This Is Your Brain on God
Michael Persinger has a vision - the Almighty isn't dead, he's an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.
By Jack Hitt
Over a scratchy speaker, a researcher announces, "Jack, one of your electrodes is loose, we're coming in." 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.
After restoring everything to its proper working position, the techies exit, and I'm left sitting inside the utterly silent, utterly black vault. A few commands are typed into a computer outside the chamber, and selected electromagnetic fields begin gently thrumming my brain's temporal lobes. 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 seeing God.
I'm taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of 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.
It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn't shy about defining our most sacred notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.
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 3-mile run?
The journey from my home in Connecticut to the mining district north of Lake Huron is, by modern standards, arduous. Given what's in store, it's also strangely fitting. When you think of people seeking divine visions, you imagine them trekking to some mountainous cloister. The pilgrimage to Persinger's lab is the clinical counterpart.
The trip involves flying in increasingly smaller puddle-jumpers with increasingly fewer propellers until you land in the ore-rich Ontario town of Sudbury, a place that's been battered by commerce, geography, and climate. Jags of red rock and black iron erupt from the landscape, often bolting right out of the pavement. The weather-beaten concrete exteriors of the city's buildings speak of long, harsh winters.
A short car ride through stony suburbs ends at a forlorn cluster of a dozen buildings: Laurentian University. Near Parking Lot 4, I am met by Charles Cook, a grad student of Persinger's. He leads me into the science building's basement, then to the windowless confines of Room C002B, Persinger's lair.
Waiting there is Linda St-Pierre, another graduate student, who prompts me to sit down, then launches into a series of psychological questions. 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 like to read mechanics magazines.
Someone is trying to poison me.
I have successful bowel movements.
I know who is trying to get me.
As a child, I enjoyed playing drop-the-handkerchief.
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 seagulls' haunt.