Sensory deprivation, inspiration and creativity
Type of Spiritual Experience
Dr Jack Vernon undertook a series of controlled experiments in a specially made ‘dark room’. A large soft king sized bed was provided to minimise the sensation of touch. Clearly this was one sense not eliminated, but as this sensation did not change throughout the experiment as most subjects tended to lie fairly still, there was in a sense no stimulus, as generally our nerves measure change of stimulus, rather than the continual monitoring of a uniform stimulus.
The dark room was completely sound proofed and completely dark, however, the research subjects knew that there was a toilet they could go to in the room. Taste sensation was not eliminated as the subjects were provided with a cold box with food [mostly sandwiches and soup]. There was also a ‘panic button’ provided, so that if they felt they could endure no more they could ask to be removed, although the door was not locked and in fact they could walk out at any time. The research subjects were nearly all male and post graduate students at the university [Princeton].
“Our subjects were volunteers who could leave the chamber at will. They underwent no physical hardships, the period of confinement was short and the experience not fear arousing”
In effect, the experiments measured benign partial sensory deprivation.
The following observation is fascinating. For anyone who is genuinely creative and seeks wisdom or inspiration, and the solution to problems, the day-dreaming stage, rejected by all these left brained academics, is the most sought after of all states. This is where blue sky thinking comes from, the inspiration of a Michelangelo or the poems of W B Yeats, the insight of an Einstein, but the academics were control freaks and terrified of letting go.
Who in their right mind, for example, seriously considers that the ability to remember 100 items is an achievement? Computers can remember 100 items with no problem - but then they aren't human.
A description of the experience
Inside the Black Room – Dr Jack Vernon
Soon after entering the confinement cell most subjects went to sleep and slept almost uninterruptedly for ten to twenty-four hours. These are gross estimates, for there was nothing by which the subjects could determine elapsed time, and if anything they probably underestimated sleeping time. We know for certain that one subject slept for nineteen hours but insisted that he had had a nap of less than one hour. According to the monitoring microphone, which was capable of picking up the deep breathing of sleep, it seems more likely that most subjects slept almost all of the first twenty-four hours.
We felt that so much sleeping in the first day wasted the effects of confinement, so we started placing subjects in S.D. early in morning. We reasoned that after a night's sleep our confined subject would be unable to dissipate the effects of S.D. by sleeping. Such was not the case. As far as we could determine they went to sleep just as quickly and slept just as long as the previous subjects. We then started entering the subjects at midmorning, midday, and mid-afternoon. As it turned out, it made no difference when during the day and, presumably, during the night we started the confinement; the initial sleep period was always about the same……………
In normal life our thinking process is a fairly active, almost constantly ongoing process. It can engage in a great variety of activities, ranging from the mere free associations about stimuli to the height of purely creative activity. Probably the vast majority of what we call thinking is our reactions to daily stimulation. We "think" about those things we read, see, and hear. In other words, much of our thinking is dependent upon things and other people. It is also paradoxically true that things and other people can serve as distractions that effectively prevent the more creative type of thinking. Thus it is easy to see why our subjects concluded that S.D. would provide a period of productive thinking……..
By far the vast majority of our subjects said that the first day of S.D. was an excellent period for concentration; that is, those parts of the first day not spent in sleeping. They reported that they felt their powers of concentration were better than usual, that thoughts were easily confined to a single subject matter, that their efforts to think were slight and the production very clear and precise. They referred to it as a period of sharpened thought.
That S.D. provided an absence of distraction as well as restful sleep makes these claims very plausible. The kinds of things about which our subjects thought were as varied as the backgrounds of the subjects themselves. In some cases they went along thinking about and working on the problems associated with their studies. One subject claimed that he felt he had a deeper and clearer penetration into certain aspects of theoretical physics. He felt that he was able to ask various questions about the subject matter which were of better quality than any of his previous attempts.
When his instructors were informed of his questions, some of them confirmed his evaluation.
Not all S.D. subjects worked on school matters. Some used S.D. to work on those things for which they usually did not have time. One subject composed a song, music and lyrics, as an anniversary present for his wife. He was very pleased with his production, claiming that it was far superior to any of his previous attempts.
Another subject perfected and extended a "memory feat." Prior to S.D. this man reported that he was able to recite any list of items up to thirty in number after hearing the list only one time. During S.D. he worked on this feat until he could recall up to a hundred items. Though he needed still more time to practice his skill, even a crude check proved his claim………………
When they were asked what they did when their thinking process more or less "got out of control" to a man they replied that they engaged in excessive daydreaming. They seemed to be fairly passive to the process and content merely to attend to whatever daydreams happened to occur-they were unable to determine the nature of them………………..
In summary, then, the effects of S.D. upon the thinking process are varied. For a few, thinking continues to be very clear and perhaps even better than normally.
For most, however, the conditions of S.D. seem almost cruelly calculated [sic] to produce difficulties in the thinking process, typically a subject who entered S.D. anticipating a period of productive thought and who brought with him many problems to think about. At first he thought very well, had good penetration and keen insights, but this period was short-lived, and usually by the second day he found that a drastic change had occurred. Not only were his thoughts muddled, but he was usually unable to maintain any particular thought, and at this point he would either push the panic button and leave S.D. or complete it by allowing daydreams to pass in an uninterrupted sequence.