There has been some hype recently (see here, here, or here) about a helmet that has caused “mystical experiences” among individuals at a Dutch music festival. Sounds pretty cool, and a little unbelievable, that a helmet could cause such a reaction. What makes it even more unbelievable is it was just a skateboard helmet with some inactive wires attached to it.
Hold on, that’s bananas. How can a regular skateboard helmet make people see God? The short answer is, it can’t. But the power of suggestion can. The researchers conducting this study wanted to see how alcohol affects the experience of individuals told they are having a session with the ‘God Helmet’. There are 3 key factors at work here: 1) alcohol 2) the power of suggestion and 3) the reputation of the original ‘God Helmet’.
The use of psychoactive substances in religious experiences has a long history (see the use of ayahuasca in Amazonian indigenous religions for a good example). Alcohol is not typically seen as a psychoactive substance, but it does have effects on your brain that might make a ‘mystical experience’ more likely. As most of us know, alcohol pretty reliably inhibits executive functions of the brain – these are things like attention, working memory, motor control, and inhibitory control (the control that prevents us from eating an entire extra large pizza on the average night or telling our roommates exactly what we think of their dishes in the sink). When working normally, executive functions also play a role in preventing us from seeing and hearing things that are not there (reduced executive functions are implicated in psychosis).
So what happens when your executive functions take a tequila break? The hypothesis is an increased susceptibility to suggestibility. The scientific jury is still out (some studies suggest it’s true others suggest it isn’t) but alcohol may increase the power of suggestions in influencing your reality – think moonwalking at 2 am convinced you’re the best dancer on the floor and convinced the guy flirting with you is a solid 10.
The original ‘God Helmet’ was created by Stanley Koren and Michael Persinger to study brain function and how it relates to creativity and spirituality. They had theories about the temporal lobe (the part of your brain right behind your ear) and spiritual experiences, so they wanted to see what stimulating this part of the brain does. Now, the temporal lobe is large and involved in a bunch of things, but one of its key functions is in auditory processing (think music and language) and high level visual processing (think complex visual stimuli like faces and scenes). If you were going to try to elicit a ‘mystical experience’ this region would be the one to try.
Ok so we have our three factors and a bunch of willing, potentially intoxicated, festival goers signed up to try on this fake “God Helmet” – what happened? The results were rather unexpected. The ‘God Helmet’ suggestion worked for some people, but these people didn’t all have a certain amount of alcohol in there system or use a certain drug, they all self-identified as highly spiritual. Drugs and alcohol didn’t seem to play a significant role in the experience.
But let’s go back to this ‘God Helmet’ concept – even though the one used in this experiment was fake (had wires that weren’t attached to anything), the ‘real’ ‘God Helmet’ actually had connected wires that delivered stimulation to the brain using magnetic fields.
If magnetic fields stimulating the brain sounds familiar, it’s probably because that’s how TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) works – we’ll talk about that in another post. But the ‘God Helmet’ magnetic fields are different than those used in TMS. TMS uses strong, simple fields that were designed to maximize the activation of the brain regions underneath; the ‘God Helmet’ uses weak (~1 million times weaker than TMS), complex fields that were designed to mimic ‘natural brain activity’. The same basic physics concepts are being applied used, just in a different way.
Koren and Persinger’s helmet was designed to investigate spirituality and actually resulted in a ‘sensed presence’ in a large proportion of participants (up to 80%) the concern is that these results haven’t been replicated by anyone other than Persinger and his team. There have been debates sparked online between Persinger and groups who have failed to replicate their findings (see the article here a response here and a debate and defense by Persinger here).
Replication in science is incredibly important for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is you need to be able to tell reliable correlation from happy coincidence. You don’t want your mom treated with cottage cheese and garlic for her breast cancer because the doctor’s mom ate that and her cancer went into remission.
In theory, good, replicable science has a set of steps that can be performed by anyone in a predetermined way and yield the same results. Sometimes those steps characterize the types of people who are most affected and often the expected results occur in most but not all of circumstances, but still, you shouldn’t get too many surprises.
Koren and Persinger’s results, to my knowledge, have not been reliably replicated outside of their lab. While this doesn’t necessarily mean their results are bogus, it should cause anyone looking at the results to pause. Incredible results that are the first of their kind are what cause science to grow and expand, but researchers then need to take up the torch and attempt to prove and re-prove that hypothesis. Koren and Persinger’s ‘God Helmet’ is undoubtedly teaching us something – but likely not what the authors are claiming.
So the next time you see research with incredible claims, take a look at what the study actually does. What are their controls? How are they priming their participants? Can anyone else say they’ve found the same thing?