Recently, my local newspaper featured a story by Julie Scharper entitled "What I found in the sensory-deprivation chamber" (Baltimore Sun, Jan. 11, 2014) about a new local business known as a flotation spa, a trend currently spreading across the East Coast. For $50 an hour (or $70 for 90 minutes), the customer is escorted to a dark and quiet room, where she floats nude in a body-temperature pool of Epsom salts.
In this environment, the client reportedly enters a "drug-free altered state" intended to soothe aches and tension, as well as ease sleep problems. The author described her experience in the pool, during which she had a vivid daydream of a woman playing a red piano. Soon, a new idea for a children’s book sprang into her mind, and she left the session relaxed and filled with creative energy.
A while ago I reviewed some of the old research about sensory deprivation. Psychologists and psychiatrists began studying this topic following the Korean War, when the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense wanted to learn more about conditions that would make people more susceptible to brainwashing. They placed people in baths of water while covering their eyes and ears, and encased their limbs in protective coverings to minimize tactile input. The subjects were then interviewed about their experiences and were monitored through EEGs. They reported many disturbances, such as alterations in concentration and attention, illusions, anxiety and panic, and perceptual disturbances inaccurately described as hallucinations.
All of these symptoms resolved spontaneously after the subjects were removed from the deprivation chamber. This amorphous constellation of sensations was later given the label "special housing unit" (SHU) syndrome when it occurred in prisoners held in long-term segregation. One longstanding opponent of long-term segregation, who also frequently appeared as an expert in suits against control unit prisons, referred to sensory deprivation as "toxic" to brain functioning and a cause of stupor and delirium in segregated prisoners.
Critics of this theory, and I count myself among them, point out that current control unit conditions are hardly anything like a sensory deprivation chamber. Although segregation is less noisy and stimulating than a general population tier, it is hardly without distractions. Segregated inmates still have access to mail and recreation if they are not segregated for disciplinary reasons. They have contact with other people, although not always other inmates. Most facilities do regular rounds to check on prisoners in segregated tiers, and confined inmates can still have access to psychiatric services. In contrast to the SHU syndrome proponents, I rarely see psychological deterioration in segregated prisoners. There are even inmates who request segregated confinement specifically because it is less stimulating than general population.
So what makes sensory deprivation "cruel and unusual" to some but a source of energy and relaxation to others?
Expectation counts for a lot. Inmates placed in disciplinary segregation are not happy to be there – they are cut off from visits and ready access to the telephone, as well as certain personal property like a radio or television if they had one. A disciplinary segregation inmate enters the cell with the expectation that the experience will be punishment. In contrast, a flotation spa client is prepared for the experience by being told what positive experiences to expect and that these positive effects will carry over after the spa session ends.
Similarly, when I interview prisoners, I find that the most successful ones are those who are able to shift their own individual mindsets from an expectation of punishment to one of anticipated opportunity. The punishment mindset ("I’m here for no reason, so I’m going to spend my time complaining") is a hefty barrier to rehabilitation. An inmate who is able to accept the reality of his confinement and his responsibility for it ("I put myself here, so I better make my time work for me") will find ways to adapt psychologically, regardless of sentence length.
Reading about flotation spas brought on a weird sense of deja vu for me, but it also was a useful reminder of the effects of expectation and outlook for managing many life experiences.
Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and coauthor of "Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work" (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction.