How sensory deprivation tanks can make you zen

Music blaring, phones buzzing, cars honking, computer screens shining, people talking, and talking..

Our daily lives are typically consumed with distracting sensory stimuli such as these.

Our brain is a powerfully complex organ that will absorb the surrounding sensory input and process it in an orderly fashion, but what if our brains were given a little break from all the sensory stress? What if we were given the opportunity to float in space like an astronaut and ponder the mysteries of the universe? How would depriving the brain of all senses affect physical and psychological functioning? Maybe the thought of this intrigues you, maybe it causes anxiety, but neurophysiologist, John Lily, found a way to remove all sensory input and create an illusion of floating in space.

Lily developed a technique in 1954 called the Flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique, in which subjects would lay face-up in a tank filled with a foot of water and Epsom salt solution, which would allow participants to stay afloat.

The temperature of the water would calibrate to a person’s skin temperature, allowing subjects to feel as if they are floating in space. The tank was located in a completely dark room, and subjects were given earplugs as they kept their ears submerged under the water to remove any sound stimuli. This experiment would last for about an hour, and Lily found that it lowered stress levels in subjects who participated. He determined that external stimuli like gravity, light, sound, and touch comprise 90% of the body’s central nervous system processes. Engaging in this Flotation Rest technique allowed individuals to reach a deep state of relaxation and provided many benefits, both mental and physical.

flotation tankCarsten Höller’s installation Psychotank, 1999 Photo: © Carsten Höller / Courtesy the artist / Attilio Maranzano

Flotation tanks were becoming popular in the ‘70’s-80’s, however, the HIV/AIDS scare put an abrupt stop to the practice, for fear of spreading the disease through communal bath water, which was a common misconception.

In the past few years, however, these sensory deprivation tank facilities have begun cropping up all over the world, with over 300 facilities across the United States. Many of these flotation pods are situated in physical therapy clinics, mental health facilities and gyms. The water is replaced after each use through a thorough cleaning system, and clients are to shower in the provided areas with soap and shampoo before entering the private pod. There are remote capabilities given to each client where they can regulate the darkness of the room as well as whether they would like for the pod lid to be shut for the complete darkness effect.

PhD candidate, Kristoffer Jonsson, who works in a flotation research lab at Karlstad University in Sweden, found that flotation shows to be an effective technique to prevent sick leave, as well as an effective treatment for stress-related conditions and chronic pain disorders.

Herbal teas and relaxing books typically accompany the $99/hour sessions in the comfy waiting room. Famous people like “Fear Factor” host Joe Rogan and members from “Orange is the New Black” have visited these facilities, commenting on its effectiveness in healing physical pain as well as allowing them to reach a deeper state of consciousness.

While there have been numerous research studies and personal experiences that provide evidence to the benefits of these sessions, there are always negative aspects to consider before trying it out.

One woman, Allison Davis, wrote an article for the New York Times recounting her terrifying experience in a flotation pod. She could not get herself to relax, and instead began thinking of worst-case scenarios such as drowning or catching a disease, which, she agreed were irrational thoughts. The Epsom salt concentration is high enough that it would be difficult to even turn over if there was a possibility of falling asleep and drowning within the pod. Also, the emphasis on cleanliness in the facilities ensures that the pods are sanitized and provided fresh water for each use. Davis made the point that it may be important to have some experience with meditation before expecting great results from the experience.

It is easy to get anxious or nervous with new experiences, especially those that block out the senses. Those who have had practice with meditation, however, have found to reach a theta state of consciousness, in which the brain is between staying awake and falling asleep. This state of mind is associated with learning, memory and creativity.

A common goal is to reach this deeper meditative state, and with practice, it can be achieved, perhaps even more quickly with the utilization of sensory deprivation techniques.

The numerous benefits of relaxation, reduced anxiety levels and decreased pain outweigh the fears that may be associated with the flotation pods. While the sessions are a bit pricey, the deep relaxation effects that transpire may be worth experiencing, as many have felt that it can “take you out of this world.”

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