Olga Mireya, PhD
Center for Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Westeastern University


Sensory deprivation (SD) remains a largely underexplored field, despite its history of intense interest and notoriety. Previous SD research did not result in significant advancement in the understanding of the organizing role of sensorium in the workings of the human brain. That early work suffered from methodological shortcomings and the lack of a consistent scientific paradigm. Another, more recent, impediment to the progress in this area is the questionable ethics of SD. It is now considered inhumane at best and has even been equated to torture. In this report, we describe a single-experiment qualitative study of SD.

Keywords: sensory deprivation, dissolution of self, altered perception, rotation student

Research on sensory deprivation (SD hereafter) has a long history. It started in the 1950’s, reached its peak within three decades, and had slowed down ever since. The first experiments registered the effects of SD mostly by self-report. Neurophysiological measurements followed later, both in the “before-and-after” design and as real-time recordings, and later yet, in the 2000’s, whole-brain MRI data were collected. Still, the scientific yield of these studies has remained limited. One possible reason for it is the lack of a clear heuristic goal; the research appears to have been driven by raw curiosity. The same curiosity was the likely reason SD caught on in science fiction, Stanislaw Lem’s The Conditioned Reflex being a notable example. The most widely documented effects of SD are a meditative state of mind, hallucinations (predominantly visual), and a sense of deep relaxation.

Currently, SD has largely moved from the domain of scientific inquiry into non-medical therapy. It mainly consists of two techniques: Camber REST and Flotation REST. In the former, subjects are placed in a sound- and light-proof chamber with minimal amenities, and in the latter, they float in a dense salt solution of body temperature (36.6 degrees Celsius) to feel weightless while also sealed from sound and light. In the presented study, a more advanced chamber combining the principles of both RESTs was used to qualitatively explore the effects of SD.


That would be me. Yes, you’ve heard it right. I was the only participant and researcher in the study, which is why I masked my identity with a bogus name. My reputation is at stake here, and it’s not an ironclad one, I’m no Kalr Firston, you know. I knew going in that it was a flaky, you may even say amateurish, project based on neither a sound theory nor methodology; I just wanted to know what it was really like to lose the world. So we took it to the extreme. Call it SDmax, if you will.

Sure, it was inappropriate and what have you for a career scientist of my stature, so all the condescending smirks, snarky remarks, and well-meaning pats on the shoulder weren’t lost on me. Not a single one. Both expected and, let’s be honest here, well-deserved. There was one, though, who didn’t smirk, nor did she pat. Our rotation student. She was as wide-eyed curious as me, but unlike me, she did, indeed, have wide, pitch dark eyes of a baby raccoon; cute, though. Of course, I’ve never told her that. Why would I with all this #MeToo madness? I need these things like a lesion in my hippocampus. I have my reputation to protect.

I didn’t bother with the IRB either; are you kidding? Had I myself been on the board, I would have never approved such a project. Why bother then? After all, no harm done and no state or federal funds used. I’m clean like a baby’s breath.


The chamber’s design was a crossbreed between Flotation and Chamber REST. To ensure as complete an SD as inhumanely possible, the subject’s body was sheathed in foam so that he could not touch himself, with all his limbs, fingers, and toes carefully isolated as in a spacesuit. The subject was fitted with intravenous supply of nutrients and fluid monitoring, eliminating the need for feeding and excretion. This system was a customized version of the standard life-support equipment from Baxter Analytical.

The subject’s packaged body was then placed in a sound and light-proof flotation tank filled with a warm Epson salt solution to keep the package buoyant at body temperature. Despite the initial plan, we decided against EEG recording since the scalp-applied electrodes could have provided tactile self-stimulation through the subject’s facial movements. Instead, his face was sheathed as well, his nostrils and lips being the only areas of his body exposed. A full mouth guard, tongue protector, and saliva collector were used to minimize the mouth’s mobility and sensations.

The chamber’s inside was fitted with a microphone in case the subject tried to produce a sound, which was not easy with an immobilized mouth. No infrared camera was placed inside since there was nothing to see but a floating dummy.


So, there I was, a blind, deaf, mute spacewalker dummy without a body. I remember thinking of my colleague Al’s silly joke once they completely zipped me up, “What’s nose without a body? Nobody knows.” Why did it buoy to my consciousness’ surface? You tell me. Wait, don’t; it matters none. What did was that look.

Right before the soft thick foam wrapped my head sealing me off like a breathing mummy, they were all looking at me from above like a flock of hungry surgeons at a difficult patient’s entrails, some with a cold scoff, others with a warm pity, all of which I needed like a blood clot in my brain stem. Then, there was she. Yes, she was there, too, looking at me with a round-eyed curiosity and excitement as if she too was going under with me.

“You look so funny in this!” she smiled at me lovingly as the zipper stitched the darkness together. Those were the last words I heard before the deafening silence swallowed me in its infinite depth.

So, there I was, finally weightless, barely feeling my body, looking into the darkness while listening to the silence. Exactly as I wanted it; I even vainly congratulated myself in thought since I could not talk, “almost perfect.” Self-encouraged, I went on with the program. First, I took five, so to speak, as I had no way to know if my “five” were minutes, seconds, or hours (well, unlikely hours), to relax and quiet my mind after all that launching party, where I had felt like a ship eased off the wharf only without a champagne bottle broken over my hooded head. The calm came surprisingly easily like the chill of dusk, refreshing and peaceful, but I knew better than to bask in my sloth, for to learn something from this experience, anything at all, I had to track time. I had known well beforehand that nothing could be learned in a timeless cognitive space; you ought to have a reference point, where something is after or before something, and I had had a plan, as I said, beforehand. According to it, I started counting my breaths. A rather clever trick, you’ve got to admit, for you can change the pace at will, thus helping your attention keep the score, as opposed to counting your heartbeat, the monotony of which would have you lose track in a heartbeat, so to speak. The empty stomach, the feeling of an empty stomach to be exact, was helping, too, at least at first, until I got used to it, and the stomach dissolved in this flotation as had the rest of the body before it.

Yet, I lost it. “The monkey’s clever,” I recalled my granddad’s favorite line, “but his ass is bare.” That was my first, if not the only lesson: never underestimate the power of nothingness. First, my mind wobbled then started wandering, and I was helpless to stop it. Having lost the count several times and even losing score of how many, the sense of futility crept in, though at first, it didn’t bother me that much if at all; I was still enjoying the free fall into nothing. Besides, I was distracted and amused by an exciting discovery I made: involuntary muscle contractions, simply put, twitches. Exciting, because I predicted it, you better believe it. I had known that without input from bodily sensations, the brain would act out, and it did it beautifully. Forgive my vanity, but Firston himself would be proud of me. But let’s not wade into the shadows of gods like clueless geese. Thou, mortal, know thy place. The amusement didn’t last, though. How long did not it last, you might ask? This is exactly the point.

Once I lost the sense of time like the thread of Ariadne, things started turning stranger, and I started seeing things. Sure, I had known I’d see things as had been written about many a time, I just did not expect to see those things. At first, it was random patterns, lines, and blotches, as anticipated, but then the darkness washed them off in a sweeping motion like an Etch-a-Sketch, and rows of shapes and figures came from nowhere marching in front of me. I heard a fleeting ocean sound, then a choir, then whispers, and the figures continued marching, morphing into different figures: hooded human-like shadows would replace possum-like animals and be replaced by yellow diamonds, in turn replaced by rows of crows, and ordinarily calming sounds would fill me with an ever-rising fear. I was drowning in Escher-like patterns looping onto themselves and always, always moving away from me, a thing I can’t explain, but this away movement made me feel falling deeper and deeper in space, even though the concept of depth—in my circumstance—had no meaning without a reference point; all I knew was getting further and further lost in a spaceless and timeless substance I couldn’t feel, and the fear made my heart beat harder and harder, and I was even afraid to keep count of this new-found to Ariadne’s thread, but then the fear ceased too.

Can’t tell you how it ceased and where it went, but I went with it. No, it’s not a figure of speech. There, indeed, was no me: no shapes or figures, no sounds, no heartbeat, and no me, as if I fell asleep. Only that wasn’t your usual sleep when you knew how you first were going to fall asleep, then disappear and perchance dream in it, and then come back. It wasn’t like that at all; hell no. It was like going under anesthesia, where you just drop dead in the crack between now and the next now. And you know what else? That thing, usual for us guys, when you wake up in the morning and feel that assuring and promising hardness where you want it. It wasn’t there, nothing was. That I did not predict and have no good explanation for you or for Kalr Firston, for that matter.

I came to on the other edge of the non-existence crack without any sense of what happened in between, and I swear I felt soaked in a cold sweat, although that couldn’t be, for my space suit absorbed any surface moisture, cold or otherwise, and the visions and sounds started back, and the heart was pounding, only with double or triple the intensity this time, since I knew in the clarity of my horror what was to follow. A thought flapped desperately like a fish in the sand in the cage of my mind, so to say “in my mind.” In truth, my thoughts had no location any longer; without feeling your body, there’s no spatial reference for anything; even your beating heart’s boundary loosens up. “What if I don’t come back next time, lost in the crack of nothingness, the darkness inside the dark?” I felt a hot rush of wanting, no, needing to get out, as if I were drowning and couldn’t breathe. I tried to move, which by design I couldn’t. I wanted to cry out for them to let me out while I was still here, I mean, while I still was, but was afraid to make a sound, which is another thing I can’t explain. I was afraid to touch the silence and break its perfect (and therefore safe?) surface and to hear how alone I was. Mortified, I finally mustered up the courage to make a sound with my throat, a hoarse whisper from the grave which quickly sank back into the silence, then listened.

Then I listened more and heard nothing; the poor whisper died of solitude. I waited to be taken out; that was the agreement and the reason to fit a mic on the inside, and as I waited anticipating my speedy rescue, the Escher images resumed, moving away from my sight in rhythm with wind and ocean sounds, beguiling me into the lull of flotation, the lull of oblivion.

Having again woken up from that non-sleep, I was immediately panic-stricken, realizing that no one had come to rescue. Had the microphone malfunctioned? Had I even made a sound? How much time had elapsed: a minute, an hour, a…no, better stop here. What now? What if I had never come to from the coma of absence? Ever. Still alive but not knowing I’m here, not knowing “I” nor “here?” Perhaps, it won’t make much sense to you or any sense, for that matter, but I somehow knew I had no more chance and there would be no coming back the third time. It didn’t make sense to me, either, but you know what: I was unconcerned with making sense in the least, as my heart was knocking hard in my ears as a victim running from the killer knocks on a stranger’s door. True, I had never been dead, but I think the way I felt then was how people felt when they knew they were dying, still clutching the hope to see tomorrow in their stiffening cold fingers.

This time around, I wasted no time starting my vocal equivalent of banging on the door. I was yelling and yelling, at least in what I thought was an act of yelling. I couldn’t use my tongue, remember? And I didn’t lose the count this time, which is why I could confidently say that after my sixth or maybe ninth shout, the cavalry finally arrived, and with a surge of the light in my eyes and ache in my ears, I heard the lid slid open.

The rest of the procedure went as planned; not much to say. My eyes took time to adjust to light, my ears to the familiar voices of my colleagues who sounded somewhat off despite my clear recognition. Looking at the sound recording, we learned that my first cry out had been during the night when everybody had thought I had been asleep, and the technician on duty had dozed off. He had also forgotten to check the record later on until I had cried out again in the morning, which meant I had been in flotation about a day altogether. Not even a full 24 hours! Disappointment would be a huge understatement here, for I had planned at least a couple of weeks-long experiment. You’ve heard me right, at least 336 hours!! Must I admit to my shame, or does it go without saying?

There is, though, one more observation of little relevance, perhaps, but still an observation and, therefore, part of the data set. As I was acclimating my eyes back to light and ears to sounds, as I was moving my joints and flexing my muscles, quickly reclaiming myself, and as I later had lunch (with little appetite) with my coworkers and walked the halls of the department, I still could not shake off the feeling of having been misplaced. Granted, I recognized all things just fine, but everything felt odd, as if I were born again into the world where I had died. It felt so weird that I even tried to furtively touch things and people, to no avail, though. All the words I said or heard felt manufactured, Alexa-like, and the normally funny jokes fell flat. Then I went back to the lab, and there was she.

Those baby raccoon eyes greeted me with warmth and excitement. She had her fancy green eyeglasses sitting on her nose bridge like a tropical butterfly on an exotic flower.

“How was it?” she asked simply.

“It was…um, interesting,” I answered.

What else could I say? Right there and then, clarity fell quietly on us like the evening dew at sunset. All of a sudden, everything came in focus: shapes, sounds, the mixed smell of her shampoo and breath sipping through her parted glistening lips. My bubble cracked and crumbled; I started seeing things as they were and was finally wholly back from the chamber, staring at my funny-looking and unbearably cute rotation student. I never told her that, with all the #MeToo craziness going around like a dirty joke. I need it like the coronavirus in my lungs.


In this report, we present an account of an SD experiment. To our knowledge, this is the most complete SD attempted to date. We want to underscore the preliminary nature and limitations of this study. Among them are the lack of quantitative data, a single participant, and the ensuing subjectivity of the reported observations. They include well-documented in the literature abnormal perceptions in the form of visual and auditory hallucinations, episodes of relaxation and calmness, as well as new findings of spontaneous involuntary muscle contractions and episodic dissolution of the self. Regrettably, the experiment was terminated prematurely due to the participant’s request.

Limited as it is, this study helps chart the course for future SD research. Some obvious directions include representative samples with control groups that include variable degrees of SD, different SD duration, and perhaps most importantly, brain recording and imaging using EEG and PET MRI. The main goal would be to capture the neural signature of a dissolving self.

Sure, I could continue with my project. Why not, especially having invested so much time and effort? To tell you the truth, I do think about it from time to time, and my mind is itching for it like a bitch in heat, but it also is holding me back. Why? By the time I can attempt this again, she will have completed her rotation and gone, like with the wind. There will be no one to give me that wide-eyed tropical look as I’m going under. No one to bring me back, and that scares me stiff.