Creative Advantages of A Noisy Mind: 9 Sure-Fire & Safe Ways to Hallucinate
Drug-free methods to shift your perspective and explore your subconscious
The idiosyncratic nature of perception
Perception is an integration of the limited but varied sensory information available to us. Our personalities, expectations, and past experiences affect how we interpret what we see and hear. Perception is not a one-to-one mapping of reality, rather it is a constructive process, the end result closer to a mosaic with pieces chipped and missing than a flawless mirror reflection. Errors are inevitable.
Sometimes misperceptions arise without any sensory input, entirely the product of random neural firing. These are known as hallucinations. Such dreams and visions offer us a tantalising glimpse of our subconscious mind; like ripples on the surface of the ocean, they hint at the life teeming beneath.
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Perfectly normal hallucinations
“Evidence indicates that psychotic hallucinations lie on a continuum with normal experiences […] there is evidence that hallucinatory experiences in nonclinical and clinical samples may share the same underlying etiologic influences” (Johns 2005)
Although we associate hallucinations with drug trips, neurological conditions, and psychotic breaks, hallucinations are both more benign and common than you may think. Excluding dreaming, hallucinations arising wholly without sensory input are surprisingly common, with 10% of men and 15% of women in the general population reporting having experienced one (Tien 1991).
Every time you wake from a dream sublime or terrifying, hear your name in the howling of the wind or are startled by a hatted coat rack in the dark, you have experienced a hallucination.
The silver lining of misperception
Dreams, misperceptions, and hallucinations are part and parcel of a mind digesting a complex world. They are also invaluable tools for enhancing your creativity and reconciling the conscious and subconscious mind.
In that brief moment before you come to your senses, a misperception renders the quotidian wondrous. A small error in interpreting sensory stimulus has the power to restore the “perceptual innocence of childhood” in its aftermath. As Huxley, under the influence and enraptured by the “tubularity” of chair legs, waxes poetic in The Doors of Perception, altered states of consciousness return you to a time “when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept”. As adults we often categorise then dismiss whatever we look at, failing to observe or truly appreciate the world around us.
By seeing things not as they really are, you draw back the shroud that has settled over the familiar, allowing you to see with fresh eyes. By creating the conditions ripe for hallucination, you will know yourself as a whole, a blending of the conscious and subconscious aspects of Self, the Inner and Outer Worlds you inhabit. Once you see yourself this way, your perception of the world follows, and your creativity will be unchained from familiar ways of thinking.
A complex sensory environment
We live in a complex sensory environment while our apparatus for taking in this reality has its limitations. Take visual perception: everything you see is projected onto your retinas—upside down. Your mind has to interpret this input to construct one cohesive, right-way-up image.
Thus, perception is a process of filling in the blanks. A highly constructive and idiosyncratic process, guided by our personalities, expectations and past experiences (Partos, Cropper, & Rawlings, 2016). This makes perception a process vulnerable to error; in particular, under conditions of perceptual ambiguity and high perceptual load, we are susceptible to incorrectly interpreting sensory information. (If you recall The Psychology of Magic, high perceptual load is the goal of a magician engaging in distracting patter.)
Some auditory and visual stimuli are ambiguous in nature. A good example are those optical illusions where your mind, in the search for truth, switches back and forth between interpretations: duck or rabbit? Maiden or crone? Is the dancer rotating clockwise or anti-clockwise? The fading light is also a source of perceptual ambiguity; in the dark, it is far harder to make accurate visual judgements.
Sometimes in its search for meaning, the mind latches onto the most likely explanation available to us, but as we are limited by our lived experiences, misperception may result (Powers, Kelley, & Corlett, 2016).
I’m reminded of something which happened to me in Japan, many years ago. My friends and I were waiting for the train to take us to the quaint village of Otaru, famous for its music boxes and Venetian glass, and in close proximity to the pricier Sapporo, famous for its snow and ice sculptures. As I stood on the platform, my blood ran cold as a woman’s scream pierced the winter air. Bewildered, I communicated my panic to my friends who curiously showed no reaction. However, they’d only registered a noisy fox.
In an attempt to make sense of what I was hearing, my mind had twisted the sound into a familiar percept, something like the Wilhelm scream. Were I to hear the shriek of a fox again, I’d be able to categorise it with ease, particularly given the appropriate context. (I’m, of course, not quite so alone; Japanese folklore is rife with foxes disguising themselves as maidens in a nod to this eerie similarity.)
High perceptual load
Sometimes we are required to interpret our complex sensory reality under less than ideal conditions. Simply put: the more that’s going on, the fewer neural resources are available to adequately deal with any single thing, and distraction leads to perceptual confusion (Lavie 2005).
A beautiful, noisy mind
Endogenous neural noise
I’ve discussed the misperception of sensory information above, however, not all hallucinations have a sensory correlate. Some hallucinations are entirely self-generated — less a trick of the light and more a trick of the mind.
Some minds are far noisier than others, experiencing frequent spontaneous neural firing in the auditory or visual cortex (Wild & Busey, 2004).
People with schizophrenia suffer from a source monitoring deficit, leading them to mistake self-generated sound and imagery for real the McCoy (Blakemore, Smith, Steel, Johnstone, & Frith, 2000).
In contrast, most people are able to tell self-generated and external stimuli apart without issue. However, a degree of this deficit is also observed among the general population, with such individuals more hallucination-prone than others (Asai, Sugimori, & Tanno, 2008; Peters et al., 2007).
Dreams are another example of neural noise. In the vast majority of cases, they are a world of vivid conscious experience unreachable by the sensory realities of our bedrooms (Nir & Tonomi, 2010). Typically, dreams do not intrude into the waking world, either.
However, sometimes the dream state persists into wakefulness leading to hypnopompic hallucinations (Waters et al. 2016). Such experiences can be terrifying, particularly as they are accompanied by the sleep paralysis characteristic of REM sleep.
Dreams have inspired the creation of artistic masterpieces and precipitated scientific discovery. Imagine, then, if you could combine the powers of the freewheeling subconscious mind with the agency of the waking, goal-orientated one? In lucid dreams you could interview its characters, fragments of your mind with a life of their own; raise and then raze architectural wonders; possess preternatural powers—the possibilities are endless.
Sensory deprivation as experienced in solitary confinement, or more pleasantly, inside a flotation tank, is fertile ground for perceptual disturbances and hallucinations. To compensate for the lack of sensory input and the subsequent uncertainty it experiences, the mind resorts to generating its own phantom percepts to keep you sane and entertained (Daniel & Mason, 2015).
A related phenomenon is the Ganzfeld effect. Exposure to an undifferentiated visual field composed of only one colour may result in visual hallucinations as our brain scrambles to interpret a seemingly meaningless stimulus. As with other types of sensory deprivation, the brain ramps up neural noise in its desire to impose meaning, giving rise to visual hallucinations in its desperate search (Wackermann, Pütz, & Allefeld, 2008).
I find flotation tanks, with their multiple modalities of sensory deprivation, much more effective in inducing hallucinations than the Ganzfeld effect. However, don’t get too excited—swirls of green were the extent of it for me. A former coworker of mine claimed to have seen ‘the birth of the universe’ while inside a tank, however, when pressed, admitted he had merely seen swirls of multiple colours.
9 sure-fire and safe ways to hallucinate
Wrench open the Doors of Perception—without resorting to Huxley’s methods of depriving your brain of glucose by dosing mescaline. Numbers 6 and 8 are not for the faint of heart.
Keep your eyes open in a flotation/sensory deprivation tank
Open your eyes behind two halves of a coloured ping-pong ball (Ganzfeld effect tutorial coming soon)
Download a pink noise soundtrack. Similar to white noise, pink noise mimics the frequency-related properties of naturalistic noise i.e. that which we encounter in day-to-day life, increasing your chances of an auditory hallucination, and also a visual one when paired with the Ganzfeld method.
Take a walk in the gloaming
Observe yourself in the mirror after dimming the lights, your face will start to appear distorted after a few minutes of keeping your gaze fixed
Deprive yourself of sleep until the walls and floors start to creep
Build a Dreamachine
Try a brief spell of solitary confinement
Sleep, perchance to dream (lucid dreaming tutorial also coming soon)
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Hallucinations in the non-clinical population
Johns, L. C. (2005). Hallucinations in the general population. Current psychiatry reports, 7(3), 162–167.
Larøi, F., Marczewski, P., & Van der Linden, M. (2004). Further evidence of the multi-dimensionality of hallucinatory predisposition: factor structure of a modified version of the Launay-Slade Hallucinations Scale in a normal sample. European Psychiatry, 19(1), 15–20.
Tien, A. Y. (1991). Distribution of hallucinations in the population. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 26(6), 287–292.
Bentall, R. P. (1990). The illusion of reality: a review and integration of psychological research on hallucinations. Psychological Bulletin, 107(1), 82.
Dror, I. E. (2005). Perception is far from perfection: the role of the brain and mind in constructing realities. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(6), 763–763.
Huxley, A. (1954). The Doors of Perception. New York. Harpers.
Partos, T. R., Cropper, S. J., & Rawlings, D. (2016). You don’t see what I see: Individual differences in the perception of meaning from visual stimuli. PloS one, 11(3), e0150615.
Powers III, A. R., Kelley, M., & Corlett, P. R. (2016). Hallucinations as top-down effects on perception. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 1(5), 393–400.
Lavie, N. (2005). Distracted and confused?: Selective attention under load. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 75–82.
Endogenous neural noise & source monitoring deficit
Wild, H.A. and Busey, T.A., 2004. Seeing faces in the noise: Stochastic activity in perceptual regions of the brain may influence the perception of ambiguous stimuli. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11(3), pp.475–481.
Asai, T., Sugimori, E., & Tanno, Y. (2008). Schizotypal personality traits and prediction of one’s own movements in motor control: What causes an abnormal sense of agency?. Consciousness and Cognition, 17(4), 1131–1142.
Blakemore, S. J., Smith, J., Steel, R., Johnstone, E. C., & Frith, C. D. (2000). The perception of self-produced sensory stimuli in patients with auditory hallucinations and passivity experiences: evidence for a breakdown in self-monitoring. Psychological Medicine, 30(5), 1131–1139.
Peters, M. J., Smeets, T., Giesbrecht, T., Jelicic, M., & Merckelbach, H. (2007). Confusing action and imagination: action source monitoring in individuals with schizotypal traits. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 195(9), 752–757.
Dreams & hypnopompic/hypnagogic hallucinations
Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(2), 88–100.
Waters, F., Blom, J. D., Dang-Vu, T. T., Cheyne, A. J., Alderson-Day, B., Woodruff, P., & Collerton, D. (2016). What Is the Link Between Hallucinations, Dreams, and Hypnagogic–Hypnopompic Experiences?. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 42(5), 1098–1109.
Sensory deprivation & the Ganzfeld effect
Daniel, C., & Mason, O. J. (2015). Predicting psychotic-like experiences during sensory deprivation. BioMed Research International, 2015.
Wackermann, J., Pütz, P., & Allefeld, C. (2008). Ganzfeld-induced hallucinatory experience, its phenomenology and cerebral electrophysiology. Cortex, 44(10), 1364–1378.