Sensory deprivation

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File:Camp x-ray detainees cropped.jpg
A prisoner at the United States Camp X-ray facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba being subjected to sensory deprivation, through the use of goggles,ear muffs, visor, breathing mask and heavy mittens.[dubious ]

Sensory deprivation is the deliberate reduction or removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses. Simple devices such as blindfolds or hoods and earmuffs can cut off sight and hearing respectively, while more complex devices can also cut off the sense of smell, touch, taste, thermoception (heat-sense), and 'gravity'. Sensory deprivation has been used in various alternative medicines and in psychological experiments (e.g., see Isolation tank), and for torture or punishment.

Though short periods of sensory deprivation can be relaxing, extended deprivation can result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and antisocial behavior.[1]

Isolation tank

An isolation tank is a lightless, soundproof tank in which subjects float in salty water at skin temperature. They were first used by John C. Lilly in 1954 in order to test the effects of sensory deprivation. Such tanks are now also used for meditation, prayer, relaxation, and in alternative medicine.

Isolation tanks were originally called sensory deprivation tanks. They were renamed because it was found that the terminology of "sensory deprivation" negatively prejudiced people prior to experiencing the use of the device. Dr. Peter Suedfeld and Dr. Roderick Borrie of the University of British Columbia began experimenting on the therapeutic benefits of this technique in the late 1970s. They renamed the technique Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) or Flotation REST.

A therapeutic session in a flotation tank typically lasts an hour. For the first forty minutes it is reportedly possible to experience itching in various parts of the body (a phenomenon also reported to be common during the early stages of meditation). The last 20 minutes often end with a transition from beta or alpha brainwaves to theta, which typically occur briefly before sleep and again at waking. In a float tank the theta state can last for several minutes without the subject losing consciousness. Many use the extended theta state as a tool for enhanced creativity and problem-solving or for superlearning. Spas sometimes provide commercial float tanks for use in relaxation. Flotation therapy has been academically studied in the USA and in Sweden with published results showing reduction of both pain and stress[2]. The relaxed state also involves lowered blood pressure and maximal blood flow.

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The five sensory deprivation techniques

The five techniques of wall-standing; hooding; subjection to noise; deprivation of sleep; deprivation of food and drink were used by the security forces in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. After the Parker Report of 1972 these techniques were formally abandoned by the United Kingdom as aids to the interrogation of paramilitary suspects.

Note that actually, four of these five so-called sensory deprivation techniques (wall-standing, loud noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and drink), all increase sensory stimulation, and are thus the opposite of sensory deprivation. The ECHR judgment perpetuates an obvious error in terminology, incorrectly labeling as torture a technique that is widely used for therapy and performance enhancement, in contexts that most people find pleasant or at worst somewhat boring: actual reduction of stimulation, either in a dark, quiet room or in a flotation tank (S. Kennedy, "The hooded men": Victims of psychological research? P. Suedfeld, editor, Psychology and torture, Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1980).

The Irish Government on behalf of the men who had been subject to the five methods took a case to the European Commission on Human Rights (Ireland v. United Kingdom, 1976 Y.B. Eur. Conv. on Hum. Rts. 512, 748, 788-94 (European Commission of Human Rights)). The Commission stated that it "considered the combined use of the five methods to amount to torture"[3][4].This consideration was overturned on appeal. In 1978 in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) trial "Ireland v. the United Kingdom" ruled that the five techniques "did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture ... [but] amounted to a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment", in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It is on record in the ECHR judgment[5] that:

These methods, sometimes termed "disorientation" or "sensory deprivation" techniques, were not used in any cases other than the fourteen so indicated above. It emerges from the Commission's establishment of the facts that the techniques consisted of:
(a) wall-standing: forcing the detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a "stress position", described by those who underwent it as being "spreadeagled against the wall, with their fingers put high above the head against the wall, the legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers";
(b) hooding: putting a black or navy colored bag over the detainees' heads and, at least initially, keeping it there all the time except during interrogation;
(c) subjection to noise: pending their interrogations, holding the detainees in a room where there was a continuous loud and hissing noise;
(d) deprivation of sleep: pending their interrogations, depriving the detainees of sleep
(e) deprivation of food and drink: subjecting the detainees to a reduced diet during their stay at the center and pending interrogations.

Examples in media

  • Altered States starring William Hurt, Blair Brown and Bob Balaban. Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky.
  • The IPCRESS File (starring Michael Caine) featured a variation on sensory deprivation in the final scene.
  • In the television series 24 government agents have used sensory deprivation as a method of interrogation.
  • The Tom Clancy novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin features the descriptive use of a sensory deprivation device by the KGB in brainwashing techniques for counterintelligence purposes.
  • The 1960's television show The Twilight Zone featured an episode in which an astronaut spent weeks in a secluded chamber in order to simulate a trip to the moon, leading to hallucinations.
  • In the Japanese manga Planetes an isolation chamber is used to examine the mental stability of potential astronauts.
  • In the 1968 pilot to the television series Hawaii Five-O, "Cocoon", Red Chinese agent Wo Fat uses a sensory deprivation chamber to procure information from U.S. agents.
  • In the television series Alias starring Jennifer Garner sensory deprivation was used on CIA agent Sydney Bristow by The Covenant in order for them to brainwash her into thinking she was someone she was not.
  • In the television series, The Simpsons, Lisa and Homer go to an alternative medicine specialist that recommends they spend time in sensory deprivation tanks.
  • In the book by George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four, sensory deprivation and its possibly mind-twisting effects are very well described in the second half of the story.
  • Arthur Koestler's book, Darkness at Noon, describes sleep deprivation practices during and between interrogations in the 1938 Soviet Union.
  • In the film The Jacket, Adrien Brody is placed in an improvised sensory deprivation tank as a part of his rehabilitation treatment. The deprivation tank is an important plot element.
  • In the book Quiller Barracuda by Adam Hall, a description of hooding is provided by the main character in the chapter Breakthrough.
  • The TV series Earth: Final Conflict features sensory deprivation prisons, where inmates float in an oxygenated fluid, completely deprived of all sensory stimuli.
  • In the Larry Niven novella A Gift from Earth, a sensory deprivation tank is used as an interrogation device; in the story it is referred to as "the coffin cure".
  • In the H. Beam Piper novel Little Fuzzy, a Company psychologist, Dr. Ernst Mallin, used a sensory deprivation tank on a group of Fuzzies by way of determining how thier cognitive functioning differed from humans. Each of the Fuzzies in turn entered a yoga-like state that defeated the effects of the deprivation tank.
  • The use of, and mention of, a sensory deprivation tank occurred on several early episodes of Frasier. It was one of Maris' few hobbies.
  • In the film "Daredevil", Matt Murdoch (Ben Afleck) sleeps in a sensory-deprivation chamber. Because of Murdoch's heightened senses, the water in the tank helps to drown out any sound or touch.
  • Irish author John McGuffin wrote a provocative book, entitled The Guineapigs, documenting the chilling accounts of 14 Irish political detainees held by the British Army over an eight-day period during which they were subjected to extreme sensory deprivation. The accounts are graphic, intense and shocking. The first edition, published in 1974, sold 20,000 copies and was banned by the British government after one week on the shelves.

Floatation Tank News Articles

See also


Further reading

  • Richard Feynman, (a Nobel prize winning physicist), writes about his experiences with sensory deprivation in a flotation tank in one of his popular books, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!.
  • John Lilly, (inventor of the flotation tank),"The Deep Self: Profound Relaxation and the Tank Isolation Technique"
  • Michael Hutchison’s “The Book of Floating”
  • Suedfeld, P. (1980). Restricted environmental stimulation: Research and clinical applications. Wiley Interscience.
  • Suedfeld, P. & Borrie, R.A. (1999). Health and therapeutic applications of chamber and flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST). Psychology and Health, 14, 545-566.
  • By the Numbers Findings of the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project Report of the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project (26th April 2006).


  1. Stuart Grassian Psychiatric effects of solitary confinement(PDF) This article is a redacted, non-institution and non-inmate specific, version of a declaration submitted in September 1993 in Madrid v. Gomez, 889F.Supp.1146.
  2. Kjellgren A, Sundequist U, et al. "Effects of flotation-REST on muscle tension pain". Pain Research and Management 6 (4): 181-9
  3. Security Detainees/Enemy Combatants: U.S. Law Prohibits Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Footnote 16
  4. David Weissbrodt materials on torture and other ill-treatment: 3. European Court of Human Rights (doc) html: Ireland v. United Kingdom, 1976 Y.B. European Convention on Human Rights. 512, 748, 788-94 (European Commission of Human Rights)
  5. Ireland v. the United Kingdom Paragraph 96

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