from Wired Website
the Almighty isn't dead, he's an energy field.
And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.
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.
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
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:
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
Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly:
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
The weather-beaten concrete exteriors of
the city's buildings speak of long, harsh winters.
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'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
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.
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,
He calls laughter "nature's OK signal."
In a technique called
ESB - electric 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.
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
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, 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,
It takes me a follow-up or two
before I realize he had dodged the draft.
When I ask if, say, the subject ripped all this equipment from his flesh and ran screaming from the dungeon, Persinger curtly replies:
One more time: Has anyone freaked out in the chair?
Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
But he adds, sounding like so many people who've gotten a call from the coast,
I am being withdrawn from my body and set adrift in an infinite
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
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.
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 re-experience 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.
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.
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.
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.
Point taken. I'd probably be calling Art Bell once a week, alerting
the world to the alien invasion.
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.
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
Persinger says there were balls of light that moved around the cross atop the church.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.