The God Helmet
|Photo by Dr. M.A. Persinger. Public domain image.|
A research team in Canada has, for some time now, used a strange device to induce, on demand, religious-like experiences in volunteers. The device is a modified helmet with attached magnetic coils. The idea is that the coils produce fluctuating magnetic fields that affect the volunteers' brains in such a way as to induce quasi-mystical states, including the feeling of an ethereal presence.
Many TV documentaries, including a normally reliable and trustworthy British series, have now portrayed the so-called "God Helmet" experiments as evidence for the hypothesis that religious or mystical experiences are "nothing but" the product of mere brain physiology. Although such a reductionist hypothesis is clearly consistent with the experimental results, I take exception with the implicit suggestion that it is the only hypothesis the results support. In my view, such suggestion is, at best, the reflection of intellectual laziness, unconscious bias, or faulty logic.
Eminent Cambridge philosopher C. D. Broad had already postulated, decades ago, the idea that consciousness may be a broad, non-local property of the fabric of nature at large. As such, brains are like reduction valves: they provide a space-time locus to anchor consciousness, but they do not generate consciousness. The nervous system (including sense organs) may have evolved to focus conscious perception on what is relevant to the immediate survival of the physical body. It filters out everything else so we are not overwhelmed with torrents of perceptions that do not correlate with the space-time location of the body. This is, to this day, a very reasonable hypothesis. Indeed, it seems more conducive to a resolution of the "hard problem of consciousness" than the idea that brains magically generate consciousness out of an unconscious material substrate.
In Rationalist Spirituality, particularly in Chapters 7 and 8, I extensively elaborate on this idea. We have a wealth of empirical evidence, namely from the field of transpersonal psychology, that human consciousness transcends the boundaries of the brain at ordinarily subconscious levels. In that book, I hypothesize that the brain is like a transceiver of conscious perception. As such, the role of the brain is to constrain conscious perception to a space-time locus, enabling the emergence of what we call "information." The brain does not generate consciousness, but provides a mechanism for constraining and localizing the range of consciousness. Logically, if such mechanism were to fail or be interfered with in just the right way, it would allow conscious perception to jump back to its unconstrained, non-local state. In the book, I mention scientific studies supportive of this hypothesis.
I submit that the God Helmet results can be construed to lend support to the hypothesis that the brain is a mechanism for constraining and localizing consciousness, the latter being a primary (i.e. not epiphenomenal) property of nature at large. By interfering with the volunteers' brain functioning through fluctuating magnetic fields, the helmet is merely interfering with the ability of the localization mechanism to perform its job. As a result, the consciousness of the volunteers partially and temporarily escapes the space-time locus it was ordinarily constrained to, leading to religious-like experiences.
The correlation between consciousness and brain function is undeniable. But it is simplistic and intellectually lazy to assume that this correlation necessarily entails a direct causal link between the two. We must maintain the rational discipline required to not discard alternative hypotheses that are equally supported by the empirical evidence at hand. It is perfectly reasonable, in light of the data at hand, to postulate that physical interference with the functioning of the brain (be it through a God Helmet, meditative breathing, psychoactive substances, brain entrainment machines, sensory deprivation, ordeals, etc.) can qualitatively modulate conscious experiences, even when we assume that consciousness is not generated by the brain.