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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 experience.

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 algorithms."

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 stringent controls.

"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 experiment.

"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.