Tag Archives: michael persinger

God on the Brain

We were looking at lab experiments demonstrating the healthful benefits of prayer and meditation. Other, less spiritually-minded researchers have approached religious phenomenon as a kind of pathology, much as Freud did.

In the 19th century, a link was noted between some kinds of epilepsy and religious fervor. This link was studied by Norman Geschwind at Boston’s V.A. Hospital in the 1970s, who claimed temporal lobe epilepsy could cause religious obsession.

A decade later, Canadian researcher Michael Persinger built a “God Helmet” that bombarded the temporal lobes of healthy people with an electrical storm and could fake – he claimed – a “spiritual” feeling. Persinger got a lot of attention for his helmet but an attempt in 2005 in Sweden to duplicate his findings failed. Atheist Richard Dawkins put the helmet on and didn’t feel anything but mild nausea.

Another team at the University of California at San Diego claimed to have identified the “God Spot,” a specific region of the frontal cortex that is overstimulated during religious ecstasy.

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Richard Strassman gained global attention for his claim that many so-called religious phenomenon were caused by dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a hallucinogenic compound occurring naturally in trace amounts in the brain.

And Dan Hamer at the National Cancer Institute inspired cover stories in both Time and Newsweek after isolating a specific gene called VMAT2 that he claimed correlated with “spirituality.” It mediated the production of neurotransmitters related to our moods, although only an atheist would think religion always makes people feel good.

Now we had a “God Gene” to go with the “God Spot.”

Then there was backlash as even committed materialists like Persinger and Hamer realized media were overstating the case. In a New Yorker article, Dr. Jerome Groopman concluded: “To believe that science is a way to decipher the divine, that technology can capture ‘God’s photograph,’ is to deify man’s handiwork.”

One methodological problem, of course, is that most religious people aren’t mystics, and it’s a long pilgrim’s progress from a nun in a tube to explaining a global social movement.

Even as the Dalai Lama himself addressed 14,000 neuroscientists at a conference on the topic of the “Neuroscience of Meditation” in 2006, a different Canadian team found not one but six regions activated by prayer, including the caudate nucleus (memory and love) and the insula (sensations), and concluded: “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain.”

And one of the team members even compared such experiments to the Victorian pseudo-science of phrenology, which sought to explain behavior using skull shape.

Interestingly, while the researchers may have believed they were explaining God away, some of the nuns involved in the original SPECT scan studies themselves felt the opposite: excited God himself could be seen, at least indirectly.

Who’s right?