The God Helmet
What is it?
The “God Helmet,” or properly the “Koren Helmet,” is an experimental apparatus that is said to produce mystical experiences in test subjects by stimulating the brain with fluctuating magnetic fields. These studies are being carried about by Michael A. Persinger at Laurentian University. Subjects are blindfolded and placed in a dark, sound-proof chamber where their temporal lobes are bombarded with electromagnetic pulses, producing anything from a mild sensation of someone being in the room with them, to out-of-body experiences, to full-blown visitations by God, the Devil, or aliens.
The science behind it is plausible. The human brain is a bicameral organ, with left and right hemispheres. In its most successful application, the Koren Helmet attempts to induce the two hemispheres to work out of phase with one another, producing so-called “visitor experiences,” where one side of the brain perceives itself as separate from the other. Depending upon which hemisphere is activated, these experiences may take on either a terrifying or a blissful quality, as corresponds to the functions of right and left amygdala, respectively. By contrast to sketchy internet vendors eager to sell you magnetic healing bracelets, what Persinger is doing is at least consistent with established scientific principles.
That having been said, in 2004 a group of Swedish researchers attempted to replicate Persinger’s work under double-blind conditions, and reported no effect. Persinger counters that they did not expose their subjects for the proper length of time. The Koren Helmet failed to induce a religious experience in Richard Dawkins, but arch-skeptic Michael Shermer seemed satisfied when he gave it a whirl.
Basically, the science is still out on this one.
Would this mean that religious and mystical experiences are merely brain phenomena?
It would mean that they can be brain phenomena. One could then apply Occam’s razor, and argue that because these experiences can be explained in terms of brain science, a supernatural hypothesis is unnecessary and can therefore be discarded.
By that same token, Persinger’s findings, if verified, would not preclude the possibility of there being genuine alien abductions, or divine visitations. The ability to produce a burning sensation by manipulating brain signals would in no way demonstrate that fire is an illusion.
Moreover, it has already been demonstrated that mystical and religious experiences can be induced by chemical means. Far from persuading the public that all such experiences are worthless brain phenomena, LSD quickly leapt from the laboratory and spawned a psychedelic movement that treats “entheogenic” substances as nothing less than sacraments.
Persinger’s research supports the materialistic world view, but is unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
Science and philosophy are boring. Can I build my own God Helmet at home and spend my evenings having profound mystical experiences?
You can buy a commercial version of the Koren Helmet for $285, called the “8-Coil Shakti.” The man behind the 8-Coil Shakti is Todd Murphy, a member of the Behavioral Science research group at Laurentian University. Murphy can be found on YouTube lecturing on spirituality and brain science, in addition to such new-agey topics as Kundalini, psychic skills and miracles.
Aside from the vendor’s own on-site testimonials, nobody on the internet seems to be raving about the 8-Coil Shakti or similar devices. Presumably, if they lived up to the hype Persinger’s research has received, Shakti helmets would be all the rage on college campuses by now, so spend your money wisely.