Life Is Money: Sensory Deprivation’s Effect on the Brain

It’s obvious: people go to extreme lengths for the sake of cash.  Most blatantly, people can rob a bank, a gas station, hold others up at gunpoint, but such desire for money can be shown in other means as well.  Questionable business decisions, moral ambiguity, participation in crazy game shows, money is quite often the motivating factor here.  How far then, would people be willing to go for a large sum of it?

Life is Money is a rather interesting manga, asking this question, along with far more philosophical, psychological topics that are rather interesting.  In a game where people kill each other by using “Mental Overs,” putting one’s body under huge stress through verbal attacks, there is a lot of room for clashing ideals, the effect of one’s history on who they are in the present and other such plot points.  However, one of the main parts of the game that was presented, I feel, didn’t get such an explanation and focus: the taking away of the five senses.

Every day the game went on, a dice would be rolled that decided whether you had to have one of your senses taken away, or you got off free for the day.  This allowed for some interesting psychological attacks, and made for rather unique plot points, but otherwise, this idea was not focused on explicitly, choosing instead to focus on character interaction and a mix of conflicts of their ideals, and psychological warfare.  However, I’d like to further delve into what makes taking away the senses so debilitating to an individual, and, in-universe, what would make them so much more likely to “Mental Over.”

So yes.  Today, we’re going to learn a bit more about neuroscience and psychology, relating to the ideas of sensory deprivation and solitary confinement.  And yes, there will be spoilers, but trust me, Life is Money will still make for an interesting read in spite of them.  Last thing before we get started: the manga does have some…creepy imagery, so if that’s not your thing, well, I warned ya.  Sounds good?  Aight.  Let’s get into it!

The Premise

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Throughout the manga, the characters get their senses taken away in one of five ways.  They wear a blindfold for sight, are gagged for taste, get a nose clip for smell, sound-proof headphones for hearing, and are injected with an anesthetic that paralyzes the lower half of their body for touch.  As you can already tell, some of these are FAR worse than others.  The characters react in differing manners, some having better mental resilience, while others end up panicking.  However, while certain participants of the game exploit the loss of senses, and use them to attack others in unique ways, against the odds, no one ever experiences a “Mental Over” purely from the loss of senses.  Throughout the game, some characters lose their most pivotal senses- hearing, sight, and touch, but due to the presence of allies and friends, they are able to make it out, sane.  Even towards the end, when main character Meguru Fukurokouji loses every sense, cut off from any interpersonal contact, he is able to stay sane long enough to survive.LiM 14.jpg

Now.  How accurate is this, really?  What effects would such an experience have, and does it even make sense that he seemed to survive to the end of it, considering the “Mental Over” system?

To answer those rhetorical questions, yes, it actually does make sense.  It would be very, very hard, very, very tough, but Meguru could have certainly survived having his senses taken away, even considering the system that was in place.

How Does it Work?

Now we’re going to get to the meat of this topic.  Really then, what are the effects of taking senses away in such a fashion?  For the sake of smoothly transitioning between topics, I’ll be first going over what would happen without a few senses, and then move on to how we’d work without any.  lim-13

I’m sure you can imagine how you’d function without the ability to taste food, or the ability to smell.  It’d certainly be odd, it’d certainly be inconvenient, but overall, it almost certainly wouldn’t be debilitating in any… sense.  Ha.  But really, there is reason for this- we do not rely on these senses nearly as much as the others, which we incorporate every day, at almost every moment of the day.  As such, the olfactory and gustatory systems in the brain, responsible for smell and taste respectively, are tiny, relative to the other parts of the brain that are responsible for sense.  Taking away touch, sight, and hearing, on the other hand, would have surprisingly unique results.

Considering sight, the sense we undoubtedly rely the most on, experiments that blindfolded participants for four days resulted in consistently experienced hallucinations 12 hours in, that, for some people, persisted even after the blindfolds were removed.  From a neurological perspective, this happens because, the way in which senses work, the brain reacts to signals received from the eyes, or the skin, or the ears.  If the signals are cut off for a prolonged amount of time when the brain expects to be receiving them, it reacts to other mental activities that, although are NOT part of the Ocipital Lobe in the brain (involved in sight), are close enough that they are perceived as visual signals: hence the hallucinations.lim-8

When looking at hearing and touch, they are both very important senses, but for a far different reason than sight.  As much as these two senses would be inconvenient to lose, the auditory and somatosensory cortex, responsible for hearing and touch respectively, aren’t exactly as big as the visual cortex.  This is an indication of how much of our brain we actually use for those two senses- touch is only decently big, because it spreads across our entire body.  From a neurological standpoint, the loss of hearing and touch wouldn’t exactly be the most interesting thing in the world, apart from more obvious side effects, such as clumsiness or lack of orientation.  Rather, the loss of these two senses would get in the way of social interaction.lim-4

Let’s start with the more prominent and well-documented sense- hearing.  As one would expect, we communicate with other people through conversation, words, auditory signals.  The loss of hearing then, apart from already being a huge stressor that causes general anxiety, strong feelings, insecurity, and other such psychological issues, can actually result in isolation, lack of concentration, and inattentiveness.  Surprisingly, there isn’t much else to find here, apart from effects of long-term deafness, which we aren’t exactly dealing with in this story, so let’s move on to the next sense.

Touching another human can release a hormone called oxytocin, “the love hormone,” and, you don’t have to take my word for it, you can look it up, but touch has been shown to signal trust, calm heart stress, and activate nerves that are involved in compassion.  In short, touch, apart from being a huge part of how we actively interact in the world around us, is something that can be used to connect with other human beings.  Although experiments on such a topic are sparse, the few that I’ve seen seem to indicate at least some form of connection- and hey, one need only look at people in real life, like Helen Keller, who was able to live without sight or sound.  In fact, in the game, Meguru lost both of those senses, and was comforted purely through this sense.

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The loss of touch would leave general human affection and physical action void.  The loss of sound would make one unable to communicate very effectively.  Theoretically, losing both then, would make it extremely, extremely hard to connect to other humans effectively, considering that sight could easily be lost as well.  However, up till now, we’ve only been dealing with individual senses- what would happen in the worst case scenario, the loss of all five senses?lim-2

Total Isolation

So.  Let’s say you’ve lost everything, sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.  Your brain isn’t getting ANY sensory input whatsoever.  Now, would you start to freak out to the point where you would be victim to a “mental over”?  Well.  Really, yes, you might.lim-6

Although not quite to the level of Life is Money, a sensory deprivation experiment relatively similar to the concept used in the manga has been done in real life.  In 1957, an experiment was done that invited paid volunteers to spend days or weeks alone, cut off from most of their senses.  They were given translucent visors, cotton gloves, cardboard cuffs that prevented them from touching anything, and noise was muffled using foam pillows and air conditioning.  after only a few hours, they became anxious, emotional, and their overall cognitive ability plummeted.  After a few more hours, both visual and auditory hallucinations followed, varying from person to person.  In the end, only a few people lasted beyond two days before having to call off the trial, and none lasted a week.  Donald Hebb, the man in charge of the experiment, notes that the results were “very unsettling to us… to find, in your own laboratory, that merely taking away the usual sights, sounds, and bodily contacts… can shake him, right down to the base.”lim-12

Bringing this all back around to Meguru at the end of the game, he had all his senses taken away by day 8 out of 10, and had to struggle very obviously to keep his sanity and his will to live.  Even considering his already stressed mental state, the loss of senses, tormenting him with hallucinations, loneliness, and nothing but his thoughts, would make his brain quite an unpleasant place to be.  His brain, neurologically speaking, would have no input from anyone, unable to communicate with others in any way whatsoever, and as a result, his mental functions would deteriorate rather markedly, very possibly resulting in panic. However, as with the real life experiment, that doesn’t mean he would give up, as almost certainly, many others would in that situation.

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Hebb’s experiment was actually repeated in 2008 on a BBC television show: “Total Isolation.”  For two days, four men and two women agreed to be shut in a cell in darkness, all alone, in an effort to somewhat recreate the conditions Hebb used.  What is interesting here is that four of the six volunteers experienced hallucinations and had anxiety, while two members were actually able to cope relatively well.  lim-7

This proves the ability of a certain individual to be able to react better to sensory deprivation, despite such a situation being undoubtedly stressful for the mind.  In fact, the end of Life is Money, although quite dramatic, shows that the passage of time was impossible to track, images and thoughts were indeed flashing in Meguru’s head, and as such, the depiction of sensory deprivation wasn’t too inaccurate.  Meguru showed he had some sort of mental fortitude, and remained focused on several core thoughts, which, in a situation like that, was a relatively good way to keep his mind occupied in the absence of anything, allowing him to survive more than 2 days to make it to the end of the game- tired, but still very much alive.lim-11

 

Phew.  That was a long one, and if you read this far, I hope you enjoyed!  I tend to ramble on quite a while when I talk about something interesting, and this…well, I personally learned a lot, and I hope you did as well!

 

 

 

 

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