"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.


Daniel said...

Of course, our Calvinist friends have nothing to fear from such research -- they could simply assert that the "elect" are "hardwired" one way, and the damned another.

Mike said...

Scientific research in the realm of metaphysics has always seemed an ignorant endeavor...why exactly are scientists doing scientific studies in the physical realm to possibly instruct us in the metaphysical?
In addition, determinism certainly seems inescapable without some form of immaterial part of man (implying some immaterial deity), does it not?
How would you fare better than the Calvinist, if both of you acsribe to determinism? One acribes all's cause as God, the other, the Big Bang. God, according to the Calvinist, picked some parts of His creation to be more fortunate than others, whom He picked to be eternally unfortunate. The Big Bang, likewise, "picked" some planets to be more fortunate (if I can use value judgment here) by developing life; and also "picked" some species to be more fortunate to have a higher chance of survival. Ultimately, meaning/communication has no meaning in either worldview, and consciousness is an unnecessary (and somewhat distracting, occasionally counterproductive, it seems) byproduct of the "script" of life played out in both.
Does anyone disagree with this analysis?

eddie said...

For reasons other than Persingers research, I do conclude that his hypothesis is supportable, however, his study cannot be replicated.

Swedish scientists can’t replicate religious experience in lab

CalvinDude said...

Let's see. There's a hypothesis that belief in God is just a side effect of the brain's biochemical reactions. Scientists claim "tickling" the temporal lobes of people cause them to envision Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, UFOs, etc. BUT Richard Dawkins is run through the same test and nothing happens to him.

CONCLUSION: The study proves the hypothesis!

Yeah, that follows.

Daniel said...

First, correction on my part: I think I wrote "prefrontal" and meant to write "temporal" -- two totally different lobes.


First, it is clearly about religious experience, not "belief in God". People tended to have experiences while under the field, not "conversions" or "apostasies". Even within your comment, you contradict what you are addressing, as you move from "belief in God" to "envision"[ing] things.

I know it's hard for you to do this, but science doesn't attempt to make definitive conclusions from one simple piece of data (Dawkins' reaction), unlike the certitude you glean from the bald assertion of "inspiration" on the part of a "prophet". So, it will be hard, but when reading scientific publications, try to be skeptical, which may be a new experience for you, of anything out of the ordinary from one aberrant piece of data (outlier). Of course, don't apply this to your religion, since all the really odd shit that you believe about "miracles", like God calling a bear out of the woods to kill 42 children for calling a prophet "bald", would become suspect this act being an "outlier" under the doctrine of a God of "love". So, just apply skepticism to science, if you please.


The standard model of cosmology (Big Bang) may itself be a caused event, but since so little is understood of the singularity, and since so many people disagree as to whether it will "disappear" (like Einstein made it do with his "correction constant") once we have a better understanding of particle physics and mathematical modeling thereof (eg string theory or something similar), I will refrain from addressing this issue. Suffice it to say, if the Big Bang is a physical event, then it was "determined" physically just as the arrangement of matter throughout the universe was -- by the laws of physics operating at that moment [although the ones we experience every day are not necessarily the same ones]. In this sense, it is difficult to say the Big Bang "caused" other things, if the Big Bang is but one physical result of an infinite cessation of causes. The cyclic universe is explained quite simply by Turok and Steinhardt, noted string theorists, among others, if you're more interested.

Anyway, scientists study the brain's reactions and people's reported experiences. These are both natural phenomena, and require no metaphysical silliness to examine or observe. If I zap you with something, and you describe it as "I feel one with God", you can choose to ascribe whatever metaphysical interpretation you like (as Calvindude did). But understanding why it happened in a physical sense is purely within the realm of science.

And, understanding whether or not "experience" is only physical, is of course a matter of philosophical preference, for you immaterial dualists especially. But, since science works under the assumption of naturalism, then scientific conclusions about how experience works are always going to be solely natural explanations -- a cascade of electrical current through a part of your brain involved in memory.

One thing I noticed, and no one else has commented on anywhere I've read so far, is that the temporal lobe is involved in both auditory processing and memory. Ever notice the "spiritual" experience we have when we listen to music, at times? I think there is a serious connection here that needs to be further dug out -- the connection between hearing "Softly and tenderly...Jesus is calling..." and the experience of guilt it evokes. I would LOVE to do a study and see the rates of conversion, and/or reports of spiritual "experiences", of churches which have silent altar calls versus those which employ musical instruments. Just a thought...

In fact, I would love to read about how many spiritual conversions/experiences occur during silent times versus times of chanting/praying in rhythmic fashion/listening to music/etc.

Daniel said...


I'm not sure that the Swedish scientist followed the same protocol, because he seemed to admit that turning up the field may have changed his results:
“I would not rule out the possibility that stronger magnetic fields might have the kinds of effects that are suggested by Persinger’s research,” continued Granqvist.

I will try to find the primary literature and compare the strength of the field in both experiments, as well as the other physical variables, to see if they were followed. I'll comment more on it later. I'm as skeptical as you are if this is unrepeatable. Bad news, always, if that is the case, for the methodology, and it casts doubt on the researcher.

Mike said...

Brother Danny,
My apologies. I see now I was assuming the metaphysical exists; you certainly don't have to believe it does (of course then you do have to believe it doesn't, or at least be skeptical, in which case you'd be believing something or doubting something, belief/skepticism both being metaphysical concepts, right?).
Also, I missed your answer on the second part: did you not want to say that we are determined, or did you disagree with the hypothesis that we're determined? The cause of the Big Bang is irrelevant in this case; given the position of modern science as the ultimate test of truth, the present universe is determined. Stephen Hawking admitted this himself (and if you disagree with him on a matter of science, God save you).

Daniel said...


Ha! That was funny about Hawking. I am a Materialist, so you already know my take on Determinism. I simply was being picky about using one part of a chain of causation to display "agency", that's all.

I think that you are too restrictive with the options of Materialists to deal with concepts. You are solely looking at it from a reductionist perspective, while many valid perspectives can peacefully coexist. There are epiphenomenon/emergent solutions, realizationism, supervenience, etc. You should check out A Physicalist Manifesto. IOW, I have no problem with reading Kant, as such, because it deals with metaphysics, etc., since I'm a materialist.

This resource was reviewed by D. Gene Witmer, who happens to be the faculty adviser to my freethought group, AAFSA at UF

You can read my faculty advisor's review of the book HERE, it is quite recommended that you do, if you are seriously interested in learning more about materialism, and may want to check out the book.

Mike said...

Thanks, Danny. I fear you have been more gracious than I in your responses. Thanks for the resources; I will try to check them out if I have time, as you are making materialism sound quite interesting...

Anonymous said...

Check out John Horgan's book _Rational Mysticism_, there's a chapter on Persinger and his GodHelmet. From that, it seems Persinger is, at best, a bit of a flake. And I found Horgan to be a writer all too sympathetic to mystical nonsense, despite having been an editor at Scientific American. (A magazine which has gone *way* downhill in the 20+ years I've been reading it -- much like most other media, though possibly not quite as badly as most other media, sad to say.) Longing for that old time, hard-boiled bad ass Scientific American of yesteryear.

Daniel said...

I don't know how many of you (if any) are seriously interested in this, but the Swedish researchers who reported that they could not replicate the results of Persinger had some disparities in their approach and methodology.

Persinger outlines the major three differences:
1) software incompatibility: he supplied them the software, but they used it on a newer, windows-based PC
2) length of exposure: the Swedes only exposed for 15 mins, whereas Persinger had reported a minimum of 20-40 mins for the effect
3) the patient preparation and methodology in assessing results

You can read the three .pdf files I copied HERE. Two of them begin with "Granqvist" and one with "Persinger". They are all last modified 4-14-2006. Copyright laws apply.

Honestly, I'm not sure how seriously I take Persinger's precise conclusions about correlating religious experience to the temporal lobe, however, given the incontrovertible evidence that memories and experiences can be evoked, induced, and manipulated using electrical stimulation on specific loci in the brain, I find it quite reasonable. The reason I'm a little skeptical, despite Persinger's assertions that they've been doing this for 20 years and dozens of times, and that the Swedes did not replicate the methodology, is that the magnetic field they use is so damn weak.

Anyway, as with everything else, further data will clarify the research's validity. For those interested in reading all of Persinger's pubs, start HERE and scroll down to the references.

ace said...


ace said...


Chuckles said...

This Is Your Brain on Bibles

Faith is Trying

True Believers

Josh (Joshster@epals.com) said...
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