john_horgan's picture
Director, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology
Do we want the God machine?


The God machine is the name that journalists have given to a device invented by the Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger. It consists of a bunch of solenoids that, when strapped around the head, deliver pulses of electromagnetic radiation to specific regions of the brain. Persinger claims he can induce mystical visions by stimulating the temporal lobes, which have also been linked to religious experiences by other scientists, notably V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego.

Persinger's machine is actually quite crude. It induces peculiar perceptual distortions but no classic mystical experiences. But what if, through further advances in neuroscience and other fields, scientists invent a God machine that actually works, that delivers satori, nirvana, to anyone on command, without any negative side effects? It doesn't have to be an electromagnetic brain-stimulating device. It could be a drug, a type of brain surgery, a genetic modification, or some combination thereof.

One psychedelic researcher recently suggested to me that enlightenment could be spread around the world by an infectious virus that boosts the brain's production of dimethyltryptamine, a endogenous psychedelic that the Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod of the National Institutes of Health detected in trace amounts in human brain tissue in 1972. But whatever form the God machine takes, it would be powerful enough to transform the world into what Robert Thurman, an authority on Tibetan Buddhism (and father of Uma), calls the "Buddhaverse," a mystical utopia in which everyone is enlightened.

The obvious followup question: Would the invention of a genuine God machine spell our salvation or doom?