Sensory Deprivation and Out-of-Body Experiences

In the early 1990s while researching near death and out-of-body experiences I came across an obscure reference to a book entitled Sensory Deprivation: 15 Years of Research by John Zubek. It took me some time through various book search systems to finally track down a copy of this important work. In the 90s there was little interest in sensory deprivation tanks, and research into altered states, or even consciousness, these areas were generally seen as forgotten ideas from the 1960s and 70s. Yet, these areas fascinated me, due largely to my exploration of the out-of-body experience.

Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs)

In 1987 as I relaxed in my bedroom I suddenly found my consciousness shift, or enter what I would now call an altered state. Moments later I was floating just above the ground in an upright position around 500 metres from my home. It was my first out-of-body experience, although I had no concept of such a thing at that time.

That first experience lasted only a few moments, but it was so vivid, so utterly real, that it opened my mind to the idea of such experiences. Around a year or so later I would discover a book on the science of out-of-body experiences and my journey really began. I wanted to learn to induce such experiences for myself and I would soon realise that sensory deprivation was one avenue that we can take towards that goal.

Initially, I used the usual visualisation techniques that were popular in books on the subject at the time. I spend 6 months, night after night attempting to induce an OBE with full conscious awareness. I was feeling increasingly disillusioned after months of failed attempts, but I’d committed to myself that I would devote a year to my learning, so I laid down and went through the motions. However, this time, my intense mental focus was gone, In many ways that’s what allowed me to succeed – I let go.

A jolt of energy shot through my body, the most powerful sensation I had ever felt, yet no pain or discomfort, just a primal overwhelming sense of movement and power. As the sensation reach its peak and then dissipated, my vision cleared and I saw a figure lying below me. Lit only subtly by what I think was moonlight coming through a gap in the curtains, I realised it was me, only somehow it wasn’t me. The form below me seemed other, almost like looking at an old photograph or a memory of another me.

I realised I was floating in mid-air, maybe 5 feet from my physical body, bluish energy radiating from my form. Although I was unable to move very much, I was amazed by what I was seeing, I had succeeded in reaching a state of consciousness that few experience. In the moments after this short experience I was sure I would put all my energy into understanding the avenues and byways of human consciousness.

Altered States

I had always seemed to have a gift for entering extremely deep states of mind. When I first attempted Zazen (Japanese Zen meditation), I was able to attain a stilling of the mind, usually associated with years of practice, within a very short period of time. My meditation teacher expressed wonder at the insights I already had on meditation as a young teenager. Yet, I always felt there was more to what the mind can do than simply inner calm, I was intrigued by hypnosis, how sound frequencies change our brain waves, the abilities of child prodigies, and especially psychic abilities of all types. It seemed to me that psychic abilities, like OBEs could be enhanced by sensory deprivation and I wanted to know and experience how deep that could go. 

The phrase ‘sensory deprivation’, as I will use it in this article, is the use of various equipment to reduce access to ordinary sensory information, with the aim of allowing inner or unconscious levels of the mind to come to the fore. This practice was popularised in the 1960s and 70s via the research and experimentation of various pioneers, most notably John C. Lilly who invented the floatation tank in 1954. The floatation tank remains the most well known form of sensory deprivation used today.

John C. Lilly was a medical doctor and neuroscientist, as well as a specialist in a range of areas including philosophy, animal communication, and psychedelics. When I first encountered Lilly’s writings I was equally fascinated, and at the same time, sceptical of many of his more outlandish ideas. During his various altered states and floatation experiences Lilly believed that he had communicated with dolphins, realised his life was under the influence of non-physical entities via what he called, ‘The Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO)’ and their evil opposites the Solid State.

For several years I didn’t delve any deeper into the world of Lilly’s experiences, largely due to his outlandish claims about entities and dolphin communication and I felt my path was very different. More recently I have considered Lilly’s work again viewing it as metaphor or archetype and have started to see another way of understanding and exploring it.

Whether we accept Illy’s ideas as objective, or as symbols for something at the core of our cultures and worldviews, Lilly’s work represents someone willing to be a cartographer of consciousness, and that is something that Lilly’s work represents to me. As with many visionaries and psychonauts, understanding them requires a way of thinking that is beyond the commonplace or the purely objective. It steps into the world of the experiential and that is what interests me most.

First floatation experience

To step into the experiential world of sensory deprivation I would need to go beyond the basic experiments I had done in the early 90s and find somewhere to experience floatation for myself. After asking around for weeks I finally learnt of a small centre and I arranged my first session.

The small basement space was dominated by the large white tank at one end of the darkened room, the temperature warm and pleasant. The owner of the centre was fascinated by the possibilities of consciousness and we spent quite some time talking about psychic and out-of-body experiences before I showered and stepped into a floatation tank for the first time. 

I remember how easily I floated and how it surprised me I could totally let go. In some ways I think I resisted, which I now know is common the first time. The heavily salted water stung my eyes and kept me in normal consciousness for at least 30 minutes. But then something began to change in me, up and down seemed to blur, my mind seemed to stretch out into the blackness, before my body felt as if it was dissolving away.

First, I entered a no mind state, then as I drifted through levels I entered what I call the void state, somewhere between what the Japanese Buddhists call satori, or a sudden intuitive illumination, and an OBE. I remained there for an unknown amount of time, before light seemed to fill the void and I drifted into an ecstasy of what felt like pure consciousness. The next stage was truly beyond words, like everything collapsed into itself and was one, a Monist singularity.

Immersive Art

My fascination with immersion was fully cemented by 1997, a decade after my first OBE, I began work on an immersive art project, which I would later call Epicene. As I was never interested in using psychedelics or other substances to enter altered states, my aim was to distil the power of sensory deprivation in order to enter more expensive forms of consciousness, especially the OBE.

I wanted to take things beyond floatation tanks, as they seemed fairly impractical and inaccessible to me at the time, so I began to explore ways to create a similar sense of floating and expanse in other forms. I literally wanted to lift the body above the ground to suggest, in an almost hypnotic sense, that I was lifting above my body.

As I was at university at the time I had access to equipment and space, so I started designing a structure that could achieve my goals. I then set about building the first structure over several months, which was quite a learning curve as I needed to study welding and locate materials that would be suitable. At the same time I wanted to use my skills with NLP and Ericksonian Hypnosis to enhance the overall impact of the project.

It was at that time that I also began to experiment with sound. I had heard about binaural beats from the writings of famous OBE explorer Robert Monroe, but had never found they really did much beyond relax me. So I wanted to explore my own approaches to sound. I began mapping how my brain reacted to different frequencies using basic neurofeedback technology. On occasion I would enter the early stages of an OBE, such as the vibrational state. This experimentation gave me two invaluable pieces of information. On the one hand I knew what many frequencies and patterns did when I listened to them in a relaxed state and I also knew, at least to some degree, what my brain was doing during the vibrational state.

It was the obvious next step to bring the two sides of my data together and Infra-liminal sound was born. It would go through many years of refining from that first version. But it was enough to help guide most people to the vibrational state and deepen my immersive projects. By immersing someone in Infra-liminal sound, lifting them off of the ground on a floating platform and adding in hypnosis I created an immersive experience that would greatly increase people’s chances of entering an altered state or having an OBE.

Telepathy & Psi

The next stage for me was to see if these immersive projects could be used to enhance psi or psychic abilities. In around 2007 I contacted Rupert Sheldrake about my work with immersive installations and was interested if some research could be done using these methods to enhance the results of psychical research. He invited me to his home in the Hampstead district of London, England and over lunch we discussed ways to take telepathy research further. The conversation resulted in the idea of using a bunker or underground space to isolate the participant. This was not quite what I had in mind, but I organised a suitable venue and a group of participants and we conducted several days of experiments.

The results were much the same as in Rupert’s other telepathy research, the isolation had helped with controlling against people using phones or other methods to cheat, but it hadn’t enhanced the effect size, or statistical significance.

Then in 2010 Rupert devised a precognition experiment that was fully computerised and so could be done from anywhere. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to try using mild sensory deprivation as well as a theory I had that emotionally reacting to the result could amplify the outcome. I felt that retrocausation might be at play and I wanted to see if the results would improve.

I setup a kind of home Ganzfeld (German for total or whole field) experiment often used to help test subjects enter a mild altered state for telepathy research. I spent 20 minutes going as deep as I could into a still mind state. I then started the trial, which was based upon predicting sounds. When the actual target sound was revealed I created a huge emotional reaction to the result and tried to send it back to my past self.

By the end of the trial I had gotten nearly every sound correct and I immediately emailed Rupert to give him my feedback. He excitedly messaged me back to tell me that my score was the highest anyone had ever got. While, of course, a single trial couldn’t be taken as conclusive, it certainly didn’t undermine the idea that psi could be enhanced by strong psychological factors and sensory deprivation.

Cosmic Consciousness

After all this research into inducing altered states, OBEs and enhancing psi, what are the personal and spiritual implications for sensory deprivation? It seems to me that throughout time humans have used methods for either limiting sensory information as much as possible to highlight the inner world, or immersing a religious believer fully in sounds, smells, images and spaces that suggest on a massive hypnotic level that there is more to life than their everyday physical needs and wants.

    In a sense my immersive structures and my experiments with sensory deprivation were creating a kind of modern-day sacred space, a sweat lodge, or vision quest grounded in science. And what’s more the potentials for these approaches are the same as the ancient forms. In my deepest OBEs I would entered a formless reality beyond anything that language is capable of conveying. A state of oneness or at other times a sense of interconnectedness with all consciousness in the world, and possibly beyond.

Since 1872, when Richard Maurice Bucke had his mystical experience that would change his life and become the basis of the book, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, the experience of a transcendent state of awareness and even a future form of awareness itself has entered the popular imagination. His description of the changes he experienced in London in 1872 are echoed in the near death and out-of-body experiences of millions. He wrote the characteristics of Cosmic Consciousness are its sudden appearance, a compassionate light, ethical elevation and growth, intellectual illumination, a sense of immortality, no fear of death or of sin and judgement.

I see what Richard Maurice Bucke proposed, John Zubek analysed and John C. Lilly explored as the foundation of something we can now all bring into our lives and step down new avenues towards a future spirituality, grounded in the scientific method and open to forms of change and transformation as yet unknown.