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.