Thursday, October 18, 2012

Faltered States

A few evenings ago I watched a DVD in the company of two college sophomores (a young guy and gal). The film was Wes Craven’s Cursed, a modestly parodic werewolf movie starring Christina Ricci – at least I think Wes intended parody. Maybe he didn’t. Regardless, more interesting to me than the movie was the way the sophomores watched it. At the same time the DVD was playing, they ran computer games on their laptops while sending and receiving texts (and accessing the internet) on their cell phones.  How much attention they paid to each electronic medium I couldn’t say. (One thing that they didn’t do very much was talk to each other.)

This is the new commonplace. I see similarly distributed attention in all sorts of settings. (I don’t pretend to be a good multitasker myself.) Is this immersion in communications media an expansion of human consciousness of the kind once sought by 50s/60s gurus, or a dilution of it by multiple distractions? I don’t know, but I’m inclined toward the latter. Quaint as they seem today, the mind-expansion gurus were a fascinating bunch, and many of their ideas involved eliminating distractions in order to raise one’s awareness of the moment. Some of their methods involved mind-altering drugs. Among those with legitimate scientific and academic credentials, Dr. Timothy Leary is the best remembered experimenter with psychedelics, but he was far from alone. Psychedelic drugs didn’t enhance anyone’s ability to perform everyday chores and calculations. Quite on the contrary. While trippers perceive the objects and people around them in a new way (sometimes seeing things that aren’t even there), they don’t do so in a manner compatible with multitasking. The frequently experienced one-with-the-universe sensation cannot survive answering a text message while navigating a first-person-shooter video game. But while the gurus are most notorious for their drug experimentations, they also tried non-pharmaceutical techniques such as meditation. One of the most radical non-pharmaceutical methods of eliminating distraction as a gateway to higher consciousness (one that I’ve never tried, but might yet) was the sensory deprivation tank.

The sensory deprivation tank was the brainchild of neuro-psychiatrist John C. Lilly. In the early 1950s the prevailing view was that consciousness was intimately connected with environmental stimuli; deprived of any stimuli, a person would fall asleep. Lilly wasn’t so sure. He constructed his first tank in 1954 to test the idea. In a soundless dark chamber a person would float on salt water at body temperature; to the extent possible, all physical sensations, including gravity, were eliminated. Sessions lasted from one to several hours. Few people who tried it slept. Their experiences ranged from complete relaxation to rampant thoughts to hallucinations. Typically floaters lost a sense of time, and were unable to judge how long they were inside. Lilly thought the tank sessions enhanced consciousness and creativity; he tried combining deprivation sessions with LSD, which was legal prior to 1964, with results that were often interesting and sometimes alarming. Other researchers copied his tanks and tweaked the design. Private businesses began to rent time in them to the general public, and these commercial sensory deprivation tanks became something of a minor fad in the 1960s.

The tanks fell out of fashion (like so much else of 60s culture) by the mid-70s. In recent years, however, they have made a comeback. Nowadays they are more commonly called isolation tanks or float tanks, and a fair number of commercial spas offer them as relaxation therapy. The supposed benefits, along with altered consciousness, include pain reduction (sessions do seem to promote endorphin release), stress reduction, and lowered blood pressure. Joe Rogan, the host of Fear Factor, is a big fan of them, telling The Atlantic writer Kyle Dowling, "I think it's one of the most incredible pieces of equipment for self-help and introspective thought that you could ever find." The benefits arise from not multitasking during the sessions – or even tasking.

I think modern communications and electronics are wonderful. It would be silly to feel otherwise while blogging on the internet. Distractions have their value. However, there is something to be said for cutting them off now and then. For anyone who feels the attraction of the iPhone too strongly to achieve this through simple meditation in a dark room, sessions in an isolation tank might be a solution. Close the chamber door, float, and let time vanish. Alone with ourselves, we can meet our own thoughts. It used to be called mind expansion. Perhaps it is.

A Particularly Swank Sensory Deprivation Tank

Altered States (1980): In sensory deprivation experiments, William Hurt alters his consciousness (and gets a helping hand back). I wouldn’t count on experiencing anything as colorful as this.

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