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.


essential elements: particles of study

I feel like I’ve been at a lull as of late; too much thinking and striving for concrete or complete thoughts, which always results in stifled activity. My head’s at capacity and nothing is being created for anxiety over spark like thoughts (a flash | quick burn). So I turn to my creative catalyst: wandering the aisles of Meijer in flickering fluorescence and listening to Radiolab like voiceover narration to my daily activities.

Radiolab’s short Solid as a Rock, interviews Jim Holt on his book Why Does the World Exist?, and works to push on our conception of the universe as solid/physical matter to consider the material stuff of the world as less solid – what we can put our fingers on resembles something more like a thought, a mathematical equation, or an ethereal cloud instead of fitted blocks. Holt explains “whether, at its very base, the universe is made up of solid bits and pieces of stuff…or a cloudy foundation that, more than anything else we can put our fingers on, resembles thoughts and ideas.” He goes on “If you start slicing and sleuthing in subatomic particle land — trying to get to the bottom of what makes matter — you mostly find empty space. Your hand, your chair, the floor…it’s all made up of mostly of nothing. So what makes it all take shape?”

My mind sparked. I wondered if this might be a useful way of thinking/questioning disciplinarity (what defines the field/discipline of rhetoric and composition) – something I often find myself questioning as a newcomer. Thought embers:

Our world(s) as appearance – thought, not substance – so what is our truth/reality made of?

What is the most essential nature of a rock? A thing? Or something harder to pin down…a  thought? What makes a rock a rock? When you hear the word rock, what do you imagine? And why this thing with these characteristics? Where does thing material and thing semiotic end?

Cutting up the stuff of reality into such itty bitty pieces it can go no further – atoms (the work of atomists). Is this how we think of our field’s materiality? And if not, if we look at larger assemblages of these small atom components, what is lost?

Gravity – what is the mechanism that mediates? Does a field need something that acts as gravity? Gravity created by the equation itself holds our matter together – but nature/reality has to be made of hard stuff, elements. Or at least an apparent solidity. What are the effects on what we can/can’t do?

(A connection, follow the link) Quantum Field Theory of Physics: a field is a stream of information through spacetime – where particles might be. We can’t see the thing itself, only the effect it has on other things – we can’t observe it, so how are we illustrating/understanding it to exist?

Micro/macro: big data and the minutia – what effects do they have on one another? What can we learn from them? What can be observed (and how)?

And what of time/situation? How do ideas shift, decompose, remain, fade?

In the field are little/big events, hiccups/hydrogen bombs of energy – stuff comes into existence. And then what? We need networks, energy transitions/traces (balanced equations?), shadows of ideas (Roland Barthes – that which has been). Structure without rigidity.

Reality is a flux of information.

The cosmos is ultimately a concept: the necessity and the difficulty in definition. I find myself thinking again of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By and how we often conflate things/materials/matter with language/semiotics by metaphor or symbol referent.

Contemplating disciplinarity in terms of field, but in the sense of quantum theory: what are we terming field? What is this based on? Is this observable? Can there be individual (or small collectives) fields? Are these subfields?

What is the most essential nature of a field?

What remains to study: the materiality of thought, of concept, of construction and the drawing of circles and borders.

David Tong: Lectures on Quantum Field Theory, University of Cambridge

an end to stagnation

(if I state it, it becomes fact, right? …)

too much stasis of thought. brain like pond (man made) in need of churning, of percolation, of thought bubbling to the surface even if they go “nowhere” but pop and recombine with molecules in the air. brain like pond scum. (speaking of scum, this coffee is quite bog-like. more scoops in a single pot doesn’t bring on more energy, but more acid reflux). a snippet of morning re-reading to vibrate and make vibrant matter (it’s spring: things are looking up, or rather, down with the help of theoria):

“Graphics reveal data.” The conviction that information exists outside of – or in advance of – the presentation of data in graphical form is problematic, even inaccurate, from both a theoretical and a practical point of view. On a mundane level, certainly we can understand that information designers see their task as the creation of clear, legible, unambiguous presentations of data. But every graphic representation is a rhetorical device. Every presentation structures arguments — it doesn’t “reveal” facts in all their purity through the fallible, flawed system of graphical expressions. The relations between what is communicated and how have to be acknowledged. (23)

Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Knowledge Production and Representation


places I haven’t been

Reading for tonight’s class (focused on maps and mapping), I began to think of odd encounters I’ve had with maps. I was never in this house, but I’ve heard many stories about the home my great grandmother lived in that straddled the border of Canada and Montana – parts of the house falling on either side of the border. As a child, I imagined a line existing where the border was.

When I got my teaching job in Colorado, the school didn’t have an address; it used the highway number it was off of. Recently, I noticed it had an established address that didn’t name the highway, but the number only.

I don’t tag photos on Facebook with a location, but I have been tagged in a few. I wonder what this map of places I have been recently looks like and how it shapes a representation of me.

Gearing up toward moving in the summer to a place I have never been, I’m looking at pictures and Google maps to create a representation of the place and potential spaces to occupy. These are only what I construct from a distance.

Each time I go somewhere unfamiliar, my dad preps me with expedition tools, despite now owning a GPS. He typically talks through detailed directions, moves into sketching a more focused view of areas of potential problems (street view with directional flow notations), and equips me with a local map and an atlas.

Filling out applications, many required a specific address for campus beyond the building name. Street didn’t seem to match up in some cases, and there was a want for numerical input. Room numbers were inputted, but I wonder if anyone might look for 612 Pray-Harrold?

Not sure if it’s related to my migraines/chiari, but I have what has been described as a very strong sense of smell. Or at least one that focuses in on naming specific smells and combinations of smells. I am now imagining creating maps for areas I live based on the smells that are associated with them. Not permanent, but fleeting sensory maps of places one hasn’t fully been.

head in the clouds

Screen shot 2013-01-31 at 3.52.02 PMmolecules are condensing to form my first web space.

forecast: over the weekend, 90% chance of the front moving to server space.

update: storm front moved in and pushed the site off course. this weekend, skies of the server space look clear.

the sky’s unfit for casting, for now; too charged with static.