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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 02-Aug-08


Wednesday 13-August-08

Sensory deprivation on the BBC

I watched a BBC programme recently on sensory deprivation in which people were put into moderate sensory deprivation environment for just 48 hours.

The subjects were very varied: A stand up comedian, a psychology Ph.D. student and an extreme (100 mile) marathon runner were put in a dark room with a bed. They could stand or lie as they like. It's black for them but we can see with an infra-red camera.. The Ph.D. student very quickly thought her sheets were wet. They were dry, though a bit cold. After a while she settled down.

An ad executive who regularly meditates and who dreams of being a hermit was tried out, along with two others in a parallel experiment with padded clothing, a fogging mask and white noise through headphones.

Most people quickly fell asleep, almost as a way of coping. but then they had to cope with the boredom and, guess what, lack of stimulation. The ad executive thought it was cool and started out meditating for quite a while.

Within 24 hours, several subjects started to get twitchy. Including the ad executive. Several started pacing up and down just to create some form of stimulation. One person coped by singing. Another just stayed asleep through the whole thing. After about 30 hours, one guy started hallucinating, seeing a big pile of oyster shells. A woman saw lights, zebras and other odd things. Another chap thought the room was flying and saw fighter planes.

Pre-and post-tests were done to test visual memory, information processing, verbal fluency, mental dexterity, suggestibility, recall. Visual memory dropped by up to 36%. Information processing was severely affected, and up to six times as many mistakes were made (extraverts were particularly affected). Interestingly, suggestibility increased significantly in the men, but the women's suggestibility did not change. All pointed to deterioration in the ability of the mental central executive. In other words, they found it harder to think and solve problems.

In real life, Bryan Keenan, who was imprisoned in Beirut, in the dark, for many months told of cat-napping, sleeping fitfully. He started wondering if he was alive. He hallucinated being in the desert and the wind stripping off his flesh. He heard music, which got louder the more it frightened he got until he banged his head against the wall repeatedly to try and make it stop.

In America alone, there are 20,000 people kept in solitary confinement. One former prisoner told of telling how he spent 15 days at a stretch (the maximum legally allowed before a break) in a standard isolation cell over much longer periods. He 'went away in his head' to cope, but found a problem where he couldn't stop going there. Sometimes he would wake up sitting cross legged on the floor to find himself rocking and with sores on his legs from being like this for so long. He would pace three steps then back, repeatedly, until the pain stopped him. After 18 years, he was released when it was established someone else committed the crime. He lost the ability to follow simple directions. He cannot drive on a busy street. Too much stimulation overwhelms him, even after 10 years of freedom.

Your comments

Actually, those sheets were wet. For real. You don't want to believe everything you hear on the tele :-)

-- Claire

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