How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy.
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Eight years ago, I flew to Laurentian University in Midwestern Canada to test a gadget that some journalists called the "God machine." The device consisted of computer-controlled solenoids that fit over the skull and stimulate the brain with electromagnetic pulses. Its inventor, neuroscientist Michael Persinger, claimed that it could induce mystical experiences, including, as Wired magazine put it, visions of "Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit."
I sat in a ratty armchair in a soundproof chamber and pulled the God machine onto my head as, outside the chamber, a graduate student tapped a computer keyboard. As he bombarded my brain with electromagnetic bursts patterned after brain waves of epileptics in the throes of religious visions, I waited for God or even a minor deity or demon to appear—in vain. Persinger told me later that the device doesn't work on skeptics, implying that it "works" merely by exploiting subjects' suggestibility.
Persinger is one of the more colorful characters in the fast-growing, flakey field of neurotheology, which studies what is arguably the most complex manifestation—spirituality—of the most complex phenomenon—the human brain—known to science. Given that brain researchers have no idea how I conceived and typed this sentence, I doubt they will ever account for religious experiences in all their vast diversity and subtlety. Nor will they solve the riddle of whether God actually exists or is a figment of our evolved imaginations, like unicorns or superstrings. Neurotheology may nonetheless have a profound social impact, by yielding more potent, reliable methods of inducing spiritual experiences.
Surveys suggest that only about one in three people has ever had a mystical experience, defined by one poll as the sensation of "a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself." Humans have long sought such experiences through meditation, yoga, prayer, guru-worship, fasting, and flagellation, but these methods are unreliable, notes James Austin, author of Zen and the Brain, one of the best books on neurotheology. Austin hopes that neurotheology will eventually yield much more potent, precise methods of inducing transcendent experiences, from fleeting feelings of connectedness all the way up to "the full moon of enlightenment." Persinger's God machine may not have done much for me, but here's a brief status report on four mystical technologies with potential:
Mystical Brain Chips
In the 1950s, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, while preparing epileptic patients for surgery, stimulated their exposed brains with electrodes. Some patients heard voices or music and saw apparitions when their temporal lobes were stimulated. Upon learning about Penfield's experiments, Aldous Huxley wrote: "Is there, one wonders, some area in the brain from which the probing electrode could elicit Blake's Cherubim?"
One still wonders. A Swiss team recently induced out-of-body experiences in an epileptic patient about to undergo surgery by stimulating her right angular gyrus, which underpins spatial awareness. Other groups have shown that implanted electrodes can trigger euphoria, and in fact they are now being tested as treatments for severe depression (as well as paralysis, tremors, and epilepsy). In principle, implants would provide the most precise, powerful means of inducing religious ecstasy. Indeed, self-described "Wireheads" look forward to the day when these devices will vanquish mental suffering and deliver ecstasy on demand. But for now, this technology—which requires inserting wires into the brain through holes drilled in the skull—remains too risky for all but the most desperate patients.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is noninvasive and hence safer and easier to test than implants. Researchers have reported success in treating depression and other disorders with this method, which often employs electromagnetic "wands" as well as headsets. Persinger insists that TMS, properly used, can also induce intense mystical experiences.
A group at Uppsala University has tried and failed to replicate Persinger's results in a controlled, double-blind experiment. Todd Murphy, a neuroscientist who has worked with Persinger, is nonetheless marketing a version of the God machine called the "Shakti" (a Hindu term for divinity), which according to Murphy's Web site "uses magnetic fields to create altered states."
Tweaking the God Gene
The work of Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, raises the prospect of genetically engineered mystics. Hamer claims to have found a gene associated with "self-transcendence" or "spirituality" in a group of 1,000 subjects who filled out surveys that probed their beliefs in God, ESP, and so on. Hamer calls this gene "the spiritual allele" or, even more dramatically, the "God gene"—which is also the title of the popular book in which he describes his research. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, has called Hamer's claim "wildly overstated."
Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico, suggests focusing on genes associated with dimethyltryptamine, the only psychedelic known to occur naturally in the human brain. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman presents evidence that endogenous DMT underpins mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.
Our natural mystical capacity, Strassman speculates, might be enhanced with genetic modifications that boost the production of DMT or of the enzymes that catalyze its effects. A clever, unscrupulous geneticist might even transform us all into mystics without our consent. "I can envision a situation where a cold virus is tinkered with to turn on our methylating enzymes," Strassman says, "spreads around the world in a couple of years, and there you have it."
Good Old Psychedelics
Psychedelic (or entheogenic, literally God-containing) compounds such as LSD and psilocybin represent by far the most mature mystical technology available. Legal research into the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psychedelics collapsed in the late 1960s after the drugs were outlawed but is now undergoing a renaissance.
Reseachers at UCLA, the University of Arizona, Harvard, and other institutions are treating post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety with psilocybin and MDMA (aka Ecstasy). Last year, a team at Johns Hopkins University reported that psilocybin had triggered profound spiritual experiences in two-thirds of a group of 36 subjects. "Psilocybin, the active ingredient of 'magic mushrooms,' expands the mind," the Washington Post noted drily. "After a thousand years of use, that's now scientifically official."
Psychedelics still pose risks. Peyote triggers nausea, MDMA has been associated with neurotoxicity, and psilocybin caused panic attacks in some subjects in the Johns Hopkins study. Future research could identify regimens and compounds that yield greater benefits with fewer side effects. Independent chemist Alexander Shulgin has identified more than 200 psychotropic compounds that have potential as therapeutic and spiritual catalysts.
Our current mystical technologies are primitive, but one day, neurotheologians may find a technology that gives us permanent, blissful self-transcendence with no side effects. Should we really welcome such a development? Recall that in the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA funded research on psychedelics because of their potential as brainwashing agents and truth serums.
Even setting aside the issue of control, mystical technologies raise troubling philosophical issues. Shulgin, the psychedelic chemist, once wrote that a perfect mystical technology would bring about "the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of the human experiment." When I asked Shulgin to elaborate, he said that if we achieve permanent mystical bliss, there would be "no motivation, no urge to change anything, no creativity." Both science and religion aim to eliminate suffering. But if a mystical technology makes us immune to anxiety, grief, and heartache, are we still fully human? Have we gained something or lost something? In short, would a truly effective mystical technology—a God machine that works—save us, or doom us?
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His next book, The End of War, will be published in November.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.