Join our newsletter

The Environmental Self

by Alexandra Tell

In 1963, the CIA released an internal memo called the “KUBARK Intelligence Report,” the agency’s first manual on interrogation techniques. The report was part of MKULTRA—a classified program conducting extensive research into the potentials and protocols of mind control, hypnosis, government-administered use of LSD, and sensory deprivation experiments. KUBARK codified both what the CIA termed, “coercive and non-coercive methods” of counterintelligence interrogation, citing American psychologist John C. Lilly’s design for a sensory deprivation environment as inspiration for a new—architectural—means of intelligence gathering. The report described the anxiety-inducing and ultimately hallucinogenic effects of Lilly’s sensory deprivation environment on the subject, offering that an “interrogator can benefit from the subject’s anxiety” and fragile state.1

Sensory deprivation research, which began in the US and Canada in the early 1950s, was born of Cold War ambitions and paranoias. Understanding how the human psyche responded to being enclosed in an environment designed to block out sound, light, and tactile stimulus, was at once considered useful for research in space exploration (understanding how humans might fare psychologically in space shuttles, and eventually, space colonies); for investigating how one might respond to being trapped inside an atomic bomb shelter; and if depriving a person of sensory stimulus might function as a useful interrogation device against the Soviets. Sensory deprivation research continued a legacy of scientific research into the control and discipline of perception that began in the mid 19th century. Jonathan Crary notes that the emerging concept of “subjective vision,” an idea about the mechanism of sensation that focuses less on the nature of stimulus itself in favor of a centrality of the subject’s body and their sensing organs in perception, allowed for the sensory to be “annexed and controlled by external techniques of manipulation and stimulation." 2 As psychologists studied subjects as newly scientized perceptual beings, the realm of the sensory became a project of management. Crary tracks the project of sensory control into the obsession with the problem of attention that occupied turn-of-the-century psychologists. As the logic of capitalism demanded that subjects remain productive individuals, behavioral psychologists investigated how to selectively control sensory inputs to harness attention as a resource for maintaining social order and managing productive labor.

Considering similar psychological inquiries, sensory deprivation researchers of the 1950s pushed the limits of sensory control by investigating how subjects would respond to complete environmental restriction. In 1954, when results from early experiments conducted by the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb were published in the Canadian Journal of Psychology, the article explained that sensory deprivation experiments were designed to explore “the lapses of attention that may occur when a man must give close and prolonged attention to some aspect of an environment in which nothing is happening.” 3 Sensory deprivation research once again asserted the primacy of environment as a factor in determining one’s psychological state, and measures of attention were tested in the extreme environmental conditions of nothingness. Where might one’s attention turn if no external environment was to be perceived? With nothing to focus on, no input at all to register in the subject’s sensory apparatus, would attention be turned inward? Could total control over the environmental lead to total control over the mind?

In the political context of the Cold War, the problem of attention was entangled with the question of coercion. In Hebb’s early experiments, subjects were asked for their opinions on controversial subjects, like evolutionary theory or the existence of ghosts, before entering a darkened room fitted with a mattress, earplugs, an eye mask, and body restraints, that served as a sensory deprivation chamber. After their time in the dark silence of isolation, Hebb would play the test subjects audio recordings of arguments opposing their initial opinions. Hebb and his team found that after undergoing sensory deprivation many of their subjects were susceptible to demonstrating ambivalence toward, if not altering altogether, their own opinions. This experimentation of coercion by environmental means was embedded in a political and cultural fascination with mind control, or brainwashing. The popular 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon, and its 1962 film adaptation, centered around an American Korean War veteran who, after being brainwashed by the Soviets, infiltrated the United States government as an unwitting political operative of the enemy. Fears of brainwashing and mind control were emblematic of what Richard Hofstader termed the “paranoid style” of American life. 4 The culture of paranoia that surrounded mind control as a political weapon was not confined to popular fiction, as scientific research but also emerged in military ambitions, such as MKULTRA.

The state apparatus and its cultural reverberations became increasingly concerned with the instrumentalization of the mind as a political mechanism. In sensory deprivation research, researchers honed the management of environmental factors to induce greater results. Through the design of a space that sought to limit everything that we consider part of the environment (light, sound, gravity) to create a sort of non-environment, researchers hoped to discover the outer edges and inner depths of the human subject. These extreme test cases of physical and psychological boundaries examined the contingency and manipulability of the environmental as much as the subjects inhabiting them. Sensory deprivation research asked not only how a subject responds to its environment, but more fundamentally, what constitutes a subject and an environment in the first place. Sensory deprivation research was enacted and achieved architecturally rather than corporally, while suggesting that the two be understood in conjunction. Research into sensory deprivation as an interrogation tactic, and the subsequent development of sensory deprivation float tanks as a consumer product, are emblematic of a desire for environmental, and ultimately, psychological control. By tracing the contours and contexts of sensory deprivation projects zigzagging from the CIA to university laboratories, to LSD trips and therapy centers, we can see the specters of control persistently haunt the hands of power.

Lilly’s innovation in sensory deprivation research was the design for a floatation-based sensory deprivation tank, in which the subject’s body would be suspended in warm water to mimic weightlessness, while all other senses were minimized if not eliminated. The CIA report contended that interrogation techniques were most successful in environments of greater control, such as Lilly’s water-tank. Lilly was a wide-ranging researcher, a psychologist who began his career at the National Institute for Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and meandered through more unconventional territories of the counterculture: consciousness-expansion, drug research, dolphin psychology, and extraterrestrial communication. Lilly drew together the military-industrial complex to the counterculture (a link that has been addressed by others, including Fred Turner), affording a renewed consideration of the shifting conceptions of the self in environmental terms. 5 As a psychologist and neuroscientist, Lilly was concerned with the mind and constructions of the self. Through the different contexts of his research, in particular the evolution of his work on isolation and sensory deprivation from the academic-sponsored studies to the drug-fueled explorations, Lilly developed his ideology of the self as a cybernetic system, contending with environmental “inputs” into and psychological “outputs” of the mind. The mind as a biocomputer, according to Lilly, could be reprogrammed by modulating environmental inputs. As environment and subjectivity were synced in a feedback loop of responsiveness through the miasma of drugs and militarized science, Lilly obsessively pursued the design of a space of total control for purposes of exploring, and modifying, the self.

For Lilly, the isolation tank was both literally and metaphorically a space of self-experimentation—he began using himself as a test subject in 1954. 6 He found that such conditions opened the mind itself to heightened states, from elevated restfulness to vivid hallucinations. Through environmental modifications, Lilly induced in himself a psychological, even metaphysical, response: a reconsideration of his own subjectivity. Mind control, in the self-initiated float tank experience, was not a weapon of psychological warfare, but a tool of higher consciousness. By submerging himself in the tank and analyzing his own experience, Lilly repositioned these environments of isolation from their military origins to what he thought of as spaces of self-betterment.

As Lilly began to see the potential of the sensory deprivation tank as an environment of self-improvement, he also redesigned the tanks. No longer would the user be affixed with a WWII-derived breathing apparatus. Instead, carefully measured levels of Epsom salt were added to the water to offset the gravitational pull with increased buoyancy of the fluids, inducing a feeling of weightlessness in the user. The water temperature was modulated to approximate the regular temperature of the human body, producing an ideal climate for the user. The organizational structures shifted too. In early experiments, a researcher would be positioned just beyond the sensory deprivation environment, enforcing, observing, and recording the conditions and the subject’s responses. In Lilly’s experiments, the role of the researcher was supplanted by the “safety man.” As a sort of trip guide, it was the safety man’s role to facilitate the sensory deprivation experience. The researcher had functioned as a panoptical observer, connected to the subject through a microphone communication system, gathering data from the noises the subject emitted and the subject’s physiological functions. By reorienting the observational perch, the safety man coordinated the float tank user’s mental journey. The gaze turned inwards. What was at stake in Lilly’s experiments was the question of how to utilize sensory deprivation environments as a tool towards psychological improvement.

By the early 1970s, sensory deprivation emerged as a consumer product. The first float tank spas opened in Beverly Hills in 1974, where relaxation-seeking patrons rented float tanks by the hour. 7 A Los Angeles Times article wondered if the “coffin-like box” float tanks would become “a future way of life—the ’80s counterpart to the to the trendy hot tub of the ’70s.” 8 As if to counteract such morbid associations, Lilly designed himself a personal floatation tank stylized with roof-hinged falcon-wing doors. Float tanks were marketed as a “vacation supplement,” a sleep supplement, and a productivity tool. The Cold War fears that had surrounded sensory deprivation research in the 1950s had, by the 1970s, been sublimated into countercultural fashion. Now less military technology than lifestyle product, national fears of Cold War threats receded as these architectures of bodily enclosure became sites for the subjects of the Anglo-American counterculture to negotiate problems of different kinds: the psychological alienation of life under capitalism, and the sensory assault of contemporary life. As counter-environments, to borrow a term from Marshall McLuhan, sensory deprivation tanks offered as much a momentary escape from, as an explication of, exterior conditions.

Torture and therapy here are not antipodal, but rather exist along the same spectrum. The psychological removal that sensory deprivation affords is not really different when being applied to potential subjects of coercive interrogation as it is for the individual reaching into the depths of consciousness. It is design, context, consent, and marketing that set them apart. In seeking to understand power in relation to the individual, Michel Foucault summarizes the two meanings of the word subject: “subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to.” 9 Sensory deprivation, particularly as it plays out throughout the trajectory of Lilly’s career, embodies the double meaning of subject, from the research subject to the work of self-knowledge. Furthermore, in thinking through the concept of an environmental subject, environment, and its design, emerge as an apparatus through which to consider how the individual relates to power. In the design of spaces to facilitate sensory deprivation experiences, Lilly’s work suggests a dialectical relationship between subject as subjected and subjective. Lilly’s transition from militarized research to therapeutic or countercultural settings does not suggest an absolute shift from one Foucauldian definition of the subject to the other. Rather, these two concepts must be considered together throughout the trajectory of Lilly’s research, less as a redistribution of power and more as a rearticulation of it. In early sensory deprivation experiments of the 1950s, the individuals enclosed in isolation were test subjects, embarking on unexpected “nightmare” hallucinations at the whims of researchers. 10 As Lilly began experimenting on himself, and later, when sensory deprivation emerged as a consumerist choice, floating in a sensory deprivation tank was an exercise of personal agency, an opportunity to explore and care for the self. These calm-seekers embodied a liberalizing culture surrounding personal freedom and personal responsibility.

With the sensory deprivation tanks a cultural phenomenon by the 1960s, Lilly’s research and writing moved from the neuropsychological towards a scientific exploration of the spiritual. LSD became an important supplement to Lilly’s float tank experiments, allowing him to achieve “freedom from external reality.” 11 Lilly’s environmental psychology skewed metaphysical as the domain of the mind was spatialized. In his 1972 autobiography Center of the Cyclone, Lilly describes embarking on a float tank journey to produce an “inner-naturalist’s report on the fauna, flora, geography, and terrain of some of the inner territories.” 12 In his 1977 book, The Deep Self, he recounts coming to the realization that “…the depths of mind are as great as the depths of cosmic outer space. There are inner universes as well as outer ones.” 13 Lilly’s spatial metaphors of the self—the mind as a universe, an ecosystem, and a geographic terrain—coincided with another strain of his thinking about the mind: as a cybernetic system, best condensed in his notion of the “human biocomputer.”

Lilly distilled his theory in his 1968 book Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, and The Center of the Cyclone, writing of the human mind as a computer conditioned by sensory inputs in the world around. Programming in the human biocomputer varied, according to Lilly, from the hard-wired programs like feeding, sex, fear, pleasure, and pain; to more pliable programs acquired throughout life: “The human biocomputer is constantly being programmed, continually, simply and naturally, below its levels of awareness, by the surrounding environment.” In Lilly’s model, environmental stimuli are data entered into the mind’s circuitry. By modulating these inputs (say, through the deprivation of senses) Lilly contended, one could control, reprogram one’s own mind, by reconfiguring the data and processing systems of the mind. Lilly termed this process “interlock,” a theory he based on the cybernetic concept of feedback. 14 Lilly’s accounts of his LSD-fueled floats were, in a sense, self-help books rendered in the language of techno-utopia, offering tools for behavior modification through internal exploration via computer programming.

Historian Daniel Belgrad has described this moment as perpetuated by what he calls the “culture of feedback.” Relying on systems theory as a theoretical framework, scientists, psychologists, artists, and media theoreticians alike made use of digital cybernetics and its environmental counterpart (ecological thinking). Stewart Brand recognized cybernetics as a basis for his networked, techno-utopian vision exemplified in the Whole Earth Catalog. Politicians and economists cited systems thinking in defense of a free-market economy. Experimental, ambient composers took a systems-based approach to composing sounds and made music that responded to environmental inputs. 15 Environmentalists of the 1970s embraced the ecological thought distilled by popular environmental scientist Barry Commoner’s phrase “everything is connected to everything else.” As cybernetic thinking permeated disciplines from ecology to psychology, individuals became not only part of planetary systems, but environmental systems unto themselves. The concept of feedback obtained cultural ubiquity. A cybernetic term borne out of the governing of inputs and outputs of a given system, feedback acquired its more popular usage as a directive for improvement. As a culture habituated to giving and getting feedback, an individual might always be on a quest for betterment.

From interrogation to relaxation to self-improvement, Lilly optimized both the design of the tank as a spatial apparatus, and the desired outcome of being immersed in such a space. The extreme environmental conditions of the sensory deprivation tank offered both an illusion of control and a sensation of release. To float was to access the inaccessible and filter out the undesirable in order to contend with the self. The outer boundary of the individual was in constant negotiation for Lilly, and his varied career and complicated legacy might be understood as a grand experiment to determine its furthest edges. Lilly’s simultaneous dedication to the project of communicating with dolphins, and later extraterrestrials, were extensions of his desire for the internal, self-communication he sought from the sensory deprivation tanks (not to mention the drugs). While the merits and ethics of Lilly’s career (his work on shady government projects, his mistreatment of animal subjects, and his proclaimed communication with alien life) deserve additional scrutiny, Lilly, particularly through the carefully-modulated waters of the sensory deprivation tank, offers us an opportunity to consider the self as environment. Underwater, outerspace, and the inner provinces of the mind were all interrelated territories in Lilly’s explorations of the self. As an architectural innovation, the sensory deprivation tank was offered as a portal onto these realms.



United States Counterintelligence Agency (CIA), “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation” (July 1963).


Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 12.


Quoted in Mical Raz “Alone Again: John Zubek and the Troubled History of Sensory Deprivation Research,” in Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences Vol. 49 Issue 4 (Autumn 2013).


Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in Harper’s Magazine (November 1964).


Fred Turner details the connections both between the U.S. counterculture and the Cold War political ambitions of creating democratic personalities, and the growth of networked cyber-capitalism and the Californian Ideology out of the counterculture, in particular Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Similarly, John Durham Peters has drawn the connection between Lilly’s early career research in dolphin communication and military technologies. See: Turner, The Democratic Surround (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); and Peters, “‘ Memorable Equinox’: John Lilly, Dolphin Vocals, and the Tape Medium” boundary2 no. 47 (2020).


Lilly, The Scientist, 100-102.


Joy Horowitz, “Relaxing in a Sensory Isolation Tank: '80s Counterpart to the Hot Tub,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 1979.




Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry Vol. 8 No. 4 (Summer 1982): 781.


Winnifred Kelm, a young nurse from Ottawa, wrote about her experience as one of the first test subjects in sensory deprivation. See Kelm, “My Nightmare Ride in a Space Capsule.” The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada): January 21, 1961.


Lilly, The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space (New York: Julian Press, 1972), 46.


Ibid., 2.


Lilly, The Deep Self, 71.


Andrew Derek Syder, “‘Shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception:’ Vision, Culture, and Technology in the Psychedelic Sixties”(PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2009): 114.


Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in Seventies America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Volume 2

On Architecture

Next from this Volume

Tom Burr
in conversation with Blake Oetting in conversation with Blake Oetting

“I like to be both inside and outside.”