Suedfeld's Research Involving Extreme & Unusual Environments

Unusual Laboratory Environments - Reduced Stimulation at UBC

This is the second of two pages describing Peter Suedfeld's research with extreme and unusual environments. The first page describes Suedfeld's general, and field-related, extreme environment research in this area, whereas this page focuses upon his work in unusual laboratory environments, specifically his work with reduced stimulation environments.

Suedfeld's work with reduced stimulation has included everything from simple quiet rooms, through solitary confinement in prisons and capsule environments planned for space, to the near-absolute reduction in stimulation obtained with the restricted environmental stimulation technique (REST). His work with REST has been the most abundant, so this page will deal primarily with that topic, but the relevant publications list reflects all of the above areas of research and more.

Chamber REST

The chamber REST environment.

In general, REST involves spending time in a dark, quiet, reduced stimulation environment. There are two major types of REST, chamber (pictured at right) and flotation (pictured below). Both environments reduce visual and auditory stimulation to near-complete absence (sometimes nearby slamming doors can be heard as far-off thuds), and the flotation environment also reduces tactile stimulation and creates the illusion of low gravity.
Flotation REST
The flotation REST environment.
These latter two effects are achieved through the use of an Epsom salt-saturated solution which fully supports the participant in a supine position in which he or she can relax and breath normally without any concern of sinking (the water is only 27cm deep anyway). Not only is there an elimination of contact with physical objects, but the water is also heated to average skin temperature (a bit cooler than core body temperature; 34°) such that one typically doesn't even feel the water. End result: for most, the sensation of truly "floating" freely, as if in a void.
The subjective experiences vary, but one of the most common reports from people in flotation REST is a sensation of relaxation. Even those who do not report any marked psychological relaxation notice a muscular effect of soaking in the Epsom salts. Theories about the psychological effects of such a near-complete reduction of stimulation are as numerous as the studies investigating them.

Dr. Suedfeld's most significant and far-reaching influence upon REST research and practice was his assertion and determination that the effects of REST are not inherently aversive. During the period of its initial proliferation throughout psychology departments across North America and other parts of the world, REST was deemed a stressful experience. While working with Dr. Jack Vernon at Princeton University, Suedfeld isolated certain elements of the standard procedure for introducing participants to the environment that biased them to anticipate a possible negative reaction (e.g., the inclusion of a "panic button" to press during any such reaction), as well as other procedures (e.g., movement restriction) that induced stress independent of the reduced stimulation level. All such research at the time was done with chamber REST, but the continuing success of flotation tanks in spas throughout the world (a listing may be found on the links page) attests to the true positive nature of the general experience, once it is removed from fear-invoking procedural artifacts. To further remove the stigma surrounding reduced stimulation research and practice, Suedfeld and Dr. Roderick Borrie coined the term REST to replace the ominous and, as it happens, inaccurate term "sensory deprivation".

Although Dr. Suedfeld is no longer an active researcher of REST and its effects, the various avenues of his past efforts are described below. Additional general information on REST may be obtained by visiting the links page.

Suedfeld's REST Research Topics

Cognition in REST

Some of Suedfeld's earliest research projects examined the cognitive effects of chamber REST. Such effects include an openness of mind that lends itself to improved performance in tests of creativity, higher scores on multiple uses tests, a reduction in memory loss with time, and greater receptivity to otherwise unpleasant stimuli. Cognitive effects do not seem to be as pronounced in flotation REST, possibly due to inattentiveness related to the relaxation often reported in that environment.
The most recent cognitive studies in Suedfeld's REST laboratory included analyses of memory, general verbal processing, musical creativity, and some perceptual measures, all in flotation REST. In addition, there were some initial studies of social cognition.

Behaviour Modification in REST

Following from the openness-of-mind results found with the cognitive research, and taking place entirely in chamber REST, behaviour modification research in Suedfeld's laboratory has successfully helped people to quit smoking, to curb their over-eating habits, and to partially overcome a powerful fear of snakes.

Sports Psychology in REST

Performance in various sports has been tested to see if flotation REST offers an enhancing effect. Suedfeld's research has examined dart throwing, basketball free throwing, and rowing. In general, it appears that tasks that can be enhanced through mental rehearsal, or imagery, benefit even more if that mental activity occurs in the flotation tank. There also appears to be a role played by faster recovery from training exhaustion, shown largely by the rowing study.

Health Benefits of REST

Given the frequency with which REST is treated as a panacea by its proponents, Dr. Suedfeld has always been interested in testing the true benefits, and possible limitations, of the therapeutic applications of REST. Much of this work has been done in collaboration with Dr. Roderick Borrie who, among other accomplishments, has used flotation REST as an effective part of chronic pain and stress therapy.

Last updated: Monday, June 7, 2004

For more information, here are some good REST-related LINKS to other sites.
Many thanks to Collen Bruce for hunting down most of them.

For a complete list of Dr. Suedfeld's articles related to REST and other reduced stimulation environments, click to see the list of relevant publications on this topic. To learn more about Suedfeld's research with other extreme and unusual environments, visit the "Extreme Field Environments" page.

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About this web-site

This web-site describes the research and other achievements of Dr. Peter Suedfeld, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

This page is one of two describing Dr. Suedfeld's research involving extreme and unusual environments. It describes special environments created in the laboratory for the sole purpose of exploring human reactions to such conditions. In particular, the page focuses upon reduced stimulation environments, which Dr. Suedfeld has investigated at great length. The other extreme/unusual environment page describes environments that are intrinsically extreme, such as the north and south polar environments on Earth or past, present, and future man-made environments in space. The rest of the site is organized under the following topic headings:

Personal information:

Biographic Info, Recent Publications, and Current Projects

Other research topics:

Integrative ComplexityPolitical PsychologyHolocaust Studies

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