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Can scientists use technology to make you experience “god”? The answer is “sort of, maybe, and maybe they don’t actually need to use technology to do it.” Confused? You won’t be after today’s helpful video!
About 15 years ago, a researcher named Michael Persinger came up with the “god helmet,” a motorcycle helmet fitted with electrodes meant to stimulate certain areas of the brain in order to trigger hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, or just certain emotional states like fear or relaxation. Persinger’s hypothesis was that all spirituality and superstition, from belief in god to alien abductions, are the result of misfirings in the brain. That’s not a particularly controversial idea, since many scientists believe that supernatural experiences have natural explanations — in fact, if they don’t, I worry about how good they are at science. And so if you’re experiencing a “supernatural” experience, the brain is the first place we should look.
What IS controversial about Persinger is whether or not his “god helmet” even does anything at all. He seemed to think that he could make it so precise that it could be incorporated into virtual reality to enhance experiences, but years later no one has been able to truly replicate the results he claims to have seen. On the contrary, several studies have shown that you can get suspiciously similar results using a “god helmet” that isn’t actually doing anything — just fit some wires to a bike helmet and tell the user some mumbo jumbo, and there’s a good chance they’ll experiencing hallucinations like those Persinger reported.
That’s the power of the placebo effect, a catch-all term to describe errant data that colloquially has come to mean the power of the brain to trick itself. If you think you’re getting a pain reliever, you’re likely to actually feel a reduction in pain. Brains are weird.
And so sure enough, scientists have learned if you tell a person a wacky helmet will make them have a weird experience, there’s a good chance they’ll have that experience. There are ways we can tell the likelihood of you having that experience, and researchers have identified your own self-reported sense of spirituality as the main culprit. If you think of yourself as a spiritual person who is open to religious ideas and experiences, you’re more likely to be, well, kind of a little gullible.
I’ve been thinking about all this because of a recent Dutch study that used a phony god helmet on people at a music festival. They were testing to see if alcohol and drugs made people more susceptible to the helmet, and they found that in fact it did not. As with previous studies, regardless of inebriation, people who said they were spiritual were more likely to believe the helmet was giving them supernatural experiences. They were also less likely to believe the helmet did anything if they were more educated.
My favorite part of this study is the quotes from the people who believed the helmets did something. They range from “It felt as if I was floating” and “A strong…force was pulling my head back” to “I went into a dialogue with a dark circle, it sounded like my own voice yet also different. It was something ‘higher.’ The voice told me that I was ready to get children, even though the circumstances were suboptimal. Deep down I already knew this and I became very emotional and started crying, but I was never afraid. I have never had such an experience, it was truly amazing.”
I feel terrible for that person, who may have been slightly embarrassed upon discovering that they got all those feelings from a spray-painted skate helmet, but I simultaneously envy them because they can have super weird experiences like this just by putting on a spray-painted skate helmet.
The study has limitations noted by the authors — particularly, they were at a music festival and had to deal with pounding bass lines as a distraction, plus a limited amount of time they were allowed to spend with each subject. Otherwise, the data is pretty clear: a drunk skeptic is still a skeptic and a sober believer is still a believer.