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I’m sad to report that Laurentian University has this morning announced the passing of one of the leading lights in parapsychology research over the past few decades, Dr Michael Persinger.

A professor at neuroscience at the university since 1971, Dr Persinger gained an international profile in recent decades for his research on the ‘God Helmet‘ – a device used to study the effects of magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes – in which he recorded many reports from test subjects of mystical experiences, altered states, and ‘sensed presence’ while wearing it.

This research informed Persinger’s theories on neurotheology, suggesting that religious and mystical experiences might be explained by changes in the temporal lobe. As such, many skeptics and atheists were quick to embrace his work – Richard Dawkins famously became a test subject for an episode of the BBC’s flagship science program Horizon, though he did not have a religious experience (Persinger at first noted that this was perhaps due to Dawkins scoring low on a test of temporal lobe sensitivity; later he suggested that Dawkins was also a bit drunk.)

Interestingly however, while Persinger was a materialist, he was not a skeptic of psi, but in fact a prominent proponent. Throughout his career he had a fascination with parapsychology and the paranormal, and whether his theories on brain stimulation could help explain mysterious powers of the mind such as telepathy and clairvoyance. One of our most popular posts here on the Grail over the years is in fact a fantastic lecture on psi topics by Dr Persinger titled “No More Secrets”, embedded below (follow the link above for more discussion).

Dr Persinger also worked in other areas of anomaly research, sometimes with some crossover with his neurotheology work, such as his Tectonic Strain Theory: Persinger theorised that luminous phenomena might be physical effects produced by tectonic strain leading up to seismic activity, and that the strange, physical effects sometimes reported with sightings might be caused by associated magnetic fields, creating…

…unstable conditions in the brain, especially the deep portions of the temporal lobes…[leading] to hallucinatory experiences which people interpret in terms of their cultural and learning history as well as their private beliefs, so they are interpreted and then seen as spirits, the Virgin Mary, angels, alien spacecraft or ghosts.

Persinger’s research was certainly speculative and controversial, and had many critics – from a 2004 replication attempt by Swedish researchers that failed to find any positive results, to UFO researcher Chris Rutkowski’s paper evaluating the Tectonic Strain Theory. In recent years, Persinger answered some of the criticisms of his research in a series of ten blog posts.

With his precise language, cool demeanour and impeccable dress sense, there was a bit of ‘Agent Smith’ about Michael Persinger, and combining that with his research into stimulation of the brain to produce bizarre effects he was also the focus of some conspiracy theories about mind control. But from all reports he was a whip-smart and open-minded researcher, and a much-loved and respected teacher (even after finding himself at odds with his own university in the last couple of years).

Dr Michael Persinger was 73.