If you’ve heard of the Ganzfeld effect you’ve probably come across talk of mind-bending experiences and hallucinations – but what’s the truth?
We’ll look into the science of the Ganzfeld effect and how you may be able to experience Ganzfeld like hallucinations from the comfort of your own home…
What is the Ganzfeld effect?
The Ganzfeld effect is a type of perception-based phenomenon that occurs when an individual experiences very limited sensory stimulation.
Ganzfeld is German for “whole field” – and while you may see the term ‘sensory deprivation’ used when the Ganzfeld effect is talked about – it’s actually more accurate to consider the Ganzfeld effect as overloading the brain – but with just one type of stimulus.
When this overloading occurs, the brain tries to make sense of the stimulus – but will struggle to do so. In the absence of any visual variation, every type of sensory input is amplified by the brain and then interpreted by the higher visual cortex. When the higher visual cortex gets involved, that’s when you may very well start to hallucinate – seeing things that simply are not in front of you.
Is it just about your vision?
Although most of the experiments you’ll hear about with the Ganzfeld effect relate to overloading your vision with just one type of stimulus, the effect can be amplified by preventing your other senses from providing an understandable input to the brain.
To get a full idea of what we mean, it’s worth looking a how the Ganzfeld effect is achieved – but don’t worry – we’ll go into a little more detail later if you’d like to try this at home.
So, your sense of sight can be overwhelmed by with exposure to just a fixed blank scene – a one colour wall or a mask fitted over your eyes. You can then isolate your other senses – ear plugs can be worn, or white noise played through headphones and a neutral, supported, sitting pose found which exerts no stress on the body.
The more senses that are neutralised, the more intense the feeling is likely to be.
Can you just close your eyes?
It might seem strange to think about shutting off stimulus to the eyes with goggles (or even half ping pong balls as you’ll see used in some experiments!) when we’ve got eyelids to shut our sight off whenever we wish!
However, there’s a big difference between depriving your eyes of stimulus – as you would by closing them – and overloading them, as you would by keeping them open but only exposing them to one colour or light level.
Shut your eyes and your brain knows it’s not going to see anything – keep your eyes open and your brain is completely expecting to see things going on around you…
What will you see?
As far as any psychological or neurological studies go – there seems to be absolutely no rhyme nor reason to the type or intensity of the hallucinations you’re likely to experience. That said, it’s probably important at this stage to say that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have the kind of hallucinogenic ‘trips’ you might associate with some illegal drugs, instead, momentary visualisations or alterations to the world around you.
For example, some people talk about seeing a scene before them that is somewhat close to the colour they’re actually experiencing – so a warm white colour might appear as a white coloured room you know, or perhaps a more-stark white colour would translate in your brain to being a snowy scene, blue might be the sea or the sky – etc.
It’s probably accurate to consider Ganzfeld experiences to be like dreams that you have with your eyes open. It might be difficult to focus on exactly what’s happening though, as you’d be trying to focus your eyes on something that’s just not really there.
How can you experience the Ganzfeld effect yourself?
Firstly, I would suggest you exercise some caution if you are susceptible to any intrusive thoughts or anxiety that might be brought on by not being fully aware of the world around you. I would describe the sensation as being no more visceral or overwhelming than meditation or mindfulness though, so if you feel comfortable with those things, you should have no problem.
Mild safety warning aside, if you’re interested in experimenting with the Ganzfeld effect you can do so fairly easily.
Starting with your vision is important – we process the vast majority of our sensory stimulus this way. Many experiments suggest halved ping pong balls worn over the eyes are an effective method – then again, a cheap ski or swim goggle with the lenses covered might be less fiddly (and significantly less strange if you’re not home alone!)
Start by getting used to sitting in a relaxed posture with your eyes covered. Try to make sure you’re not uncomfortable or have any intrusive sensations – like drafts, uncomfortable cushions, etc. The more neutral your surroundings the better.
Working on the other senses
When you’ve become comfortable with your sight being impaired, you could try to introduce ear plugs or headphones that are playing some ‘white noise’. Music will not work as it offers a familiar pattern that could be associated with memories, feelings or previous visual experiences.
Some people find it useful to gently clasp their hands together – this way your hands and fingers feel like one motionless entity, rather than distinct and individually controllable parts of your body.
It’s very difficult to say what you’ll experience when experimenting with the Ganzfeld effect – just in the same way that it’s difficult or impossible to tell someone what they’re likely to dream about tonight.
It’s probable that you’ll need to take a few shots at getting it exactly right and getting comfortable with the process – but, like dreaming, when you do, it’s often useful to keep a note of journal of what you see or experience. This is the first step toward controlling the visuals that are brought through experimenting with the Ganzfeld effect.
Ultimately, relax and see what happens! At the very least, you’ll get a skewed sense of time when you’ve got nothing around you to reference – and many people describe an extremely relaxing feeling that comes alongside this.