newberg used brain scan studies of meditating buddhist monks and praying Catholic nuns, etc., to identify crucial brain regions involved in experiences of mystical transcendence, in particular a region that integrates spatial information of various sorts and keeps track of where the body leaves off and the rest of the universe begins.

According to their theory, what happens in common mystical states is that that region shuts down, due to lack of a signal from another (rhythm-related) region that gets overloaded and shuts down. (Often this overload involves rhythmic chanting, dancing, or passively listening to repetive rhythmic music---or having intense sex. All those things seem to exhibit the same pattern of brain region overload & shutdown.)

So basically what happens is that the region that keeps track of the body/universe distinction stops keeping track. Suddenly you're "one with the universe" or have "transcended your body" or feel a mystical union with music, God, or your sex partner, or something---whatever your higher-level cognitive centers are prone to interpret it as.

This explanation makes it clear, you'd think, that what's going on is a hallucination. An unconscious cognitive mechanism stops working, and other parts of the mind/brain interpret it in an odd way. It's a brainfart. Given the way the brain works when it's working correctly, that appears to be a way it can sometimes malfunction, with many entertaining consequences. End of story.

Nonetheless, D'Aquili & Newbert proceed to re-explain something they've explained perfectly well, saying that they think it's likely there for a reason, so that we can perceive a deeper reality.

This makes absolutely no sense at all. What they're describing is not veridical perception; they propose no mechanism by which this could actually take accurate sensory information and extract truths about the world from it.

I found that truly bizarre. They did a very good job of explaining why the effects they're seeing would be the result of known mechanisms, as they understand them, in what they make quite clear is just an odd failure mode. Then they turn 180 degrees and describe this as an alternative "perception" of something real, on the basis of... absolutely nothing. They actually talk about a "perceptual" mode that has no inputs, and just makes stuff up.

(If you're familiar with the literature on perception, that's a common feature of an enormous variety of hallucinations. Sensory deprivation in any modality typically cause hallucinations, as do shutdowns of any intermediate-stage processing modules---deprived of proper inputs, most perceptual modules generate garbage.)

This is not to say that such brainfarts couldn't be selected for, and still be there for an evolutionary reason, in some sense. It may be that the failure mode was never evolved out, because it was "useful" under certain selection pressures---e.g., not getting killed by other religious people for being insufficiently religious. A bug in a perceptual system could become a feature in a social system. But that has nothing to do with whether it's veridical perception of something real.

Sadly, neurotheology attracts some people who will resort to such bizarre theories and interpretations, because they like religion. Too many of them are prone to neuro-theology (theology of neural stuff), as opposed to theo-neurology (neurology of theological stuff).

"It" is only chaos because you call "it" chaos.

No, I'm referring to the rather sloppy induced electromagnetic signals Persinger is squirting into his subjects brains. Those are not specific and poorly refined -- he isn't painting angels into people's heads. All these interpretations of god, or aliens, or a girlfriend's breast are being generated from a much less well defined signal.

I agree with those skeptical of Persinger's work. He's done some really crappy work, like his "tectonic strain theory" which attributes paranormal phenomena to geologically-produced electrical activity (based on correlations between earthquake activity and a wide variety of paranormal claims, many of which already have natural explanations). I recommend reading the chapter on his work in John Horgan's _Rational Mysticism_ before giving credence to his God helmet.

It seems to me that whatever weird sensations the device or TLE gives you, you are going to interpret it depending on how you have been culturally conditioned. A religious preson will interpret it in the framework of a spiritual experience, a UFO believer will put it in the term of the mythologies of the UFO subculture (grays, etc.).

Dawkins, being both a scientist and a nonbeliever probably noted the various sensations and whatnot and mentally noted them about as faithfully as he could, as data, without trying to interpret them beyond what he could reliably remember.
Most people are pretty unaware of how their brain processes things, and are often given to embellishment of experiences to get the attention, and to make them more interesting. They add extra stuff - a vague feeling of paralysis and being watched turns into a vivid description of being on a table with a couple of Grays looking down at you after a couple of tellings.

Plus, as a commenter noted above - the brain is pretty complicated and it's gonna be more or less a crapshoot as to what happens when you electromagnetically stimulate parts of it. You'll get some similarity of effects, but the specific thoughts are going to be very different in different people.

Well, I found enough on-line on Persinger to raise my skeptic level several notches. His results are not reproducible, at least as far as this 2005 article reports: http://www.stnews.org/News-28.htm
There also seems to some question whether his trials were double-blind, according to the wikipedia article on him.

He has had peer reviewed papers published, but the EM work mostly ends up in parapsychology journals with some in psych journals that (to me) seem pretty obscure (aka dodgy). He's also keen on UFO research, trying to find natural explanations for lights in the sky, etc.

I repeat, then, humbug.

because it was "useful" under certain selection pressures---e.g., not getting killed by other religious people for being insufficiently religious

Well, given the reported effects, an improvement in pair-bonding (with corresponding reduction in dead offspring) would seem to be a fairly major positive effect of this.

(Plus that would have the nice consequence of religion having evolved as a side-effect of sex. ;) )

I originally wrote the following, about 5 years ago!
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

A note on: "Mystical experiences", "Voices", and "Visions".

Most, if not all people who have these experiences, are merely sick unfortunates who are suffering from the physical diseases of Epilepsy or Schizophrenia (Ref. Saver & Rabin of UCLA Neurological Research Center). It is almost certain that Saul/Paul, Jeanne d'Arc and Mohammed were such cases.
Research initiated by Dr. M. Persinger, and now being undertaken by others as well, has clearly shown that religious experiences and visions can be artificially induced and stimulated under controlled laboratory conditions. Thus, religious experiences of this nature are reproducible natural phenomena, which can be produced or replicated on demand. There is zero mystical, religious, or any other form of otherworldly content. "Religious" brain activity is centred in the posterior superior parietal lobe - ( Newberg & D'Aquili of U. of Pennsylvania Nuclear Medicine division.)

I would now add, that what is needed is a really large cotrolled trial, with at least 5000 subject-volunteers, from all backgrounds and beliefs - followed by a very careful statistical analysis.

By G. Tingey (not verified) on 11 Apr 2006 #permalink

Humbug or not, I find it interesting that this could be an inroad to some observations on behaviour. Or the idea of religion or atheism as possible brain bugs. But unfortunately Persinger doesn't seem to be the one who will find out.

I appreciate PZ and Paul distinction of this effect, if it exists, is non-sensory. Other related effects where people display different sensitivity is suggestions/hypnosis. I'm curious to know if non-sensitivity to those are tied into atheism. (I have a large sample size of one, in an uncontrolled situation, without my supervision, who says it's so. So it can be a fact. :-)

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 11 Apr 2006 #permalink

From Great White Wonder:

PZ: I still like the idea of a helmet that meddles with brain function.
I thought all guys were born with those.

If this was talk.origins, I'd nominate that for a Chez Watt.

By Graham Douglas (not verified) on 11 Apr 2006 #permalink

Jim Lippard wrote:

> I recommend reading the chapter on his work
> in John Horgan's _Rational Mysticism_
> before giving credence to his God helmet.

Seconded. I was going to say the same thing.

By Steve Cameron (not verified) on 12 Apr 2006 #permalink

"I'm curious to know if non-sensitivity to [suggestions/hypnosis] are tied into atheism." I did get a little irritated at the language in the article--naturally, atheists are insensitive, right? What is it that we are sensitive and receptive to, as compared to those more readily taken in by hallucinations? That's what I'd like to know.

I suggest doing some elementary social science reading to get some perspective on this issue. Whether people are "religious" or not isn't really very much to do with whether their temporal lobe is fritzing or not. Even in those cases where a new religion gets started by someone claiming an ecstatic experience of a spiritual being, or god, or whatever, most of the followers of that religion never get to share that experience. Fast forward a few years, or a few hundred years, and most of the adherents are more likely to be having difficulty with the part of the brain that makes them fall asleep during boring rituals, rather than the part that makes them "sense" god. In other words, whatever you make of Persinger's work, it doesn't explain very much about religion as a social phenonenon.

So religion uses the same parts of the brain as sex, drugs and rock & roll? No wonder it's so often opposed to them: direct competition.

Seriously though, this suggests that the response might have been evolved first for sexual pair bonding and later people figured out how to trigger it through drugs, dancing, music and superstition. Is it revealing that an atheist reported a vision with sexual content? (Not that plenty of religious/extraterrestrial/etc. visions don't have sexual content too, of course.)

The commonness of sexual and supernatural content is also strongly reminiscent of dreams, supporting the hypothesis that visions/hallucinations are caused by the brain's "dream system" activating when it's not supposed to.

And there probably is some mechanism, either in the temporal lobe or elsewhere, that keeps these experiences from being expressed all the time - while you're hunting wildebeests is not a good time to be having visions, and while lions are hunting you is an even worse time.

It's disappointing, but not too surprising, that some people think that visions must represent some kind of external reality. Maybe the real "atheist center" in the brain is the one that tells you not to believe everything you dream/hallucinate - prophetic dreams, gods, demons, fairies, aliens or whatever. I'm pretty sure that if Dawkins had seen something, he wouldn't have immediately concluded that what he saw *must* be real and reorganized his belief system around it.

I've had experiences of wonderment and awe that a religious person would not hesitate to call "religious." I'd imagine it's the same with Dawkins (whatever the results of Persinger's "experiment" on him). Other than the sort of "religious" experience consisting of vivid "encounters" with divine personages (i.e., hallucinations), I doubt there's a qualitative difference between what your average believer counts as religious experience and the sort of experience I'm recounting. Religious folks are simply prone to interpret that experience religiously.

Kristine,
I haven't read the article yet, only wheatdoggs interesting link, so I'm not sure what you mean exactly. Insensitivity may occur due to supressing cultural context explanations, an ability to suppress "noise" consciously or unconsciously, or basic insensitivity. And if insensitivity is negative or positive depend on context - pain for example.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 12 Apr 2006 #permalink

clare: It seems that the social scientific stuff and Persinger's stuff are works in two different areas. The former explains how religions get transmitted, change over time, interact with other aspects of society, etc. The latter explains one way in which they may begin.

There's an Arthur C. Clarke novel or possibly short story (sorry can't remember which, but I'm about 95% certain it's Clarke) where he drops in a throwaway about how religion isn't taken seriously by most people in his future since researchers had found a method to reproduce a mystical experience consistently. Anyone know the reference? I think that he was thinking of drugs rather than electromagnetic fields, though.

He also suggested in a novel that religions that would survive in the future would have to avoid being based on falsifiable claims, since these would eventually be debunked. I now think that's kind of naive, since people show a remarkable tendency to maintain blindspots to data that contradict their worldview.

I found D'Aquili and Newberg's book Why God Won't Go Away very interesting and credible up until about two thirds of the way through, but then they went and ruined it by putting that kind of spin on it themselves.

Thanks, Paul W, for a much better precis of the D&N book than I was going to write, and you've pretty much nailed it. The first part of the book was fascinating for the neurology and the speculations re the prehistoric origins of religious behaviour -- then the authors light up a large bong and go off into la-la land.

In response to other comments (and some media spins): It's simplistic to "explain" religion or atheism in terms of the presence/absence/malfunction of some singular node in the brain. To start with, religious behaviours are far too diverse. The D&N work (and Persinger seems to be operating on the same theme) pertains to the mystical/ecstatic kind of spirituality. Contrast this with the stern moralistic/legalistic kind of religion, which often actively suppresses the other kind (think: Pentecostal vs. Presbyterian).

Beyond that, bear in mind that this part of the brain appears to serve a "normal" function: giving us a sense of location and extension. But like everything else in neurology, it's subject to manipulation and exhibits individual variation (even without getting into pathologies like epilepsy). I've probably experienced the sort of things described a few times in my life -- and I've been all over the map, religiously. How an individual interprets such experiences probably depends very much on their intellectual predispositions. (Although I can imagine someone who is intellectually on the edge, say an adolsecent, being tipped religion-ward by having a mystical experience).

It's understandable that people would place an entirely different interpretation on a simulated religious experience, but if Dawkins felt nothing but a change in breathing, I wonder how much of this is pure placebo effect.

Assuming the normal human brain is prone to some kind of sense of wonder that could be reproduced, then Dawkins could have felt a familiar experience that he shared with religious people, but not one that he associated with God. If he didn't even experience some sense of "oneness" or wonder, then there are a couple of possibilities. The method could be inconsistent or ineffectual, or the method is fine, but Dawkins is an outlier with respect to sensitivity.

The outlier explanation would support the observation that there are always some atheists, but not a majority. It's just too tidy for my taste, however. I'm more inclined to assume that Dawkins is normal and that the method isn't particularly effective at doing what is claimed.

I have to say that I'm not really inclined to feeling any strong sense of awe currently, but I have a recollection of feeling this often as a child. If I had to guess, I'd say it is a property of a developing brain that goes away in adulthood. This was usually not related to religion but to the consideration of old philosopical chestnuts, then new to me: e.g. "Why is there anything? Why not nothing?" Trying to ponder what it would mean for there to be nothing at the age of 8 or so could send me into a kind of vertigo that it no longer does.

FWIW: I no longer see why nothingness should be preferred a priori to some specific thing, so the whole question strikes me as a red herring. However, I do think one of the most interesting questions is the difference between something being mathematically defined vs. physically realized. For instance, I could write a Turing Machine program that enumerated proofs of theorems until it found a proof a some particular theorem assuming the statement was decidable. In a practical sense, this is distinct from actually having that program run to completion on a functioning computer. The latter would take too long within physical constraints, so the promising sounding computer program is really not very interesting. Or, for instance, if I could write a program that simulated a human brain I believe it would experience consciousness if run, but would not experience conscious if it only existed on paper. I cannot think of a really good justification for why that should be so, but neither can I envision an infinite realm of entities that experience consciousness merely by virtue of being mathematically defined. My current practice is not to worry about these questions much anymore. Even when I do, they longer give me the sort of vertigo I might have experienced as a child.

Well I, for one, would be a little afraid of Persinger's contraption, because for me, the awesomeness of it all has not gone away, and I am also still the victim of horrifying religious nightmares and have a general mental flamboyance (I dream in color, smell things in my dreams, eat food and drink wine, etc.), so I'm not sure that Persinger's machine is irrelevant, and I don't know what it would do to me. I've tried out some pretty weird beliefs in my life (mostly because they were weird) before arriving at where I am now.

But in reading the article again, I'm struck that those who find the religious associations most exciting found sexual associations even less exciting than neutral words, like "table." That certainly seems to parrot my subjective, anecdotal experience--people get jazzed up by God and rather than being actually prudish just acting like sexuality is not important, just a sticker-patch to run through in the yard. It makes me wonder: Could religious experience just be a misfire of, a sort of mutant of, the sexual experience?

I rather like this idea, but it's sure to provoke opposition.

Torbjörn, I'm just harping on a little detail and being my crabby self--"talent for religion" and so forth. (How about "talent for science?") Yes, the negative or positive aspects to insensitivity is contextual, but the average person is probably going to take away from this the idea that atheists are "not receptive." Ugh. I do think it matters, how the discussion is framed (especially if it's always framed in the same manner).

I work at the same University as Persinger, PZ, so if you wanted to come up to Sudbury and try it out, I would happily act as intermediary between you and him!

I must admit, however, I fall into the 'skeptical' camp when it comes to Persinger's work; to me, he has always seemed to be more of a publicity hound than anything else. He self-funds all of his research, which he claims is to maintain 'independence', but honestly I can't imagine his proposals would get through peer review anyways.

I read the Wired article that both P.Z. and Pierce Butler linked to.

Having spent my entire adult life in the field of electronics, I'd love to know what Persinger has built into that helmet and what he's driving it with. But, reading about it in Wired, what I find is crap like:

" 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."

"Precise wavelngth patterns". That's just as intelligible as some New Age woo-woo going on and on about "energy" and "frequencies" and so forth.

Crap journalism. One might think that Wired could have found someone capable of asking intelligent questions about the hardware and its use and of giving the reader something tastier than word salad.

By Ktesibios (not verified) on 12 Apr 2006 #permalink

Having spent my entire adult life in the field of electronics, I'd love to know what Persinger has built into that helmet and what he's driving it with.

IIRC, the helmet is a bicycle helmet with automotive solenoid switches mounted on it. The solenoids are just used for the electromagnets in them.

It's driven by the headphone output of a portable CD player---the "audio" electrical signal from the headphone out directly drives the solenoid electromagnets.

To generate a particular waveform, it's encoded as a normal CD audio track and burned onto a CD, which is put in the player.

The magnetic fields this generates are weak---comparable to the fields generated by the electromagnets in normal headphones, which use either a moving coil or fixed coil and a moving magnet to drive the diaphragm that moves the air into and out of your ear.

This level of varying magnetic field is normally considered inconsequential and unlikely to fuck with your head.

Persinger believes that's only mostly true, and that while most neural circuitry rejects most magnetic fields of this sort, you can significanly alter neural function if you hit the right frequencies in the right time-varying patterns.

He has experimented with a variety of frequencies and patterns. The general scheme he claims is effective is to key to the frequencies of normal operation of the brain circuits you want to interfere with. He has a variety of patterns that are either recordings of or similar to patterns of measured electrical (electromagnetic) stuff *emitted* by brain regions doing various things.

Intuitively, the idea is that you hit or near-miss the frequencies at which neural circuits resonate, rather than the bands of frequencies they are good at rejecting. And you pulse them with patterns similar to the ones they normally exhibit, but maybe not the same. They may be out of phase, or go in and out of phase because the pulse frequencies are a bit wrong. At at least two levels, the idea is that you hit them with something not-quite-right that confuses them so that they cease to function correctly, and likely either shut down or generate such random weirdness that other regions likewise either reject their random outputs, shut down, or generate garbage of their own.

This is all from memory, so I'm not sure I have Persinger's story straight---and I have no idea whether Persinger's theory his helmet's function it is true. AFAIK, it might not work at all, or it might work for reasons different from what he thinks.

A couple of years ago, I looked into this, and somebody with a past affiliation with Persinger was actually selling such helmets on the internet, for about $200 with a CD you could put in your own player, hitch the player output up to the helmet, and mess with your head. To buy one, you had to agree to abide by their rules for using it and report your results to them.

Naturally, this raises lots of scientific and ethical questions.

[pauses to do a little Googling...]

OK, now there's a version for Windows, and a Mac version, using sofrtware to drive a new helmet.

The new helmet is just a strappy thing with 2, 4, or 8 EM transducers that look for all the world like those little phone-recording gadgets that they used to sell at Radio Shack.

http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/winshakti/index.htm

lt.kizhe,
OTOH some brain malfunctions display complexity, and coexist with normal brain functions. I think Persinger's type of attempts to explanations fascinate since it's very hard to understand "the other side".

kristine,
I see. The language you describe is skewed. And framing matters - what would "intelligent design (teach the controversy)" or "pro-life" be without framing?

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 12 Apr 2006 #permalink

"It" is only chaos because you call "it" chaos. Undifferentiated phenomena is not necessarily in a state of "chaos" nor, when perceived by a human and the data is interpreted by the brain, is it necessarily non-chaos. There is a presumption of perception here that is beyond the ken of such perception. And if all "feelings" can be ascribed to areas of the brain like so many keys on a piano, who or what is it that experiences these "feelings?" Who is the who in the "who are you?" Just another key on the piano? Whose piano?

Chaos is a term of convenience, not unlike the word "god."

Well.. Chaos is certainly "not" the right word. Things are more complex than that. Lots of recent studies show that instead of one single unit, the brain acts like a huge complex of specialized units, with filters and cross-associating systems, to make sense out of things. This means that you can induce errors or even temporarilly short circute parts of it, with odd results. One examlpe being to blast "specific" parts of the vision centers, which could result in someone being unable to point at a picture, but still being able to tell you what it is, its color, shape, etc. Or, short out a different part and they can "see" the location, color, shape (well enough to draw it), but not name what it is. One of the wierder versions even causes them to "see" a complete object, but if they try to draw it, they not only only draw one half of the object, they don't even know they failed to draw the other part, until you specifically tell them and they focus on that part that is missing.

Studies on similar phenomena (or maybe even this same study), have shown that prayer, meditation do not **activate** part of the brain, they shut it off. That is what is going on here, not the "stimulation" of the brain with erronous data, but the suppression of part of the brain responsible for coordinating and filtering data, and encapsulating it into a solid sense of self. In effect, those who are not susceptible to it have a strong sense of "me", those effected in various degrees have varying shifts depending on a) how suspectible they are, b) what the "working" filters tell them to identify things as and how suppressed the region becomes. Someone who is "known" to have a rarely diagnosed tendency to define their own self image so completely by other people's views would be "highly" susceptible. Why? Maybe its just self estime, but maybe (and in my experience its the most likely explaination), their self identify filter doesn't work as well as everyone elses, so they need external justification for their reality, where others, like Dawkins define their reality almost 100% internally to themselves.

People hate it when you use computer analogies, but you can imagine this technique as being the equivalent of having a program to filter all email traffic to a company for you to one location, and having that turned off, so suddenly you are recieving "everyone's" emails. This is the key system, the one that defines "you", below it are maybe dozens of subsystems that all think independently, all tied to hundreds of systems dealing with everything from the music you are hearing to the itch on your toe. Schitzophrenia and hearing voices are simply two different malfunctions of the same core system. Instead of turning off entirely, and losing your self identity to "oneness", you get partial malfunctions. I.e., getting email for fred in accounting, jeff in marketting "and" yours. Only, "you" know who "you" are and its not fred or jeff. The filters that are working thus tag fred and jeff as "external" voices, someone else interfering with you. But in the brain, the reality is that fred and jeff are simply alternate logic paths, they are what you "would" have thought or said, had other filters, including your, "That is a bad thing, don't do it", filter rejected. In other words, alternate possible decisions that leak through the edges, because something is crosswired.

Fact is, this theory fits very well into all recent research into all such phenomena and not one scrap of it implies "any" idea that there is some special temporal lobe center for God, instead of just different wiring, a mess of decision filters and that some tend to work better than others, especially when someone's genetics makes the odds of two normally seperate systems becoming way to interconnected. spirituality may simply, for those most prone to it, be a very common, and unfortunately for some time now, evolutionarilly beneificial, form Synesthesia:

http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/carol.html

I.e., in a religious society, seing religion where it doesn't exist is "actually" a benefit, even if its a malfunction.

Then there is an article in American Scientist suggesting its an adaptation that surfaces from our capacity to make judgemetns about what other people might be thinking. This seems likely, since someone that has no belief doesn't go around wondering if God is thining about them. You have to first have the presumption that there is something, "that can think", before you start projecting assumptions about what it thinks on it. This of course fits right in with the imaginary friend concept of God too, since its imagining the thoughts of something not visible or detectable, save by virtue of belief in its reality. Likely its some combination of all of the theories. As adaptations go, it certainly helps deal with conflict and wars, for those than believe in it, it helps them fit the social order, if that order believes it and it can be exacerbated or amplified by errors in the brains filtering system.

The vast majority of religious people probably do not have "religious experiences" in the sense are being discussed here. They simply believe because they are indoctrinated into a world view and orthodoxy since childhood that permeates their relationships and much of their culture. Probably a great many who feel compelled to relay stories about extra sensory "religious experiences" to fit in, merely lie about it or are deceiving themselves.

Accordingly, I doubt seriously that atheists are wired differently as a whole in the capacity that is being discussed.

Where atheists might be wired differently other than the obvious ability to practice healthy skepticism is in their predisposition to challenge orthodoxy or to be more apt to apply logical consistency and rigor in examining the roots of their beliefs (thus leading to their rejection upon the discovery of faulty evidence)

I also wouldn't trust Dawkins as a trained scientist to interpret any sensations as anything other than he did --- plus his own internal bias may be so strong as to not allow him to anyway.

Kagehi,
You rise some interesting points on the issue. With respect to making judgements about what other people might be thinking I find that it is called upon when necessary. ("Can I buy this outrageous outfit? Noo, what would people think!")

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 15 Apr 2006 #permalink

Well Alan, the argument isn't that "Atheists" are wired differently, but rather that a small percentage of people that are wired in a significantly more self focused, and less prone to erronous association, are propably going to find it much harder to justify belief than to become and atheist. In other words, all non-synesthetic with respect to religion are likely atheist, but not all atheists are non-synesthetic. Your making the mistake of assuming if A = B, then B = A, when its A c B and B not-c A. Sorry, not sure how to show the "subset" and "not subset" symbols here. ;)

Quick correction on a few common misconceptions: the work done at our laboratory is double blind. In cases where we have people coming in for a demonstration, those *aren't* blind simply because...well...if you have a reporter flying in from England or Japan, they definitely WANT to be exposed to the fields. Why come all that way to be exposed to a sham?

As for the Swedish group not being able to replicate our findings, they didn't use the equipment provided correctly. Like drugs, if you don't administer it in the proper dosage or route, you don't get the same of any effects. Unfortunately, their publication has done more harm than good and appears to have caused people to close off that entire field of research in their minds. It's funny - if you have dissension in fields such as biochem, genentics etc. everybody just says "oh well more research needs to be done". Here, the reactions is "Oh it's crap science, let's stop". Because you have conflicting results, doesn't it mean there's still variables and complexities about there to be investigated? C'mon, scientists, where is your sense of discovery and adventure? ;)

Persinger isn't try to prove/disprove the existence of "god". He's just trying to figure out the workings of the brain as an organ capable of mystical experiences. It's no different than trying to figure out how memory or learning works, just probably makes people a tad more uncomfortable with the notion. As for using EM fields, it may be unorthodox in Western research (we love our drugs!), but many Eastern researchers have been using it in their studies.

By Persinger student (not verified) on 31 Dec 2006 #permalink