I have a difficult time trying to relax. My type A personality always seems to get the best of me. Even with my meditation practice on point right now I still find it difficult to release stress, sleep, and reduce anxiety.
Last November I paid a guy named Crash forty bucks to take away my sight, hearing, and sense of gravity for 2 hours. In hopes of discovering a way to fully disconnect with my environment and relax.
Today’s article is all about sensory deprivation, float tanks, and my personal experience with them.
WHAT IS SENSORY DEPRIVATION?
Let me introduce you to neuroscientist John C. Lilly. The crazy MF that decided sensory deprivation might be a good idea. Sensory deprivation is when you’re deprived of some or all normal sensory simulation such as sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, thermoception (temperatures), and even gravity for an extended period.
Yeah, let that sink in for a second. Crazy, right?
To say Lilly is an interesting gent is an understatement. He’s credited with being the first person to map pain and pleasure pathways in the brain. He founded an entire branch of science related to interspecies communication – primarily revolving around dolphins, humans, and whales. Lilly also experimented with mind-altering drugs like LSD…
So yeah, Lilly’s a bit out there.
Lilly came up with the idea for sensory deprivation while working for the Natural Institute of Mental Health in the early 1950s with the goal of isolating the brain from normal perceptual experiences.
Lilly estimated that gravity, light, sound, and touch accounted for up to 90% of the central nervous systems workload – and that sensory overload could have harmful effects. By removing environmental stimuli the central nervous systems (CNS) workload significantly decreases – promoting parasympathetic relaxation.
Think about it this way. Have you ever felt a little anxious, stressed out, and fatigued? All you want to do is be by yourself with some nice peace and quiet? You head to your room and lay down for a bit. Everything’s going well and then suddenly a bird is singing outside your window. It’s not entirely obnoxious but you’d wish it would stop. Then a little light from your blinds starts peeking through and shines right on your face. Again, not the end of the world – you just turn your body a bit and you’re ok. Then your arm itches, then you smell something, Then it feels like a bug landed on you, then you start to get cold so you put on a blanket, then you start to get hot so you take it off. Relaxation ruined.
When all normal stimuli are removed you now have the ability to actually rest without any distraction. If you’re a little lost don’t worry. I’ll be going more in-depth in a few.
FLOAT TANKS, FLOAT REST, AND FLOAT THERAPY
Peter Suedfeld is a doctor who has spent the majority of his life studying how people cope in unusual, extreme, and challenging environments. His most famous for his work in the field of Restricted Environment Stimulation Therapy (REST). One subset of his work included research and testing with the use of float tanks.
Generally speaking, when in a floatation tank you’ll be in a light and sound free environment with skin temperature water – about 95 degrees – that’s filled with 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt. This much salt creates so much buoyancy that you can’t help but float perfectly on your back. When I was in the tank I tried my darndest to roll over and it was a workout in and of itself – I gave up.
There are 3 main types of floatation tanks.
Are what you may have seen in this Simpson’s episode. The company most associated with float pods is i-sopod. Pods are pretty sleek, stylish, and futuristic – they sorta look like they belong in the new Star Wars movies. I like to think of them as the Tesla of float REST therapy. They give floaters a lot of control over their experience by providing LED lighting and built-in speakers. This to me takes away from the experience as the idea is to have no stimulation. You get into them just like you would a tanning booth. Hop in, lay down, and close the lid over you.
FLOAT CABINS AND CHAMBERS
This is what I used when I went to the Float Lab in Westwood, California. Float cabins are usually built into a wall and are entered by opening a door and stepping in. Once you enter there is basically a large bathtub – but not as deep – in front of you. You have plenty of room to stand up and move around at any time while in the cabin. The dimensions of the Float Lab cabins housed in Westwood are 5′ Wide x 8′ Long x 7′ High with a large easy access door that is 3′ x 5′.
Think Minority Report except for way less creepy and you won’t be laying next to anyone. Float rooms are like cabins except that they are not enclosed and there is no door you go through to enter them.
If you’re wondering how the water is kept clean, you’re not alone. The last thing I wanted to do was lay down in the same water a bunch of other crazies did during the day. Most cabins are cleaned through a micro-filtering process and treated with bromine between each session. Float Room USA has this to say about the cleaning process:
Our filtration and sanitation systems are designed to turn the water over at least five times between each float session. Each unit is designed to meet the requirements of your local authorities and regulations. UV sanitation and particulate filtration is standard on all of our models. In addition to that , we use one or more of the following options: Bromine, hydrogen peroxide, Ozone
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS TO FLOATATION REST/THERAPY
Short term sessions lasting 15 to 30 minutes have been shown to promote general relaxation. Extended sessions lasting 90 to 120 minutes have been shown to reduce anxiety. Because float tanks eliminate gravity your joints are able to release tension.
Other reported benefits include:
- Reduced stress
- Improved sleep patterns
- Normalized blood pressure
- Enhanced ability to focus and concentrate
- Improved creativity
- Strengthened immune system
- Pain relief
- Reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD
- Decreased feelings of vertigo
- Accelerated recovery from jet lag
One of the more interesting benefits is that you’re able to transition from beta to alpha to theta brain waves.
Theta waves usually show themselves before falling asleep and as your waking. When your brain is in theta state it is in deep relaxation – think deep meditation and light sleep – It’s often considered your subconscious, where memories and feelings lie. Some say it may even direct your thoughts and behaviors.
In theta state the body begins to release endorphins, the feel good smiley stuff into the blood stream. When this happens, adrenaline, cortisol (“the stress hormone”), and lactate are removed from the blood stream. Now the feel good stuff takes over and stuff related to stress like blood pressure, headache, hypertension, and insomnia are reduced.
Although there’s not a lot of research out there on the benefits of epsom salt it’s been reported to draw toxins out of the body, sedate the nervous system, and reduce swelling. I’m not sure how I feel about those claims but I do know that one study conducted at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom showed that after an epsom salt bath all but 2 of 19 test subjects showed higher levels of magnesium in their blood. Which is a good thing because it’s important for many bodily processes and most of us are deficient in it (1).
Floatation REST is now being used in mental care programs, fitness training, sports medicine, and even the New England Patriots have a couple of tanks at their training facility.
WHAT TO EXPECT DURING YOUR FIRST FLOAT
Of the three float tanks described above I’ve only experienced float cabins at the float lab in Westowood, California – so I’m going to have to come at you from that angle.
The room you enter that houses the cabin will most likely be immaculate. Super clean, minimalist, and welcoming. I highly recommend using the restroom before heading into the cabin. The last thing you want to have to do while in there is get out and pull a number 1. Or worse, a number 2.
Sorry if you’re a Tobias Funke and never nude but it’s a requirement to be nude in the cabins. Being naked will actually enhance your experience. The idea is to have zero environmental stimulation and if you can feel your bathing suite, waist band, or any other article of clothing it sort of defeats the purpose.
After going full monty you’ll take a quick shower to cleanse the body before entering the cabin. Next you’ll put in some ear plugs to keep the salt water out of your ears while laying down.
After entering the cabin you’ll close the door behind you and sit down in about 10 to 12 inches of body temperature water. If the water didn’t move when you entered it you would actually never even know you’re in water. You’ll sink to the bottom but the minute you lift your butt up you’ll float right to the surface.
As you lay back and put your head into the water your ears will sink just below the water line. When I went for the first time I thought this felt a little weird. I played with my head position a little by tilting my chin down, then lifting it up, but eventually deciding that it was best to just relax and let the water decide how my head should float.
Expect to be a little anxious and uncomfortable at first. The most difficult part of the process for me was being so alone with my thoughts. I was surprised by how much my environment distracts me from getting inside of my head. As you’ll read below my mind was racing from one thing to the next. I had good thoughts, bad thoughts, scary thoughts, and thoughts that made me question what I was doing with my life.
Expect to lose track of time. If your session is 2 hours it will feel like 1. If your session is 1 hour it will feel like 30 minutes.
After your session is up and you leave the cabin you’ll rinse off. Keep your mouth and eyes shut tight as to not get any of the epsom salt into them for obvious reasons.
You’ll most likely feel lighter on your feet, relaxed, peaceful, and maybe even a little disoriented. Not a couple of drinks in disoriented or got hit on the head with a frying pan disoriented but just a little out of it. Personally, I felt like Play-Doh.
I wish I could give you some more insight as to what the rest of your experience may be like but I can’t. After researching and reading hundreds of studies and experiences I’m confident in saying that your time in the cabin will be unique to you.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH FLOAT TANKS
The Float Labs owner is Crash and he looks like the kind of guy that would own a float lab. Crash is a tall lanky dude with messy brown hair and shades. The float lab is located on the bottom floor of a small building on a side street in Westwood, California. There’s no windows in the lab so only one can imagine why he’s wearing shades.
Crash is a super cool dude, funny, and kind – we talked rock bands for a little and he went over the process with me and three other people who would be floating that day.
I opened the door to my room and was surprised by how beautiful it was. I disrobed and got in to the shower. We were told to rinse off before entering the float cabin to wash away any contaminants.
After washing I looked at the orange door that would lead me to the actual cabin. It looked heavy and the outside of the cabin sort of reminded me of the large freezers that they use to store food in at restaurants.
I opened the door and as I looked inside I was surprised by how dark it was. Even with the light from the room behind me I could not see much inside. Everything looked to be covered in a black tarp – I couldn’t help but think that it was the same type of tarp that they put dead bodies in.
I reluctantly stepped in but did not shut the door behind me yet. I won’t lie to you, I was afraid once it shut I wasn’t going to be able to open it again and be stuck in there forever, so I held it open. I put my feet into the water. It was warm and felt thick. I turned around so that I was facing the door I had just walked into. I slowly shut the door behind me and then re-opened it right away to make sure that I would be able to get out. I then repeated this process about 12 more times because I’m a wuss.
Once confident that I would be able to open the door I sat down in the epsom salt filled water. My butt touched the bottom of the tub I was in. I spread my arms wide to the sides of me searching for the walls. I couldn’t feel them. I had to stretch further and was comforted by the feeling that I had so much room to move around.
I slowly moved my hands to the side of my butt. I’m still not sure why I moved so slowly. Nerves maybe. As I felt my hands touch my sides I pressed into the bottom of the tub to lift my butt up. I couldn’t believe at how quickly my pelvis floated towards the top of the water. I meticulously started to lay back. As soon as my upper back hit the water I couldn’t resist the buoyancy anymore. My hands came away from the bottom of the tub, my feet floated up to the surface, and my head went back into the water. My float game was now strong.
I laid their naked for what must have been about 30 seconds. I was just taking in the feeling of actually floating like that. It was kind of surreal. I then opened my eyes to see how dark it actually was in the room. It was dark. Like black hole welcome to the Abyss dark. There was absolutely no light. I could not see anything.
I closed my eyes again and tried my best to listen for sounds. I heard nothing. The ear plugs, water level slightly over my ears, and sound proof room created a completely silent environment.
For the next few minutes I played around with laying in different positions to find what was most comfortable for me. I put my hands behind my head, crossed my feet, placed my hands on my chest, laid their with my arms by my side. All of them felt great. I settled in on just laying their straight with my arms slightly away from my body.
I was having a hard time totally relaxing and this began to frustrate me. I started to wonder if I was doing this right.
Then it happened. I couldn’t help but think is this what it’s like to die.
Then my mind began to race. I thought about work, writing, flag football, my grandmother that passed away a few years ago, my girlfriend, ex-girlfriends, that funny scene in the movie Hall Pass where they’re caught on the security cameras, what I was doing with my life, back to flag football, then my grandmother again, then more work, and why I wasn’t able to shut off my f***ing brain so that I could fully relax.
It felt like this went on for a few minutes. Then everything went black. The last thing I remember was seeing a black tunnel and be hurled down it at lightening speed.
I’m still not sure if I passed out or not. I actually remember me moving my body a couple of times in the water to change positions. I also remember wondering if I had completely spun around. When you’re weightless like that you don’t really have a great sense of direction. It felt like I had completely turned around in the water or was at least slowly spinning around in it – I later found out I wasn’t.
I started to come to and was a little confused by what had happened. I remember being hurled down a tunnel and fidgeting a little in the water but that was about it. I was now entirely awake, extremely relaxed, and comfortable in my environment.
I laid there for a few more moments, very happy with my experience. I remember thinking to myself that I can’t believe I’ve been laying in here completely still for the past 45 to 60 minutes. I still had about 60 minutes to go in my session but I wanted to get out at this point. I had got what I wanted from the experience and was ready to be on my way. I convinced myself to lay there for about 10 more minutes before exiting.
Then there was a knock on the wall behind me. Crash had told us before we entered that he would come by and knock on the wall by our heads when our 2 hour session was up.
When I heard that knock I little said, “What the fuck. No way.” Had I really been in there for 2 hours?
I got out of the water, opened the door to the cabin, and exited. I immediately looked at the clock. 2 hours and 10 minutes had passed since I first entered the cabin. My mind was blown. It felt like I had been in there for 45 minutes.
I stepped into the shower to rinse the salt off of my skin – I can confirm the suppleness – and out of my hair. Carefully keeping my mouth closed and my eyes pinched tight as to not get any of the salt into them.
I exited the room and walked down the hallway and out the back door into a small ally behind the float lab. I was so relaxed. I had never felt so calm before. I walked around the corner to my motorcycle, it felt like I was moving in slow motion. Maybe I was doing it on purpose as to not rush and disrupt my zen like state.
Before getting on my bike I usually pull up some tunes on my iPhone to listen to as I travel but not today. I wanted to ride the bike in silence.
PS: If any of you are out in SoCal and want to float together (not in the same tank of course) let me know.
PPS: If you’re interested in learning more about float REST and sensory deprivation below are some great resources.
- The Float Lab
- Floatation Tanks
- One writer’s 60 minute experience
- Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments
- The Float Tank Cure
- The Book of Floating
- Scientific American
- Short term sensory deprivation
- Primary process in competitive archery performance: Effects of floatation REST
- Float REST as a stress management tool
Photo: Yulia Sobol