Friday, December 17, 2010

Sensory Deprevation Experiments at Stockton


Astronauts do it to prepare for space flight, casino workers do it to relax, athletes do it to refine their concentration, trainers use it to relieve muscle pressure and mental stress, doctors prescribe it to elevate pain, and students do it for college credit.

Originally called sensory deprivation, it has been a scientific research device for decades, and is now being marketed for public use at floatation-relaxation centers.

It is a coffin-like tank with a heavy concentration of Epson salts in a few inches of water that makes for a buoyancy that’s a close to weightlessness as you can get at sea level.

The Philadelphia Eagles used to have one in their locker room to take pressure off the muscles of injured players. Stockton students and teachers built one or academic studies, and Ken Bolis opened the “Float Center” in Atlantic City where most of his clients were anxiety riddled casino workers who have to cut off their sensory input before they short circuit.

Developed in the early 1950s in response to Korean Cold War communist brain washing techniques, isolation tanks were looked upon as a “magic box” cure-al for a number of maladys.

Dr. John C. Lilly began studying sensory deprivation after a Canadian researcher, Donald Habb, discovered that the brain begins to play tricks when a person stops receiving signals from the senses. Solitary confinement has always been recognized as an effective tool in brainwashing and punishment, and Habb’s subjects, lying in bed with their eyes, ears, hands and nose covered, began to hallucinate and became disoriented from laying four days without sensory input.

Lilly’s experiments however, were conducted in tanks of his own devising, with the subject sitting face up floating in a heavily salinated layer of water, which resulted in a not totally unpleasant experience. Subjects who cut off their senses and endured prolonged periods in “Lilly’s Pond” still suffered hallucinations, but durations of short terms were found to produce various positive effects that could be theroputic.

Lilly, a neurophysiologist, biophysicist and psychoanalyst, is better known for his work with dolphins. After performing an autopsy on a dolphin that washed ashore on the east coast, Lilly noticed how similar the marine mammal’s brain was in size and shape to the human brain. That explained the animal’s remarkable intelligence, and stimulated research into its language and inter-species communication.

But Lilly’s sensory deprivation experiments predated his dolphin research, and his theories went against the commonly held belief that sensory deprivation led to terrifying results, mental disturbance and disorientation. Lilly maintained that the hallucinations resulted from the brain trying to maintain an active level while being cut off from stimuli, and in the absence of direct stimuli, programed material stored away in memory banks were called up in the mind’s eye.

Rather than a threat to man’s reason and sanity, he saw it as an opportunity to study the brain and the sub-conscious mind, and possibly use the techniques in therapy, learning and liberating the spirit rather than destroying or controlling it for evil purposes.

Dr. Shelby Broughton, of Ocean City, New Jersey, a chemistry professor at Stockton State College in the 70s and 80s, studied with Lilly and conducted academic research on the effects of isolation at Stockton years ago.

In an interview with Broughton at the time, he said that, “Basically we found that a person gets out of the tank what he expects before he gets into it. What a person wants to get out of the experience , and their predisposition Is important.”

Shelby Broughton first became acquainted with Lilly’s work in the early 1970’s while engaged in inter-disciplinary studies at Stockton when Marine biology students mentioned Lilly’s work with dolphins. “Quite by coincidence,” Broughton explained, “I was sent an application to attend a workshop-seminar with Lilly at the University of California, Berkley that was sponsored by the Esalan Institute.”

Broughton sent it off and was one of 40 participants selected to work with Lilly in the use of the tank, construction methodology and devising possible applications. He returned to Stockton and started a study group of select students who constructed an isolation tank for about $500. “The most expensive component was a water heater,” he said, comparing it to today’s state-of-the-art tanks that cost over $2,000.

While long term sensory deprivation may lead the mind to wander into subconscious crevices in some dark corner of the brain, short periods of time in the tank, or “the box” as the Stockton community came to call it, could be therapeutic.

“The tank is an awareness tool,” Lilly said, “like meditation, like Gestalt, like psychotherapy, like a hammer or a saw,...the tank assists us in a very simple function: it allows us to expand our awareness of our internal state of being.”

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