Some people report “extraordinary experiences” after wearing a skateboarding helmet with inactive wires attached to it — particularly those who describe themselves as spiritual.
That’s according to a new field study in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, in which Dutch scientists took a so-called God Helmet — a placebo brain stimulation device — to a music festival.
“From previous studies, we knew that the God Helmet is able to elicit authentic extraordinary experiences (i.e., ‘feeling of a presence’; ‘out-of-body’ experience) in a minority of the subjects we test,” explained study author David Maij of the University of Amsterdam.
“With this study we wanted to examine: What type of traits are associated with people who get extraordinary experiences? Would alcohol, by decreasing prefrontal regulation, increase the percentage of people that are responsive to the God Helmet?”
The researchers recruited 193 participants at Lowlands — a large three-day music festival — and measured their blood alcohol level. The participants were told the God Helmet would electromagnetically stimulate their brain to elicit spiritual experiences, and they were also hooked up to a variety of sham medical equipment that was never turned on.
The helmet itself was “a transformed metallic-colored skate helmet with wires attached to the back of a bogus analog to digital-box which had a flickering light,” the researchers explained in their study.
Each participant sat with the God Helmet on for 15 minutes while they were blindfolded and listened to earphones that played white noise. They were able to click a computer mouse to indicate when they were having an extraordinary experience.
Maij and his colleagues found that the God Helmet elicited a wide range of extraordinary experiences. Several participants reported strong bodily sensations, such as involuntary movements or the sensation of floating. Many also reported seeing imagery and hearing voices.
“I came loose from the chair, the chair fell and I was floating. The desk started to shake heavily and I felt the presence of a dark figure next to me. It whispered something in my ear that I could not understand,” one participant told the researchers.
Weak bodily sensations such as itches, dizziness, sleepiness and heart rate increases were also frequently reported.
Maij and his colleagues found that people who said they were spiritual believers were more likely to have a response to the God Helmet. But they failed to find evidence that alcohol consumption increased responsiveness to the God Helmet.
“The study was conducted at a music festival, so that we could investigate a large number of intoxicated people. However, the amount of alcohol consumed was actually really low. People did not dare to combine alcohol with ‘brain stimulation’. In future studies, we should test the effects of alcohol in a more controlled environment,” he told PsyPost.
“In another study, which is currently under revision at the journal Consciousness & Cognition, we found that people who score high on absorption are especially responsive. Absorption is the tendency of some people to get fully immersed in external stimuli (e.g., watching a movie or listening to music) or internal stimuli (e.g., your own thoughts and sensations).”
“Thus, what we expect is going on is that when people undergo the placebo brain stimulation suggestion (i.e., we tell them about research on the God Helmet, we wear lab coats, we show them an fMRI scanner and they see a movie about a professor telling about her experiences with the God Helmet), some people get immersed/absorbed in this suggestion and come to experience more vividly what they are thinking,” Maij explained to PsyPost.
“For example, you always have random fluctuating bodily sensations, but you are simply not aware of them. In combination with the context and sensory deprivation, you now come to interpret these bodily sensations in terms of our suggestion.”
“With the God Helmet, research finally has a tool to investigate real-life ‘extraordinary experiences’ such as speaking in tongues or feeling the Holy Spirit in a controlled lab environment,” Maij concluded.
The study, “The role of alcohol in expectancy-driven mystical experiences: a pre-registered field study using placebo brain stimulation“, was co-authored by Michiel van Elk and Uffe Schjoedt.