Thursday, November 1, 2018

Interlude: Slocum’s Pilot and Sensory Deprivation

Bumping this to the top because this is fundamental work. It's from July 2011, but I read La Barre back in the middle to late 1970s.
The material below the asterisks is from my notes and has, as its point of departure, one of my touchstone texts, a passage from Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance, a classic anthropological study of the origins of religion. It was written before the era of evolutionary psychology and so doesn’t go at origins in that way. Yet it manages to be consistently interesting and insightful.

I’m posting this because it’s relevant to both Heart of Darkness and to Apocalypse Now, which focus on people trying to make sense of a world that is not comfortable and familiar to them.

* * * * *

Early in The Ghost Dance Weston La Barre considers what happens to the mind under various conditions of deprivation. Consider this passage about Captain Joshua Slocum, who sailed around the world alone at the turn of the 20th Century:
Once in a South Atlantic gale, he double-reefed his mainsail and left a whole jib instead of laying-to, then set the vessel on course and went below, because of a severe illness. Looking out, he suddenly saw a tall bearded man, he thought at first a pirate, take over the wheel. this man gently refused Slocum’s request to take down the sails and instead reassured the sick man he would pilot the boat safely through the storm. Next day Slocum found his boat ninety-three miles further along on a true course. That night the same red-capped and bearded man, who said he was the pilot of Columbus’ Pinta, came again in a dream and told Slocum he would reappear whenever needed.
La Barre goes on to cite similar experiences happening to other explorers and to people living in isolation, whether by choice, as in the case of religious meditation, or force, as in the case of prisoners being brainwashed.

In the early 1950s Woodburn Heron, a psychologist in the laboratory of Donald Hebb, conducted some of the earliest research on the effects of sensorimotor deprivation. The subjects were placed on a bed in a small cubicle. They wore translucent goggles that transmitted light, but no visual patterns. Sound was masked by the pillow on which they rested their heads and by the continuous hum of air-conditioning equipment. Their arms and hands were covered with cardboard cuffs and long cotton gloves to blunt tactile perception. They stayed in the cubicle as long as they could, 24 hours a day, with brief breaks for eating and going to the bathroom.

The results were simple and dramatic. Mental functioning as measured by simple tests administered after 12, 24, and 48 hours or isolation deteriorated. Subjects lost their ability to concentrate and to think coherently. Most dramatically, subjects began hallucinating. They would begin with simple forms and designs and evolve into whole scenes. One subject saw dogs, another saw eyeglasses, and they had little control over what they saw; no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t change what they were seeing. A few subjects had auditory and tactile hallucinations. Upon emerging from isolation the visual world appeared distorted with some subjects reporting that the room appeared to be moving. Woodburn concluded, as have other investigators, that the waking brain requires a constant flux of sensory input in order to function properly.

Of course, one might object to this conclusion by pointing out that, in particular, these people were deprived interaction with other people and that is what causes the instability, not mere sensory deprivation. But, from our point of view, that is no objection at all. For other people are a major part of the environment in which human beings live. The rhythms of our intentional structures are stable only if they are supported by the rhythms of the external world. Similarly, one might object that, while these people were cut off from the external physical world, their brains, of course, were still operating in the interior milieu. Consequently the instabilities they experienced reflect “pressure” from the interior milieu that is not balanced by activity in the external world. This may well be true, I suspect that it is, but it is no objection to the idea that the waking brain requires constant input from the external world in order to remain stable. Rather, this is simply another aspect of that requirement.

Thus I suggest that detaching one’s attention from the immediate world to “think” may cause problems. And yet it is the capacity for such thought that is one aspect of the mental agility that distinguishes us from our more primitive ancestors. How do we keep the nervous system stable enough to think coherently?

Conrad’s Kurtz faced one strange world; Coppola’s faced a different one. But neither could adapt their thoughts to the world they actually faced. So they sought coherence in adapting that world to their thoughts. Each failed.


  1. Yes indeed:

    You can’t understand. How could you? — with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums — how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude — utter solitude without a policeman — by the way of silence — utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference.

    -- Heart of Darkness.

  2. You read my mind, Charles. I've got more coming up a bit later today.

  3. "How do we keep the nervous system stable enough to think coherently?"

    'Monotonous sensory environments' one of the most monotonous task on a large ship was rope making and repair 'spinning a yarn' was a solution.