When Fred puts on the "God helmet" in Luminarium he is participating in an experiment into Neurotheology, a fairly new scientific field of research into the relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences. The first investigations studied brain wave patterns in the late 1950s. As the technology for brain study advanced, so did neurotheology.
During the 1980s, Dr. Michael Persinger, a leader in the field, set out to demonstrate that stimulation of the temporal lobes could "cause" a spiritual episode. His main tool was the Koren Helmet (named for Stanley Koren of Laurentian University's Neuroscience Department who built it according to specifications provided by Dr. Persinger), which applies complex, irregular magnetic signals to the temporal lobes - the area of the brain that many working in this field feel is the source of spiritual and religious experiences.
Thanks to a journalist in search of a compelling headline, The Koren Helmet quickly became known as the "God Helmet". Dr. Persinger considers this a misleading description as while many participants have felt a presence when their brain is stimulated by the helmet, most, according to Dr. Persinger, attribute this presence to "dead relatives, the Great Forces, a spirit, or something equivalent," with only a few feeling "the presence of Christ".
Persinger's experiments gave rise to controversy, both from scientists who felt his work violated scientific standards and was not verified objectively, as well as from theologians. He did however advance the field, and studies continue.
Modern neurotheology uses brain mapping techniques to investigate the premise that humans have a common trait, possibly located in the brain, that is definable as spiritual or religious experience. Andrew Newberg, M.D. is Director of Research at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital's Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia. His 2010 book, Principles of Neurotheology, recommends collaboration between neuroscientists and specialists in the fields of religious studies, philosophers of religion, and theologians. You can browse a short excerpt from one of his earlier books, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, at BookBrowse.
Alex Shakar provides a list of books that inspired him as he researched both scientific and religious fields while writing Luminarium.
This article was originally published in September 2011, and has been updated for the
May 2012 paperback release.
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