Spirit Tech: How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy

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Spirit Tech: How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy

Postby American Dream » Mon Feb 09, 2009 10:08 pm

Spirit Tech
How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy.
By John Horgan
Posted Thursday, April 26, 2007

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Eight years ago, I flew to Laurentian University in Midwestern Canada to test a gadget that some journalists called the "God machine." The device consisted of computer-controlled solenoids that fit over the skull and stimulate the brain with electromagnetic pulses. Its inventor, neuroscientist Michael Persinger, claimed that it could induce mystical experiences, including, as Wired magazine put it, visions of "Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit."

I sat in a ratty armchair in a soundproof chamber and pulled the God machine onto my head as, outside the chamber, a graduate student tapped a computer keyboard. As he bombarded my brain with electromagnetic bursts patterned after brain waves of epileptics in the throes of religious visions, I waited for God or even a minor deity or demon to appear—in vain. Persinger told me later that the device doesn't work on skeptics, implying that it "works" merely by exploiting subjects' suggestibility.

Persinger is one of the more colorful characters in the fast-growing, flakey field of neurotheology, which studies what is arguably the most complex manifestation—spirituality—of the most complex phenomenon—the human brain—known to science. Given that brain researchers have no idea how I conceived and typed this sentence, I doubt they will ever account for religious experiences in all their vast diversity and subtlety. Nor will they solve the riddle of whether God actually exists or is a figment of our evolved imaginations, like unicorns or superstrings. Neurotheology may nonetheless have a profound social impact, by yielding more potent, reliable methods of inducing spiritual experiences.

Surveys suggest that only about one in three people has ever had a mystical experience, defined by one poll as the sensation of "a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself." Humans have long sought such experiences through meditation, yoga, prayer, guru-worship, fasting, and flagellation, but these methods are unreliable, notes James Austin, author of Zen and the Brain, one of the best books on neurotheology. Austin hopes that neurotheology will eventually yield much more potent, precise methods of inducing transcendent experiences, from fleeting feelings of connectedness all the way up to "the full moon of enlightenment." Persinger's God machine may not have done much for me, but here's a brief status report on four mystical technologies with potential:

Mystical Brain Chips

In the 1950s, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, while preparing epileptic patients for surgery, stimulated their exposed brains with electrodes. Some patients heard voices or music and saw apparitions when their temporal lobes were stimulated. Upon learning about Penfield's experiments, Aldous Huxley wrote: "Is there, one wonders, some area in the brain from which the probing electrode could elicit Blake's Cherubim?"

One still wonders. A Swiss team recently induced out-of-body experiences in an epileptic patient about to undergo surgery by stimulating her right angular gyrus, which underpins spatial awareness. Other groups have shown that implanted electrodes can trigger euphoria, and in fact they are now being tested as treatments for severe depression (as well as paralysis, tremors, and epilepsy). In principle, implants would provide the most precise, powerful means of inducing religious ecstasy. Indeed, self-described "Wireheads" look forward to the day when these devices will vanquish mental suffering and deliver ecstasy on demand. But for now, this technology—which requires inserting wires into the brain through holes drilled in the skull—remains too risky for all but the most desperate patients.

Magic Wands

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is noninvasive and hence safer and easier to test than implants. Researchers have reported success in treating depression and other disorders with this method, which often employs electromagnetic "wands" as well as headsets. Persinger insists that TMS, properly used, can also induce intense mystical experiences.

A group at Uppsala University has tried and failed to replicate Persinger's results in a controlled, double-blind experiment. Todd Murphy, a neuroscientist who has worked with Persinger, is nonetheless marketing a version of the God machine called the "Shakti" (a Hindu term for divinity), which according to Murphy's Web site "uses magnetic fields to create altered states."

Tweaking the God Gene

The work of Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, raises the prospect of genetically engineered mystics. Hamer claims to have found a gene associated with "self-transcendence" or "spirituality" in a group of 1,000 subjects who filled out surveys that probed their beliefs in God, ESP, and so on. Hamer calls this gene "the spiritual allele" or, even more dramatically, the "God gene"—which is also the title of the popular book in which he describes his research. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, has called Hamer's claim "wildly overstated."

Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico, suggests focusing on genes associated with dimethyltryptamine, the only psychedelic known to occur naturally in the human brain. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman presents evidence that endogenous DMT underpins mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.

Our natural mystical capacity, Strassman speculates, might be enhanced with genetic modifications that boost the production of DMT or of the enzymes that catalyze its effects. A clever, unscrupulous geneticist might even transform us all into mystics without our consent. "I can envision a situation where a cold virus is tinkered with to turn on our methylating enzymes," Strassman says, "spreads around the world in a couple of years, and there you have it."

Good Old Psychedelics

Psychedelic (or entheogenic, literally God-containing) compounds such as LSD and psilocybin represent by far the most mature mystical technology available. Legal research into the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psychedelics collapsed in the late 1960s after the drugs were outlawed but is now undergoing a renaissance.

Reseachers at UCLA, the University of Arizona, Harvard, and other institutions are treating post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety with psilocybin and MDMA (aka Ecstasy). Last year, a team at Johns Hopkins University reported that psilocybin had triggered profound spiritual experiences in two-thirds of a group of 36 subjects. "Psilocybin, the active ingredient of 'magic mushrooms,' expands the mind," the Washington Post noted drily. "After a thousand years of use, that's now scientifically official."

Psychedelics still pose risks. Peyote triggers nausea, MDMA has been associated with neurotoxicity, and psilocybin caused panic attacks in some subjects in the Johns Hopkins study. Future research could identify regimens and compounds that yield greater benefits with fewer side effects. Independent chemist Alexander Shulgin has identified more than 200 psychotropic compounds that have potential as therapeutic and spiritual catalysts.

*

Our current mystical technologies are primitive, but one day, neurotheologians may find a technology that gives us permanent, blissful self-transcendence with no side effects. Should we really welcome such a development? Recall that in the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA funded research on psychedelics because of their potential as brainwashing agents and truth serums.

Even setting aside the issue of control, mystical technologies raise troubling philosophical issues. Shulgin, the psychedelic chemist, once wrote that a perfect mystical technology would bring about "the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of the human experiment." When I asked Shulgin to elaborate, he said that if we achieve permanent mystical bliss, there would be "no motivation, no urge to change anything, no creativity." Both science and religion aim to eliminate suffering. But if a mystical technology makes us immune to anxiety, grief, and heartache, are we still fully human? Have we gained something or lost something? In short, would a truly effective mystical technology—a God machine that works—save us, or doom us?

John Horgan is the director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology and a science correspondent for Bloggingheads.tv. He is the author of The End of Science, The Undiscovered Mind, and Rational Mysticism.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2165004/
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Postby brainpanhandler » Tue Feb 10, 2009 8:19 am

Even setting aside the issue of control, mystical technologies raise troubling philosophical issues. Shulgin, the psychedelic chemist, once wrote that a perfect mystical technology would bring about "the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of the human experiment." When I asked Shulgin to elaborate, he said that if we achieve permanent mystical bliss, there would be "no motivation, no urge to change anything, no creativity."


I need a definition of "permanent mystical bliss".

Both science and religion aim to eliminate suffering.


Science at least aims at more than just the elimination of suffering, unless one considers that ignorance is suffering and not bliss.

But if a mystical technology makes us immune to anxiety, grief, and heartache, are we still fully human? Have we gained something or lost something? In short, would a truly effective mystical technology—a God machine that works—save us, or doom us?


False dichotomy, but interesting question nonetheless. Maybe it is the ennui of godhood that brings us here. We're on a vacation. Maybe the gods envy us.
"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." - Martin Luther King Jr.
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Postby nathan28 » Tue Feb 10, 2009 11:02 am

did the author or any of those neuroscientists or chemists actually undergo any spiritual discipline? more blind men feeling an elephant that a lot of people already took plenty of photographs of a long time ago
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Postby American Dream » Tue Feb 10, 2009 11:52 am

nathan28 wrote:
did the author or any of those neuroscientists or chemists actually undergo any spiritual discipline?

Here are three articles from John Horgan that may give some answers. I get the impression that he sees a choice between Science and Religion, and he knows which one he's choosing though he's always fascinated by the road not taken. He also seems to claim that "mind control" is nigh-on impossible, for a century at least, and is more enthusiastic about Delgadian-style brain implants than I am...


Why I Gave Up On Zen: An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class

Tripping De-Light Fantastic: Are psychedelic drugs good for you?

Buddhist Retreat: Why I gave up on finding my religion.
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Postby IanEye » Tue Feb 10, 2009 12:19 pm

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Postby Penguin » Tue Feb 10, 2009 12:20 pm

Hah hah.

I was just talking in a cafe about how Western world just drinks booze and antidepressants nowadays since the fucking catholic inqvisition BURNED every woman (and man) who knew shit about the plants worth using. Witches you know.

Walking is dangerous. One could sprain an ankle.
Panic attacks from psilocybin? Oh wow, I didnt know threatening the egos comfy chair could cause a PANIC. Shit no.

Im tired of this Babylon shithole.

Edit: thanks IanEye. That pic saved my evening.
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Postby nathan28 » Tue Feb 10, 2009 1:14 pm

American Dream wrote:nathan28 wrote:
did the author or any of those neuroscientists or chemists actually undergo any spiritual discipline?

Here are three articles from John Horgan that may give some answers. I get the impression that he sees a choice between Science and Religion, and he knows which one he's choosing though he's always fascinated by the road not taken. He also seems to claim that "mind control" is nigh-on impossible, for a century at least, and is more enthusiastic about Delgadian-style brain implants than I am...


Why I Gave Up On Zen: An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class

Tripping De-Light Fantastic: Are psychedelic drugs good for you?

Buddhist Retreat: Why I gave up on finding my religion.


i just looked at those. exactly what i would have expected. plus, the articles appear in slate. two strikes, and against a sadly innocent, if unwittingly arrogant, character.

i'll lay some blame at the feet of western buddhism, though, there is definitely a code of silence around the more practical outcomes, even the most elementary of states and techniques, of meditation practice. Hence, at least part of Mr. Hogan's frustration over what he thinks is "buddhism." Similarly, I'm not sure that someone who's never been on a retreat is qualified to talk about it.

"anatta... would have to be corroborated by science."

That is one of the stupidist, most naively materialistic things I could have read. "Science" has limits. Sorry, that's just how it works. Just because you can make a sentence doesn't ensure it means anything. Colorless green forms sleep furiously: syntax in place, meaning absent.

To start, you don't get to dismiss meditation "scientifically" when there are numerous practices and techniques and oftentimes western meditators aren't actually meditating, but just sitting on their asses, literally. Much of the outcome technical practice IS in fact replicable. The first problem, though, is that you have to *talk* to people, rather than put them into a machine, to find out. The second problem is that you have to talk to people: see my earlier comment about the code of silence.

Here's my question. Imagine saying something like "The right to a free press would have to be corroborated by science." It doesn't exist in a material sense, so how are you going to test it scientifically? This is just totally retarded. His understanding of "no-self" is as developed as that of any college freshman in Buddhism 101, save that he has a national publication as a sounding board because he's taking a vaguely ironic, "iconoclastic" view.

Like I said before, blind men fumbling at an elephant someone already correctly described as an elephant long, long ago, but the fumblers are doing it with lots of confidence and arrogance.

Walking IS dangerous.
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Buddha Machine

Postby IanEye » Tue Feb 10, 2009 1:20 pm

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Postby Penguin » Tue Feb 10, 2009 1:28 pm

I hear theres a new version of Budda Machine, with extended tuneabilities. More variance.
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