A disappointing lack of machine elves

June 24, 2010

The brain doesn’t like to be idle. And for good reason:the it uses a substantial share of the human body’s glucose and oxygen, and cannot be easily “turned off” like most other organs. Interestingly, this reluctance to do nothing even extends to sensory input(remember that the brain is fundamentally evolved to interact with an environment). In fact, it turns out that if your brain can’t receive enough sensory stimuli, it will invent them by essentially generating hallucinations, a phenomenon known as the Ganzfeld Effect. Essentially, the Ganzfeld Effect uses sensory deprivation to force the brain to attempt to interpret random noise. This is one of the things that the brain is very good at doing(and a proposed explanation for both why we dream and why we have religion). The brain’s attempts to find sensibility in data that is completely random causes hallucinations.

I have never taken any hallucinogenic or mind-altering drugs(way too scared of the potential consequences), but being slightly bored, and reassured by all the reports showing that Ganzfeld hallucinations have about the same side effects as staring at a chair(none), I decided to try it. After all, what is summer for, if not doing interesting science experiments on yourself?

After looking at a handy article on Instructables, I discovered that this kind of sensory deprivation can be created fairly easily with the use of ping-pong balls, a good source of light, a good pair of headphones, and a “white noise” generator. The ping-pong balls diffuse the light enough that there aren’t really any patterns for the brain to see, and the white noise(which is mathematically guarenteed to contain no information) does the same thing for hearing. This being a science experiment, I also needed some way to record the results, which I got in the form of a small voice-activated dictation recorder.I grabbed a white noise app for my ipod, found a ping-pong ball, and got to work. A few minutes later, I had already made some interesting discoveries

  1. It’s really hard to use a voice recorder when you can’t hear your own voice. Half the time you’re just mumbling, and the other half you’re yelling
  2. Ping-pong balls smell really bad when you cut them open. The halves also weren’t quite large enough to entirely cover my field of vision, an issue that I fixed by using translucent Scotch tape to block up all the cracks where I could still see out.

With my equipment all set up and tested, I began the experiment, laying on my couch and taping the balls onto my eyes, and set up the white noise on my iPod, with a timed alarm shutoff that would hopefully pull me back if anything really weird happened.

At first, the Ganzfeld experiment feels…awkward. You’re lying on a sofa with a loud hissing in your ears, staring at this kind of speckled white fog that is the light diffusing through the balls, which are about three centimeters from your nose and still smell really bad.

+7:13 minutes: the bright white fog starts to slowly get dimmer, although it would brighten again if I blinked or moved my eyes. This is a result of a phenomenon called neural adaptation or sensory fatigue, where the brain stops responding to a constant, unchanging stimulus.

+10:05: There’s now a sort of tunnel-vision effect, with the visual field being significantly brighter in the middle. Also, the dark lines on the ping-pong balls have become much more visible(the result of the brain amplifying input to try and find something to focus on)

+11:00:The black lines are now starting to kind of wobble. Interesting.

+15:30:A bunch of dark purple translucent blobby things appear. They look sort of gelatinous, and they float around, wobble, and combine and split off from each other. Sort of like being inside a lava lamp.

+19:02:The purple blobs start to “solidify”, and form more geometric-looking shapes. In fact, the overall effect is like zooming into a  Mandelbrot set. The outlines of the shapes flash bright white in peripheral vision, but this effect disappears when I look directly at them

+25:00: The timed sound and light cutoffs trigger, and the Mandelbrot-things disappear.  I remove the headphones and ping-pong balls. Everything looks exactly normal, with no lasting effects whatsoever.

+45:00:I eat a sandwich. It tastes like sandwich. Still no sign of any lingering effects, which is good.

So yeah. Interesting.


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