Magnetic fields, hallucinations and anomalous experiences: A sceptical critique of the current evidence

Research Item – Jason J. Braithwaite

OVER RECENT years, findings from a number of laboratory studies have suggested that anomalous hallucinatory haunt-type experiences can be artificially induced by applying temporally complex, weak-intensity magnetic fields to the outer cortex of the brain (see Persinger, 2001, for a review). The implication from these studies is that some spontaneous haunt-reports may be explained, at least in part, as magnetically induced hallucinations. However, although this view is very popular, it is often misunderstood by scientists, sceptics, paranormalists and the general public. Quite often in the popular literature and on the unregulated non-peer-reviewed internet this ‘neuromagnetic’ account is cast as one claiming that strong magnetic fields may exist in reputedly haunted locations as metaphorical ‘hot-spots’ and as such may be responsible for some anomalous perceptions, that any ‘blip’ on an EMF meter is meaningful, or worse still, that such fields may well be some physical correlate of the paranormality of a haunting. In addition, it appears to be the case that the idea is being accepted somewhat uncritically by some researchers as its apparent basis in physics and biophysics can be quite seductive at first glance. As a consequence of these observations, it appears to be a good time to take a closer and more evidence-based look at an argument that while tantalising, may well be, at the very least, insufficient as it currently stands. The present paper provides a comprehensive examination of the evidence for and against the neuromagnetic account. The nature of the argument will be characterised as it has been previously posed in academic publications which provides a refreshing tonic to the often intellectually bastardised ideas permeating the unregulated internet. In addition, a discussion of recent failures to replicate the effect of weak magnetic fields on human xperience is also provided. It is argued that future research should concentrate on independent double-blind laboratory-based replications and on producing more explicit biophysical mechanisms for an interaction between weak temporally complex magnetic fields and the human brain. It is concluded that although the neuromagnetic account has support from some laboratory studies, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that it is neither uncontroversial nor comprehensive in its current form.

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