Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

Michael Persinger Defends the 'God Helmet', says Richard Dawkins Was Affected by Alcohol When He Tried It

Richard Dawkins wears the God Helmet

Many years ago 'neurotheology' researcher Michael Persinger made news with his 'God Helmet', a head-mounted apparatus that generated weak, fluctuating magnetic fields, which was reportedly able to induce mystical experiences in those wearing it. However, a 2005 study by other researchers failed to replicate Persinger's results, and the effect was written off as being due to suggestibility rather than an actual, physical change in the brain.

The 'God Helmet' has slipped from the radar since that replication failure, but Persinger has now answered many of the criticisms/accusations about his research in a series of ten blog posts. The topics range from the set-up of the experiments, through related subjects such as his Tectonic Strain Theory and Chris French's 'Haunted Room' experiment, to even noting that Richard Dawkins was perhaps a little inebriated during his own (failed) encounter with the God Helmet:

Question: Richard Dawkins is seen drinking wine or wine mixed with soda water (a “Wine Cooler”) before his session with the God Helmet in the BBC video showing his visit to your lab. Had he been drinking before the session? Will alcohol interfere with the God Helmet effects?

Answer: Yes, he had been drinking. The scent was easily noticed. In addition, he was obliged to sit in hot lights within the chamber for almost an hour as the BBC director managed several television studio details before the experiment began. This forced us to deviate from our typical protocol where the person walks into the dimly lit chamber and we begin the experiment within a few minutes. We have found that intoxication, particularly ethanol, interferes with the experimental induction of the sensed presence.

In addition, Dawkins had a low score for temporal lobe sensitivity, as mentioned on several web pages (example). Ordinarily, there are ways we can compensate, but these conditions made it difficult. Getting a subject to relax can take time before the session begins, and on that occasion, we were already pressed for time.

For those not familiar with Persinger's God Helment experiments, the episode of Through the Wormhole embedded below gives a good, quick introduction:

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Researchers Reduce Religious Prejudice with Electrical Stimulation

There was a very interesting paper published recently in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. It suggests something surprising about electro-neural stimulation and the primacy of logic.

A team of researchers collaborating between the University of York in England and UCLA have demonstrated a marked decrease in ideological belief and the use of ideology in problem solving through electrical stimulation of the posterior medial frontal cortex.

I know!  I’m as shocked as you are!

OK, seriously.  The reason this is surprising takes some explaining.

Back in the 1980’s a researcher named Michael Persinger endeavoured to study the neurological origins of creativity.  He and his research partner, Stanley Koren, created a device to test how people’s brains, and in turn their cognition of creative subjects, might be affected by electrical stimulation.  That device is now known as the God Helmet.  I’m sure you’re familiar.  If not, the God Helmet was, or is rather, a motorcycle helmet that was outfitted with wires and skin probes that would administer controlled electrical pulses to specific regions of a person’s skull, in turn introducing those pulses to specific brain regions and presumably disrupting or otherwise affecting the function of said brain region and whatever neurological purpose it served.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Well, Persinger’s research was something of a loss, but the helmet itself ended up taking on a life of its own, owing to the strange effect it had on some of the test subjects.  That effect was that they claimed to experience powerful feelings of religious bliss, hallucinations (some involving Jesus and even God), and a general euphoria described as being in heaven – hence the name God Helmet.

Since that time many people have written about the helmet and its effects, and it’s been tested (sort of) by several well-known Skeptic debunkers and personalities (most notably Richard Dawkins, who claimed to have felt a little dizzy when he tried the helmet on, but was otherwise unaffected).  It’s largely thought to be a cross between an elaborate hoax and a simple fluke of science, especially since it no longer seems to work.

Even as the God Helmet has sort of gone away in recent years, the concept of electro-neural stimulation certainly hasn’t.  Using subtle electric signals and fields to stimulate specific brain regions is now almost a field of study unto itself.  Researchers have used direct and transcranial electrical stimulation to do all kinds of neat and disturbing things to people.  In general, applying an electrical current to any one brain region results in that brain region shutting down.  It’s like an off-switch for neural function, which should make sense to you when you realise that all neural function is the product of very specific electrical signal patterns being conducted between structures.  Messing with those patterns is basically throwing a wrench into the works.

Previous experiments have been successful in manipulating different brain centers and inducing various states of consciousness or behaviour.  Back in 2013 a team used a technique called tACS or transcranial alternating current stimulation to successfully induce a lucid dream state in several volunteers.  Another team used similar techniques to erase and then restore memories in mice.  In light of these accomplishments it shouldn’t be a surprise that we can affect a person’s ideological proclivities through electrical stimulation.

What’s interesting about these new results is that stimulation of these brain centers, areas that are key to detecting and solving problems, reduced the use of ideological belief systems both in assessing problems and finding solutions.  Meaning that the test subjects were less likely to fall back on religious, political, racial, and/or social beliefs when these areas of the brain were shut down.  Sort of like a logic-supercharger.

The idea that interfering with this region of the brain serves to remove belief bias could have profound implications.  These findings may suggest that the use of ideology over reason may in fact be an evolutionary trait, and those of us who typically rely on facts rather than beliefs in our dealings with the world, might actually be a genetic abnormality.  Mutants, if you will.

At first glance, it may appear that this research contradicts the idea that the God Helmet can, or ever could, induce a profound religious experience, but it actually doesn’t.  The current results don’t eliminate the beliefs or ideologies, they simply make it less likely that the person will rely on those beliefs when interacting with the world.  If the God Helmet could enhance a person’s religious bent, then these researchers can certainly diminish it.  This might also provide something of an explanation for why some people felt the effects of the God Helmet while others didn’t.

In any event, this further confirms the local nature of our thought processes, to the chagrin of many philosophical dualists.  But even still we have far more unanswered questions than anything else.

The Shadows of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mirror

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Mirrors are powerful objects to humans. From John Dee's scrying mirror, the metaphor of a black mirror popularized by the eponymous television show, and admonitions to cover a mirror under many circumstances, like the Jewish shiva or superstition.

Take Bloody Mary. There are many interpretations of this legend, but here's what I learned as a kid. At midnight, stand in darkened room facing a mirror and chant "Bloody Mary" three times. She'll appear in the reflection and bad things will happen. Fortunately, the worst that happened to me was scaring the shit out of my seven year old self. According to Wikipedia, Bloody Mary shows young girls if they will marry or if they will die.

Opie and Tatem's indispensable A Dictionary Of Superstitions expresses a measure of caution with looking glasses:

In the chamber of death .. a dread is felt of some spiritual being imaging himself forth in the blank surface of the mirror .. I suspect that the true reason for shrouding the looking-glass .. is that given me in Warwickshire, that if you look into the mirror in the death-chamber, you will see the corpse looking over your shoulder.

What are we seeing if nothing paranormal is afoot?

The obvious, and unexpected, answer is "ourselves".

A recent study with the catchy name "Dissociation and hallucinations in dyads engaged through interpersonal gazing" by Giovanni Caputo, late of the University of Urbino, reveals people who stare at other people for extended periods begin to hallucinate. Chitra Ramaswamy at The Guardian notes, "90% hallucinated a deformed face, 75% saw a monster, 50% said their partner’s face morphed into their own and 15% saw a relative’s face."

julian jaynes sketch of the human brain

The latter two statistics are intriguing, where faces became more familiar and familial. Ancient burial practices focused on imparting immortality upon the deceased. Neolithic plastered human skulls and ancient Egypt's ushabti are physical representations of the deceased, reminding our forebears of the deceased's wisdom and, likely, manifesting as visual and/or auditory hallucinations. These artifacts are part of the archaeological underpinnings of Julian Jaynes's compellingly controversial theory of the bicameral mind: that before humans became properly conscious, our actions were guided by the voices of ancestors and gods originating from our brain's right hemisphere.

Jaynes's description of consciousness, in relation to memory, proposes what people believe to be rote recollection are concepts, the platonic ideals of their office, the view out of the window, et al. These contribute to one's mental sense of place and position in the world. The memories enabling one to see themselves in the third person.

Bringing us back to Bloody Mary and Giovanni Caputo.

People staring at themselves in the mirror are looking at a different self, the unconscious visible in the conscious body. After ten minutes of eye contact humans apprehend their other half, kept in check by the rational left hemisphere. These hallucinations may communicate the subconscious's instincts and reactions kept silent during waking life. Wisdom formerly ascribed to archaic gods and the dead.

Do you trust yourself enough to give it a shot?

Dreaming While Awake

"ALUCINACIONES_DEL_QUIJOTE" - Dany Duquefer (CCASA3 Licence)

by Mike Jay

(excerpted from Darklore Volume 8, available from Amazon US and Amazon UK)

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In February 1758 the 90-year-old Charles Lullin, a retired Swiss civil servant whose sight had been progressively failing since a cataract operation five years before, began to see considerably more than he had become accustomed to. For the next several months he was visited in his apartment by a silent procession of figures, invisible to everyone but him: young men in magnificent cloaks, perfectly coiffured ladies carrying boxes on their heads, girls dancing in silks and ribbons. These visions were recorded and published in 1760 by his grandson, the naturalist Charles Bonnet, after whom the syndrome of hallucinations in the elderly and partially sighted would much later be named.

This celebrated case is one of the founding studies in the science of hallucinations, and frames the subject in distinctive ways. Most significantly, it has no link with mental illness: Lullin’s eyesight may have dimmed but his cognitive faculties were perfectly sharp, and he had no difficulty recognising his hallucinations as unreal. His experience was clearly different in kind from those experienced in psychoses such as schizophrenia: rather, it highlights the remarkable range of organic conditions, from neurological disorders to drug effects, of ‘hallucinations in the sane’.

Much has been learned in the intervening century about the brain states and optical processes that lie behind such experiences, but the old question remains: what, if anything, do such hallucinations have to tell us? They cannot be dismissed as symptoms of insanity, and nor are they purely random sensory data: on the contrary, their content is curiously consistent. Miniature people, for example, are a common sight for those with Charles Bonnet syndrome: Oliver Sacks recalls a patient who was accompanied for a couple of weeks by ‘little people a few inches high, like elves or fairies, with little green caps, climbing up the sides of her wheelchair’ 1. These little folk are also witnessed in many other circumstances: by sufferers from migraine, epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, those on mind-altering drugs such as DMT (dimethyltryptamine) or magic mushrooms, or in withdrawal from alcohol or sedatives. These are wildly different causes, but the miniature people they generate are strikingly similar. They share many curious but consistent qualities: a tendency to appear in groups, for example, or arrayed in phalanxes (‘numerosity’), to wear headgear or exotic dress, and to go about their business autonomously, paying no attention to the subject’s attempts to interact with them. Who are these little people? Do they have a message for us? And if not, what is the meaning of ... Read More »

New Study Offers Support for 'Telephone Telepathy'

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Have you ever heard the phone ring, and somehow knew the identity of the caller before you answered? Many people have reported so-called 'telephone telepathy', but skeptics generally write if off as selective memory (you remember the few times you were correct, forget the many times you were wrong) or pattern-based intuition (certain people call at certain times, or for certain reasons, which you unconciously recognise). But could it be that these experiences really do offer an insight into some sort of anomalous mind-to-mind communication?

There has in fact been some scientific testing of this idea, most notably by British scientist Rupert Sheldrake. Five experiments from 2003 onwards have all shown positive results, with hit rates above what would be expected by chance (see the video above for a short video about an experiment by Sheldrake involving 'The Nolan Sisters' - text summary here).

And now, a new study led by Sheldrake, created to explore the new possibilities of 'telephone telepathy' testing afforded by advances in digital communication technology, has reinforced those results. Here's the description of the experiment:

Participants registered online through Rupert Sheldrake's (R.S.) web site, www.sheldrake.org. The subjects entered their first and second names, sex, age, mobile telephone number, and email address, and also entered the names of two or three contacts (first names only) together with their mobile telephone numbers. The subject was told, “During the test, when you receive a call you will be asked to guess whether it is from contact 1, 2, or 3 (or 1 and 2 in the case of the two-caller test) so you will need to remember the order of your contacts. It will help if you put them in alphabetical order.”

There was also a field on the registration form for a group name, so when participants were part of a specific group, they all entered the same group name when registering, enabling their data to be retrieved as a group. The subject then received a welcome SMS message saying, “Thank you for entering the Telepathy Test which will start shortly. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Good luck!” The personal identification number (PIN) was a four-digit number, specific to this test. The contacts also received an SMS message saying, “Your details have been submitted by [SubjectName] as part of the Telepathy Test and the test will start shortly. Your PIN will be [nnnn].” (The subject was also told that she could stop the test at any time by calling the (landline) telephone telepathy test number (which was given at the bottom of the registration form) and pressing the star key on the keypad.)

Thus all participants' tests were pre-registered, and hence there were no data from this test in “file drawers.” The test proceeded as follows:

  1. After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, the system selected one of the contacts at random and sent a message saying, “This is the Telepathy Test. Please call [landline number] to be transferred to [SubjectName]. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Do not attempt to contact [SubjectName] directly.”
  2. The contact person then called the telephone telepathy test landline number and was asked to enter the PIN number, identifying which test the contact was part of. A voice message asked the caller, “Please stay on the line while we attempt to contact the subject.” While on hold, the subject heard music.
  3. The computer then telephoned the subject, whose caller ID display said, “Telephone telepathy test.” When the subject answered the phone, a message said, “ One of your callers is on the line. Please guess who it is by pressing 1, 2 or 3 (or 1 or 2 in two callers tests).” As soon as the guess was made it was recorded automatically, and the line opened up so the caller could talk to the subject, thus receiving immediate feedback. After a minute, the call was terminated.
  4. After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, this procedure was repeated, and then repeated again until the subject had completed six trials, at which stage the test was complete. The subject then received an SMS message saying “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. You scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.” The contacts also received SMS messages saying, “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. Subject scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.”

In tests with three callers, there were 2080 trials altogether, with a hit rate of 41.8%, well above the 33.3% hit rate expected by chance. In tests with two callers, there were 745 trials, with a hit rate of 55.2% - again, above the 50% chance hit rate. According to the researchers, the experiments "showed that it is possible to do tests for telephone telepathy using an automated system involving mobile telephones under real-life conditions", and that the "overall hit rates were positive and significantly above chance, as in previous research on telephone telepathy using landlines."

It's worth noting though that the researchers involved make clear that these tests were not 'air-tight' experiments given the ability of participants to cheat. "We did not film or supervise the participants, and hence it was possible that some were cheating", they note. "Therefore, we do not claim that positive results in these exploratory experiments are compelling evidence for telepathy". Instead, the main aim of these tests was exploratory: to point at new ways of investigating telepathy experimentally, to note problems that needed to be overcome with future tests, and also to investigate if the sex and age of the subjects had any noticeable effects (no differences were discovered on this latter point).

Link to Paper: Automated Tests for Telephone Telepathy Using Mobile Phones

Kickstarter: "Am I a Psychic" App Uses Science and Statistics to Tell Whether You've Got Psi Abilities

Telepathy

Research into 'psi' abilities (telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, etc.) remains on the fringes of science, with common arguments against such phenomena often coming down to the unscientific nature of how people come to believe in them - skeptics say that people often fall into the trap of selective thinking, making note of the times that something strange happened to them, and forgetting the many times that something did not.

The best way around such concerns is to do scientific testing of any suggested psi abilities, though sometimes that can be a little tricky if you're on your own. Enter a newly proposed mobile app - "Am I a Psychic?" - created by college student Dominic Parker, who is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter to complete the project:

This app is the first mobile application in the history of psychical research that is actually fun to play and actually tests your ability! There has never been anything like this before in science, which is what makes it so exciting and fun to be a part of. "Am I Psychic?" is the fruition of almost two years of planning, development and marketing.

The user can choose to play our games using either the extra sensory perception (ESP) mode or using the psychokinesis (PK) mode. Each offers the user a different and unique approach to proving their psychic ability. The ESP mode allows the user to choose between 6 options. Using psychic ability the user attempts to guess the future. Once the option is chosen, let the PRNG do the work and afterward the user can check a mathematical (but not boring) graph and see if they're psychic. The PK mode has the user choose a time limit and one of six options. Then the user attempts to mentally influence the PRNG to pick the chosen option. Once the time limit has expired the user can view a mathematical (did I say not boring?) graph and both visually and scientifically see if they're psychic.

In this 'big data' era, another upside of the app is that it will allow users to consent to allowing the results from each of their tests to be collected and analysed as part of a larger set, with possible later publication of the results in an academic research paper. (I'm hoping this consent query will be done pre-test, otherwise the 'file-drawer effect' would make the results totally unscientific).

Link: Kickstarter for "Am I a Psychic?" App

Documentary Explores the Possibility of Gaining 'Superpowers' Via Meditation and Focused Breathing

Here's a fascinating Vice documentary on the possibility of much greater conscious control of our bodies, using meditation and focused breathing to allow direct modification of our autonomic nervous system, cardiovascular system, and immune system.

Such abilities are of course part of a number of ancient Eastern traditions, but it was interesting to see it through the prism of a modern European practitioner:

Wim Hof first caught the attention of scientists when he proved he was able to stay submerged in ice for one hour and 53 minutes without his core body temperature changing. Since then, he's climbed Mount Everest in his shorts, resisted altitude sickness, completed a marathon in the Namibian Desert with no water, and proven—under a laboratory setting—that he's able to influence his autonomic nervous system and immune system at will.

Almost everything Wim has done was previously thought to be impossible, but he's not a freak of nature; he's a master of meditation.

To demonstrate that any human can learn his methods, Wim offered to teach VICE hosts Matt Shea and Daisy-May Hudson how to climb a freezing cold mountain in their shorts without getting cold. But when Matt and Daisy signed up for the training, they had no idea that the so-called Iceman was planning to lead them on a psychedelic journey across Europe that circled the chasm between science and spirituality.

Transmitting Thought: A Documentary on the Famous Maimonides Dream Telepathy Experiments

Transmitting Thought Documentary on Stanley Krippner

There are few investigators of anomalous phenomena who have contributed more to the field than Dr Stanley Krippner. From dream telepathy experiments, through anthropological investigation of psychic claimants in cultures around the world, to researching links between LSD and psi experiences, the 82-year-old psychologist's work has gained the respect of nearly all who have studied his work, even skeptics such as James Randi.

For those who'd like to learn more about one of Krippner's most influential pieces of work, a new short documentary by film-maker Ronni Thomas, titled "Transmitting Thought: The Maimonides Dream Lab" (embedded below), provides a fantastic introduction:

It is easy to subscribe to a set of rules when those rules are set by science rather than religion. But science lives with a bias -- that in order for an idea to be explored it must be observable, measurable and repeatable. Yet the irrational is part of our world, especially when it comes to the subject of human consciousness. Current scientific thinking brings an almost religious devotion to debunking anything that appears "irrational" or outside the rules and norms of core science.

But such an approach leaves tremendous gaps in our understanding -- especially in questions of ESP, precognition, and other queries into non-physical intelligence. But this was not always the case. For a brief time, from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s, the field of academic parapsychology flourished in the United States. And at the forefront of the field was the American psychologist Dr. Stanley Krippner. In this film, Krippner discusses his research at the Maimonides Dream Lab in Brooklyn, NY in the 1960s. There, he and his colleagues conducted studies that explored the use of telepathy within the altered state of dreaming.

Through numerous experiments, including one with the rock band The Grateful Dead, the Maimonides team produced substantial scientific research on the topic of ‘dream telepathy,’ until the demise of the lab's funding. Learn what we know -- and what we lost -- in Transmitting Thought : the Maimonides Dream Lab.

Link: Transmitting Thought: The Maimonides Dream Lab: A New Film by Ronni Thomas for Morbid Anatomy Museum Presents!

(h/t David Pescovitz at Boing Boing)

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RSA Animate: Iain McGilchrist & the Divided Brain

We've all heard the meme of "Right Brained=Creative vs Left Brained=Analytical." We've also heard how it's become a favorite 'punching bag' topic for popular science writers, who are always fond of reminding us how the left/right hemisphere dichotomy is as fallacious as the notion that we humans only use 10% or less of our total brain capacity --sorry, Lucy.

British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of 'The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World' [Amazon US & UK] does not intend to refute those arguments. What he proposes instead is that our current civilization has favored the 'focused and descriptive' faculty of the left brain, while disregarded the more 'holistic' view of the right brain --something we might want to restore into a more balanced state, which he explains in this lecture brilliantly illustrated by RSA Animate:

“The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilant alertness, whereas the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to detail. People who lose their right hemispheres have a pathological narrowing of the window of attention.”

Further Reading:

Experiencing the True Horror of Sleep Paralysis

Fuseli - The Nightmare

As with many strange phenomena, much of the conversation about sleep paralysis tends to come in the form of the debate between skeptics and believers as to whether these bizarre experiences are 'real' in any way, or just odd tricks of the brain. But what that discussion often lacks is acknowledgement that - to those who 'suffer' from sleep paralysis - the experience feels real. Which makes the often-terrifying aspects of these experiences just that much more visceral and traumatic.

In a post on sleep paralysis here early last year I noted that Rodney Ascher - director of the acclaimed Stanley Kubrick-related documentary Room 237 - was seeking sleep paralysis experiencers for a new documentary he was beginning work on.

I've been obsessed with it ever since it used to happen with me (in my case, I saw sort of a living, 3D shadow looming over in me in judgement)... The film is going to be largely built on interviews with people who've had vivid, first-person experiences with it (and have given some serious thought to what's really happening to them).

Ascher has now finished his documentary, simply titled The Nightmare, which is being released this week in selected cinemas as well as on iTunes and other 'Video on Demand' outlets. And, as befits a director whose last documentary was about The Shining, by all reports the new release manages to capture well the horror experienced by people upon waking in the dead of night:

In a recent interview with Vice, Ascher tells how finding a community of experiencers, and scientific explanations, helped him cope with his own bouts of sleep paralysis - but still left nagging questions that continue to fascinate him:

I was convinced it was a supernatural experience—I thought I was in danger of demonic possession, and it took a long time before any alternate explanations offered themselves up to me.

...this had happened to me when the internet was in its earliest days, so there wasn't really anything that I could use to research what I had experienced. I think if I did, I wouldn't have looked it up as a sleep disorder. I would've been researching something about, like, ghosts and the supernatural, which is how it felt to me. When I decided to research it a little bit, and see if I could find other people sharing their experiences or find scientific explanations for what was going on, I was astonished to see the sheer number of people out there who had gone through it; who were telling the details of their stories, some of which were even more bizarre and frightening than my own, in a way that they were starting to understand what had happened to them. That was fascinating to me, and made it clear that there was a bigger story here.

But none of that stuff gets at questions of, well, why do different people see the same thing? Or if people are all dreaming similar things, should there be a clearer understanding of what dreams mean? The questions I'm interested in about why people see what they see and how they struggle to make sense of this stuff are questions that aren't strictly scientific.

You can keep up with the latest news and release dates for The Nightmare via the documentary's Facebook page.

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