Dr. Persinger’s God Machine

Ian Cotton

One day in January 1993, while researching a book on religious conversions and the evangelical revival, I was leafing through a back number of Numinus, the journal put out by the Alister Hardy Centre in Oxford (which collects and analyzes case histories of religious experience). In a footnote, I read the following:

Members will be interested in a report from Canada that scientist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University has invented a hel-met that he claims induces mystical experiences by stimulating the temporal lobe with magnetic forces. After a few sessions under the helmet many of Persinger’s subjects found that the presence of a cross or background music could send them into a mystical state. Persinger states that all human brains can be found on a scale going from the most sensitive temporal lobes to the least, and people who are “temporal lobe sensitives” are most likely to have mystical experiences as well as epileptic seizures. He claims that his theory still holds good if the supernatural exists, since there must a physical mechanism for the transmis-sion of supernatural experiences.

Michael Persinger, I discovered, was indeed performing such experiments. They involved entering a sound-proofed chamber and putting on something like a motorcycle helmet with electrodes, and having electric charges targeted to specific areas of the brain, with the results described. One subject, indeed, reckoned that he had seen God; another fled the cham-ber declaring that it should be exorcised because the Devil was in there.

So anyone ought to be able to have a mystical experience, courtesy of Dr. Persinger, at the flip of a switch. And as mystical experience was the starting point of so many of the conversionary case-histories with which my book dealt, I felt bound to try the equipment myself. I called Persinger and asked him whether he would like to tell me about his work, and even give me a ride on his machine. Sure, he said, but had I considered how this might go down with the Evangelicals? He had himself, apparently, had a bunch of them demonstrating outside his office at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, Ontario—they’d claimed that both he and his equipment were demonic.

Nevertheless, we fixed a date.

And so, two months later, under a brilliant blue March morning sky, the sun leaping off the snowdrifts, I took a taxi out to Laurentian University and, there in the bowels of Laurentian’s sixties brutalist campus, met Dr. Persinger himself—surprisingly suburban, striped-suited, formal, with a superbly hawklike sci-entist’s profile—and started with a quick tour of what Persinger and his staff, a touch discouragingly, call “the Dungeon”: the acoustic chamber in which his “subjects” are worked on and where, in due course, I would be worked on too.

An approach along labyrinthine corridors; a room about the size of a squash court with, at the center, a room within the room, like a workmen’s hut—the acoustic chamber itself; ranks of dials, wires, and computers; and, inside, an armchair for the “subject,” a red light on the wall, and two objects that looked like motorcycle helmets with yellow and black stripes, duly wired up.

“Yeah, this is where it all happens,” said Persinger, speaking in a regular, no-problems voice, such as might introduce the production line of, say, Nissan Sunderland. “What you have to understand,” he gestured, “is that first the computer gets the wave frequency right, then the pre-amps amplify the computer signal, then the commutator, via the interface, shifts it into the acoustic chamber and then the solenoids on the Koren helmet project the magnetic field into the subject’s brain.

“And as for the visions,” he continued, “well, they’re context-dependent, of course. I mean, a Catholic, for instance, is more likely to see Mary, a Protestant will see Christ, an Islamic, of course, Allah. Although more typically it’s less a `vision’ exactly, more a sense of ‘presence’—a presence, nevertheless, usually understood by subjects as supernatural.”

“And there are also negative experiences?”

“Yes,” Persinger replied. “A small percentage see demons, ghosts, and, yes, there was one who said the chamber should be exorcised, we’d got the Devil in there. And, yes, we’ve had subjects, too, who’ve clamored to be let out.”

“But this is rare?”

“It’s rare. Most subjects find the experience highly positive. Indeed, they want to try it again. They want more!”

As we wandered back to main lab, Persinger filled in some intellectual background. Born in Florida in 1945—the premium year for the counterculture generation, he was educated in the best interdisciplinary style. Along with neuroscience, he is interested in sociology and history, and pursued graduate degrees in psychology, physiology, and geophysics. He took his Ph.D. in Psychology and Physiology, from the University of Manitoba in 1971—he is, he says, by temperament and choice, Canadian. He then took a job at the provincial University of Sudbury, specifically because, he says, he hoped to be able to get on quietly with the kind of research some might find strange; it might also, he felt, be easier to “cross the disciplines” at a small university.

His first research, indeed, might seem even more surprising than his current work: he wrote papers that related UFO sightings to stresses and strains in the Earth (including so-called earthquake lights—those ghostly luminosities that can precede earthquakes, and that are emissions of electricity and other forces from the Earth’s crust as a result of tectonic strain). There was more: given the capacity of electric charges to impact experientially on a subject’s brain, was it not possible, reasoned Persinger, that these tectonic emissions could be responsible for events inside as well as outside the brain? Could experiences generally referred to, historically, as visions, be caused by nature, obliging with an appropriate electrical charge? More papers followed, and more statistical correlations, until this neuro-environmentalist route brought Persinger to his current experimental position: could not he do nature’s work, employing machinery, rather than earthquakes, to induce visions?

In a 1983 paper, “Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis,” Persinger put it like this:

According to the hypothesis, the actual mystical or religious experience is evoked by a transient (a few seconds) very focal, electrical display within the temporal lobe. Such temporal lobe transients (TLTs) would be analogous to electrical microseizures;

their emotional flavor, in turn, would depend on

the relative inclusion of reward (good: heaven) versus aversive (bad: hell) neuronal centres.

Remarkably, this could then give an individual access to:

(1) infantile memories of parental images and (2) images from before four to five years of age and memories for which there are no retrieval formats.

And the interpretation of such images?

The former would be a universal source of God (parent surro-gate) images while the latter would foster conclusions of “previ-ous lives” or other memories.

By this stage, the experiments with the helmet had begun. As Persinger told me, “By stimulating lobes with our helmet, we achieved a widening and deepening effect. After several sessions it took little to trigger the mystical state of mind.” And, since vision-seeing and supernatural experiences are frequently funda-mental to conversion, one can see why Persinger sums up:

Given the profound capacity to evoke pleasurable and meaning-ful experiences, reduce existential anxiety and generate the secu-rity of old parental experiences (the origin of God images), TLTs are potent modifiers of human behaviour. A singular episode, in the appropriate context, can be followed by long-term behavioral changes.

As he talked, we swung into Laurentian’s main neuroscience laboratory, a place little bigger than a railway station waiting room that he and his twenty-odd graduate students call home. There is a blackboard decorated with recent hieroglyphics, cupboards, and labels, marked suggestively: “Rat Brain Slides,” “Surgical Instruments,” “Sliced Human Brain.” Of course, Persinger continued, “you understand that the helmet is just the technology. The real thing is the theory.”.

Persinger then took me on a Cook’s tour of his neuroscientific theories. Predictably, our starting place was hemisphericity—the research that shows our brains effectively divide into two, and that each “hemisphere” is specialized for particular skills: language and logic, for instance in the left, creativity in the right. Indeed, some researchers believe that the hemispheres are even specialized for mood: optimism in the left, pessimism in the right. “You could sum up my position like this,” he said. “Put an individual, or a group—or a culture—in a situation in which the structure in their environment is being decayed away—in conditions, above all, of uncertainty—and their right-hemispherical activity, the seat of enhanced vigilance, or anxiety, goes up.

“A subject, say, suffers intolerable stress, or pain. Now, the left hemisphere, as well as being the seat of language, is also the seat of self, and one brain strategy, under intolerable pressure, is for the sense of self to close down. When this happens the right hemisphere effectively takes over; and right hemispherical expe-rience—visions, dreams, hallucinations—comes rushing through.

“The result of repeated right-hemispherical invasions of this kind is, paradoxically, to kick-start new activity in the left. And as the left hemisphere has this culture of optimism, the next thing the subject understands is this great surge of optimism, joy. All fearful, right-hemispherical effect falls away, confidence comes flooding in, and, if the conversion process goes far enough, other left-hemispherical processes cut in too—an enhanced, rather than fragmented, sense of self—including self-esteem, a pressing need to structure all these brave new feelings into a system, otherwise a moral code, a determination to make sure everyone else feels just exactly the same way too. In a word, if the process goes far enough,” Persinger smiled, “we have what is generally called religious bigotry.”

“What we also found,” added Persinger, “was that people, typically, in mild to moderate depression end up in religious conversions. More, these periods of repeated depression were in many respects similar to what neuroscience calls `kindling’ episodes, so there would be a depression and then a recovery, a depression and a recovery, and after a few of these, bang, you get the left-hemispheric stimulation and the religious conversion.”

Persinger stressed that it doesn’t have to be disaster, or pain, that activates the right hemisphere, with its culture of pessimism. It can, of course, quite simply be a directed electrical charge— hence his helmet. Moreover, the subject doesn’t have to be psychotic or in any other way especially susceptible: “Because what research has also shown is that we are all on a continuum of susceptibility, and that high emotionality—something quite different from, say, psychosis, so long associated with vision-seeing—is related to just the kind of temporal lobe sensitivity that makes people liable to mystical experiences.”

High emotionality? “Yes, people like the more sensitive among my students, for instance, 500 of whom we tested for just this, and who are, also, just the kind of ordinary people we like to test on the equipment. . . .”

Ordinary people? “Oh yes,” said Persinger. “People just like you and me?”

It is hard to imagine a human being less likely to go cosmic than Michael Persinger. His thought processes, his very manner, seem utterly left-hemispherical. Not only does he work all the hours God sends (including Sundays, complains his wife), but his time management is segmented in the extreme; at one point he offered me one twenty-minute slot just after one lecture, just before another: “We could talk from 2:10 P.M. to 2:30 P.M.,” he said, and meant it. And did it. And, once we got to the actual workings of his machinery, we were plumb in the left logical hemisphere.

“OK. So why the helmet? Well, what we do is target very low doses of electricity—the field our equipment throws is less than a hairdryer or a word-processor—to highly specific parts of the brain. And for that to work out we must ensure the field is absolutely accurately targeted and, therefore, that the equipment sits absolutely steadily on the head.” Which is also why Persinger’s team uses strips of iron attached to the helmet, pointing in at the head, as the actual sources from which the current is transmitted: they too offer a means of precisely targeting the field. “We wanted to keep the field highly focused rather than diffuse, because a focal field produces focal current and that’s what produces effects.”

So, iron strips, a helmet, that “commutator” he mentioned earlier, the solenoids, all maximizing the effect…. And into the acoustic chamber we go, where all those confusing, extraneous sounds get screened out by the chamber walls. Confusing extraneous sights are dealt with by another piece of pragmatism: Ping-pong balls, one on each eye. There’s little a subject will see that could look much scarier than the subject itself.

But neither sight nor sound will intrude on the neuroscientific quietude inside the head. Switch on, and the electrical field goes into the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus, Persinger’s preferred targets because “these are the most electrically labile parts of the brain. That’s why seizures are often associated with them.”

Then, during a couple of sessions of twenty or thirty minutes each, the subject awaits the effects. Which are?

“Oh, I don’t know, visions …” says Persinger, abstractedly.

“Look I know I sound blasé, but after the first couple of hundred experiences it gets a bit mundane. OK, typically, people report a presence in the chamber—that’s very frequent. Also `bright’ images. One crucial quality is the expectancy created by the setting. In one study we played, in the background, the theme song from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; in another we had a cross hanging, slightly elevated, fifteen degrees to the left. Not surprisingly, the content reflected the setting. With the cross, in particular, there were these death themes, religious experiences.”

But perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon was the direct correlation Persinger’s team found between visions and quite measurable brain “events.” “One time we were using a strobe and this individual saw Christ actually in the strobe—at same time generating good old-fashioned temporal lobe spikes [shapes on the monitoring graph showing unusual activity in the brain area just above the ear; i.e., the record of a scientifically explicable phenomenon]. Then there was this transcendental meditation teacher. In the last two minutes of a twenty-minute session, she experienced God in the laboratory, visiting her. And afterwards we looked at her EEG, and there was this classic spike and slow-wave seizure over the temporal lobe at the time of the expe-rience—the other parts of the brain were normal. We never told her, actually.” The reason being, of course, that not everyone can cope with that kind of knowledge. “So before one goes, blundering in there saying, ‘OK, you’ve just had a routine electrical seizure,’ there’s a certain clinical consideration to be accommodated. Even though you may suspect as a scientist, that this is an electrical phenomenon similar to thousands of others, it doesn’t change the fact that for the individual such an experience has been awesome, tremendous, utterly without precedent. I mean, your God coming and sitting down next to you, that’s a pretty freaky thing.”

All of which, of course, was pertinent to the point of my trip—the moment when I finally got myself down there in the chamber, got plugged in, and then … the truth is, I was scared. What if I were one of the favored few who really saw some-thing—Beelzebub, God, you name it. I accepted that there was nothing in the chamber that wasn’t in my own mind. But that was the problem. God knows what might be at the bottom of my mind.

I found myself counting off the days, and then the hours, much as I used to do before visits to the dentist as a child. The day before my turn in the chamber, I rang the lab to check final details and got Yves, one of Michael’s postgraduate assistants.

“You’ll have final tests in the morning,” said Yves brightly, “then Dr. Persinger will see you in the afternoon.”

“Sounds a bit like an operation,” I said.

“It’s just like an operation!”

So at 10 A.M. I turned up to a little room near the chamber, where Persinger’s assistant, Pauline, was setting up tests. She was reassuring. Bright and homey, with long hair, trousers and red sweater, she felt for all the world like a primary school-teacher. “S0000h,” she drawled cheerily, “Heeeere we go!” And off we went into a battery of brain and brain-body coordination tests. “S0000h,” said Pauline. “Here’s a test devised by Michael Persinger personally. I draw on your fingers and toes, and you have to work out which one I’m touching. It’s ever so easy.”

This one, I did fine. “You’ve got excellent toe-mind coordination,” glowed Pauline. Emboldened, I connected numbers on a piece of paper (pattern-recognition) and numbers linked up with the alphabet (left-hemisphere dominance) and I ticked or crossed statements such as: “I like reading mechanics magazines”; “I have had a vision”; and “I have been taken aboard a spaceship.” At last, we stopped. “All done,” said Pauline. “Just a couple of other little tests this afternoon, and then,” she finished brightly, “you’ll be on the helmet.”

Around 3:30 P.M., I was installed: eyes covered with Ping-pong balls, head wired in under the helmet, ears plugged up, intercom on, door shut, total darkness. The observer was about to become the observed: to have his very own visionary experience, duly monitored, right there in the chamber. Pauline switched on.

It began with … silence; followed by little prickling noises, which I took to be the electric charges going in; and more silence; and more little prickling noises … until slowly my consciousness seemed to turn into a kind of video camera, much like a dream, and I drifted back to the great white Edwardian house I had grown up in, and those sultry sunny days so long ago… . And then the video camera moves down from the window, and into the passageway, and there’s the oil burner my parents put there when I had pneumonia when I was eleven. And then back into the bedroom and up the bedroom wall, and alighting on this paper frieze with all those nursery rhyme pictures on it, a duck, move three inches to the right, a monkey in a tree, move three inches more, a windmill, that was always, for some reason, my favorite…. And now something I had forgotten for thirty years: the plastic cover on the top of the round table by my bed, the one with the intricate little pattern of red roses, set into a geometric framework of black squares.

The whole of that first session continued (very typically, I gathered later) in that dreamy childhood-recollecting mode, the most striking quality of which was the utter absence of any family or other human beings; only this video-camera consciousness marking its tour of a 1947 interior, with an endless, extraordinary recall of long-lost detail. And then Pauline’s voice was calling me over the intercom; the first session was over.

During the second session, about ten minutes later, things really began to move. This time a little background sound was played in by Persinger and his team, some vaguely New Age, Eastern temple bell sounds. Appropriately suggestible, my mindset off on a whole new tour, this time with a distinctly Eastern, Tibetan feel. This gradually increased in intensity and conviction, until suddenly, with a kind of booster rocket of realism, I was actually in a temple, in a line of solemn, Tibetan monks, grave-eyed, brown cowls around their heads, the bells tolling loudly now, echoing in my head—in fact I too, was a Tibetan monk… . But then I always had been, I realized—what had happened was that, for the first time, I’d understood this obvious truth. We were off to make our observances as we had, day after day, since time immemorial: bells, high seriousness, magisterial pacing, solemn monkish eyes. . . At which stage Pauline’s pert voice came bursting in over the intercom again, and that session was over too.

The session had felt exactly like a dream, but a waking dream. I had described my experiences over the intercom throughout, knowing with one part of myself that I was in the chamber: but there was a funny thing about that second session, as Persinger pointed out of my EEG. The moment of that “booster rocket” of seeming reality, the time when I started describing, over the intercom, the sudden intensity of the Tibetan vision, coincided with the moment when I very briefly (as recorded by the instruments) fell asleep. Dream consciousness had taken over from waking consciousness, but, extraordinarily, although I promptly “woke up” again, dream and waking consciousness somehow carried on in tandem, entwined together. “Reality” and the transnormal had coexisted side by side, much as it had for other visionaries—who had experienced their visions in more conventional environments—to whom I had talked. No wonder my visions—and theirs—felt so real. And no wonder Persinger’s subjects feel as convinced as they do by the things they “see” in the chamber. Indeed, as I looked into the chamber, it struck me that I was, arguably, gazing into the twenty-first century equivalent of a church. For here was what centuries of experiential techniques had been refined down to, all those bells, smells, fasting, dancing, drugs, terror-preaching, and music-making, all the innumerable ways whereby transcendental experiences can be induced in the brain. From here on, it seems, all could be induced at the flick of a switch: brave new other-world.

Yet when Persinger and I met the next day, he was at pains to reemphasize that that his processes did not, in his view, dis-count religious experience. “The fact that we can actually insert a God experience doesn’t change the fact that the process is there for some functional or evolutionarily significant reason. If one accepts that God created the universe, then why not have a brain mechanism whereby these experiences take place?”

After all, Persinger said, there are interesting parallels in the realm of art. “We know that poetic capacity is a manic feature; we know from studies that at least 70% of contemporary writers and musicians who are considered avant-garde or at the edge of our culture are manic depressives. The manic phase activates the brain to such a degree that parts of the brain functionally interact that normally would not. And so they can see things in the universe and even make predictions that are beyond the ordinary person. And that is what we call talent—or intuition.”

Until very recently, visionaries, whether aesthetic or transcendental, have been marginalized in the West. Yet that marginalization is being dramatically altered in our time: back in the early twentieth century, there were virtually no Christian Charismatics at all; by the 1990s, no less than 25%, or 400 million, of the Christian communion worldwide; by the end of the century, an estimated 30 percent, almost one in three.

“It’s quite remarkable,” Persinger observed, “how few people have grasped the implications of all this.” For underneath this activity, he argues, lie two profoundly important developments, the first being that recurrent leitmotif—uncertainty.

Some physicians argue that anxiety attacks have increased so much that they amount to an epidemic. And from the neuroscientific point of view anything that interferes with the sense of self can produce disruptions: uncertainty, in fact, has been reconstituted into a new sense of self, otherwise known as “identity”—the great psychological yearning of our time. Now, if you have enough people doing that, it’s called a social movement.

“And it’s usually something simple-minded. It has to be, that’s the nature of anxiety. That’s why, more than often, it’s a religious, or neo-religious movement— because they’re simple. Historically, it’s happened time and again. Social disruption, confusion, disorientation; and then, in tandem, these great surges of paranormalism. The Great Depression of the thirties, for instance, was a fine source of Charismatic belief.”

And the other development Persinger mentioned?

“The really crucial question is whether there is actually some fundamental cultural shift taking place, something beyond the mere strains and stresses of uncertainty. Some kind of refashioning, if you will, of consciousness itself: something that will make Charismatic experience that much more readily available to everyone. Marshall McLuhan’s been underestimated. His essential thinking, intuitive though it was, seems to me to be scientifically sound: yes, we are moving from a culture of literacy to what one might, indeed, call an aural/tactile culture; and, yes, that does involve profound changes of awareness.” Persinger paused, and weighed his words “True,” he went on, such changes won’t be genetic, that’s far too slow. But other things can happen: we know from rat studies, for instance—and we study rats precisely because the neuro-electrical and neuro-metabolic qualities of their brains are so similar to ours—that environmental enrichment changes the cortical thickness of their brains; and if you change cortical thickness, which is a crude gross measure, you must be altering the subtlety of microstructur.

“Now, it’s perfectly possible that we, too, have changes taking place in our environment or culture that would allow susceptibility to previously unsuspected stimulus patterns—that com-parable processes, in fact, are taking place in human brains. And as with individuals, so, perfectly plausible, with whole cultures.”

So it is possible that contemporary stimuli could be evolving brains that perceive quite differently from even thirty years ago?

“Oh yes,” said the doctor. “It really is very difficult to over-estimate the impact of all this, sociologically, on the twenty-first century.”

Ian Cotton

British journalist Ian Cotton has written for the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian. He is the author of The Hallelujah Revolution: The Rise of the New Christians (Prometheus Books, 1996), from which this article is excerpted.

One day in January 1993, while researching a book on religious conversions and the evangelical revival, I was leafing through a back number of Numinus, the journal put out by the Alister Hardy Centre in Oxford (which collects and analyzes case histories of religious experience). In a footnote, I read the following: Members will be …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.