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Reducing Sensation to Alter Consciousness: Sensory Deprivation

24 September, 2015 - 15:22

Sensory deprivation is the intentional reduction of stimuli affecting one or more of the five senses, with the possibility of resulting changes in consciousness. Sensory deprivation is used for relaxation or meditation purposes, and in physical and mental health-care programs to produce enjoyable changes in consciousness. But when deprivation is prolonged, it is unpleasant and can be used as a means of torture.

Although the simplest forms of sensory deprivation require nothing more than a blindfold to block the person’s sense of sight or earmuffs to block the sense of sound, more complex devices have also been devised to temporarily cut off the senses of smell, taste, touch, heat, and gravity. In 1954 John Lilly, a neurophysiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, developed the sensory deprivation tank. The tank is filled with water that is the same temperature as the human body, and salts are added to the water so that the body floats, thus reducing the sense of gravity. The tank is dark and soundproof, and the person’s sense of smell is blocked by the use of chemicals in the water, such as chlorine.

The sensory deprivation tank has been used for therapy and relaxation. In a typical session for alternative healing and meditative purposes, a person may rest in an isolation tank for up to an hour. Treatment in isolation tanks has been shown to help with a variety of medical issues, including insomnia and muscle pain (Suedfeld, 1990b; Bood, Sundequist, Kjellgren, Nordström, & Norlander, 2007; Kjellgren, Sundequist, Norlander, & Archer, 2001), 1 headaches (Wallbaum, Rzewnicki, Steele, & Suedfeld, 1991), 2 and addictive behaviors such as smoking, alcoholism, and obesity (Suedfeld, 1990a). 3

Although relatively short sessions of sensory deprivation can be relaxing and both mentally and physically beneficial, prolonged sensory deprivation can lead to disorders of perception, including confusion and hallucinations (Yuksel, Kisa, Avdemin, & Goka, 2004). 4 It is for this reason that sensory deprivation is sometimes used as an instrument of torture (Benjamin, 2006). 5