In the middle to late 1990s, the frenzy for neuroscientific explanations for everything from why we laugh to how we fall in love was only just gaining a toehold in the popular science. And word was there was some interesting data coming out of a small lab in a Canadian hinterland. Really interesting: Dr. Michael Persinger, an American ex-pat and cognitive neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, had found God.
In the brain. Your brain, my brain, the brain.
“As a neuroscientist, I realized that all experiences are determined by brain activity. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean causal, but it means it could be correlation, and the correlation could be so high that you could consider it causal,” Persinger explained on the phone from his lab. It was 8:30 am London time, 3:30 a.m. his time. He works better at night, he said. “That is, the brain is generating all experiences: The experience of love, the experience of knowing who you are, the sense of presence, the sense of yourself, the feeling that you’re real and that you’re important, these are all products of brain activity in terms of various configurations within different regions in the brain.”
But he wasn’t actually trying to find God in the brain or rather, the neural correlates of religious experience. “I could care less about God, I think it’s a useless and out of date concept,” Persinger said. “We were interested in something that I think is much more important, which is creativity.”
To put this in context, Persinger explained, neuroscience says that the “sense of self is primarily a language-based phenomena, primarily involving more left hemispheric activities.” The right hemisphere, by contrast, is the intuitive, emotional hemisphere; this is where inspiration strikes, if it strikes at all. He wanted to find out what would happen if you stimulated the right, creative hemisphere with electromagnetic fields; he’d written several papers in the past about the resonance that certain electromagnetic fields have with parts of the brain. To do this safely, he turned to his Laurentian colleague and technologist Professor Stanley Koren to help him design a helmet that would be able to apply magnetic fields to the temporal lobes, the parts of the brain associated with hearing, speech, processing sensory information. The first helmet was actually a snowmobiling helmet, bumble bee yellow with two black racing stripes down the top, with two solenoids—a coil of wire that acts as a magnetic when electricity is applied—affixed to either side, roughly above the ears. It looked like a prop from Ghostbusters.
He and his team designed their experiments to gently batter the right hemisphere with weak but “physiologically-patterned magnetic fields”.“Now that’s the critical key: If you apply a sine wave or a square wave, that doesn’t do anything, there’s no information in it.” The information in these magnetic fields employ the “electromagnetic signature of the key correlates of experience that the brain generates during various kinds of states”, he said—in other words, mimicking the kind of electromagnetic jig that your brain does during, for example, an epileptic seizure or a transcendental experience. Persinger hit upon one of these patterns, he said, in the 1980s, when he was watching the EEG of a woman meditating in his lab. “Basically, she was having what we call an absence seizure. It was localized, so it would be technically speaking a complex partial epileptic seizure. Right hemisphere. And I looked at her and she smiled… You’ve seen people have god experiences, their face has that glow about them, from the sebaceous secretion, their eyes may flutter, when they’re feeling that kind of euphoria that goes with an ecstatic state or rapture,” he recalled. “So I asked her, ‘What happened?’ She says, ‘God was here.’ I said, ‘Can you describe it?’ She said, ‘He was all in the laboratory, I felt his presence.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was having a seizure.”
Persinger used her brain pattern in trying to induce a similar state in other people; they called it “Burst X”. The other pattern he used, he said, is associated with the generation of fear. As to whether he was concerned that the patterns could have an adverse reaction on someone, he was not. “First of all, I try everything on myself at the beginning,” he said, adding that the fields are on the order of microtesla—very weak, not even as strong as putting your head near your computer.
Back to the helmet. “So when we stimulated the right hemisphere, we were surprised to find that many people reported a sensed presence, a feeling of a sentient being standing nearby,” he said. “And it suddenly struck us that what the right hemispheric experience is, the sensed presence is, is the right hemispheric equivalent to the left hemispheric sense of self. And the minute we knew that, everything fell into place.”
And Persinger does mean everything. “With respect to how to recreate it, what parts of the brain were involved, and why it’s a powerful phenomenon that drives the human species, often into killing each other to determine whose god that verifies that sensed presence is the strongest.”
Hundreds of people have since sat in the now well-worn armchair, in the darkened room with the blindfold over their eyes, and the helmet on their heads, while Persinger’s team monitors their EEG output, for 50 minutes; most, at least at the beginning, were told they were taking part in a relaxation study. “The technique is pretty simple,” Persinger explained. First, he applies a small amount of magnetic field strength to the right hemisphere. Then another field, which produces a more relaxed state. Simple, right? At least 80 percent of their subjects, Persinger says, have felt a “sensed presence”, someone else in the room with them. “People feel at least something, unless they fall asleep, which is why we run an EEG at the same time,” he said. It’s the “young males” who usually tend to fall asleep.
Some people are more likely to have an experience than others: “Females are very receptive, they’re used to introspection,” he said, but also people who are rated as more temporally sensitive than other on his Personal Philosophy Inventory, a questionnaire he designed to determine temporal lability. Some people do not do well with the experience when they have it; at least one subject tore the helmet from his head and ran from the room. Persinger says the individual’s interpretation of their experience comes down to their cultural circumstances and personal beliefs—they might call the presence they felt “God”, or the ghost of their recently departed grandmother, or they might believe it was an alien, or they might just feel like they were hanging out with a double of themselves. (The general trends in who or what people see have largely remained the same, he says, over the last 30 years of research.)
But what is actually going on here? In some ways, people who said they felt a ghost aren’t entirely wrong. It’s simply that the ghost is yourself. Persinger believes the effect is a kind of temporal lobe mismatch, a by-product of our bicameral brains. Though there is a good deal of overlapping between the two hemispheres of our brains, there isn’t a ton of sharing—only about 1 percent, Persinger said, of the neurons in our brains cross over from one hemisphere to the other. “The vast majority stay intra-hemispheric, they stay within their own hemisphere. So basically, we are two brains to begin with, it’s just that it’s our natural state that we don’t realize it.” But if we do realize it, if something happens to disrupt the normal coordinated, yet independent function of these hemispheres, it’s jarring.
“The basic mechanism by which sensed presence occurs is that there is an enhancement of right hemispheric activity and that ultimately ends up being represented within the left hemisphere and you become aware of it,” said Persinger. In other words, the sense of self that is generated in the left hemisphere might become aware of the experience of the right hemisphere, and interpret that as a self. Because we can’t have two selves, the information is re-understood to be coming from someone else entirely, a presence.
In the years that followed Persinger’s initial experiments and publications, the story of the helmet and its implications made the media rounds. By 1999, the helmet was being widely referred to as the “God Helmet”, although its given name was the Koren Helmet, after its co-creator. That year, Wired’s Jack Hitt wrote a fantastic piece about his pleasant but not exactly divine out-of-body experience in the helmet. Other articles and media attention followed, including a spot on BBC’s Horizon program in 2003, which seemed to cast Persinger as a kind of neuroscientific ghost hunter. One segment used dramatic re-enactment to show Persinger’s detective work in finding that a clock radio near a teenage girl’s bed was emitting electromagnetic fields and causing her nightly sensed presence episodes with particularly religious overtones; when the clock was removed, the visions stopped. Persinger talked about his work in terms of “neurotheology”.
But the flurry of attention was marred by the fact that other labs were unable to replicate Persinger’s results. In a study published in 2005, a Swedish research group, unable to produce the same effect with a similar helmet, concluded that Persinger’s results were down to “suggestibility”; Persinger rejects their study, claiming that they didn’t try to do a faithful replication of the experiment. Another team, lead by Dr. Chris French of Goldsmiths, University of London’s anomalistic psychology department, attempted to replicate the sensed presence, paranormal effects of the helmet using a “haunted” room conceit. In the experiment, subjects spent 50 minutes in a round, featureless room with temporally complex but weak electromagnetic fields, such as those in Persinger’s experiments; this was combined with infrasound, sub-audible sound that is purported to cause anomalous experiences consistent with hauntings. Participants did report strange experiences in the room, was no definable correlation between them and the electromagnetic fields or the infrasound; French and his team attributed the experiences to mild sensory deprivation and suggestibility. The results were published in 2009. It wasn’t until 2014 that an independent lab, in this case two Brazilian researchers at the Integrated Center for Experimental Research, Curitiba, Brazil, was able to replicate the original study’s results, albeit not as spectacularly or on as large a scale.
Laurentian University has been described as in a kind of Canadian hinterland; Persinger’s research might described as inhabiting a similar location in the scientific community. He’s not bothered. “I don’t pay much attention to the scientific community,” he said. He is the kind of person who says “sebaceous secretions” instead of “sweat”; he’s funny and personable, but there’s something Vulcan about his apparent love of logic. Emotions, and things like whether people like him or believe in his work, don’t seem to sway him – he clearly believes in the usefulness of his work. “I never label myself, because one thing that I’ve learned is that you can’t really monitor or describe your own behavior correctly,” he said, when asked if he is an outlier in neuroscience. “One thing I do know is that scientists, many of them, are interested in what we do, but they say, ‘If we did this we would lose our grants. If we do this kind of work, we would lose our credibility.’”
That’s an unverifiable statement, but it is true that funding is limited for research of this kind. Persinger says that he’s always paid for the helmet research out of his own pocket, from money made treating patients with head injuries and epilepsy using electromagnetic fields in his clinical practice (sensed presence, he says, is a common feature of the experience of his patients, in whom there is a breakdown of the inhibition of the function of the two hemispheres; Persinger also reports some success treating patients with, for example, depression using electromagnetic fields). And the university that he works for has, he says, tried to fire him twice. Early this year, he was forced to stop teaching a first-year psychology course he asked students to sign a “statement of understanding” that there might be offensive language used during class, as part of teaching exercise on how words impact thought processes. He attributes to the fact that the university is nominally Catholic and therefore not excited about the notion that God is diminishable to a network of excitable neurons or electromagnetic resonance in the brain. “They feel it is particularly offensive to even ask the question,” he said.
Does he worry that calling the device the God Helmet and his area of study with it “neurotheology” has problematically changed public and scientific perception of his work? “Insufficient data,” he responded.
It’s perhaps not surprising that in addition to media attention, Persinger’s work has also attracted the interest of notable skeptics. Famous atheist Richard Dawkins, for one, visited Persinger’s lab for the Horizon program. It didn’t go well, although there would seem to be some nominal sympathy between Dawkins’ militant anti-theism and Persinger’s belief that the inclination to religion is a neurological impulse. Dawkins reported some odd physical sensations, but was otherwise unimpressed.
Prominent American skeptic and atheist Michael Shermer has also spent time in the helmet. “[Persinger’s] a controversial figure in neuroscience. It’s not clear where he stands on the paranormal… He’s looking for the neural correlates of the paranormal. Where does that lead?… He’s always kind of walked that line that makes other neuroscientists kind of nervous,” he observed. He doesn’t seem to be an “out-and-out New Ager”, Shermer said, but neither is he completely free from those associations.
In 1999, Shermer visited Persinger’s lab; his experience was more in line with what Persinger reported others feeling—he felt himself rush by himself. But Shermer still has questions about the difficulties other research groups have had in replicating the experiment; about Persinger’s methodologies and controls; and the fact that the electromagnetic fields are incredibly weak, so weak that is might be impossible for the helmet to produce currents strong enough to depolarize neurons and have an effect. So his biggest question is the one that everyone thinking about this has: Is it actually the God Helmet—and therefore the electromagnetic fields—that’s inducing the experiences?
“The sensed presence effect is a much broader effect that might have multiple neural correlates, but basically, it is the sense that there is somebody else nearby by in your room, in your tent, in the dog sled, on your bike, running alongside you in your ultra-marathon,” Shemer explained. If you put someone in a darkened room and limit their sensory input, it’s not unlikely that they might start hallucinating, he said, and experiences of the kind that people in the God Helmet experiment report are not specific to the helmet alone. The features, he continued, seem to be some sort of extreme state—being hungry, alone, sleep deprived, extraordinarily anxious, or some combination of all of those. Shermer had his own weird hallucinatory, sensed presence-like experience during his attempt in 1983 to cycle from the Santa Monica Pier in California to New York City without stopping. He’d made it as far as Nebraska—83 hours, 1800 miles on a bike without sleep—when he became convinced that the motor home carrying his friends, family, and support crew was actually an alien ship and that they’d all been replaced by alien replicas. “I really, truly thought I was being abducted,” he recalled “My motor home pulled up, and I thought it was an alien space ship that was trying to abduct me. They looked just like my friends coming to take care of me… but they had stiff little fingers,” he continued. “That’s what I thought, and I was quite resistant to getting into the spaceship, the motor home. Then I slept for 90 minutes and I woke up and went, ‘That was weird.’”
But because these experiences happen outside of the electromagnetic field disruption of the God Helmet, the cautious are skeptical that Persinger’s helmet works the way he says it does. Margee Kerr, an American sociologist who studies why people willingly engage with high arousal stimuli that are typically considered negative, such as fear or pain, agreed with Shermer that the helmet might not be the source of the experiences. She’s written about the God Helmet, as well as other potential environmental causes of haunting experiences in her book, Scream. Buddhist monks, people who practice meditation can induce this kind of euphoric, sensed presence state on their own without external influence, she pointed out. “It’s hard to know what the mechanism that is working in this situation, whether it’s the environment, whether we’re getting to this spot through meditation and focus, whether it’s external influence,” she said.
And even without wearing the helmet, undergoing an intense endurance challenge, or meditating, many people have a lot of weird experiences that defy ready explanation: A recent data analysis study by the World Health Organization showed that 6 percent of people had had a hallucination unrelated to drugs, alcohol, or psychiatric disruption.
The thing is, probing the validity of the God Helmet doesn’t have to be entirely up to science. Because for just a few hundred dollars, you can make your very own God Helmet.
In 2014, London-based experience design group Bompas & Parr did just that, using a custom-made God Helmet in their “Sensed Presence” event. Their helmet was in actual fact, a riding helmet painted silver, but it did use solenoids to emit weak, but complex electromagnetic fields in the same type of patterns that Persinger did. The event was held at the Kirkcaldy Testing and Experimenting Works, a former Victorian iron and steel testing facility that is precisely the kind of place you’d think was haunted; the 15-minute experience was intentionally theatrical, involving smoke machines, chanting music, candles, sinister scientific equipment—Bompas & Parr were trying to induce visions and weird feelings, after all. And they mostly succeeded. Visitors were asked to record their experiences in ledgers; most people reported feeling weird, seeing faces in some cases, or the feeling of someone standing near them or behind them. Others felt nothing more than a deep sense of relaxation; some said they regularly meditated and that this was similar to that.
Sam Bompas, co-founder of the group, explained that he learned about the helmet through an entry in the Dictionary of Hallucinations. “It’s such a provocative topic. It’s talking about not only your consciousness, but the nature of God and the divine and the supernatural, because you’ve got ghosts in there as well, and aliens,” said Bompas. “It can be used to explain all sorts of lurid complications, right on the border of legitimate science, what science is confident speaking about without being considered right outsiders.” Bompas is not convinced that it was the helmet that caused the experiences people reported; he thinks it’s more likely that it was that people were separated from their phones, and that the experience was heavily “choreographed”. “If you can’t have a profound experience sitting in the dark by yourself for 15 minutes in a building in that is redolent with history, being asked to think about your relationship with superstition and God, you’re probably brain dead,” he said.
But perhaps this is the real legacy of Persinger’s work, namely, pushing the neuroscience behind human experience, for sure, but also pushing the conversation about the nature of God and man in other areas. Like art. So whether or not the helmet is a reliable way to induce feelings of religious ecstasy is almost not the point; the helmet, as Bompas pointed out, raises some uncomfortable and important questions. If, in our quiet moments, we seek God, the divine, the mystical, and we find it, are we actually finding something outside ourselves?
Persinger’s remained interesting and important in part because it is trying to come up with plausible solutions to anomalous experiences, to figure out if it’s just us or something else. That’s an admirable, useful pursuit. “There’s no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural, these are just words we use as linguistic fillers to explain things we don’t know yet,” noted Shermer. Persinger seems to be one of the people trying to explain those things we don’t know yet.
So Persinger is still pursuing the wilder frontiers of neuroscience; recently, he says, he fired the electromagnetic fields at dead brains to see what would happen. The results were surprising, although perhaps not if you’re Persinger. “We found that of all the various fields that we applied, the ones that showed the greatest changes in conductivity within in fixed tissue—when we say fixed tissue, remember, the neurons are still intact; it’s not alive, but the fibers are still there—those two patterns we used had the greatest effect in fixed human brains, suggesting that there is something intrinsic to the structure of the brain itself,” he said. The study is currently under review for publication.
“We know a great deal about the brain. There’s nothing mysterious about it,” Persinger said. “What’s unusual about it is that there are 7 billion of them and they have individual differences.”