It’s a yellow snowmobile helmet, complete with a triple black racing stripe from nape to brow, black padding peeking out around the face, and snap fasteners for an acrylic faceplate. But there’s no faceplate and, for that matter, no snowmobile. The wearer is seated in a chair in a darkened room. Plastered bilaterally across the top of the helmet is a pouch from which wires lead to an untidy cluster of electronic components placed near the skull above the ears. The components are electrodes that, when hooked to a controller, stimulate the brain with pulses of magnetism. Its inventor claims that these precisely placed, timed, and calibrated stimuli make one feel the presence of deity.
Journalists quickly dubbed it “the God Helmet.”
The man whose science undergirds this odd experiment is Michael Persinger, a cognitive neuroscientist, though one whose academic résumé contains some rather odd items, including experiments with telepathic communications, remote viewing (describing a distant setting one has never actually seen, perceived by mental powers alone), and a theory that tectonic strain near seismic faults creates electromagnetic fields that account for people “seeing” UFOs or heavenly beings. But Persinger is best known for his research in what’s been called “neurotheology,” the idea that the temporal lobes of the human brain are the locus of spiritual feelings that, when properly stimulated, can provide people with the kinds of spiritual experiences generally claimed only by people of deep faith.
The idea proved at first a boon to skeptics of religion: if spiritual experience was merely a result of brain design, then one can discount testimonies of encounters with the Divine as mental trickery, a figment of some obsolete evolutionary brain circuit. In the end, though, cynics were left with little to go on, because results of temporal lobe stimulation with the God Helmet have fallen far short of anything that scientists would consider proof. Many who’ve tried the experiment felt nothing. Other reports ranged from mildly altered emotional states (feeling relaxed) to a few full-blown mystical experiences. One researcher pointed out that those who were already believers in either the technology or in transcendent spiritual experiences were far more likely to report a positive effect than those who weren’t, implying that psychological suggestion had at least something to do with it.
God in the brain
People of faith needn’t be alarmed by these experiments, however. One doesn’t need the God Helmet to know that the seat of human consciousness is in the brain, which is a biological organ. Genesis describes God crafting a physical body from nonorganic materials (“the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground”) and then adding to that body the spark of life (“and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”). The story concludes with, “And man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, KJV). Read this not merely as the description of a creative process but as a definition: Adam did not receive a living soul from God; rather, his body, the supportive organism of his biological brain was, in total, a living being. There’s no separate entity called a “soul” that can exist apart from the body. Indeed, the Bible affirms that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) until God re-creates them in the resurrection at Christ’s second coming (1 Corinthians 15:52).
Even ancient people were aware that brain damage altered the human experience. And cognition wasn’t the only thing affected. So were the emotions, senses, and experiences. At times they made use of brain-body dynamics to create a sort of artificial spirituality. The famous Oracle of Delphi was said to have received her visions after sitting over a toxic-gas-venting geothermal crack as she wavered between consciousness and unconsciousness. For hundreds of years the Huichol people of Mexico’s Sierra Madre have relied on a bitter cactus, Lophophora williamsii (commonly called peyote), to create hallucinations in which state they claim to converse with spirits and dead relatives.
Alcohol, marijuana, psilocybin, and other drugs have been similarly employed. There are also nonchemical methods to stimulate spirituality—from heightened emotionality induced by rhythmic music and dancing to shocking and painful acts of mortification to self-absorbed meditation. Even Christians have used speaking in tongues, self-flagellation, and handling poisonous serpents to stimulate spiritual ecstasy.
That messing with the brain—and the body that houses it—can create an altered state of consciousness, including even feelings that people consider “spiritual,” isn’t debatable. The problem is the kind and quality of spiritual experiences people have under such artificial stimulation. This kind of spirituality suffers from some basic deficiencies:
It’s self-centered. People feel good and may attribute their feelings to God, but their concentration is focused inward.
It’s emotional. While emotions can be part of a spiritual experience, spirituality that depends only upon feelings can be deceptive.
It doesn’t lead to an enhanced life after the experience is over. A user of drugs, for example, harms his body and places himself in danger, even if he feels good while he’s doing it.
It doesn’t necessarily make people better persons, more kind, more understanding and generous, or more altruistic. People under such artificial stimulation may sense a deity, but there’s no guarantee they’ll behave better when it’s all over.
The Bible’s description of a genuine spiritual experience is never merely a result of tinkering with mental capabilities. Rather, it’s an influence that comes unmistakably from outside oneself. The agent for God’s activity on the human mind and emotions is His Spirit, an entity that the New Testament calls the Holy Spirit. To distinguish the Holy Spirit’s work from doubtful spiritual experiences such as the God Helmet, Scripture describes it in some detail.
First, the Holy Spirit’s work is inherently creative. We first see the Spirit in Genesis 1:2, where He’s God’s agent for creating the world. The Spirit’s creativity is especially evident in the work of Jesus. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” said Jesus, “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
In the lives of believers, an encounter with God’s Spirit results in character improvement. The apostle Paul writes that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-
control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). There’s nothing self-aggrandizing about feeling the Spirit. Rather, it’s humbling, for it helps us identify and feel sorrow for our sins (John 16:7–9) and makes us want to be like Jesus: “And we all . . . are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Far from being an individual or selfish event, the Holy Spirit organizes us into a loving, growing community: “It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11, 12, emphasis added).
The Holy Spirit’s work is rarely a spectacle. Though on the day of Pentecost the apostles, under the Spirit’s influence, spoke in languages they’d never learned (Acts 2:4–6), the Old Testament describes the Spirit as “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12, KJV).
The most important diagnostic of a true spiritual experience is that it will always be rooted in truth: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Those who wrote the Bible got their inspiration from the Spirit: “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” says Peter (2 Peter 1:21). So anchoring spirituality in the Bible (Isaiah 8:20) prevents one from being misled by false experiences that merely mimic the work of the Holy Spirit. If a religious leader claims to have nonbiblical messages that benefit only himself, his messages aren’t from the Holy Spirit. Similarly, any experience that urges you to accept something that contradicts the Bible is false.
Which is to say, you’ll get more spiritual mileage from a Bible than from an electronic helmet!