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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
An Introduction
v1.0 - May 6, 2002
One of the newest avenues of research into the mind-body relationship has nothing to do with religious ritual, ethnobotany, or tinkering with brain chemistry. It's about altering the way the brain behaves on the most basic level -- the electrical impulses that constantly stream from neuron to neuron.

Psychological researchers call it "transcranial magnetic stimulation" or "TMS". The basic premise of TMS is that the brain operates using electric signals, and it's possible to alter the way the brain works by altering the electrical environment. Standard equipment consists of something to generate an electromagnetic signal at a specific frequency, and a coil to focus that magnetic field on specific brain regions.

Thus far, it appears that frequencies lower than 1 Hz will inhibit brain activity, while higher frequencies stimulate the brain, although no one is sure why. The "normal" frequency of the waking human brain is said to be around 12 Hz, "beta" state, while brains deep in meditative trance dip down to around 8 Hz, the "alpha" state.

As early as 1985, researchers at the University of Sheffield found that magnetic fields could activate brain cells. At around the same time, electronics researcher David S. Walonick began creating several different TMS devices, and tested a wide range of extra-low frequency (ELF) signals on subjects. His experiments showed that it's possible to "entrain" brains to certain frequencies -- that is, if you project an 8.6 Hz field onto a waking brain, it will tend to slide into the dreamlike, meditative, "alpha" state.The closer to the "beta" state you start at -- that is, the higher the initial frequency projected across the brain -- the faster a brain will lock on to the frequency being projected. He found his ELF generators are useful for relaxation, getting over jet lag, and, in one case, eliminating epileptic seizures in a 190-pound dog. Volunteers under Walonick's ELF fields only felt very subtle physical effects - tightness in the stomach or chest, metallic feeling in the mouth, ringing in the ears, and faint tingling sensations.

Since those early forays, investigators began using repeated TMS bursts (or rTMS) to alter brain patterns, and focus the magnetic fields on specific brain areas. They have found that changes made by rTMS can last for months after a treatment. And, according to Eric Wasserman of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Maryland, the effects can be highly unusual.

"We can use TMS to prevent people from seeing a visual stimulus or make it hard for them to speak", he says. They can also make people move their limbs without any voluntary control. Some of the first studies showed that applying TMS to the brain's temporal lobes, the regions just above the eyebrows, altered the mood of volunteers. When they stimulated the area above the right eyebrow, the volunteer experienced euphoric happiness. When they targeted the left temporal lobe, the subject lapsed into apathy and sadness.

As a result, TMS is gaining ground as a substitute for ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy aka Electro-Shock Therapy), or "shock treatment". One of the only remedies which has been proven effective in extreme cases of clinical depression, ECT essentially triggers epileptic-like seizures by passing electricity across the brain. TMS does something similar, but on a much smaller scale, and with near-surgical precision. ECT patients often experience memory loss or other strange and unpleasant side effects; TMS patients don't.

Within the last five years, researchers have found rTMS useful in treating conditions as varied as depression, epilepsy and stuttering. As a potential therapy, it is valued for being painless and non-invasive, as well as being effective in cases that don't respond to drugs. In 2000, Yale University School of Medicine researchers found rTMS reduced auditory hallucinations in schizophrenics, a group notoriously difficult to treat with conventional medicine.

But some of the most promising applications of TMS have less to do with treating disease than with unlocking the brain's potential.

Recently, in early 2002, researchers at the Centre of the Mind in Sydney, Australia successfully used TMS to increase creativity in a group of 17 volunteers. The team used brief, low-frequency signals to recreate the same "brain weather" observed in autistic savants (creative geniuses like Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man). Within 15 minutes, the subjects were drawing better than they ever could before. Further experiments could prove that anyone has the potential to become a creative genius with just the flick of a switch.

Pioneering TMS researcher Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, is doing even more astounding work. By stimulating specific areas in the right hemisphere of the brain, he is able to induce mystical states of consciousness, giving some subjects the experience of encountering God.

In scientific terminology, he uses a specific, precisely timed, repetitive signal - one dubbed the "Thomas Pulse" - to create a "sensed presence" in the test subject's brain. Some volunteers have reported feelings of pleasant detachment, while others have broken into a panic, convinced the test chamber is "hexed". And some have had direct experience of the divine.

Persinger is convinced that naturally occurring electromagnetic fluctuations could be responsible for paranormal experiences like ghosts, UFOs and mystical apparitions. Some have argued, on the basis of Persinger's work, that religion itself could be electromagnetic in origin - and the transcendent experiences like those recounted by saints and mystics can be recreated with electromagnetic pulses in his laboratory.