God on the Brain: Part Three


I feel detached from my body. I am floating up . . . there is a kind of vibration moving through my sternum . . . there are odd lights or faces along my left side. My body is becoming very hot . . . tingling sensations in my chest and stomach . . . now both arms. There is something feeling my ovaries. I can feel my left foot jerk. I feel there is someone in the room behind me.[1]

This was the report of one test subject in the lab of neuroscientist Michael Persinger, who has made the claim that ‘genuine religious experiences’ can be artificially induced with a device called the ‘Koren Helmet,’ more popularly known as the ‘God Helmet.’[2] The epithet was bestowed by journalists after discovering that some claimed to have had visions of God under the Helmet’s influence and the name stuck.[3] Persinger’s God Helmet—the earliest models looking something like a motorcycle helmet with wires without and electrodes within—is said to induce a ‘visitor experience,’ variously interpreted as closeness with God or in the presence of angels, saints, ancestors, aliens, ghosts, and other supernatural agents. (One subject claimed the testing chamber should be exorcised because the Devil was in there, while others have claimed the presence of demons.)[4] Persinger repeatedly identifies this induced state as the ‘God experience.’[5]

Shiva Neural Stimulation System, a commercialized version of the God Helmet [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy, which does not suggest in any way that he endorses my views]

Shiva Neural Stimulation System, a commercialized version of the God Helmet [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy, which does not suggest in any way that he endorses my views]

The Original Koren Helmet, created by Persinger and Stanley Koren [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy, which does not suggest in any way that he endorses my views]

The Original Koren Helmet, created by Persinger and Stanley Koren [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy]

The God Helmet stimulates the brain via TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), creating an environment where the left hemisphere of the brain interprets the right hemisphere as a separate entity.[6] The results of Persinger’s experiments suggest the Helmet works to produce a ‘felt presence’ for eighty percent of the general population.[7] The presence is most commonly described as “bigger than yourself, bigger in space, bigger in time.”[8] This has been characterized as ‘cutting edge’ research that has gone further than any other studies to establish a ‘clear link’ between religious experience and precise brain activity, specifically that of the temporal lobes.[9]

The link between religious experience and its neural correlates have given rise to remarkably conflicting interpretations.[10] The God Helmet has produced significant discussion on what the implications are for religion, how we are to understand religious experience, and the reality or unreality of those experiences. According to one test subject, Persinger’s work shows “the Almighty isn’t dead, he’s an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.”[11] There are also more neutral interpretations suggesting religion is an evolutionary byproduct or an adaptation as well.[12]

Alternatively, for many there is the sentiment that if religion is placed in a scientific framework, it casts doubt on if this is really religion at all. It is these types of responses I am interested in here. If religion is a scientifically measurable phenomenon, is religion ‘religious’ any longer? Is religious experience real? Is the ‘religion’ of the ‘science of religion’ really representative of religion? Though these questions express a diverse set of concerns, they are united in the thought that making religion an object of scientific study somehow divorces religion from the religious. This disconnect perceived between science and religion is unsurprising considering the correlation between the rise of religion as a scientific object and the decline of ‘traditional’ ways of understanding religion, as discussed in the first two parts (see here and here) of this multi-part post. In other words, the more religion has been framed as scientific, the less religious it has been perceived to be. We might say when religion becomes science, it becomes ‘not religion.’

Michael Persinger [credit: By Michael Persinger [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Michael Persinger [credit: By Michael Persinger [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

But what does ‘religion as not religion’ mean? There are several manifestations. One is to conclude such a connection between brain states and religious experience indicates religion is false, perhaps merely a “hallucination.”[13] Persinger argues that the notion that “‘God’ is an absolute that exists independent of the human brain” is an illusion.[14] Persinger has also stated, “if we have to draw conclusions now, based upon the data, the answer would be more on the fact that there is no deity.”[15] According to this first perspective, religious experiences are not ‘real’ (or merely real, epiphenomena).[16]

Next, is the perspective that the scientific study of religion suggests religion is insignificant, irrelevant, or undesirable. One publication states “many science journalists have seen Persinger’s thesis, or other similar ones, as not only right but inevitable,” the ‘thesis’ referring to “there is nothing much to religion.”[17] Some who have examined Persinger’s work concluded that religion may be a “cerebral mistake,” perhaps pathological.[18] Similarly, others state that religious experience is a ‘misactivation’ or ‘malfunction’ of a cognitive system intended for some other purpose.[19] We can see how religion is belittled in this way. Another person comments “if RSMEs [religious/spiritual/metaphysical experiences] are caused by magnetism [as in the case of the God Helmet], they are irrelevant to any objective spiritual reality outside of ourselves.”[20] These quotes illustrate that the science is interpreted to suggest religion is unimportant or even maladaptive.

Still others see Persinger’s work as a direct challenge, even threat, to their religious beliefs, such as the Evangelical Christian groups that demonstrated outside Persinger’s office, claiming both he and his equipment were ‘demonic,’ with some religious groups holding prayer meetings on the doorstep of the lab.[21] Bishop Stephen Sykes is more dismissive of the research, noting that induced experiences “don’t have much to do with religion, with my faith.”[22] Similarly, Julian Shindler, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbi’s office in London, says, “That [the experience induced from the God Helmet] is quite detached from anything that’s a genuine religious experience.”[23] What these sentiments have in common is the more straightforward notion that the ‘religion’ of the ‘cognitive science of religion’ is not religion as they understand it.

Title: Osteographia, or The Anatomy of the Bones [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Title: Osteographia, or The Anatomy of the Bones [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

What these various reactions to the God Helmet tell us is that the scientific study of religion does not just communicate science, it also frames ‘religion.’ For many, this construction of religion within science becomes a forced choice between religion or science—either the science is correct and religion is incorrect, in some manner or another; or the science has incorrectly identified religion. While there have also been many optimistic responses to the cognitive science of religion in bringing together religion and science in a positive and mutually reinforcing way, for many making religion as an object of scientific study means it is science, not religion.

Why is this important for those of us in the field of religion and science? It tells us something about the structure of religious change—how meanings attributed to ‘religion,’ as well as ‘science,’ are guided by certain configurations in discourse. If you read my previous posts (see here and here), you know that ‘science’ has been historically defined as ‘not religion.’ This formula then can help us to understand why the cognitive science of religion is often perceived as a forced choice between science and religion. If it is assumed that science = not religion, and the cognitive science of religion suggests religion = science (i.e., religion is a scientific object), then some are bound to conclude that religion = not religion! Thus, from this perspective, ‘God on the brain’ means ‘brain,’ not ‘God’—illustrated by one neurologist reflecting on the God Helmet, who stated, “instead of God creating our brains, our brains created God.”[24]

‘Relational equations,’ like those above, structure meaning making, leading us to assign certain relationships to religion and science. But meaning making does not exist independent of individuals and how the religion-science relationship is perceived is ultimately determined by people and institutions. The relational equations may structure the discourse and how we think about the world, but we, in turn, construct discourse.



[1] Quoted in L. S. St. Pierre and M. A. Persinger, “Experimental Facilitation of the Sensed Presence Is Predicted by the Specific Patterns of the Applied Magnetic Fields, Not by Suggestibility: Re-analyses of 19 Experiments,” International Journal of Neuroscience 116 (2006): 1079–1096, here 1095. See also Todd Murphy, “The God Helmet—How it Works,” 2012, http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/God_Helmet/god_helmet.htm (accessed 23 September 2014). Other descriptions of use of the God Helmet and related technologies can be found at Todd Murphy, “‘God Helmet’ Technology,” n.d., http://www.shaktitechnology.com/shiva/God%20Helmet/index.htm (accessed 30 September 2014).

[2] See, e.g., M.A. Persinger, et al, “The Electromagnetic Induction of Mystical and Altered States Within the Laboratory,” Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research 1.7 (2010): 808–830.

[3] Murphy (2012); see also Murphy, n.d.,

[4] Ian Cotton, “Dr Persinger’s God Machine,” The Independent, 2 July 1995, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/dr-persingers-god-machine-1589465.html (accessed 22 September 2014); Murphy (2012).

[5] See Matthew Ratcliffe, “Neurotheology: A Science of What?,” Patrick McNamara, ed., Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, vol. 2, The Neurology of Religious Experience (Westport: Praeger, 2006), 81–104, here 82–83, which offers at least six different ways of describing the ‘God experience.’

[6] Brian C. Alston, What is Neurotheology (Charleston: BookSurge, 2007), 3; Uffe Schojoedt, “The Religious Brain: A General Introduction to the Experimental Neuroscience of Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 21 (2009): 310–339, here 321: “The right-hemispheric homologue of sense of self is allowed into the left hemispheric awareness via seizure-like impulses.”

[7] Schojoedt (2009), 321; Roxanne Khamsi, “Electrical Brainstorms Busted as Source of Ghosts,” Nature News, 9 December 2004, http://www.nature.com/news/2004/041206/full/news041206-10.html (accessed 29 October 2014); “God on the Brain,” Horizon, television series, 39.16, BBC (2003). Notably, Pehr Granqvist, “Religion as a By-product of Evolved Psychology: The Case of Attachment and Implications for Brain and Religion Research,” in Patrick McNamara, ed., Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, vol. 2, The Neurology of Religious Experience (Westport: Praeger, 2006), 105–150, here 143, fn 6, points out that Persinger’s meta-analysis (see Michael Persinger, Keynote Address, International Symposium, “Magnetic Fields: Recent Advances in Diagnosis and Therapy,” Lawson Research Institute Conference, London, Ontario, Canada [1997]) shows that less than 50 percent of subjects had such experiences. Granqvist says it is unclear if this refers to all or a subgroup of participants and it is thus unclear where this figure of eighty percent comes from. It is worth noting here that multiple surveys since the 1960s have found that between thirty and forty percent have claimed to have ‘spiritual’ experiences, while Gallup polls from the 1990s found fifty-three percent of Americans had ‘moments of religious insight.’ See Sharon Begley, “Religion and the Brain,” Newsweek, 3 February 2010, http://www.newsweek.com/religion-and-brain-152895 (accessed 30 September 2014). See also Carlos A. Tinoco and João P. L. Ortiz, “Magnetic Stimulation of the Temporal Cortex: A Partial ‘God Helmet’ Replication Study,” Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research 5.3 (2014), 234–257, http://www.jcer.com/index.php/jcj/article/viewFile/361/386 (accessed 23 September 2014).

[8] “God on the Brain” (2003). For other common themes in subject reports, see Murphy (2012) and St. Pierre and Persinger (2006).

[9] “God on the Brain” (2003).

[10] For similar research, see also, V. S. Ramachandran and S. Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (New York: Quill William Morrow, 1998).

[11] J. Hitt, “This Is Your Brain on God,” Wired Magazine 7.11 (1999), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.11/persinger.html?pg=1&topic=&topic_set= (accessed 29 October 2014).

[12] For religion as a byproduct, see, e.g., Paul Bloom, “Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident,” in Michael J. Murray and Jeffrey Schloss, eds., The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 118–127. Directly challenging the notion of religion as a byproduct and proposing instead that religion is an adaptation, see David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[13] “God on the Brain” (2003).

[14] Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience (New York: Penguin, 2009), 141.

[15] Martin, Michel, “Researchers Investigate Links Between Spirituality and the Brain,” ABC News, 14 January (no year), http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=98114&page=1&singlePage=true (accessed 22 September 2014).

[16] Some would distinguish these positions: the idea that religious experience has no reality as ‘elminativist,’ while the position that religion is merely real as reductionist. See, e.g., Dennis Bielfeldt, “Reductionism,” in J. Wentzel Verde van Huyssteen, ed., Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 2, (2003b), 714–717, here 715. While the conceptual differentiation is evident, the differentiation in the discourse is not so opaque. These two possible conceptual positions are often confused by the individual putting them forth or conflated by those responding to them. Suggesting that reducing religion to natural phenomena for example—rather than simply saying religious experience does not exist, but rather there are only neurochemical happenings—still to no lesser a degree leads to the question of whether religious experience should be taken seriously. Moreover, some seek to circumvent the issue by adopting religious naturalistic positions, suggesting for example that the supernatural acts through natural means. This then leads to the question of whether this is still naturalism and if so whether it is still religious. No matter what semantics are employed—reductionism, eliminativism, or religious naturalism—the question remains: is religious experience real?

[17] Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case For the Existence of the Soul (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 81.

[18] John Horgan, “The God Experiments,” Discover Magazine, 20 November 2006, http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/god-experiments/ (accessed 2 October 2014).

[19] Raymond F. Paloutzian, Erica L. Swenson, and Patrick McNamara, “Religious Conversion, Spiritual Transformation, and the Neurocognition of Meaning Making,” in Patrick McNamara, ed., Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, vol. 2, The Neurology of Religious Experience (Westport: Praeger, 2006), 151–169, here 162; M. Pigliucci, “Neuro-theology: A Rather Skeptical Perspective,” in R. Joseph, ed., Neurotheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience (San Jose: University Press, 2002), 269–271; J. A. Cheyne, “The Ominous Numinous: Sensed Presence and ‘Other’ Hallucinations,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8.5–7 (2001): 133–150. See also Justin L. Barrett, “Cognitive Science of Religion: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50.2 (2011), 229–239; Justin L. Barrett, “Cognitive Science of Religion,” in Anne Runehov and L. Oviedo, eds., Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions (New York: Springer, 2013), 409–412, here 410.

[20] Beauregard and O’Leary (2007), 81.

[21] Julia Llewellyn Smith, “What God Does to Your Brain,” The Telegraph, 20 June 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10914137/What-God-does-to-your-brain.html (accessed 22 September 2014); Cotton (1995); Charles Foster, Wired for God? (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), 233; Robert Hercz, “The God Helmet,” Saturday Night Magazine 117.5, October 2002, Jr’s Free Thought Pages (reprinted without permission; original unfound) http://www.skeptic.ca/Persinger.htm (accessed 23 September 2014).

[22] “God on the Brain” (2003).

[23] Quoted in Bob Holmes, “In Search of God,” New Scientist, 21 April 2001, http://www.arn.org/docs2/news/searchofgod042301.htm (accessed 1 October 2014).

[24] Quoted in Hercz (2002).



One thought on “God on the Brain: Part Three

  1. Pingback: God on the Brain: Part Two | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

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