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the god helmet

Richard Dawkin's in Persinger's "god helmet"The god helmet is a name given to a device used by Michael Persinger, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. The helmet is used in experiments designed to see what kinds of feelings or experiences people have when exposed to a very weak magnetic field near their temporal lobes. The device is a snowmobile helmet with solenoids, coils that produce magnetic fields when an electrical current is passed through them. The magnetic fields produced by this device are about as strong as those produced by an ordinary hair dryer, though of a different type.

Because some people have reported having "mystical experiences" while wearing the helmet, it has been dubbed the "god helmet." Persinger thinks his work is contributing to the field of neurotheology, the search for a correlation between things like colored blips on an fMRI or exposure to a magnetic field and subjective feelings that some people call "spiritual" or "mystical." Even reports of vague "feelings of a presence" or of out-of-body experiences are deemed "spiritual" by some neurotheologists. (Looking for correlations between using psychotropic drugs and subjective experiences some users call "spiritual" would also count as part of neurotheology.)

One might think that if such low-level magnetic fields could stimulate the prefontal lobes and cause "spiritual" experiences, there would be numerous reports every day of women and men in ecstasy from accidental exposure to a magnetic pulse. Anyway, Persinger has been at this for fifteen years and I've seen several reports that he claims that 80% of those who put on the god helmet have weird experiences. (Dr. Sarah Strand made this claim in a talk at SkeptiCal 2012. There are also several links on the internet, including the Wikipedia article on the god helmet, that link to an interview on the BBC, apparently with Richard Dawkins, where the 80% claim is made.) It may be true that 80% of those who go through his god helmet routine--which I will describe below--have weird experiences that some consider "mystical," "spiritual," or "paranormal." The problem is, I don't think he has very good evidence that these weird experiences are caused by magnetic pulses from his god helmet.

Jack Hitt, in a 1999 article for Wired, provides a detailed description of the Persinger process he went through. (Richard Dawkins also describes the process.) When Hitt arrives at the lab, he's met by a graduate student who asks him "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." After he's been cleared as a "normie," Hitt is escorted into a "chamber," which he describes as

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.

Persinger arrives and chats Hitt up for a bit while the helmet is fitted to his head. Hitt asks if anybody's ever freaked out in the chair and Persinger describes an "adverse experience" somebody had who thought the room was hexed. I guess the nuttiness test isn't foolproof. From other things Persinger says it is apparent that the subject is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and an electroencephalograph. Here is where the research gets sloppy, in my opinion. The subject knows what Persinger thinks he's doing. He knows what to expect and Persinger primes him to experience what he expects him to experience.

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."

Then Persinger leaves, having primed his subject for a head trip, and shuts the door. The subject is left behind with halved ping pong balls covering his eyes, in total darkness and silence. Hitt remains in this makeshift deprivation chamber for 35 minutes. He has a lapel mic, which he can use should he feel the need to be extricated from the chamber before his time is up.

What has Persinger done to establish that any subjective experience reported by his subjects was caused by the magnetic pulses rather than the sensory deprivation along with the suggestions he's primed his subjects with? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Persinger, however, claims that some of his tests were double-blinded and that the subjects didn't know what to expect. Furthermore, he says, sometimes he would turn the magnetic pulses on and off and not tell the subject when he would do so.

Adding to my skepticism about Persinger's interpretation of his work is the fact that he is the only one who has validated it. Nobody has replicated anything like it. One attempt to replicate was made, apparently with Persinger's approval of the protocols to be used, but the attempt failed to replicate and Persinger has criticized the failure as due to not exposing the subjects to magnetic fields for a long enough time to produce an effect. Persinger's objection seems absurd given that many subjects in both the control and experimental groups in the attempted replication reported strong or subtle effects.

BioEd Online reports on the scientific study that failed to replicate Persinger's claims:

A group of Swedish researchers has now repeated the work, but they say their study involves one crucial difference. They ensured that neither the participants nor the experimenters interacting with them had any idea who was being exposed to the magnetic fields, a 'double-blind' protocol. Without such a safeguard, "people in the experimental group who are highly suggestible would pick up on cues from the experimenter and they would be more likely to have these types of experiences," says Pehr Granqvist of Uppsala University, who led the research team.

Beyond the double-blind aspect, Granqvist says the nuts and bolts of the experiment mirrored those conducted in the past. He and his colleagues tested 43 undergraduate students by exposing them to magnetic fields that ranged from 3 to 7 microtesla and were aimed just above and in front of the ears, to target the temporal lobes.

They also tested a control group of 46 volunteers who wore the helmet but were not exposed to the magnetic field. The volunteers were then asked to complete questionnaires about what they experienced during each session. The researchers report their results online in Neuroscience Letters.

In contrast to the results from Persinger and others, the team found that the magnetism had no discernible effects. Two out of the three participants in the Swedish study that reported strong spiritual experiences during the study belonged to the control group, as did 11 out of the 22 who reported subtle experiences.

Granqvist acknowledges that this seems to be quite a high level of spiritual experiences overall, but says that it matches the level that Persinger saw in his control groups.

The researchers say they do not know what neurological mechanism could be generating the experiences. However, using personality tests they did find that people with an orientation toward unorthodox spirituality were more likely to feel a supernatural presence, as were those who were, in general, more suggestible.

It seems obvious that further research needs to be done before we attribute the results in Persinger's lab to magnetic pulses. It may well be the case that changes in the brain lead people to have what they describe as "mystical" experiences. These changes may be due to magnetic or electrical pulses, desires, thoughts, suggestions, or a host of other factors, including drugs and neurochemicals.

The god helmet, however, won't deserve its name until much more substantial evidence is provided by researchers other than Michael Persinger, who is not really the most unbiased person in the room.

If the reader is wondering why Persinger would think stimulating the temporal lobes would induce a "spiritual" experience, it is probably because there have been many reports of those with temporal lobe epilepsy experiencing such things as "oneness with everything."

See also altered states of consciousness and ganzfeld experiments.

further reading

Ramachandran, V.S. and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain (Quill William Morrow, 1998).

"God helmet"?...yeah...right...

The God Helmet: Your Brain on Religion

The God Helmet by Robert Hercz

Last updated 29-Jan-2014

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