Picture an extraordinary experience you've had at a music festival and, chances are, wearing a skateboard helmet wasn't one of them.
But a peculiar new study describes how a 'God Helmet' – a placebo brain stimulation device – was able to induce "extraordinary experiences" in people attending a Dutch music festival.
At the three-day Lowlands festival, researchers from the University of Amsterdam recruited 193 participants to wear their placebo device - which consisted of a silver skateboard helmet with fake wires attached, hooked up to sham medical equipment.
The participants were told that the helmet would electromagnetically stimulate their brain to elicit powerful spiritual experiences.
They wore it for 15 minutes while listening to white noise through earphones and being blindfolded. They were also asked questions about their spiritual beliefs and blood tests were conducted to determine the quantities of alcohol and other substances they had consumed.
The majority of the participants reported some degree of bodily sensation. Around 80% of the people said they felt weak sensations, while 30% reported much stronger sensations.
'Strong' bodily sensations included visual and auditory hallucinations, the sensation of floating, involuntary movements and distortions in time and space, These bear a striking resemblance to some of the sensations people report feeling during psychedelic drug or spiritual experiences, the researchers say.
This was how one participant described their experience while wearing the helmet:
"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."
Another participant told the researchers:
"'It felt as if I was floating, like being slowly lifted. My heart slowed down and my breathing sometimes stopped, because of the floating feeling – similar to an MDMA experience. I felt stable and after a while it seemed like an external influence was affecting me. My brain heated up and I felt tingling sensations over my body and I got a pleasant goosebump feeling."
Weak bodily sensations that were reported included sleepiness, heart rate increases and dizziness, among others. However, around a third of participants reported feeling distracted or sceptical while wearing the helmet.
So what was causing these sensations? Was it simply a case of sensory deprivation, or were drugs and alcohol responsible?
Not surprisingly for a music festival, around 70% of participants had consumed alcohol on the day of the tests. However, the quantities consumed were fairly low on average leading the researchers to conclude that alcohol was not having much effect on the participants' experiences.
Around 18% of the festival goers had consumed another type of drug, but this was less than the percentage of those reporting strong bodily sensations, meaning drug use was not necessarily the only factor responsible for these experiences.
However, the researchers did find a correlation in the data: people who said they held spiritual beliefs were more likely to have stronger responses to the God Helmet, likely, because they were more inclined to believe in mystical experiences.
Furthermore, similar research in this field shows that people who are very suggestible or become highly absorbed in tasks, or their own thoughts, have more vivid experiences. This may explain the strong sensations experienced by some of the spiritual people who took part in the God Helmet task.
"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," David Maij, from the University of Amsterdam, told 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," he said.
Previous research has shown that the God Helmet can elicit extraordinary sensations, which, combined with the latest study, suggests that it may be a useful tool to investigate real-life spiritual experiences.
The new research is published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behaviour.