A psychologist in Italy figured out how to induce an altered state of consciousness without any psychedelic drugs involved.
Most people aren’t aware that it’s possible to achieve altered states of consciousness and vivid hallucinations without taking a trip down the rabbit hole courtesy of LSD or magical mushrooms. How? Stare into someone’s eyes for 10 minutes.
An Italian psychologist from the University of Urbino, Giovanni Caputo, ran an experiment on 20 young adults (15 of which who were women) by having them stare into a partner’s eyes for 10 minutes straight. He manipulated the lighting in the room, making it bright enough for the volunteers to see the facial features of their partner but dim enough to reduce color perception.
A control group of 20 volunteers stared at a wall in the same dimly lit conditions but did not experience altered states of consciousness. The study participants weren’t told much about the experiment other than that it had to do with a “meditative experience with eyes open.”
Strangely, the simple task sparked “out of body” experiences among the volunteers and even led to hallucinations of monsters, their relatives, and their own faces. The term used in psychology to describe this kind of psychological experience is called “dissociation,” and refers to any sensation that makes a person feel detached from their immediate surroundings. Dissociation can be caused by a number of things, such as memory loss or the damaging mental effects of abuse or trauma. It can also be intentionally initiated by drugs like LSD, ketamine, mushrooms, and alcohol. Apparently, face-staring does the trick too.
In an account for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, Christian Jarrett wrote, “The participants in the eye-staring group said they’d had a compelling experience unlike anything they’d felt before.” 90 percent of the participants said they’d seen deformed facial traits, 75 percent claimed they’d seen a monster, and 50 percent said they saw aspects of their own face in their partner’s.
Other similar studies that tested ways to induce dissociative-like states included staring at a dot on the wall or staring into the mirror for prolonged periods of time. Both methods could generate some types of hallucinatory effects, but staring into another person’s eyes is the most effective dissociation-inducing technique yet. Caputo calls it “interpersonal gazing” and says it has a more powerful dissociative effect on humans than staring into a mirror.
While it’s a strange concept indeed, it makes sense in a sort of bizarre way. The mind works in mysterious manners and is heavily influenced by our visual perceptions. In our busy day-to-day lives, we never sit still long enough to focus on something for 10 minutes straight. Our brain is always busy interpreting new information and jumping around with our trains of thought. If it’s given just one focus, such as gazing into a pair of human eyes, the brain’s inner workings may drive our perceptions to new states of consciousness that we’ve never before experienced.