Perhaps we’ve all heard of isolation tanks, or sensory deprivation tanks. Perhaps we’ve also experienced the otherworldly effects of being immersed in complete darkness, deprived of sound, afloat in a womb-like space on a high concentration of magnesium sulphate and body temperature water.
First appearing in 1954, these tanks were designed to test the effects of complete sensory deprivation. Created and developed by medical practitioner and neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly for experimentation during his tenure at the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIMH), he also sometimes used a psychedelic enhancement: LSD. At the time, LSD was legal in the United States and was featured in a number of government experiments, including the highly controversial MK Ultra program.
Years earlier, in the 1930s, psychologist Wolfgang Metzger experimented with another form of sensory deprivation. His theory was that when subjects gazed into a featureless field of vision, they consistently hallucinated and their electroencephalograms were markedly different from normal levels. His work was predicated upon similar processes having been practiced since ancient times.
The adepts of Pythagoras retreated to pitch-black caves to receive wisdom through their visions, known as the prisoner’s cinema. Miners trapped by accidents in mines frequently report hallucinations, visions and seeing ghosts when they were in the pitch dark for days. Arctic explorers seeing nothing but featureless landscape of white snow for a long time also report hallucinations and an altered state of mind.
Of Germanic descent, Metzger labeled his experiments The Gansfeld Effect. Gansfeld means “total field,” referring to the total field of vision being featureless. This form of perceptual deprivation is a phenomenon of perception caused by exposure to an unstructured, uniform stimulation field. This forces the brain to amplify neural “noise” in order to compensate for missing visual signals. Using the theory that paranormal phenomenon is energetically derived, the Gansfeld method of deprivation posits that the brain would therefore be more receptive to paranormal energy. Like the tools used to capture Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) or even the energy that cameras can sometimes detect, the Gansfeld process as used by parapsychologists claims that these same energy fields can be detected by a brain deprived of some of its natural senses.
In order to achieve complete perceptual deprivation, a subject wears noise canceling headphones that provide white noise to eliminate any external interference. Then goggles placed over the eyes eliminate any visual interference. Some use an external strobe light directed at the subject to enhance the hallucinatory effects.
The cognitive science journal, Cortex, released a special 2008 issue of their publication on the neuropsychology of paranormal experiences and belief, and contains an excellent article on hallucinations induced by the Gansfeld procedure.
Some of the descriptions of hallucinations provided by users are quite remarkable.
“For quite a long time, there was nothing except a green-greyish fog. It was really boring, I thought, ‘Ah, what a non-sense experiment!’ Then, for an indefinite period of time, I was ‘off’, like completely absent-minded. Then, all of sudden, I saw a hand holding a piece of chalk and writing on a black-board something like a mathematical formula. The vision was very clear, but it stayed only for few seconds and disappeared again. The image did not fill up the entire visual field, it was just like a ‘window’ into that foggy stuff.”
“An urban scenery, like an empty avenue after a rain, large areas covered with water, and the city sky-line reflected in the water surface like in a mirror.”
“A clearing in a forest, a place bathed in bright sun-shine, and the trunks of trees around. A feeling of a tranquil summer afternoon in a forest, so quiet, so peaceful. And then, suddenly, a young woman passed by on a bicycle, very fast, she crossed the visual field from the right to the left, with her blond long hair waving in the air. The image of the entire scene was very clear, with many details, and yes, the colors were very vivid.”
“I can see his face, still, it’s very expressive… [I could see] only the horse that comes as if out of clouds. A white horse that jumped over me.”
“A friend of mine and I, we were inside a cave. We made a fire. There was a creek flowing under our feet, and we were on a stone. She had fallen into the creek, and she had to wait to have her things dried. Then she said to me: ‘Hey, move on, we should go now’.”
“It was like running a bob sleigh on an uneven runway right down… [There] was snow or maybe water running down… I could hear music, there was music coming from the left side below.”
“In the right side of the visual field, a mannequin suddenly appeared. He was all in black, had a long narrow head, fairly broad shoulders, very long arms and a relatively small trunk…. He approached me, stretching out his hands, very long, very big, like a bowl, and he stayed so for a while, and then he went back to where he came from, slowly.”
Perceptual deprivation can also be used in other areas. For instance, those who dabble in past life regressions use a technique quite similar to the Gansfeld process to allow the mind to “see” visions and other input. These visions range from quite vivid and detailed, presented in a linear fashion, to abstract and seemingly random.
Gansfeld also appears to greatly enhance a psychic/medium’s experience, as well of those of intuitives.
Some practitioners claim that our brain hallucinates every night in the form of dreams. The Gansfeld process is simply another way of inducing such brain states without sleeping, of manipulating theta waves, which is the brain’s state during REM sleep, hypnosis, lucid dreaming, and the barely conscious state just before falling asleep and waking up.
Theta waves are connected to us experiencing and feeling deep and raw emotions. Too much theta activity may make people prone to bouts of depression and may make them “highly suggestible” based on the fact that they are in a deeply relaxed, semi-hypnotic state. Theta has its benefits of helping improve our intuition, creativity, and makes us feel more natural. It is also involved in restorative sleep. As long as theta isn’t produced in excess during our waking hours, it is a very helpful brain wave range.
So, the Gansfeld Effect is really a means by which our theta waves are artificially stimulated through sensory and perceptual deprivation. But human fascination with hallucinations and visions has long been practiced by nearly every culture on the planet, in one form or another. What will the next decade bring in terms of new ways to open ourselves to further biological paranormal inves