During the past decade, psychologist Michael Persinger and his assistants have ushered more than 500 volunteers into a soundproof chamber, placed a strange looking helmet on their heads and then, from a console outside the chamber, exposed their brains to a rhythmic bombardment of low-intensity electromagnetic waves.
Persinger, a psychology professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, hopes that this unorthodox treatment can be used eventually to help people suffering from such problems as depression, chronic pain, and epilepsy by correcting electrical irregularities in the brain.
But he is equally interested in the fact that many of his subjects react to electromagnetic exposure by experiencing unusual auditory and visual sensations. Some people even sense that there is someone or something in the chamber, a "presence" they describe as God -- or the devil.
"Ultimately," says Persinger, "human experience is determined by what is happening in the brain. And the experience of God can be generated by a process that has nothing to do with whether God exists or not."
According to Persinger, electromagnetic brain events of the kind his helmet produces may account for many spiritual and paranormal experiences, including visitations by angels, demons and aliens.
How can this happen? Persinger says that a person's sense of self arises from language functions, which are usually centered in the left hemisphere. But a variety of factors, including stress, fatigue and depression -- and artificial stimulation by Persinger -- can alter the brain's normal electrical function and produce a sense of "otherness." When this occurs mainly in the left hemisphere, he says, the subject is likely to feel that the presence is benign or godlike. But when the same event is mainly in the right hemisphere, which is concerned with vigilance, the brain is more likely to interpret the presence there as being alien or demonic.
In his experiments, Persinger uses a specially wired motorcycle helmet, which British journalist Ian Cotton donned in 1993 while researching a book on evangelical Christianity entitled, "The Hallelujah Revolution." After Persinger's team provided temple-bell sound effects, reported Cotton, "I was actually in a line of solemn Tibetan monks, grave-eyed, brown cowls around their heads. I too was a Tibetan monk, and what I realized was that I always had been."
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Persinger -- now a Canadian citizen -- left the United States in 1969 to avoid being drafted for service in Vietnam.
He does not have a high opinion of organized religion. "If you look at the history of human behavior," he says, "it is evident that many wars were caused by rival concepts of God." Reacting to his work, fundamentalist Christians have mounted small protests at Laurentian.
Persinger talks at times as though God might be no more than a neurological accident. But he is careful to hedge his bets. "I am interested in the part of the brain that mediates the God experience," he says. Does that mean the God experience could be caused by the presence of God? Replies Persinger: "It's a possibility."
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