photo of balloon head wearing a foil hat

By Chris Waide
October 16, 2020

Jokes about tin foil hats are plentiful in movies and television. Usually, if someone is wearing one, the audience can take it as an instant cue that that person is paranoid. They feel as though their very thoughts are somehow under attack, typically by Martian or government forces. Most people do not believe such things, and most people would not wear one. There is no evidence that wrapping a head in foil can shield it from outside influence, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Foil hats are only useful as props, costumes, or plot devices in science fiction. In fact, it appears that science fiction was the source of this concept.

The first mention of a foil hat was in the short story The Tissue-Culture King by Sir Julian Huxley. The Tissue-Culture King was published in the late 1920s, and in it the protagonist uses a metal covering to help him escape. The hat shielded him from a mass hypnosis that he sent out to put the region to sleep.

Science fiction and superhero franchises have utilized metal coverings frequently. The 2002 film Signs had the main characters huddled in their home, hiding from aliens, sporting matching caps. The concept is still relevant in pop culture today, though it often goes by unnoticed. In the X-men franchise, the villain Magneto shields himself from his telepathic adversary with a metal helmet. But what about the people who take it seriously?

People who believe the hats work say the metal covering acts as a Faraday Cage. The Faraday Cage was invented by Michael Faraday in 1836 and is used to shield people or things from dangerous electrical forces. It’s no secret that science fiction has been known to inspire actual science. Cell phones, robots, and even self-driving cars were inspired by science fiction. But sometimes fiction is just fiction. The odds of scientists breeding a batch of three-headed camel monkeys are slim at best.

The same can be said for the fabled tin-foil hat. Sure, it has sparked interest in certain circles, and it’s even been looked into. The Atlantic pointed out that a Faraday Cage is meant to completely enclose the protected object, whereas the covering only covers part of the head. A research study conducted by MIT students eager to use new and expensive equipment revealed that foil coverings amplify the frequencies that people wanted to block. This would theoretically make it easier for governments, or reptilian overlords to scan the mind.

So regardless of what one might see on Signs, or Futurama, no matter how many videos “Weird Al” Yankovic produces, a tin foil hat is not going to save anyone from anything other than social interaction. The argument for the existence of extra-terrestrial life is best left for another source, on another day. But should the Earth ever face the unimaginable terror of an otherworldly armada, it’s important to remember that foil will not shield any part of a body from probing.