When Reality Has Been Stripped to the Bones: Understanding Sensory Deprivation Hallucination Experiences

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We tend to think of hallucinations as abnormal state of consciousness. However, virtually all of us experience some degree of hallucination in everyday life.

    It turns out that very similar hallucinatory states can actually be induced when the environment is artificially stripped of all sensory input.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

For example, have you ever noticed anything odd right before you fall asleep? Some people will report seeing things that aren’t there or having strange sensations, like a sudden feeling that the bed has dropped out from underneath them.

It turns out that very similar hallucinatory states can actually be induced when the environment is artificially stripped of all sensory input.

In most studies of these hallucinatory experiences, research participants are subjected to perceptual deprivation by creating a situation where all visual and auditory stimuli are blurred or blocked, creating an amorphous, shapeless field of experience.

In these conditions, people will often initially report (after a few minutes) seeing flashes of dots, zigzag lines, or perhaps even more complex patterns, splashed upon a foggy background. These early effects are thought to primarily be due to processes in the eye’s retina.

However, after an extended period, individuals will often have more coherent experiences. People, objects, and complex scenes appear right before their eyes. These hallucinatory experiences involve unique patterns of brain activation suggesting that they are distinct from the less coherent visions (e.g., flashes or dots) that appear initially.  

Though not everyone experiences these hallucinations to the same degree, their mere existence has profound implication for our understanding of consciousness and powerfully demonstrates the interaction of the individual and environment in creating one’s perception of reality.

READ RELATED: One Easy Trick to Begin Seeing the World in a Different Way

When the environment is deprived of all meaningful stimuli, we can peer at the workings of the mind as it constructs ‘reality’ onto a completely blank canvas.

And what we see is that the mind continually constructs coherent, conscious experiences, even when the environment has been stripped of all form and shape. Thus, what I observe tells me just as much about me, as it does the environment.

Want to watch your mind construct reality out of thin air? Check out our exclusive article and video on an ancient form of meditation that makes good use of this phenomenon.

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Further Reading:















Daniel, C., Lovatt, A., & Mason, O. J. (2014). Psychotic-like experiences and their cognitive appraisal under short-term sensory deprivation. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5, 106.

Hayashi, M., Morikawa, T., & Hori, T. (1992). EEG alpha activity and hallucinatory experience during sensory deprivation. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75, 403-412.

Lloyd, D. M., Lewis, E., Payne, J., & Wilson, L. (2012). A qualitative analysis of sensory phenomena induced by perceptual deprivation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11, 95-112.

Mason, O. J., & Brady, F. (2009). The psychotomimetic effects of short-term sensory deprivation. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 197, 783-785.

Merabet, L. B., Maguire, D., Warde, A., Alterescu, K., Stickgold, R., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2004). Visual hallucinations during prolonged blindfolding in sighted subjects. Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology, 24, 109-113.

Pütz, P., Braeunig, M., & Wackermann, J. (2006). EEG correlates of multimodal ganzfeld induced hallucinatory imagery. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 61, 167-178.

Wackermann, J., Pütz, P., & Allefeld, C. (2008). Ganzfeld-induced hallucinatory experience, its phenomenology and cerebral electrophysiology. Cortex, 44, 1364-1378.

Wackermann, J., Pütz, P., Büchi, S., Strauch, I., & Lehmann, D. (2002). Brain electrical activity and subjective experience during altered states of consciousness: ganzfeld and hypnagogic states. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 46, 123-146.


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