Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hallucinating using ping-pong balls and static

I am tremendously fascinated with subjects like optical illusions and hallucinations - phenomena that distort reality and trick the brain into "thinking" or "imagining" things that aren't true or even there.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an article that described an interest experiment (first performed in the 1950's to test theories on ESP and other assorted mumbo jumbo) that leads to pseudo-hallucinatory experiences (why I use the term "pseudo" will become clear in a moment). Since I am not a prominent member of a rock band and generally like to follow the law, this was my one golden opportunity to engage in some groovy mind-altering activity in a G-rated manner.

The experiment (called "Ganzfeld", German for "entire field", if wikipedia is to be believed) is tantalizingly simple and requires hilariously low-tech equipment:

1. One ping-pong ball

2. A pair of headphones

3. Some device that produces static noise

4. A lamp

First, cut the ball in two and place the two halves on both eyes. Next, start the static noise (some helpful soul posted 11 hours worth of white noise on youtube here) and plug in your headphones. Turn your face towards the lamp, lie down and relax. Here's a cartoon dude (presumably dreaming about rainbows and a bearded man) demonstrating the procedure:

Now before I delve into my own experience, a word about the mechanism. Unlike (highly) illegal drugs like LSD, which work through receptors and whatnot, the ganzfeld experiment works by "fooling" the brain or compelling it to "fill in the gaps" by depriving it of proper stimuli. The ping-pong balls force your eyes to look at a uniform white field and the static saturates your ear with sound of one frequency. The brain freaks out and frantically starts churning out random halo-like images to compensate. In this sense, what the user witnesses are not real hallucinations (now that's an oxymoron, if there was one), but extreme visual distortions that we can call pseudo-hallucinations.

So I trotted out to Walgreen's, purchased some ping-pong balls (the employee there mistakenly thought I was interested in buying a beer-pong kit, which I assured her I wasn't) and came back home. I turned off my phone, cranked up the static and plugged in my super sweet Audiotechnica headphones. One ping-pong ball sacrificed for the noble cause, I was ready to go.

As my body started to adjust to the conditions, I began relaxing. Within 10 or so minutes, I began seeing weird shapes and started feeling a sensation of being rocked gently, as if on a boat. Pretty soon, I started seeing weird stuff: tissue samples from histology, rotating hands, people shaking hands, a woman descending a staircase, a dog running up to a man to lick his hands, a bunch of people surfing on waves....

I slipped into a dream-like state and saw Shawn and Gus from the TV show Psych. I also saw a bunch of people playing chess and, perhaps the strangest apparition of them all, the umbrella lady from the following painting:

I also saw myself on the roof of some tall building which was engulfed by massive sea waves in seconds. Each image sort of appeared in the middle of my visual field and dissolved. After about 20 minutes, I took off the balls and unplugged the headphone. I staggered to the sink to wash my face, still in a bit of daze.

Definitely a very illuminating experience.