Sensory Deprivation

I know a few people who have tried getting off the Internet for a day or weekend or abandoning technology to purge their minds, bodies and souls of the pollution of information. We are on the overload setting and the idea of being purified does seem tempting.

I have also been reading about sensory deprivation – a topic that I haven’t heard much about in many years.

Of course, it has a new avant garde, this-is-the-coolest-thing spin to it. Apparently “float houses” are opening that allow you to go psychonaut and float into the benefits of depriving your senses of just about everything for a while.

Benefits? Relaxation, heightened senses, pain management and deautomatization.

Skeptical? You probably should be. But what is behind the “science” of this?

Sensory deprivation has some history as a way to brainwash prisoners of war (Korean War) kept in solitary confinement. A kind of psychological torture.

Researchers in the 1950s at McGill University in Canada did not exactly find it to be a blissful weekend getaway. They reported slower cognitive processing, hallucinations, mood swings and anxiety attacks that seemed a pathway to psychosis.

But others say that these deliberately abusive uses have nothing in common with the controlled and positive use of sensory deprivation. (Sensory overload is still a torture and break-the-spirit technique used by many military groups.)

More recent research shows deprivation to be deeply relaxing. There is even a rebranding of the technique. Dr. Roderick Borrie has come to calling it REST – Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy.

At the floathouses, you can REST on a bed in a dark, soundproof room, or float in buoyant liquid in a lightproof and soundproof tank.

Users report visual and auditory hallucinations, but nice ones. Some report a surge of creative thinking. Other studies that have nothing to do with REST report that a resting brain is better set for synthesizing information and doing problem solving.

You probably have had similar experiences while only partially deprived of stimuli – on a walk in the woods, driving alone on the highway and in the shower.

These states – not sleep or meditation – are referred to as “twilight” states. Claims ate that this twilight is easier to achieve without training via flotation REST than with mindfulness training or other techniques. And you know, we do love the easier path…

Researchers are now looking at what effect this might have on patients with stress-related disorders like hypertension, headaches, insomnia, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

There are no floathouses near me that I know of, but there are places in my home and in nature that I can escape to if need be. I know that after a few hours in the woods away from everyday sounds, something changes in me. I know because when I return to the real world I find the sounds to be amplified worse than before. The deprivation works, but the effect is short-lived.

What about you?

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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