Bring me a God helmet, and bring it now

June 16th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, magnets, references | 22 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday June 17, 2006
The Guardian

One of the biggest disappointments of my so-called adult life is the sad realisation that I can neither fly nor move objects with the power of my mind. This definitely sucks. But for all their broken promises, as the prison ships become more and more crowded, when I am prime minister of the One World Government, the psychics will be left well alone.

They’re just too much fun. Up in Scotland, the Evening Mail has been teasing “Angela’s Live Psychic Line”: the adverts say their psychics are the “real thing” and “truly gifted” at only 75p a minute. Apparently Angela was recruiting, so one cheeky scamp at the Evening Mail thought she’d apply for a job: this is the great British sport of “moron baiting”, and it’s a game we can all play.

After a gruelling 10-minute phone interview the reporter had a new job. Psychic Angela asked her for a test reading; the reporter told her she was “at a crossroads but on the brink of success”, and was hired immediately, despite being neither “truly gifted” nor, more importantly, “the real thing”. “Her crystal ball must have been on the blink when she signed up our reporter to dupe gullible punters,” said the Evening Mail.

But of course, there is a natural human drive to seek out the transcendent. A “neurotheology” researcher called Dr Michael Persinger has developed something called the “God Helmet” lined with magnets to help you in your quest: it sounds like typical bad science fodder, but it’s much more interesting than that.

Persinger is a proper scientist. The temporal lobes have long been implicated in religious experiences: epileptic seizures in that part of the brain, for example, can produce mystical experiences and visions. Persinger’s helmet stimulates these temporal lobes with weak electromagnetic fields through the skull, and in various published papers this stimulation has been shown to induce a “sensed presence”, under blinded conditions.

There is controversy around these findings: some people have tried to replicate them, although not using exactly the same methods, and got different results. But however improbable or theologically offensive you might find his evidence, because it is published and written up in full, you can try to replicate it for yourself and find out whether it works. In fact, you really can try this at home: the kit needed to make a God Helmet is fabulously rudimentary.

You can order a commercial product online for just $220 (£119): it is basically eight magnetic coils that fit over the relevant parts of your skull; the signal is generated by your computer’s soundcard, and then played through these magnetic elements, instead of through the magnetic coils of your speakers.

More excitingly, you can go to the open source development forum Sourceforge and check out “Open-rTMS“, where designs for the necessary hardware and software are being developed collaboratively and openly, and by the same people who brought you “OpenEEG“, a surprisingly effective EEG system that you can also make at home.

In many respects, Sourceforge is exactly what the enlightenment should always have been about: fearless gentlemen self-experimenters, collaborating openly and freely, in search of kicks. It’s only a fleeting peculiarity of local cultural factors that has resulted in science being so drearily identified with “industry”. They stole our revolution. We’re stealing it back. I want my God helmet and I want it now.

· Send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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22 Responses



  1. Pro-reason said,

    June 17, 2006 at 3:39 am

    I imagine that someone has already pointed this out. But, just in case, I’ll draw your attention to the fact that under each of your articles it says “You must bee [sic] logged in to post a comment.”

    This obviously disappears once you are logged in.

    It should be easy to fix.

  2. WaveyDavey said,

    June 17, 2006 at 7:38 am

    That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t help with the smiting, does it? I’ll wait.

  3. Bob O'H said,

    June 17, 2006 at 9:43 am

    “They stole our revolution. We’re stealing it back. ”

    Is this convergent evolution? It’s similar to the Need to Know motto. I’m sure they would agree with hte rest of the final paragraph too.

    Bob

  4. Tessa K said,

    June 17, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    Persinger’s helmet doesn’t work for everyone, just people who have temporal lobe sensitivity. Richard Dawkins tried it and it didn’t work for him. So before rushing out and spending your money, you might want to find a friendly neuroscientist to check out your lobes.

    There was a BBC Horizon programme on Persinger a while ago (including the Dawkins test) and you can read the (rather long but fascinating) transcript here:

    www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/godonbraintrans.shtml

  5. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 17, 2006 at 11:22 pm

    I’m not sure I want to program my home computer to control my mind.

    I’m torn between seeing electromagnetically induced religious experience (if it works) as a bad thing that religions will be using pretty soon, or a useful demonstration in de-programming people who got sucked into cults.

    I’m trying to remember which of Arthur C. Clarke’s books includes a religion based on previous religions (I think it’s called Chrislam), a charismatic prophet (female), and virtual-reality indoctrination.

  6. Pete said,

    June 18, 2006 at 12:24 am

    Robert, would that be The HamMer of God” by any chance?

  7. Pete said,

    June 18, 2006 at 12:24 am

    Pardon me for the RanDom CapItals above

  8. Tessa K said,

    June 18, 2006 at 11:52 am

    There is a programme on Channel 4 at 7.30 tonight called Voices in my Head on this very subject.

  9. Adelbert said,

    June 18, 2006 at 10:46 pm

    “In many respects, Sourceforge is exactly what the enlightenment should always have been about: fearless gentlemen self-experimenters, collaborating openly and freely, in search of kicks”.

    Exactly. Exactly, exactly.

    I have long said that Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) development is the extension of the scientific method into the field of computer science. The entire community comes together and shares their ideas and innovations with each other, demonstrating clearly what works and what doesn’t.

    I’m glad I’m not just some Slashdot-esque zealot, and someone else apparently agrees with me.

  10. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 18, 2006 at 11:56 pm

    Yes, I think it was Thog. Did you like it?

    As far as I recall, if it hadn’t been for the religious element then the story would have been quite short and straightforward, and as it was, it was mostly the protagonist’s life flashing before his eyes, I think. So to speak.

    Apparently it is against this new religion to prevent comets from slamming into the earth and extincting all higher life forms, and when a comet passes by (or rather doesn’t) and someone proposes to stop it before it gets here, they are inclined to practise direct action.

    Evidently Clarke saw no need to hypothesise an upper limit on the mental disorder of religious adherents. Come to think, he had a solo nutter in [The Fountains of Paradise]. Another that was rather fun… apparently carbon nanotubes actually do not quite live up to expectations (the book proposes an elevator rope up to the sky, which is also seen in [3001] and [The Science of Discworld]), but I wonder if putting one on Mars would be worthwhile? That comes into [FoP] as well, with a rather interesting and presumably accurate twist…

    I think what I like about Clarke is that he supposes that in the future we will have wonderful stuff and more of the population of the world will get to enjoy it. Satellite television got to India before the UK I think – he was all for that. Well, almost all… he wrote a story about the perils of… I’m not sure if that was after Rupert Murdoch got into it.

  11. JQH said,

    June 20, 2006 at 10:25 am

    If I remember correctly, Clarke’s story on the possible perils of sattelite TV was “I Remember Babylon” and it was written before anybody outside Australia (and probably most inside) had ever heard of Rupert Murdoch.

  12. AJH said,

    June 21, 2006 at 11:31 am

    Now I bee logged in I can say this:

    Is it just me or does “Persinger’s helmet” sound like a Chris Morris invention? Like “Shatner’s Bassoon” in the excellent “Cake” episode of The Day Today.

  13. jonman said,

    June 21, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    Call me cynical if you will, but what’s the chances of this device being appropriated by the more wingnutty religions as an authentic way to get closer to your chosen god? I can see the slogans now….

    “Your prayers will be 74% more likely to be answered! Remember, the God Helmet is not available in any shops. Call NOW, and get a free set of coasters featuring the religious icon of your choice!”

  14. AndrewT said,

    June 21, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    I came across Persinger in 2000. can’t remember how. Anyhoo, I was visitng family in buffalo and seriously considered taking a trip up to sudbury to go and try it out. (i actually wrote the email but never sent it) I wish i had, as it would have made a great anecdotal post 6 years later. Then again, it may have damaged my shatners bassoon, and caused to me to vomit up my own pelvis. So maybe its for the best

  15. Melissa said,

    June 21, 2006 at 6:20 pm

    Heeehee, Robert Carnegie– yes, poor Thog.

    This God Helmet thing reminds me of the case of Christian mystic Abess Julian of Norwich, who prayed to God to give her a near-deadly illness so that she could have religious visions. Seems like even when religious types acknowledge that their visions are due to an acute abnormal brain function, they don’t care, because clearly they’re talking to God. I wonder what the likelihood would be amongst the Religious vs. the Skeptical that the emotional experience would completely short-circuit the rational faculties like that? We could design a God Helmet experiment!!!

  16. Helen said,

    June 21, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    Ah, but you know in the grand scheme of things this will no doubt be linked to MMR, MRSA, the grassy knoll and Captain Zep. I prefer my magnets to be stuck to my fridge not my head. Sounds seriously nuts to me – just like not tasting wine on a root day.

  17. Diotima said,

    June 22, 2006 at 5:54 pm

    Many years ago in Calabria I was in conversation with a woman who was completing a book (respectable, academic) on modern Marian apparitions. She told me of interviews she had had had with two country children from West Cork, who had ‘seen’ the Virgin. I informed her that as children in rural Ireland often play around grottos dedicated to the Virgin, her ‘apparition’ was not unexpected;. I had spent much of my early childhood playing around such a grotto and statue. Grimly she asked me ‘Did the Virgin move?’ and was not at all pleased when I failed to achieve recall bias which suited her monograph.
    The Persinger helmet was first mentioned in a very good book on ‘encounters ‘with aliens called, I think ‘Dark Light’.

  18. dbhb said,

    June 24, 2006 at 9:51 am

    LSD anyone? ;)

  19. NelsonGabriel said,

    June 28, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    Here is some good science (and commercial product) aimed at proving God´s existence: www.yo-god.com

    The guy who does this is an artist, Dean Booth, but his scientific method is impeccable.

  20. Delster said,

    June 30, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    personally i prefer the hitchhikers guide version for proving God does not exist :-)

  21. Maury Markowitz said,

    January 5, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    “Persinger is a proper scientist.”

    *coff* I realize this is an older article and my post is unlikely to be read as a result, but Ben, come on.

    I went to the illustrious LU back in the 80′s. You haven’t lived until you had to walk to the school store in 40 below weather, *brrr*. I’m pretty familiar with Michael Persinger, as most of us in the science wing were. This was mostly a passing familiarity in my case, I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of taking one of his classes (I don’t mean that in any snide way, apparently he’s a great prof).

    One of my fellow students did have the pleasure, and related a little story: while interviewing Persinger in his office they needed to leave for some reason. Persinger stopped for a second, looked at the student to be sure that he was listening, and then stated that he should return quickly to be sure he didn’t miss any calls, because he was the “world’s leading authority”. On what? Just wait…

    I’m going from memory here so bear with me, but I believe Michael’s been a talking-head expert on topics such as:

    Crop circles. According to an interview on CBC radio, they are supposedly minor seismic events that cause electricity to be released by piezo crystals underground, which then magically causes all the grain above them to lie down in such a wonderful fashion. I believe there was also some mention of “balls of light” that are associated with such events, that were supposed to be the electrical discharges.

    Ghosts. Using a similarly tortuous line of reasoning, he claimed that ghost sitings in famous buildings are actually a sort of “psychic energy” recording encoded into piezo crystals in the rocks making up the walls and floors of castles. Walking down hallways somehow triggers the release of this energy, which causes people to hallucinate due to the same sort of reactions that lead to the God Helmet.

    UFOs. UFOs are “simply” ball lightening (or something similar) released by other geoelectrical events.Alien abductions are simply the God helmet effects, interpreted differently.

    ELF and health. Yes, Michael had an opinion on this one as well, all negative of course. It was during an interview on this topic that he made the “world’s leading authority” claim to my fellow student. In my books, claiming to be the world’s leading authority on the health effects of EMF is likely a bad thing.

    Don’t get me wrong, Michael has done real research and published real results in real journals. Mostly about magnets and the brain. Maybe there really is something of interest in there, but he’s been working on this since the 1970s and still hasn’t published anything terribly exciting.

    But this seemingly limited set of results hasn’t stopped him from claiming all sorts of outlandish conclusions based on nothing more than outright conjecture. In case after case he attempts to explain not the everyday world, but the most crankish pseudoscience that anyone here would dismiss out of hand. That has to make you go “huh”.

    Here, try this one on for size. It’s a quote from Persinger’s article about worldwide magnetic mind control:

    “This potential is the technical capability to influence directly the major portion of the
    approximately six billion brains of the human species without meditation through classical sensory modalities by generating neural information within a physical medium within which all members of the species are immersed.”

    Gotta love it! I’ll leave the rest as an exercise for the reader:

    www.mindspring.com/~txporter/persemf.htm

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