"This is Your Brain...on God"

A quite interesting article on Wired talks about a "neurotheologist", of sorts (really a neuropsychologist):
Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. 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: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a "sensed presence."

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 alien-abduction story.

The article ends with:
"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.

When noted atheist Richard Dawkins was put in the machine, what happened? 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.

Persinger was not disheartened by Dawkins' immunity to the helmet's magnetic powers. He believes that the sensitivity of our temporal lobes to magnetism varies from person to person. People with TLE may be especially sensitive to magnetic fields; Prof Dawkins is well below average, it seems. It's a concept that clerics like Bishop Stephen Sykes give some credence as well: could there be such a thing as a talent for religion?

People may want to check out the scientific literature on the "God gene" as well. I think that correlating brain chemistry to general "belief" is pretty unscientific [as of now], but I think that specifically honing in on tendency to ascribe immaterial agency to "mysterious" natural events may indeed prove to have a physiological basis. Dennett argues about the same -- that humans' ever-expanding mental capacity enabled them to recognize patterns and, much as we recognize the physical laws of nature, our ancestors developed the capacity to assign agency. Basically, it's saying that we got smart enough to fill in the blank "why" of "things don't fall up, the sun and moon move in intervals, the sound of sticks in the woods when it's dark often signals something scary...etc.," with intentionality.

Hat tip: Pharyngula

Thoughts? Comments?

**UPDATE** There is some question about the inability of a Swedish team to replicate these results. I have downloaded the primary literature, including Persinger's response to Granqvist et al , with some analysis, in the comment below.