[Paleopsych] The Times: Ghosts in a machine
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Sun Apr 24 20:09:18 UTC 2005
Ghosts in a machine
Ghosts in a machine
What is it that triggers the brain to produce a religious experience?
Jerome Burne investigates
Jim lives in California and he's into an extreme sport. But he's not
testing his limits with gravity or exhaustion. His equipment consists
of a darkened room, a blindfold, heavy-duty earplugs and eight
magnetic coils, linked to a PC and attached to his head with a Velcro
Jim's arena is inner space. The envelope he's pushing is
consciousness, using a set of experiences more commonly thought of as
religious or spiritual. The coils and computer program, known as a
Shakti headset, transmit magnetic pulses that stimulate regions of his
brain linked with altered states of consciousness. At various times
over the past year, Jim claims to have had out-of-body experiences,
felt a state of "oceanic bliss" and sensed presences near by.
Next weekend the inventor of the Shakti headset, Todd Murphy, will be
one of the speakers at the Religion, Art and the Brain festival in
Winchester, along with Sufi dancers, the music of John Tavener,
psychologists, neuroscientists and pharmacologists. The focus of their
talks will be: "The evolution, experience and expression of the
religious impulse -- what triggers the brain to produce it and why?"
For years brain researchers shied away from exotic experiences such as
hallucinations, near-death experiences or "intimations of the divine",
on the grounds that there was no way to study them scientifically. But
as consciousness has become an academically respectable topic, it has
become harder to ignore "altered states". If memory and imagination
can be linked to the activity of groups of neurons, couldn 't the
experience of being "at one with the universe" just be the result of
brain cells firing?
Traditionally, one of the ways to stimulate these experiences has been
with hallucinatory or psychedelic herbs and drugs -- a route that has
been declared legally off-limits for individuals and researchers since
the 1960s. But that is changing, too. Recently licences have been
granted in the USA to study the medical benefits of using such
outlawed drugs as Ecstasy and the peyote mushroom to treat
psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and
It may be a sign of the times that just before Christmas the US
Supreme Court ruled that members of the New Mexico branch of a
Brazilian church, Uniao Do Vegetal, should be allowed to use the
hallucinatory herbal concoction ayahuasca in ceremonies. Ayahuasca has
long been used by South American shamans and is renowned for the snake
visions it induces.
The poet Allen Ginsberg tried it in the 1950s in an attempt to expand
his consciousness. "I rushed out and began vomiting," he wrote, "all
covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, coloured serpents in an
aureole around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the
Uncovering how a complex chemical stew triggers something as specific
as serpentine visions would be a daunting scientific challenge, let
alone identifying precisely which regions of the brain were involved.
But for at least 100 years neurologists have been recording the
bizarrely detailed altered states produced by very specific activity
in the brains of epileptics. Recently, observations on epileptics have
provided clues to the neural mechanism underlying out-of-body
"I was in bed and about to fall asleep when I had the distinct
impression that I was at ceiling level looking down at my body," began
an article in the British Medical Journal last December. According to
the author, Olaf Blanke, a the Swiss neuroscientist, 10 per cent of
people experience OBEs but because epileptics, who have them as part
of their seizures, keep on having them, it is possible to identify the
brain regions involved. He concluded that they are the results of "an
interference with the tempro-parietal junction of the brain". This is
the place, on both sides of the head, where two brain regions
controlling vision and spatial awareness meet.
The discovery that the uncontrolled firings of neurons in epileptics'
brains can trigger a range of altered states inspired Dr Michael
Persinger, a neuropsychologist at the Laurentian University in
Ontario, to see if he could replicate them in his laboratory by
stimulating subjects' temporal lobes with magnetic impulses. He
designed and built Room C002B, otherwise known as the "Heaven and
Hell" chamber, back in the mid-Eighties , in which over 1,000 subjects
have now been induced to experience ghostly presences.
Persinger's chamber -- one of whose visitors was the British
arch-atheist Professor Richard Dawkins (he experienced nothing) -- is
what might be called a "mainframe" version of the portable Shakti
equipment that Todd Murphy will be demonstrating at the conference.
What others have experienced in Room C002B depended on their cultural
or religious beliefs. Some saw Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Muhammad, or
the Sky Spirit. Others, with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell
of something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.
Page 2: Continues
The radical element of the Shakti headset is that it puts brain
stimulation back in the hands of the individual rather than being
something done to people in a lab. This may be the way of the future.
As an American chronicler in this field, John Horgan, has remarked:
"Trying to understand mystical experiences without having one, is like
a eunuch trying to understand sex."
So far Murphy has sold about 100 headsets at about £130 each,
including accessories, mainly to men aged 40 to 60 who are interested
in "general consciousness exploration". Most of them are not looking
for extreme experiences like Jim. Instead, Murphy says: "They just
want to feel better or to deepen regular spiritual practices like
Apparently, this particular route to religious experience isn't so
popular with women, who make up only about 15 per cent of his clients.
Now that religious experiences are edging into mainstream
neuroscience, theories about what is going on are coming thick and
fast. Dr Andrew Newberg, of the University of Pennsylvania School of
Medicine, for instance, believes that the patterns of activity that
show up on the brain scans of people praying or meditating fit well
with the sort of experiences they report.
The deeper the meditation, he says, the more active are the areas
involved with both attention and powerful emotions. At the same time,
an area at the back of the brain that orients you in time and space
quietens down. "The result is that the boundaries of the self fall
away, creating an intense feeling of being at one with the universe,"
So the big question for the conference becomes: Is the whole human
range of spiritual and paranormal experiences no more than unusual
patterns of brain activity? Persinger and Murphy seem to disagree on
Persinger was quoted recently in Time magazine as saying that: "God is
an artefact of the brain," while Murphy, interviewed for this article,
was keen to emphasise that his aim was to "enhance spirituality, not
to replace it".
Rita Carter, a scientific advisor to the festival and author of a
popular book on neuroscience entitled Mapping the Mind, has described
an occasion when she became "at one" with the gas fire and then the
whole room and finally the entire universe. So was this no more than
unstable temporal lobes in the same way that epilepsy is thought to be
caused by instability in the brain -- or was there more to it than
"What researchers are finding is that there seem to be common brain
pathways underlying all transcendental experiences," she says. "It's
the cultural interpretations that vary. But what's really challenging
is that the research evidence is very strong that what we think of
normal everyday reality is actually a construction of the brain.
"However, it is quite clear that the brain is also able to construct a
version of reality that is quite unlike the survival-orientated
`normal', one. Now why on earth should it have evolved to do that and
why is our culture so dead set against exploring it?"
Religion, Art and the Brain is at Theatre Royal, Winchester, March
10-13; 01962 840440, www.artandmind.org
Further reading: Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border
between Science and Spirituality, by John Horgan (Mariner Books)
[I have read this book and can recommend it. Check Amazon, say, for more about
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