Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Sensory Deprivation: Not as boring as it sounds

Living in the 21st century can often feel like being constantly poked with a thousand blunt sticks. The minor (and major) stresses we face every day – noisey neighbours, traffic congestion, the constant stream of pings and vibrations from the small rectangular ball-and-chains we carry around in our pockets – can really where a person down. You may be familiar with the sensation of coming home exhausted at the end of the day in spite of the fact that, physically, all you have done is sit in a chair and stare at a screen. That is because the thousands of little prods your brain gets actually where down its ability to function. Worse, the instinctive stress response our bodies produce when we, for example, get a new project with a tight timeline handed down to us by a manager can lead to high blood pressure, impaired cognitive function and a host of other physical effects that are generally bad news.

It is no wonder then, that new-agey trends like yoga and meditation have surged in popularity over the past decade. We are driven to find ways to escape the sensory overload that is just a normal part of life for so many of us. However, few interventions embody the crystal-healing, aura-cleansing, cringe-inducing pursuit of stress-escapism in the way that the practice of sensory deprivation does.

Any hardcore Simpsons fan ia familiar with the basic concept of sensory deprivation. You lay in a dark, soundproof space, tucked away from any distraction, and experience the novel sensation of nothingness. However, since Homer took his wild ride in a whale egg back in 1999, the practice – and business – has expanded dramatically in North America.

The kind of sensory deprivation you can pay to experience in between lattes takes two main forms: chamber therapy – where the participant lays on a soft, comfortable, dry platform in a dark soundproof room; and floatation therapy – where the participant lays in a space filled with salt-infused, skin-temperature water. The latter is the far more popular variant, and the one we will focus on here.

So what can laying in a tank of water with a thousand pounds of salt dissolved into it for an hour do for you? The benefits listed on the website of the float house in my own neighbourhood range from the plausible: relaxation, meditation, stress relief; to the intriguing: enhanced healing and pain management; to the dubious and downright perplexing: increased immune function, “super-learning” and deautomization (?).

The trouble with vetting these supposed benefits is that the science around the idea at the heart of floatation – restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST)* – is sparse. Most studies rely on small sample sizes and limited timeframes. However there are a few generally agreed upon benefits including relaxation, meditation, restoration, and consolidation of new information or physical skills. Much like sleeping, float sessions have been linked to improved retention of new information (if you do your floating after your studying) and better performance on tasks requiring practice and coordination (like basketball and jazz saxophone).

In a world where tension is the norm, these benefits – along with the opportunity and implicit permission to relax for an hour – seem reason enough to be open to a dip in brine. However, researchers are quick to point out that these benefits don’t go far beyond those you would experience from relaxing in a dark room and listening to soothing music. That approach may save you the $50 - $100 bucks most float houses charge, but would rob you of an interesting “what I did this weekend” story.

Researchers also caution that a person’s experience in sensory deprivation is highly depended on their expectations. In overwhelmingly negative contexts (ex. prison and war) isolation can be used as a form of torture. The positive effects of floatation, therefore, may be as much a product of walking into a spa with friendly employees and being told you’ll soon experience the soothing sensation of deautomization as it is an actual outcome of the therapy.

The cool aspects of sensory deprivation are the wacky responses your brain produces when deprived of input. We often forget that our brains are basically machines that use stimuli to produce perspective and an image of the world. When you remove light and sound from the equation, hallucinations become very common. They range from seeing points of light and vague shapes to hearing music.

Ultimately, the best approach to take in the face of relaxation options like floatation therapy is best summarized by psychologist Neal Miller and restated by one of the most prominent researchers in the field of REST, Dr. Peter Suedfeld: Be courageous in what we try, cautious in what we claim.

*Fun Fact: REST as a field of study was pioneered in the 50’s by John C. Lilly, a neurophysiologist who would later lead a study in which a woman lived with a dolphin for 10 weeks to see if it could be taught to speak English.