Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Do Highly Sensitive Persons Experience More Nonordinary States of Consciousness during Sensory Isolation?

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Do Highly Sensitive Persons Experience More Nonordinary States of Consciousness during Sensory Isolation?

Article excerpt

Our aim was to investigate whether or not highly sensitive persons experienced more nonordinary/altered states of consciousness (ASC) during 45 minutes of sensory isolation in a flotation tank, than did less sensitive persons. Psychology students (N = 57) were allocated to 1 of 2 groups (high and low levels of sensitivity) depending on their score on the Highly Sensitive Person Scale. Prior to the flotation session participants completed questionnaires to assess their degree of depression, anxiety, optimism, absorption, and how often they had experienced a mystical state. After the flotation session we assessed degree of ASC. The main finding was that the highly sensitive individuals experienced significantly more ASC during flotation than did the individuals in the low sensitivity group. Further, the highly sensitive participants had significantly more absorption and anxiety, and had experienced mystical states more frequently prior to flotation, in comparison to individuals with low-level sensitivity.

Keywords: highly sensitive person, sensory processing sensitivity, flotation tank, sensory isolation, nonordinary state of consciousness, altered state of consciousness.

In a previous study it was found that highly sensitive individuals considered relaxation in a flotation tank as being more important and beneficial than did those with lower sensitivity (Kjellgren, Lindahl, & Norlander, 2009). The highly sensitive persons also experienced more nonordinary (or altered) states of consciousness than did those with lower sensitivity when in a state of relaxation in in the flotation tank. In the present study we aimed to further explore these observations.

Flotation tank therapy, or flotation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique), is a method used to induce deep relaxation through minimization of sensory input. During flotation-REST a person lies in a supine position inside a quiet and dark tank filled with water saturated with salt (magnesium sulfate) and maintained at outer skin temperature (35-36°C). Buoyancy is high, which makes it possible to float comfortably on one's back inside the tank. Earplugs are used to further reduce audio input, and the duration of the session is generally 45 minutes.

In a meta-analysis van Dierendonck and Te Nijenhuis (2005) showed that flotation-REST effectively induced stress reduction, as well as increasing well-being and enhanced performance in sports and the military, for example, archery and flight performance of pilots. The method has also been used successfully as a treatment for chronic pain conditions (e.g., Bood, 2007) and burnout syndrome (e.g., Bood, Kjellgren, & Norlander, 2009). The most common effects of this treatment are stress reduction, alleviation of depression and anxiety, and increases in optimism and sleep quality (e.g., Bood, Sundequist, Kjellgren, Nordstrom, & Norlander, 2005). Several other effects have also been noted in research on flotation-REST, such as mild euphoria (Schulz & Kaspar, 1994), increased creativity (e.g., Forgays & Forgays, 1992), lower blood pressure (e.g., Turner, Fine, Ewy, Sershon, & Freundlich, 1989), and altered states of consciousness (Kjellgren, 2003).

Altered states of consciousness are usually referred to as transient changes in conscious experience, subjective to each individual's normal waking state (Farthing, 1992; Tart, 2000). ASC can be voluntarily induced by various techniques, such as meditation, hypnosis, physical exercise, and psychoactive drugs, but also occur naturally every day through dreaming and daydreaming. The altered states that occur during flotation-REST are usually mild and consist of experiences of weightlessness, altered perception of time, mental imagery, changes in body perception, and emotional expression (Kjellgren, 2003). During relaxation in a flotation tank attention and thoughts are also more directed towards mindfulness or the intuitively and visually "here-and-now" state. …

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