Is God a neuronal delusion? Dr Michael Persinger’s God Helmet might suggest so. This nice Atlas Obscura ‘piece’ by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie finds a range of views.
The helmet is far from new, partly inspired by Persinger’s observations back in the 1980s of a woman whose seizure induced a strong sense of the presence of God. In the 90s, Persinger decided to see whether he could stimulate creativity by applying very mild magnetic fields to the right hemisphere of the brain. Among other efforts he tried reproducing the kind of pattern of activity he had seen in the earlier seizure and, remarkably, succeeded in inducing a sense of the presence of God in some of his subjects. Over the years he has continued to repeat this exercise and others like it; the helmet doesn’t always induce a sense of God; sometime people fall asleep, sometimes (like Richard Dawkins) they get very little out of the experience. Sometimes they have a vivid sense of some presence, but don’t identify it as God.
Could this, though, be the origin of theism? Do all religious experiences stem from aberrant neuronal activity? It seems pretty unlikely to me. Quite apart from the severely reductive nature of the hypothesis, it doesn’t seem to offer a broad enough account. People arrive at a belief in God by various routes, and many of them do not rely on any sense of immediate presence. For people brought up in religious families, and for pretty much everyone in say, medieval Europe, God is or was just a fact, a natural part of the world. Some people come to belief along a purely rational path, or by one that seeks out meaning for life and the world. Such people may not require any sense of a personal presence of the divine; or they may earnestly desire it without attaining it – without thereby losing their belief. Even those whose belief stems from a sense of mystical contact with God do not necessarily or I think even typically experience it as a personal presence somewhere in the room; they might feel that instead they have ascemded to a higher sphere, or experience a kind of communion which has nothing to do with location.
Equally, or course, that presence in the room may not seem like God. It might be more like the thing under the bed, or like the malign person who just might be in the shadows behind you on the dark lonely path. People who wake from sleep without immediately regaining motor control of their body may have the sense of someone sitting or pressing on their chest; a ‘hag’ or other horrid being, not God. Perhaps Persinger is lucky that his experiments do not routinely induce horror. Persinger believes that the way it works is that by stimulating one hemisphere of the brain, you make the other hemisphere aware of it and this other presence is translated into an external person of some misty kind. I doubt it is quite like that. I do suspect that a sense of ‘someone there’ may be one of the easiest feelings to induce because the brain is predisposed towards it, just as we are predisposed towards seeing faces in random graphic noise. The evolutionary advantages of a mental system which is always ready to shout ‘look behind you!’ are surely fairly easy to see in a world where our ancestors always needed to consider the possibility that an enemy or a predator might indeed be lurking nearby. The attention wasted on a hundred false alarms is easily outbalanced by the life-saving potential of one justified one.
So what is going on? Perhaps not that much after all. Reproducing Persinger’s results has proved difficult in most cases and it seems plausible that the effect actually depends as much on suggestion as anything else. Put people into a special environment, put a mild magnetic buzz into their scalp, and some of them will report interesting experiences, especially if they have been primed in advance to expect something of the kind. It is perfectly reasonable to think that electrical interference might affect the brain, but Persinger’s magnets really are pretty mild and it sees rather unlikely that the fields in question are really strong enough to affect the firing of neurons through the skull and into the rather resistant watery mass of the brain. In addition I would have to say that the whole enterprise has a curiously dated air about it; the faith in a rather simple idea of hemispheric specialisation, the optimistic conviction that controlling the brain is going to turn out a pretty simple business, and perhaps even the love of a good trippy experience, all seem strongly rooted in late twentieth century thinking.
Perhaps in the end the God Helmet is really another sign of an issue which has become more and more evident lately. The strong suggestibility of the human mind means that sometimes even in neurological science, we are in danger of getting the interesting results we really wanted all along, however misleading or ill-founded they may really be?