The Sensory Deprivation Challenge
This week’s episode is without a doubt the strangest of the series. Why? Because it deals in an endurance experiment in Sensory Deprivation (Hereafter: SD). Some of you might be familiar with the term SD, as a number of meditative tanks have opened up around Ireland, and are used for relaxation purposes, but for those of you who aren’t, let me break it down for you. Our Senses / sensory systems are all connected (and reactive) to various stimuli – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch and even our sense of time. When we’re deprived of those senses…all hell breaks loose. I spent a number of months researching this subject, and the various psychological effects that long term SD can have. There have been hundreds of studies done on the subject, and researchers at McGill University used to pay students $20 a day to volunteer for testing in the 1950’s. As I read through the different tests and findings, one quote from a volunteer absolutely captured my attention
“…and so I entered the cell which would become the deepest darkness I’ve ever known”.
How spooky is that!? Further research showed that nobody could stand being in underwater sensory deprivation for longer than 3 hours. Some hallucinated and felt as though they weren’t alone inside the tanks, others had visions of cartoons and imaginary objects appear before them like geometric shapes, even door knobs, add to that strange phantom sounds that people reported hearing and you have the recipe for a very strange experience indeed. I can honestly say that I’ve never even experimented with SD before, not even for relaxation purposes. At any one time I have a million different thoughts running through my mind like a matrix, and I figured…why would I want to be left alone with them!? So with that, I came up with a bit of a challenge for myself – I wanted to spend 3 hours underwater in Sensory Deprivation, with a few hurdles thrown in for good measure. Before I explain what they are, I need to explain the origins of this piece, and why I came up with it.
There’s no ‘normal’ way to say this, but as an Escapologist I’m fascinated with restraints and…torture devices. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t like the idea of torture, I don’t want to be tortured and I don’t want to torture anybody else. I’m fascinated with the techniques, because I’m curious to see how I can apply them to an Escape stunt. Take the final scenes in Braveheart where Mel Gibson’s being torn apart – we filmed an escape stunt based loosely on that idea, but it didn’t make the show. But those things inspire me. (Maybe I should read Fifty Shades of Gray!?) So, I found myself researching some very very weird stuff for the show. I knew from the start that I wanted to attempt some kind of endurance feat, so I started reading about a technique devised by the AVRN (The Southern Vietnamese army) called ‘Stress Positions’. Without getting too graphic, this involved placing a subject/prisoner in an incredibly uncomfortable position for long periods of time, which put extreme pressure on just one or two muscles, most commonly the balls of the feet, or the quad muscles. So, how could I use this in my series? The short answer? I couldn’t, for the very obvious reason that it’s a family show, and something like this wouldn’t be very family orientated now would it?
My next stop was something really sinister called ‘White Torture’, who’s origins can be traced back to Iran as an interrogation technique. This is an extreme form of psychological torture practiced on prisoners in solitary confinement, designed to erode every fibre of your sense of self identity. It also has very similar ties to Sensory Deprivation as well. Through White Torture, prisoners were kept in windowless cells painted completely white, their clothes were white, their food consisted of white rice on white plates, and if they needed to use the bathroom, they signalled their guard by placing a sheet of white paper underneath the door. Without any sense of time, prisoners began to lose all sense of self, while the guards would psychologically misfeed them information by having false discussions outside the cell, just within ear shot of the prisoner. For example, they could be discussing how ‘President Obama is now dead’, which isn’t true, but it works it’s way into the mind of the prisoner until he or she believes it, and until he/she cracks and gives up whatever information they needed to extract. While the technique was never actually authorised by the Iranian government, it was very commonly used in situations where violence could not be used. So, I spent a long time reading about this, and trying to work it into a routine, but I just couldn’t find an engaging way to do it.
It was from researching this that I stumbled upon Sensory Deprivation, which was originally used as a torture technique. A good way to describe this is to imagine yourself waking up in the morning, in a dark room. You know when somebody suddenly opens the curtains and the sunlight hits your eyes? That blinding pain and shock to the front of your forehead that you feel? Well in a way, that’s similar to SD, only prisoners would be locked in sound-proof, pitch black rooms for hours and days on end, and at certain random intervals extremely bright lights and pounding music or sounds would violently assault their senses, which at that point would be incredibly sensitive to all manner of stimuli. John McGuffin wrote about this experience in visceral detail in his book “The Guinea Pigs”, which is an account of the time he spent as a prisoner in Northern Ireland under the lock and key of the British Government. The accounts of his torture are truly harrowing to say the least. After hours in sensory deprivation, he would be dragged from his cell with a hood blocking his vision, and would be seemingly put into a Helicopter. The soldiers would hang his head out of the helicopter to make him give up information, threatening to throw him out. In actual fact, the helicopter would just hover up a few feet off the ground, but because of the extended period of time spent in SD he was extremely disorientated. As well as that, when they landed, they would convince him that he was now in another prison in another country, before throwing him back into a pitch black room. Torture like this would continue for days, weeks, months and even years. José Padilla (below) was actually imprisoned in Sensory Deprivation for 3 and a half years, as a bomb suspect in the US. As well as Sensory Deprivation, and Sleep deprivation, he claims that we was force fed hallucinagenic mind altering drugs like LSD.
So that was it – I knew I had tapped into something, and I wanted to learn more about the less violent and traumatic side of this. That lead me to the 1972 study stating that subjects couldn’t last longer than 3 hours in underwater SD, which I found in a research book called ‘Inside the Black room’. So, I wanted to combine that challenge with the assault on the senses. I remember pitching it to the Producers and director…who thought I was raving mad, but were happy to let me try it. I had asked them to find a large tank for me to do it in, and they came back with the idea of doing it in a tank full of Sharks and Rays and different Fish. “Ok” I said…trying to sound unafraid! Little did I know that this would be a make-or-break factor for me when it came down to crunch time!
The idea was for us to put the Tank at SeaLife Bray into complete darkness. I was wearing essentially a one-way pair of Scuba Goggles – this meant that I couldn’t see through them unless there was light shining at them, so I was basically blindfolded (There goes my sense of sight). My body wouldn’t touch the ground, instead I’d be hanging in the water, with my legs and waist weighted in such a way that I would float upright in a stationary position (there goes my sense of touch). To make things harder, I had ‘White Noise’ playing in my ears, to emulate what John McGuffin experienced in Prison, so that took care of my sense of hearing. Taste was gone as I had a Rubber mouth piece in my mouth from an oxygen tank, and sense of smell was also gone because…well…obviously! So, 3 hours in Sensory Deprivation…doesn’t quite make for enthralling Television, so, we needed a motivation. What if I had to try to memorise a book underwater? And that’s what we went for. To emulate the assault of light in the eyes, a really bright light would shine in at me illuminating the entire tank, and I would have about 30 seconds to memorise pages of books that were being lowered down into the water. So that became the challenge – 3 hours in underwater sensory deprivation, whilst trying to memorise a book. Simple.
I quickly realised that I had never gone scuba diving, or even snorkling, so I had no experience in breathing through any kind of apparatus. So, I went into training with a lovely gentleman named Albert Kerr who had dived all over the world, and was just the fella to whip me into shape for this stunt. Because I would be wearing weights during the stunt, I wanted to train with weights on me as well, just so I would get familiar with it from the get-go. Scuba Diving’s weird. We’d meet up at 6am, and spend a few hours out in Greystones harbour practising stuff like floating upright underwater, equalization and so on, and my nose would keep bleeding (you’ll see this in the show!). This really freaked me out, because… Blood + Sharks = Jaws.
On the day, we arrived into Sea Life Bray at around 7am and started getting everything ready.Luckily, my stunt co-ordinator Dónal O’Farrell had worked as a commercial diver for years, and knew exactly what to do. He also brought another full time diver along with him to help out. As well as that, Albert came down to show some support too, which was lovely. On the outside, I like to think I played it kind of cool, but on the inside, I was genuinely quite nervous and scared. Anything can happen underwater – it doesn’t matter how fit or strong you are (and I was blind!). I had read about the weird Hallucinations which worried me slightly. But another thing that worried me was that subjects in the tests often fell asleep within the first hour, which would mean inhaling a massive amount of water – flailing around, panicking the Sharks and the fish and probably choking myself! So, there was a lot going through my mind – not to mention the memorization of a book I had never seen before. There’s also a pressure with these things that viewers don’t see. A lot of time and money is spent on these stunts, and there’s an entire crew on set, banking on the fact that I know what I’m doing – I don’t want to let anybody down. I can’t let anybody down.
We lowered a ladder down into the tank so that I would be able to climb down into the water. I got strapped and weighted up by Dónal, the cameras were rolling and I started to climb in. Bear in mind that I can’t see a thing. The minute my head went under the water, I panicked. Something was banging off the ladder beside me (it turned out to be a Sting Ray), and the whole experience freaked me the hell out. So I clambered back up, the cameras were turned off, and I had to take a while to get used to everything. It was the only time during the year long process of filming the show that I was genuinely apprehensive and scared before a stunt.
The clock was ticking, and all eyes were on me. I took 15 minutes and said F*ck it – we’re here now, let’s just see what happens. I lowered myself back in, and the idea was for me to try to paddle over to the middle of the tank so that the cameras could see me, and once I was there, I’d try to hang there for 3 hours. I just remember talking to myself, trying to hum songs and cursing like crazy in my head! Anyway, I made it, gave a two thumbs up signal in the direction of the window to start the clock, and we began. Strict instructions were given to the team not to pull me out early unless it was absolutely necessary.
After a while, I calmed down and realised that nothing’s going to bite me unless I provoked it, so I just kept as still as possible. Being blindfolded underwater, with white noise playing in your ears…I wouldn’t recommend it. When the first line shone in, it stung my eyes a little bit, but it wasn’t too bad. By the end, it got very painful, and you’ll see scenes of me grabbing my goggles – this was actually me trying to rub my forehead, because the light was giving me a terrible headache. As well as that, I got cold very quickly as well, because I wasn’t moving around, there was no blood flowing to keep me warm. All of these things combined absolutely wrecked me. In terms of hallucinations, I didn’t experience a whole lot – from time to time I’d see things floating by – but I knew it was an illusion. Weirdly, I started to hear bits of news broadcasts in my ear occasionally as well, which I’d try to shake off! The main thing was for me to remember what I saw on the pages, so I created visual stories and tried to focus on them in my mind. All in all, I had no sense of time, so I never knew if I was close to the end at all – I felt like I was in there for much longer than 3 hours, which was tortuous. The sensory assaults got worse and worse as I got colder and colder, and the only mental experience I had was of feeling incredibly paranoid. You’ll see my head shooting from left to right occasionally…that’s the ole paranoia! One funny piece of advice that Diving expert Albert gave me before entering the tank was that if I got too cold, to take a piss inside the wetsuit and rub it around my body. I figured that’s probably animal cruelty…and…I was worried about it being immortalised on TV forever, so I didn’t apply that particular technique!
The rest is history really! You’ll see how wrecked I was when they pulled me out. I kept shouting really really loudly at everybody because my hearing was shot, and every piece of light genuinely hurt my eyes as well. There are a few edits purely because I kept cursing under my breath, but apart from that, I was pulled out and sat down for about 90 seconds to get myself balanced. My legs had pins and needles, so I walked really slowly as well. I was quizzed about the book afterwards by the SeaLife Bray Manager, and you’ll see what happens when you watch the show! It’s quite cool how it worked out!
Out of everything in the show, I think you’re either going to love or this episode, or hate it. Time will tell! But, I wanted to explain some of the stuff that I couldn’t explain in the episode because of time restraints here, so that you’d have a bit of a better understanding of what was going on!
Thanks for reading, and check out the episode trailer here: