My line manager keeps asking me if I’m going to take any time off. Not because I work so hard that she thinks I need a break, but just because I have all this annual leave owing to me, and at some point I need to take it (especially as they’ve reduced the amount of holiday that can be carried over into the next leave year).

I don’t know if I really fancy going anywhere. The thought of all that effort – just to get to the airport, even just to pack – seems so far beyond any pleasure I’d get from simply being in another place that I’m already getting exhausted. And what would be the point anyway? Anywhere I went, there’d still be loads of people everywhere, loads of stuff – plates, tables, sinks, doors, stairs, windows, cups, shoes, pens.

I think if I did go on holiday, I’d want to really get away from it all. Get away from everything. Have a week of nothing. Not a week of not really doing much, sitting around the house, watching TV, playing hashtag games on Twitter. I mean a week of nothing. Concentrated nothing. Deliberate nothing. No people. No sound. No light.

In 1954 Donald O Hebb built a dark, soundproof cell at McGill University in Montreal. Volunteers entered the tiny cramped room, donned translucent goggles, padded their arms in cardboard, gloved their hands with cotton mittens, covered their ears with earphones playing a low noise, and laid in bed, immobile, for two to three days.1

Ideally, I’d want an entirely light-proofed and sound-proofed room. Complete darkness. Complete silence. I don’t have the funding of a university science department to help me plan my holiday from everything. I can’t, like Jack Vernon, build an elaborate soundproof chamber in my front room:

The soundproof room is one that was constructed in the basement of Princeton’s Eno Hall. Soundproofing was achieved by building a “floating room” arrangement – a room within a room. The outer room is a shell of sixteen-inch reinforced concrete. The inner room has eight-inch walls that are separated by a five-inch air gap from the outer room. The floor of the inner room is separated from the outer room much in the fashion of a dry moat. The floor of the inner room is eight inches of concrete that rests on five inches of sand contained in a five-inch concrete saucer, resting in turn on five inches of sand contained in another concrete saucer, which stands upon eighteen inches of crushed rock.2

So what am I to do? I can’t just stay in bed for a week. My girlfriend would interrupt my holiday from everything when she got up to go to work. And besides, if I was at home, I’d be able to rely on my mental maps to orientate myself. It would be too familiar. I could easily navigate my way around in the darkness, just as I do if I wake up in the middle of the night and think I might have forgotten to lock the back door and have to stumble through to the kitchen to double check (so far, I have never forgotten to lock the back door).

We placed our subjects in a light-proof and sound-proof room. Within this room was a cubicle which measured four feet in width, nine feet in length, eight feet in height, its floor space practically filled by a king-size bed. The subject was asked to remain on the bed except when obtaining food or using the toilet.3

A small room with an en-suite bathroom might be OK. An isolated cottage, quiet hotel or even bedsit available on a very short-let basis. If it was a hotel, I’d need to make sure the cleaners wouldn’t come in and disturb me.

They saw nothing but a dim grayness, or was it blackness?4

Light-proofing would be quite easy; if thick curtains or blinds aren’t enough, thick cardboard could block out the windows. Failing that, there’s these.

They heard a steady hum, which soon melted into a steady silence.5

Sound-proofing would be more difficult. Vernon’s floating room could block out sounds of up to 80dB (a London Underground train is apparently around 85dB), there’s no way I could manage anything like that. Some noises can be easily avoided – nowhere near a busy road, train line or flight path. Nowhere close to bars or clubs, or anything likely to attract noisy drunks. But even if I went to an isolated cottage in the middle of nowhere, there would still be the sound of wind and rain and birds singing outside. I could try earplugs, but I don’t think it’s really safe to wear them for days on end. You can get ones which are suitable for sleeping though. Maybe I could then try to drown out any other sounds with a noise generator:

That, combined with the continual rumble of an air conditioning unit might be enough to work (and would help maintain a constant room temperature too).

Food was provided in the form of sandwiches, fresh fruit and soup placed in a picnic icebox at the foot of the bed.6

Fresh fruit seems a little too exciting. Bread and rice (even rice pudding) seem suitably nothingy. I suppose a very bland soup, cream of mushroom or something like that, might be OK. Water. Maybe milk. Pre-cooked chicken? I don’t expect to work up much of an appetite, but I don’t want to go hungry either. A mini-fridge (with light bulb removed). This might make a bit of noise – possibly drowned out by the noise generator. In later experiments, Vernon gave subjects little tubs of baby food. I used to work with a girl who said she would sometimes buy jars of baby food to eat on the night bus home if she’d been drinking and wanted something approximating a “proper meal”. My own experiments along these lines proved unsuccessful on the grounds that baby food isn’t very nice (this could also explain why babies cry so much).

Three of the guinea pigs are simply kept in dark rooms, while the rest are made to wear eye masks that reduce the world to a grey blur, headphones that pump a continual white noise drone into their ears, and gigantic foam mittens so they can’t even scratch their bums for entertainment.7

One of these on each hand might work to remove, or at least reduce, the sensation of touch. But I’m not sure if they’re completely breathable. My hands might get sweaty after a while.

Some sensory deprivation experimenters sought to reduce the sensation of touch even more dramatically. Suspended from wires, the subjects were lowered into tanks of water heated to body temperature. As the subjects were held, hanging from wires and floating in the water, the effects of gravity slowly dissolved around them in these giant tanks. All feeling was lost in this ad hoc amniotic fluid. The body expanding beyond its natural boundaries until it fills the pool in which it is submerged. This experience is perhaps a little too concentrated for what I have in mind, even an hour and a half was too much for some:

The feel of nothingness […] I was becoming bored and irritated. I wiggled my toes to see if I could feel them. There were there, all right, but I wasn’t convinced they, or even my chest, were really part of me. My whole world had shrunk to the size of my face mask […] I realized that I didn’t know which way was up […] I tried to get my mind on something – anything […] In a last-ditch effort, I tried to think of women – in general, then specific. No luck. I seemed to loll, nearly mindless.8

That seems like a step too far for me. Although I like the idea of weightlessness. I think perhaps a very very soft mattress, maybe a partially inflated airbed? A gentle, fluffy duvet and soft pillows. Could this holiday be the excuse I need to start experimenting with memory foam? Or one of those elaborate adjustable beds:

We have found that it is possible to confine subjects on their backs for two days without any backache if special arrangements are made: if the subject is in an adjustable hospital-type-bed, with the head and knees raised, little backache results.9

All this raises the question of how long my holiday would last. I have no idea to be honest. A couple of days? Some people during Vernon’s experiments pushed the “panic button” to come out early (one lasted only eleven hours – another bailed as soon he entered the chamber, before the door had even been closed). On the other hand, one man, at the end of his seventy-two hour confinement asked if he could go back in for another day or so (this person, a Turkish student studying politics in the US, expected to be imprisoned when he returned home and viewed this as practice). Typically, people sleep for most of the first twenty-four hours. It’s the next twenty-four hours which are crucial. If you get through that period, you can survive three days, four days, five days, a week.

As a way of surviving the difficult second day, Vernon recommends contriving some sort of mental activity. A little word game or mathematical problem. Apparently trying to learn the alphabet backwards is a good one. As is reciting multiplication tables, although one person had to leave the chamber after repeatedly getting stuck in the mysterious and unknown world beyond “twelve twelves are a hundred and forty-four”.

One subject made up a game of listing, according to the alphabet, each chemical reaction that bore the name of the discoverer. At the letter N, he was unable to think of an example. He tried to skip N and go on, but N kept doggedly coming up in his mind, demanding an answer. When this became tiresome, he tried to dismiss the game altogether, only to find that he could not. He endured the insistent demand of his game for a short time, and, finding that he was unable to control it, he pushed the panic button.10

I think memory games like that which rely on external knowledge are probably quite dangerous. You want something simple and self-contained. A sensory deprivation chamber is not the place to get earwormed with a song you can only half remember. Reciting the lyrics to African Night Flight is not a good idea (I get lost after the “Asanti habari habari habari/Asanti nabana nabana nabana” bit).

The other problem in knowing how long I’d spend in there is knowing how long I’ve spent in there. The guy who left after just eleven hours was convinced he’d been in there for more than a day (he mistook a short nap he took for a full night’s sleep). Another person had the opposite experience; sleeping for twenty-two hours and thinking he’d just had a little nap. Toilet breaks and pangs on hunger can serve as markers. One subject developed an elaborate (and highly accurate) way of estimating the passage of time which involved a pendulum made from a piece of wire he ripped free from the wall, his pulse rate and a handful of nails he pulled out from the floor. This is beyond my abilities. I’d have to stick with toilet breaks and pangs of hunger, and see how long I could tough it out.

Before entering the confinement cubicle, each subject was told that he could end the experiment at any time he so desired. He was told of the presence and use of a “panic button”, which if activated, would effect his release. I should point out that we used the term “panic button” only in the popular sense of the word. None of our subjects experienced true panic or even anything close to it.11

I suppose I could use my mobile as a panic button, and as my confinement is entirely self-imposed, I would be entirely free to leave whenever I felt like it (Vernon’s subjects were also free to leave if they wished – they weren’t even locked in, although none of them realised this). Once they pushed the panic button and left the chamber, they weren’t allowed back in. They couldn’t just press it when they got a bit bored, come out, have a cup of tea and then go back in. They were also being paid, and would only be paid for as long as they remained in the chamber, so there was an incentive for them to stay as long as possible. I’m not paying myself, what incentive would I have? And if there’s no-one around to watch me, couldn’t I just cheat?

One of the initial students to stay in the numbing room told the debriefing researchers later, “I guess I was in there about a day or so before you opened the observation window. I wondered why you waited so long to observe me.” There was, of course, no observation window.12

The observation window described by this student may only have been a hallucination, but all of the subjects were constantly monitored by an experimenter in the next room. Some subjects grew to resent the experimenter (who, after all, was in a well lit room, had freedom to move as he wished and could eat or drink whatever he wanted). Others began to feel concerned about the well-being of their experimenter. What if he had an accident? In later experiments, Vernon told subjects that the experimenter wasn’t in a room next door, but in another building on the campus somewhere. This increased the feeling of isolation felt by the subjects, but Vernon doesn’t indicate whether it affected how long they stayed.

This is, of course, supposed to be a holiday (of sorts). Words like “isolation”, “confinement” or “panic button” aren’t really words typically associated with holidays. Some people have hallucinations during sensory deprivation. Some develop psychosomatic illnesses. It might not be fun. Why would I want to do this?

Man’s jaded sensory world takes on a new meaning as a result of sensory deprivation. The ordinary, the usual, the almost unnoticed of our everyday world become, under sensory deprivation, very desirable experiences, and perhaps for the first time, we come to appreciate the value of our ever-changing stimulus world. And if it could mean that man would better utilize the information so constantly available to him, then one would recommend periodic sessions of sensory deprivation for all..13

That sounds good to me. Or does it? Is this really something I’m actually planning to do, or have I just spent the last couple of days amusing myself by planning in unnecessary detail something which I have no real intention of ever actually doing?

1 Kevin Kelly, Out Of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, 1995, p51 (available here)
2 Jack Vernon, Inside The Black Room: Studies Of Sensory Deprivation, 1963, p22
3 ibid, p22
4 Kelly, Out Of Control, p51
5 ibid, p51
6 Vernon, Inside The Black Room, p22
7Charlie Brooker, The Guardian, 19th January 2008 (available here)
8 Robert Gannon, “I Spent 90 Minutes In Hell”, Popular Science, July 1967, Vol 191 No. 1, p68 (available here)
9 Vernon, Inside The Black Room, p157
10 ibid, p84
11 ibid, p152
12 Kelly, Out Of Control, p51
13 Vernon, Inside The Black Room, p181


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