There are many paths to digital enlightenment. Last week I talked to a self-described technoshaman that's using Oculus Rift to guide participants on a psychedelic journey through virtual reality. This week, I visited artist and musician Dawn Redskye, and let her strap a kitchen appliance on my head.
Redskye, living in London, Ontario, built her own sensory deprivation meditation helmet. It’s meant to give the wearer hallucinations, with a strobing bike light and binaural beats—an aural phenomenon that occurs in the brain when two slightly different frequencies are played in stereo.
“Busted” would be a generous way to describe the device when I finally saw it in all its DIY glory. Made from a dollar store colander and bits of plastic held together with electrical tape, it didn’t exactly look like the kind of device that could alter my brain state.
On the other hand, the DIY crowd has figured out out how to build Oculus Rift clones on the cheap and with some impressive results to show for it. While the Rift itself costs a mere $300, Poppy, a device that turns smartphones into 3D cameras, goes for just $50.
But could this loosely held together heap of scrap really lull me into a meditative trance? I was about to find out. Redskye readied a binaural frequency meant to hypnotize me on an iPhone app called Get High Now, and I lowered the souped-up colander over my face.
Everything went black when I put the helmet on. The stale odour of cigarette smoke wafted out from the lumpy, homemade padding pressed against my nose. My palms began to sweat.
A bicycle light fixed in front of my face began to blink with a seething red hue and I closed my eyes. My mind’s eye quickly became saturated with warm colours and tessellating shapes as a pulsing sine wave emanating from iPod earbuds embedded in the helmet slowly drummed up a migraine.
Were my eyes open or closed? I couldn’t remember anymore. Suddenly, I became aware that I couldn’t feel my body, and I began to fall. Or that’s what it felt like, until I quickly snapped myself out of it and my strobe-addled, oxygen-deprived brain slowly came to its meager senses. Shit, I’m going to pass out on this stranger’s couch. I’m going to die.
How long had I been in here, anyway? Five minutes? 20? I couldn’t tell. The heat was suffocating; I removed the tinfoil visor. I took a moment to acclimate myself to reality. “How long was I out?” I asked Redskye. “About 40 minutes.”
I do feel as though I had some sort of dissociative experience while inside Redskye’s helmet, but I think it probably had more to do with the unbearable heat and lack of oxygen than transcendent science and technology. Then again, I could be wrong. The helmet could really have succeeded in coaxing me into a trance.
There’s no shortage of studies that suggest binaural beats can have therapeutic effects. A study completed at Ninewells Hospital in the UK in 1999 found that patients who listened to binaural beats after being administered general anesthesia required significantly less fentanyl, a powerful opioid, than patients who did not.
A more recent uncontrolled pilot study at the Helfgott Research Institute in Portland concluded that binaural beats resulted in less anxiety and a better overall mood in the eight adults who participated in the trial. Despite a small but growing body of preliminary scientific research into the phenomenon, binaural beats’ causal ability to improve mood and reduce anxiety remains unproven.
Redskye told me that the helmet and binaural beats have helped her. Several years ago, she was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and lost her ability to form short-term memories effectively.
“It kind of fucked my whole life up,” Redskye said as Inspector the dog lazed about. “I tried everything. I started researching sensory deprivation and self-exploration theories, like, exploring your subconscious, but salt tanks are pretty expensive to use. So I thought that I could try and make my own simulator.” According to Redskye, she uses the helmet once a week and has noticed improvements in her memory and overall mood.
I can’t say for certain whether Redskye is on to something with her shoestring version of a high-tech meditative ritual or if she’s merely giving herself slow motion heatstroke. What I can say with a degree of confidence is that if you’re going to try your hand at technoshamanism, you should probably shell out for some of the readily available consumer products like Oculus Rift or Poppy.
At the very least, make sure you’ve got a half-decent air conditioning system before you suffocate yourself in a colander.