November 29, 2002
On Religious Belief And Germ Line Engineering

On the Gene Expression blog Razib has a discussion on (among other things) IQ, scientists, and religious belief. One question is particularly interesting:

I wanted to start my series on religion discussing scientists because many of us who believe in genetic engineering and the promise of the post-human future do not think in great detail about the cultural implications on the individual level. What would changes in the germ-line imply for faith in the soul for instance? Many of us secularists might imagine that high intellectual ability will mean that religions will whither away, and the scientists with their low levels of belief serve as models. But I think close examination of the data and some analysis indicates that scientists might not be the best models, that their atheism is the product of a complex interplay of variables, and not just the result of their super-human levels of intellect (cough, cough).

I believe it will be possible to genetically engineer minds to be more prone to feel something that they will interpret as a divine presence. At the same time, I think it will be possible to genetically engineer minds that do not easily feel anything that seems transcendentally supernatural and that are extremely skeptical, analytical, intensely curious, and altogether faithless. So how will germ line genetic engineering affect people's views of the supernatural? It depends on how their minds will be genetically engineered.

While it is not yet possible to genetically engineer transcendental experiences Michael Persinger has had success in invoking the feeling of being in the presence of an other-worldly being by use of electromagnetic field wavelength patterns.

Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.

Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."

If the mind can be trained to experience sensed presences then isn't it likely that genetic engineering could make the mind more easily trainable to have such experiences?

_Perceptual and Motor Skills_, 1993, 76, 80-82.


M. A. Persinger

Laurentian University

Summary. - The Personal Philosophy Inventories of 221 university students who had learned to meditate (about 65% to 70% Transcendental Meditation(TM)) were compared to 860 nonmeditators. Meditators displayed a significantly wider range of complex partial epileptic-like signs. Experiences of vibrations, hearing one's name called, paranormal phenomena, profound meaning from reading poetry/prose, and religious phenomenology were particularly frequent among meditators. Numbers of years of TM practice were significantly correlated with the incidence of complex partial signs and sensed presences but not with control, olfactory, or perseverative experiences. The results support the hypothesis that procedures which promote cognitive kindling enhance complex partial epileptic-like signs.

Again, if all these experiences described below can be induced in minds in a lab then won't they also turn out to be genetically engineerable to happen more easily in people while they carry out their every day activities?

"...The brain can discriminate and respond to different kinds of very subtle, external magnetic fields, without the individual necessarily being aware of it, except through their imagery."
"We attempted to determine if the light flashing frequency in conjunction with, that is, synergistically, a magnetic field being applied to the brain would enhance suggestibility and imagery. What we found was there was indeed a change in imagery, and that the imagery was specific to those kinds of properties that are unique to temporal lobe activity; feelings of floating, movement, certain complex visual sensations."      - Michael Persinger

"There is little doubt that the class of experiences that comprise mystical experiences in general, and NDE's in particular, is strongly correlated with temporal lobe activity....Kate Makarec and I have found that all of the major components of the NDE [near death experience], including out-of-body experiences, floating, being pulled towards a light, hearing strange music, and profound meaningful experiences can occur in experimental settings during minimal electrical current induction to the temporal region due to exogenous spike-and-wave magnetic field sources."
"The hypothesis that temporal lobe excitability is tied to these kinds of experiences goes back to the clinical literature, in which we know that there are ceratin personality and subjective experience features that are associated with electrical foci in the temporal lobe, specifically epileptic foci....We found that the normal population shows these symptoms, too, and that they appear to lie along a continuum."

"The personalities of normal people who display enhanced temporal lobe activity... usually display enhanced creativity, suggestibility, memory capactity and intuitive processing. Most of them experience a rich fantasy or subjective world that fosters their adaptability. These people have more frequent experiences of a sense of presence during which time 'an entity is felt and sometimes seen;' exotic beliefs rather than traditional religious concepts are endorsed."
     - Michael Persinger in Report on Communion by Ed Conroy

Imagine a future in which a religious war is fought over whether people should be genetically engineered to believe in the supernatural. Or imagine a war fought over which types of religiously significant mental states people should have genetic tendencies to experience.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 November 29 10:53 AM  Brain Spirituality

Bill Fleming said at December 18, 2004 8:25 AM:

Persinger is a fraud. I'd believe in Bush's ( and I think he's a war criminal) reason to go to war before I'd believe in anything Persinger had to say.

I watched his documentaries where he tried to reproduce mystical experiments and it was obvious his students were getting the results he wanted. He's a charlatan.

Rob said at April 12, 2008 1:32 PM:

I agree. Persinger comes from a reductionist-materialist perspective. Consciousness and spiritual experience do not originate in the brain. The brain is a transmitter/receiver. It is the bio-mechanical filter of perception. Persinger's experiments stimulate the same area of the brain that correlates with temporal lobe epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy can manifest as hallucinations, visions, and other low level false perception. It is very similar to the results of LSD and other chemical agents. Even extreme thirst can trick the mind into seeing mirages. These are low level mental phenomena..."tricks of the mind." The mystics, yogis, and spiritual adepts spanning the entire history of humanity have accurately mapped authentic higher states of consciousness and illumination. For those of us that have experienced such, there is no question or doubt. These experiences are accompanied by extreme bliss, ecstasy, and illumination. To stimulate an area of the brain that produces low level mental phenomena similar to the effect of LSD does not mean that one has discovered the origins of spiritual experience. If anything, it means that one has stimulated the bio-physical equipment of perception. For a purported scientist...he makes a fantastic jump in logic and reasoning based upon his faulty interpretation of data. To reduce spiritual illumination to a merely physiological causation is ludicrous. This is called reductionism. It is the flatland plague of modern scientific myth.

Future Expatriot said at April 25, 2011 11:53 AM:

I won't go as far as to call Persinger a fraud, but let's say that temporal lobe lability does not lead to a homogenous personality type, assuming that there really even are personalities - or that the stimulation of certain parts of the brain might lead to experiences but not belief in those experiences. People respond differently to different things. Worse, stimulating or causing atrophies in temporal lobes does not always produce the expected result even anatomically or even with psychologists working alongside them have desperately tried to prime behaviors associated with TL problems. Don't ask me how I know that, it's an ugly story.

I agree with the comment above, it is reductionist as is much of the brain-behavior neurosciences. When people are so desperate to understand human behavior, the question that most pops in my mind is "why?" To control them? To genetically engineer them? To manipulate them as in marketing tactics? Supposedly so much has been learned about the brain and I just keep seeing the same old human exploitation as usual. I have personal reasons for not believing in real benefits to this kind of science.

There is one thing that is true though - people who think that brain anatomy corresponds to behavior generally lack insight. And ones messing with me in the guise of longitudinal interventional experimentation along these lines also lack any regard for human rights or ethics. How much suffering do I have to go through before they realize they are not just wretched human beings, but that they are basically wrong?

Future Expatriot said at April 25, 2011 11:55 AM:

Oh - it does affect the grammar part if I don't proofread. Big deal.

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