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Brain Bucket of Belief: Michael Persinger and his God Helmet

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Michael Persinger's observation, discussed in our recent talk with astronomer Tom Kerss, of an apparent correlation between reports of apparitional encounters and fluctuations in the Earth’s geomagnetic fields has led, somewhat predictably, to the American-Canadian psychologist modifying a Ski-Doo helmet in such a way that it allows those that don it to experience God.

Unusual EMF activity noted at sites of so-called hauntings, including the bedroom of a young girl whose apparitional experiences Persinger traced to the electromagnetic emissions of a bedside clock radio, seems to confirm this connection. Comparison of such experiences with the seizures of epileptics, which also seemingly increase with EMF exposure, led Persinger to a hypothesis.

Persinger hypothesises that electromagnetic exposure reduces the anti-convulsive melatonin, and so increases mini-seizures in the hippocampus and the amygdala, creating apparitional experiences. Back in the lab, he tests this with a Ski-Doo helmet, modified by inventor Stanley Koren, that allows him to apply weak but complex magnetic fields across a subject’s temporal lobes.

Subjects of these experiments, including such sceptical luminaries as Michael Shermer and Susan Blackmore, report experiencing a sense of presence which one formerly haunted individual compared to his own apparitional experience and others have compared to God. However, a minority, such as Richard Dawkins, report no such experiences; a fact Persinger puts down to temporal sensitivity.

Critics, as they are wont to do, have pointed out that there is no known mechanism that would allow such weak fields, less than those of a hairdryer, to achieve the affects claimed. Furthermore, replication by Pehr Granqvist and follow-up by Chris French failed to find anything but suggestion at work. Persinger's results may therefore be little more than a matter of belief.

We discussed this and other seemingly pseudoscientific hypothoses put forward to explain the phenomenon known as ghosts on Cambridge Skeptics: Live!

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