TMS: Twilight Zone Science?
Want to find God? Magnetism might provide the answer.
By Daithí Ó hAnluain
The technology at the core of professor Allan Snyder's experiments to boost
creative intelligence, transcranial magnetic stimulation, is behind some pretty
wacky claims. Subjects in experiments by Dr. Michael Persinger, of Laurentian
University, believe they felt the presence of God, or some similar mystical
Check yourself into Med-TechSubjects, who were exposed to a specific series
of pulses from TMS, described feeling an invisible presence near them or feeling
connected to the whole world. Persinger believes that naturally occurring
magnetic interference could be at the heart of mystical experiences and a whole
host of paranormal phenomena, ranging from ghosts to alien abductions.
It's pretty bemusing stuff, but the God theory was tested by one Wired
magazine correspondent in 1999, and he concluded that he felt some kind of
thing. Furthermore, Persinger is a highly respected scientist with dozens of
articles published on magnetism and the brain.
TMS works on principals of electrical current established in the last few
centuries. In 1831, Faraday discovered that a rapidly changing magnetic field
can induce electrical current in a nearby conductor. In 1985 this principle was
used to induce twitches in humans' arm and leg muscles.
Since the 1990s, research has advanced swiftly, says Dr. Tony Ro, assistant
professor in the department of psychology at Rice University. "TMS has been used
in clinical neurology for quite some time to investigate motor dysfunction. More
recently, within the past 10 years or so, it has been used to investigate basic
brain function as well as cognitive function."
Scientists have also used the device to perform research that messes with the
mind. All perception and thought is based on electrical activity in the brain;
mess with the current and you mess with perceptions and how thought is
processed. A magnetically stimulated reality or a natural reality: It makes no
difference to the brain.
Persinger also posited that TMS could be used for mind control in a 1995
article in Perceptual and Motor Skills, called "On the possibility of directly
accessing every human brain by electromagnetic induction of fundamental
In fact, Persinger is trying to identify and catalog those fundamental
algorithms, a series of specific magnetic pulses that correspond to a given
reaction in the brain. One induces the mystical feelings mentioned earlier,
another induces a general feeling of well-being, while another creates sexual
arousal. Persinger believes others could be discovered, such as one to trigger
the immune system.
Not surprisingly, the technology is viewed as potentially dangerous. Dr.
Robyn Young, of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who used TMS in a
bid to boost the creative function of 17 volunteers' brains, was subject to
"We had to go through three ethical committees, and there were rigorous
limits on what we could and could not do," Young said. But five of the
volunteers showed a marked increase in creative skills during Young's
"We had to hold the experiment in a hospital; the subjects had to be young,
with no case history of epilepsy, very healthy subjects," she said. "And we had
to use TMS well within the limits. If we had been allowed to zap them harder, we
might have had even more remarkable results."
TMS is considered an inexact technology, but researchers have just begun to
explore its potential in neuroscience.