I just read Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s new book entitled “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.” I have enjoyed Hagerty’s work as a religion correspondent on NPR for the last several years and was drawn to her book’s objective: to explore the bridge, if one does indeed exist, between spiritual experience and scientifically observable processes.
Not surprisingly, Hagerty’s exploration led her to Laurentian University in northeastern Ontario and to the work of that university’s well-known cognitive neuroscientist and researcher, Dr. Michael Persinger.
Persinger, who has long believed that spiritual experience is generated by cognitive processes, created an apparatus several years ago that has come to be called the “god helmet.” This helmet, in essence, is a modified snowmobile helmet, the coils of which produce a complex magnetic field over the brain’s temporal lobe. Persinger reports that over 80% of those who have worn the “god helmet” experienced a presence in the room that they described as being “god-like” or, at the very least, mystically reminiscent of someone they knew who had died.
As you might imagine, there is much controversy around Persinger’s scientific methodology. Many have suggested that Persinger’s experiments are far too manipulated and agenda-heavy to be even moderately conclusive. Nevertheless, his work in the field of neurotheology has garnered much attention from scientists and theologians alike.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty devotes the seventh chapter of “Fingerprints of God” to Persinger and his helmet. According to Hagerty, Persinger’s foundational theory is that, since the left hemisphere of the brain is associated with language and the conceptualization of the self, the stimulation of that left hemisphere leads to an elevated sense of self-awareness.
The right hemisphere of the brain, by contrast, is much more connected to feelings, sensations, and emotional affectations. Therefore, according to Persinger, the stimulation of the right portion of the brain will produce the emotionally-charged sense of being in the presence of a relational entity—a mysterious “other” whose personality is palpable and whose vitality can seem larger than life.
To oversimplify a bit, Persinger sees spiritual and mystical experiences, not as supernatural occurrences, but as the scientifically traceable and reproducible byproduct of a stimulated right temporal lobe. To borrow Hagerty’s words, spiritual experience, according to Persinger, “is a trick of the brain” and can be generated “by head injuries and brain dysfunctions…by the earth’s magnetic fields and by machines like [Persinger’s] ‘god helmet.’” (page 136 of “Fingerprints of God”)
Personally, as a Christ-follower, I find Persinger’s neurotheological work to be far more affirming than discouraging. After all, in an age in which ecclesiastical decline is the talk of the town, it is refreshing to discover that spiritual experience is still a threatening enough concept to garner the attention and the dollars of skeptical scientists, many of whom are eager to reduce such experience to matters of neuropathy.
I will not share with you Hagerty’s description of her own personal experiment with the “god helmet” (since I hope that some of you will read the book for yourself). Suffice it to say that she is still a woman of deep faith. Furthermore, she still believes that her faith is based upon something more than an over-stimulated temporal lobe.
And therein, I suppose is the point of this blog post: Science and faith need not be enemies in our intellectual discourse, precisely because one will never be able disprove or eliminate the other. I suspect that, no matter how deeply scientists like Persinger delve into neurological processes, they will always be confronted with some portion of mystical experience that eludes their analysis, resists their truncations, and refuses to fit neatly into their carefully-formed equations and formulas.
Likewise, mystics, Pentecostals, and even some charismatic United Methodists may be led to acknowledge the possibility that some (not all, or even most, but some) of their spiritual experiences and discernments may have more to do with stimulated neurology than they do with the work of the Spirit.
All of this makes me grateful for the Wesleyan heritage’s affirmation that holy Scripture, while primary and authoritative in matters of life and faith, must be read and interpreted through the lenses of tradition, experience, and reason. Such a multidimensional hermeneutic prevents us from taking “god helmets” more seriously than we should while at the same time enabling us to appreciate honest and agenda-free scientific exploration.