recording sensation: the experiential typewriter

The Experiential Typewriter. Image: NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

The Experiential Typewriter. Image: NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary collaborated with a Harvard physician and an engineer at MIT to develop a device called the Experiential Typewriter, which was intended to help get around a common obstacle in psychedelic research—the impossibility for an individual in a psychedelic experience to describe what is happening/what they are experiencing. The typewriter had a keyboard that could be customized/manipulated (to the individual) to record bodily sensations, hallucinations, or a sense of entering spaces/voids.

Below is a brief overview of how the Experiential Typewriter is set up (primarily focusing on the keyboard or input/recording system for the psychedelic experience). I am quoting from Leary’s publication on the typewriter in The Psychedelic Review.

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Timothy Leary's "The Experiential Typewriter"

Timothy Leary’s “The Experiential Typewriter”

Timothy Leary opens his article with the limitations of language to communicate all that the brain can come to know through a psychedelic experience. He states that “There are, at present, no linguistic systems set up to distinguish between internal and external, or to distinguish various levels of consciousness” (75); the familiar typewriter is coded in terms of the alphabet, and while it can make any word in the language, it is of little use in experiential studies. In experiential studies there aren’t words, so more detailed categories must be created in order to record experience. Leary explains that the experiential language should be able to cover all terms used in our denotational, or as he calls it “external” language, as well as experiences beyond present vocabulary (75). There was no set experiential language; each trial had an ad hoc language for the area of consciousness to be explored.

The keyboard was designed for both the right and left hand to have input. Each of the broad areas of experiences could be subdivided into numerous categories. Bodily sensations could be referred to as each sensory organ or zone of the body and game designations could be made—stomach ache, dizziness, erotic feelings, etc. For both sets of keys, each key could be expanded and when more elaborate forms of the experiential typewriter became feasible, other rows above the keys could be added for specific self categories (76).

The right keyboard was devoted to transcendental and transitional states of awareness; the right hand attempted to define new language for ecstatic experiences which stood outside of current modes. While the left keyboard attempted to summarize modes of conventional awareness for which there now exists a vocabulary (77).

The left hand keys were organized as conventional language concepts and depict broad categories of cultural games:

  • awareness in terms of body-maintenance games, including sex
  • awareness in terms of social-cultural games, including family
  • awareness in terms of aesthetic-recreational games
  • awareness in terms of intellectual-scientific games
  • thumb key: religious-philosophic games
  • The right hand keys are organized as hallucinatory, revelatory, and transcendental experiences:1.

bodily sensations (pain, itch, tickle)

  • moods and emotional states (safe-dangerous, pleasant-unpleasant, relaxed-active)
  • interpersonal feelings toward others
  •  cognitive modes of perception
  • thumb key (master key): modifies any other key to indicate a negative experience

The goal was to record immediate sensory awareness and loss of self-consciousness; revelation of a sudden intuitive insight into relationships previously never grasped; ecstasy-unity-liberation that comes from freedom of identity and social role but; and hallucinations that form new constructions — neo-symbolic patterns develop — of familiar sense modalities scrambled into synesthesia (79). Leary envisioned the typewriter to be used for recording:

  • the flow of experience: high speed, nonverbal methods of converting experiences into language
  • session programming: communication with subject to get feedback/provide intervention in the direction of the plan
  • extrasensory perception research: patterns of telepathic communication between two keyboards in separate spaces
  • physiological studies of consciousness: correlating experience patterns with neurological recordings through a secondary polygraph
  • detailed languages of consciousness: the alteration of the keyboard codes

Leary explained

The experiential language should be able to cover generally all the terms now used in our denotational “external” language as well as experiences beyond the present vocabulary. In addition, the experiential language should be based as closely as possible upon biological and physical processes. The language should also be capable of coding the broad range of experiences which jumble together physical sensations and mental constructions—which we call hallucinations.

Noting that, “There are, at present, no linguistic systems set up to distinguish between internal and external, or to distinguish various levels of consciousness” (75)

What interests me about the Experiential Typewriter is the move beyond established/external semiotics to account for (bodily/sensory) experience. Leary was trying to give language to things like hallucinations, bodily sensations, sick sensations, sense of place/space, and combinations across these categories as they were experienced in something like synesthesia. I’m thinking through his experiments with the typewriter as trying to create a system, both in terms of language and technology, that could make material affective.

I am working on a series of posts based on Leary’s Experiential Typewriter as a means of exploring non-linguistic sensory systems. In the next post, I will be tracing Leary’s work into the early web and virtual reality tools.

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