A psychologist in Italy has figured out how to induce a drug-free altered state of consciousness by asking 20 volunteers to sit and stare into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes straight. Not only did the deceptively simple task bring on strange ‘out of body’ experiences for the volunteers, it also caused them to see hallucinations of monsters, their relatives, and themselves in their partner’s face.
“On the dissociative states test, they gave the strongest ratings to items related to reduced colour intensity, sounds seeming quieter or louder than expected, becoming spaced out, and time seeming to drag on. On the strange-face questionnaire, 90 percent of the eye-staring group agreed that they’d seen some deformed facial traits, 75 percent said they’d seen a monster, 50 percent said they saw aspects of their own face in their partner’s face, and 15 percent said they’d seen a relative’s face.”
So what’s going on here? Martinez-Conde and Macknik explain that it’s likely to do with something called neural adaptation, which describes how our neurons can slow down or even stop their responses to unchanging stimulation. It happens when you stare at any scene or object for an extended period of time – your perception will start to fade until you blink or the scene changes, or it can be rectified by tiny involuntary eye movements called microsaccades.