Nautilus | The email from a professor offered an unusual spring break adventure: Come spend five days in complete darkness. To Morgan Williams, then a sophomore at Swarthmore College and a psychology major, it sounded like a great way to spend his vacation week. “I’m not really one for going to the beach,” he says.
For those five days in 2011, Williams and neuroscientist Benjamin Backus lived in a large room that had been carefully outfitted to ensure that not a ray, not a gleam, not a single photon of light would reach their eyes.
The setting was a converted attic space that formed part of Backus’s apartment in New Rochelle, NY. Every aperture was sealed off with the aid of heavy theatrical blackout curtains. Electronic devices that lit up in any way were either modified or banned from the room. Instead of an airlock, they had a “lightlock” room that separated them from the illuminated world. A helper left their meals in that buffer room (a bathroom), and the pair retrieved them once they could be sure of doing so without light exposure.
Each day the two men tacked up a large piece of photosensitive film used in radiology. Days later, after they’d left the room, Backus developed those five sheets of film and was gratified to find them pure black, indicating zero exposure to light. “For our experiment, 23.9 hours of dark isn’t enough,” Backus says. “We can’t let those visual neurons have any hope of visual input coming back.”
There were also daily tasks. They used voice recorders to make notes on the experience. They took turns on an exercise bike, on which the light-up buttons had been covered with stick-on bumpy buttons. They listened to audio books, meditated, and studied a book about braille with their fingertips.
Their meals arrived on a strict schedule to preserve the normal rhythm of their days. They sometimes dined on handheld foods like tamales and sandwiches, but also tested themselves with more complicated meals requiring silverware. Backus says he found eating in absolute darkness to be a tricky business. “The problem is knowing if the food has been speared with the fork,” he says. Unless he used his fingers to confirm that he’d successfully snagged a piece of ravioli, for example, he’d often bite down on air. “I never got good at it,” he says ruefully.
So what was the point of this extreme exercise? Backus, a professor at SUNY College of Optometry, was doing a trial run. He needed to answer logistical and safety questions before he could embark on his real experiment involving people with a type of amblyopia, the visual disorder commonly known as lazy eye.