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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.

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  1. The God Helmet has NOT gone away.
    The God Helmet has not gone away. Far from it. Last year, a pair of researchers in Brazil succeeded in replicating one of its experiments. Here is a link to a summary of their work:

    There have been skeptics who said it couldn’t be done, but then they said the same thing about Edison’s light bulb, the wright brother’s airplane, & etc.

    The God helmet stimulated the *sides* of the head, and the researchers mentioned here stimulated the *front* of the head. So, it looks like one region can increase religiousness, and the other can decrease it. If anything, the two kinds of results compliment each other – but only for people who know that different areas of the brain have different jobs to do. Thinking that one type of stimulation will have the same effect no matter where in the brain its used is like saying that rain will have the same effect no matter where it falls. If it rains in a desert, it has one effect. If it rains over the ocean, the result is very different. These scientists stimulated the frontal area, which hold our “executive” functions. Persinger’s helmet stimulated the sides (the temporal lobes), which are out of whack in psychological disorders, and support dreams, and altered states.

    The God Helmet isn’t going away. I hope we see more research with it, and more proof that religious lunacy (and some spiritual sanity) is a matter of the mind and the brain.

    1. Gone away was perhaps not the
      Gone away was perhaps not the right turn of phrase, but it’s popularity among the Fortean crowd has certainly waned in recent years.

      As I mentioned above though, I think these results provide, or begin to provide the spark of an explanation for why the original God Helmet affected some people but not others.

      If the original test subjects were already prone to rely on ideology to inform their worldview, rather than facts (or perhaps just more than facts), then it would stand to reason that a person who is naturally averse to that kind of thinking wouldn’t react the same or as strongly.

      If anything, I hope the new research you’ve linked to continues. Persinger and his early colleagues weren’t exactly methodological geniuses.

      1. Persinger’s methodology
        I just ran into this:

        Persinger has put out some blogs in defense of his methodology. It seems he does use proper methods after all.

        I’ve been doing some reading about this, and I think the answer to why it *seems* to only work on some people is simply that Persinger’s experiments used only one session per subject. There are a few signals they use. The “non-responders” should have been given a chance to try some of the others. A few skeptics including Susan Blackmore and Michael Shermer had strong experiences, so its not that it doesn’t work on skeptics. If a doctor gives someone a pill, and it doesn’t work, they will change it. The fact that the first pill didn’t do the job doesn’t mean that another won’t work. I would like to see Persinger return to some of the subjects and try it again with different stimulation “patterns”.

  2. Local Nature of Our Thought Processes
    “In any event, this further confirms the local nature of our thought processes.”

    I would respond to this if I’d had my helmet off for a good 24 hours — my experience is that I may very likely be very unhappy, later, with anything I might be foolish enough to post within 24 hours of taking the darn thing off and powering it down. Short version: “Not necessarily.”

  3. Scientists Say the Darndest Things
    Every time I see a *scientific breakthrough* of this nature, I’m reminded of a hilarious John Cleese video created back in 2008. He knocks the whole enterprise out of the ballpark in less than three minutes. 😀

    1. A brain with its logic
      A brain with its logic centers artificially brought to the fore at the expense of other forms of brain awareness is not necessarily a “better” functioning brain – it is just a different functioning brain. The brain is a quantum device that interacts with the world in ways yet unexplored or understood.

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