People who experience a sense of spirituality in church may be reacting to the extreme bass sound produced by some organ pipes.
Many churches and cathedrals have organ pipes that are so long they emit infrasound which at a frequency lower than 20 Hertz is largely inaudible to the human ear.
But in a controlled experiment in which infrasound was pumped into a concert hall, UK scientists found they could instil strange feelings in the audience at will.
These included an extreme sense of sorrow, coldness, anxiety and even shivers down the spine.
Infrasound has become the subject of intense study in recent years. Researchers have found that some animals, such as elephants, can communicate with low-frequency calls.
Infrasound can be detected at volcanoes and may provide a way to predict eruptions.
On the cusp of our hearing
Can vibrate internal organs
Volcanoes emit infrasound
Elephants and whales use it
And recent work by some of the scientists involved in this latest study found that hauntings – the feeling that something or someone else unseen is in a room or building – may also be explained by the presence of infrasound.
To test the impact on an audience of extreme bass notes from an organ pipe, researchers constructed a seven-metre-long “infrasonic cannon” which they placed at the back of the Purcell Room, a concert hall in South London.
They then invited 750 people to report their feelings after listening to pieces of contemporary music intermittently laced sound from the cannon, played a 17 Hz at levels of 6-8 decibels.
Feel the bass
The results showed that odd sensations in the audience increased by an average of 22% when the extreme bass was present.
“It has been suggested that because some organ pipes in churches and cathedrals produce infrasound this could lead to people having weird experiences which they attribute to God,” said Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist from University of Hertfordshire.
“Some of the experiences in our audience included ‘shivering on my wrist’, ‘an odd feeling in my stomach’, ‘increased heart rate’, ‘feeling very anxious’, and ‘a sudden memory of emotional loss’.
“This was an experiment done under controlled conditions and it shows infrasound does have an impact, and that has implications… in a religious context and some of the unusual experiences people may be having in certain churches.”
Sarah Angliss, an engineer and composer in charge of the project, added: “Organ players have been adding infrasound to the mix for 500 years so maybe we’re not the first generation to be ‘addicted to bass’.”
Details of the organ infrasound study are being presented to the British Association’s annual science festival, which this year is in Salford, Greater Manchester.