Thursday, May 19, 2005

Isolation Tanks and Altered States

When I was 11 or 12 I happened to see the movie "Altered States" on TV and it made a big, weird impression on me. It was directed by the director Ken Russell, known for such freaky fare as The Who's "Tommy" and "Lisztomania". William Hurt plays a Harvard scientist who begins investigating the outer limits of consciousness by floating in an isolation tank, a water-filled box used to create nearly total sensory deprivation. Hurt's character, Dr. Eddie Jessup, discovers that lying in the isolation tank produces hallucinatory visions that seem to reach beyond conventional reality into other, more mystical dimensions of being. When he starts taking a potent hallucinogenic drug (something akin to yaje or peyote) before these "tank trips," things get far stranger, with the help of some cool, 2001-esque special effects; while regressing psychically to a state of primordial awareness, Jessup begins to regress physically as well, eventually taking on the form of an early hominid, busting out of the isolation tank, and going rampaging around the local zoo. Good stuff.

Upon discovering that the movie was based on a book of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky, I scampered to the library and checked it out. It proved to be a fine and fast read, and filled in many of the details that the movie, being a movie, couldn't really go into. It also made me want an isolation tank of my very own - yes, they're commercially available - but my parents weren't about to shell out for one.

In the 1950s and 60s a series of pioneering isolation tank experiments were conducted by John C. Lilly at the National Institutes of Health. Chayefsky clearly based much of "Altered States" on Lilly's accounts of these experiments, which you can read online and in his book "Tanks for the Memories" (oh, what a title). Like the fictional Dr. Jessup, Lilly used a hallucinogen (LSD) during a "tank trip"; here's how he described it: "That's when I learned that fear can propel you in a rocketship to far out places. That first trip was a propulsion into domains and realities that I couldn't even recount when I came back. But I knew that I had expanded way beyond anything I had ever experienced before, and as I was squeezed back into the human frame, I cried." A common theme in many tank experiences seems to be this sense of leaving the body behind and entering a vast metaphysical space where truths obscured by earthbound reality are revealed.

While Lilly never actually changed his physical form in a tank, he did recount the following anecdote about a colleague of his, Dr. Craig Enright: "While taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, [he] suddenly 'became' a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, 'Where the hell were you?' He said, 'I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away.'"

So if you ever invest in a tank of your own, remember to watch out for leopards.


Blogger Tim said...

I've used floatation tanks for many years and can recommend the following link. which is a list of centres around the world.

I've always considered the floatation tanks in North American to be ugly and uninviting but have recently come across this and am now so inspired I am planning to set up my own floatation center, as I really believe the time for floatation will soon be upon us.

3:25 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

I have to agree, for a researcher EEG BCI research keeps being interesting, not only because grant money is still flowing. I worked with one of the research groups that share the DARPA grant which aims towards the development of silent BCI communication & control reliable enough to be used in the field. We had an awesome time 'discovering' that this will not be feasible in the near future. (Think: 'playing customized Quake 3D & 128 channel EEG') To be fair, there is some potential in the reconstruction of imagined speech. Application wise of course EEG BCIs are worlds apart from what we can do with real-time fMRI. (That's what our research group has been busy with in the last years.) Expensive and unpractical, yet awesome! We'll see soon what potential lies in fNIRS.
As for the better interfaces for games, I too see most potential in facial expression analysis in a combination with normal motor output (controller)...
While I never tested game control devices I don't expect much performance from them, since the effects they show can only stem from muscle artifacts from facial muscles and high amplitude alpha activity. This might be enough to sell a product, but is not enough to impress. I'd be happy to send you my thesis, you can find me at It leads to an early little project of mine which is terribly outdated, but has my email address...
eeg of brain

12:49 AM  

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