Unwellness is a new column that looks to alternative, new-age therapies to ease the age-old anxiety of existence.
Sometime around the end of last year, I realized I had a problem: I couldn’t live without my phone. When my Google Pixel broke down, I walked up and down Oxford Street about three times trying to convince various Carphone Warehouses to replace my handset. I knew my sense of mounting panic— I didn’t have a phone! What was I going to take pictures with? My mind?!—was totally disproportionate to the actual scale of the problem. My phone doesn’t do anything except pipe a sewage tunnel of bad news directly into my brain: Brexit, Trump, Kavanaugh, climate change. It makes me late for work and late to bed. When I can’t sleep, I feel my hand contort around a phantom phone, my thumb twitching like it’s scrolling through a ghostly news feed. Sometimes I cave and reach for the actual thing and spend the next two hours, drip-feeding myself the world’s tragedies, tweet by tweet, and growing more awake and hating myself by the second.
I needed to unplug. This is how I find myself in Vauxhall, London, staring at a hulking white space pod that looks like something from The Fifth Element. This is a sensory deprivation tank, or, to give its trade name, an i-sopod floatation tank. When I grab the cover of the tank, it springs open to reveal an ominously churning pool of water. The filtration system is working hard; the half a ton of Epsom salts have already been dropped in. I am ready to float, without any noise, light or any kind of sensory input beyond water heated to skin temperature.
Floatworks, where I’ve come to try the tank, bills this as the “future of wellness.” Perhaps wisely, most places have rebranded “sensory deprivation” as gentler-sounding “floatation therapy” or just plain “floating.” I don’t want any of this milquetoast upselling, though. Deprive me, please! I want to feel like my entire brain has been scooped out like ice cream.
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The first floatation tank was developed by John C. Lilly, an American neuroscientist and philosopher who experimented with LSD and ketamine in the tanks and attempted to use them to communicate with dolphins. Interspecies communication and psychedelic trips are emphatically not on the menu today. When I meet Floatworks co-founder Chris Plowman, he tells me visitors are told not to even drink caffeine or alcohol ahead of their visit. “It puts you in a state of alert,” he says. I’ve also been told not to shave—the saltwater can sting. “Take your time so you’re not running through the door,” he adds. “And come with an open mind.”
This is terrible news for me, as I’m very late and have literally run from the tube to Floatworks. Plowman has the kind of vibe that I can only describe as “early 2000s Burning Man before the start-up VCs got in.” He has a shaved head and speaks very slowly, in the manner of someone who once used to speak too fast, and has the most terrifyingly upright posture of anyone I have ever seen.
“Me and my business partner Ed Hawley launched Floatworks in April 2016,” he says. They bought the brand off one of the first floatation centers in London. “I'd been in the banking industry for seven years and was very disillusioned with it all. I felt like I didn't really have a clear direction and was spending a lot of time drinking and partying.” His mental health suffered, and he cycled through doctors and institutions. “I reached a tipping point where I was in hospital and felt terrible.” He started meditating and tried out floating after a physiotherapist said that it might help his back injury. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I think I fell asleep halfway through, woke up at the end of the session feeling absolutely incredible—like it was the first time I’d properly let go of my worries in the past few years.”
I’ve wanted to try a sensory deprivation tank ever since I saw it in Stranger Things. (To recap: psychically gifted pre-teen Eleven is able to reach new dimensions and spy on people when she’s dunked in one.) But I didn’t expect one in real life to be so space age. Plowman tells me that each pod costs about £20,000, which makes sense—they have the kind of incomprehensible heft that I only associate with very, very expensive things from the future. Floatworks has four of them and accommodates up to 40 people every day—demand is so high that it’s opening a second location in London in April.
The benefits of “floating” are numerous, Plowman says. Singers and artists regularly drop in because, understandably, getting away from it all can be “very good for creativity and problem solving.” The amount of salt in the water makes it twice as dense as the Dead Sea, which means that people float effortlessly on the surface of the water, allowing the back, neck, and shoulders to relax. “It's very good for athletic performance and recovery—we get a lot of marathon runners, boxers, and swimmers coming in as part of their training.”
Plowman adds: “People can have experiences in there—essentially people can go in there and feel a sense of connection or reconnection with themselves that we all lose in our day to day worries.” I am not sure what he means by “experiences,” but I can guess. Someone in the visitors’ guestbook, after all, has artistically rendered their experience in the pod as a mass of tentacles exploding out of the paper. “The brain can do interesting things in there,” Plowman says mildly. “Lots of people report having certain images in their mind or flashbacks. That's all cool, whatever happens in there is good.”
Scientists are now studying the effects of floatation therapy—in one admittedly small trial of 50 participants, researchers at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, found “significant reductions in stress, muscle tension, pain, depression, and negative affect, accompanied by a significant improvement in mood.” But will it break my smartphone addiction to the 24-hour news cycle? Plowman is convinced. “I can't think of a better tool than floating for what you just described. It's the antidote to always being on, because it's a chance to be off.”
I’m trying to remember all this when I insert my swimming earplugs in, slide into the strangely slippery water, and close the lid behind me. My entry into the water is soundtracked by light New Age muzak piped into the tank, and I have the option to turn off the dim light in the pod. When I sit back into the water, my body immediately straightens out and I float perfectly, without a single tense muscle. After a few minutes, I manoeuvre myself over to hit the light button and am suddenly plunged into complete darkness.
My first immediate thought is how awful it would be to be on drugs in this thing. Then my second thought is: Oh god, this is really boring. Like, really boring. How am I going to survive 60 minutes in this thing? A regular session is an hour, but Plowman told me that some people do back-to-back floats. Some people stay in for up to four hours. How is that even possible? I start to feel a little bit of panic crawl up my throat. The music lasts only a few minutes—then it's just me and total silence in the dark.
I feel very, very bored for what feels like a long while. It is so dark that my eyes can’t even adjust to anything. Occasionally, I reach up to scratch an itch on my face and curse myself as the saltwater stings my eyes. Luckily, they’ve provided a spritz bottle of fresh water in the pod so I can wash it out.
It’s not sensory deprivation, exactly—I can still feel the warm water lapping against my skin, and I can sense the walls of the pod when I float too near them. Then I get this strange sensation where I could literally be anywhere—could I be on the top of the ocean under a very black night sky, for instance? Am I just on top of a raft? My thoughts start to jumble together in the pleasant mush I associate with sleep.
Then I wake up, because the muzak restarts to signal that the whole session is over.
I’ve been asleep the entire time.
At first, I’m furious. Did I just waste an hour where I could be communicating with dolphins or getting in touch with some kind of higher power? In the designated “chill-out room” for people post-float (Floatworks have wisely declined to refer to their visitors “floaters”), I meet a university student with a shaved head who is so evangelical that they tell Plowman that they’re applying for a job with him. What do they know that I don’t?
I am released from Floatworks into the gray, rainy afternoon, but not before receiving a long hug from Plowman. Then, on the way back into work, I realize that I’m standing straighter than I have in ages. My neck and shoulders, which are usually tensed into a near-constant hunch, feel more relaxed than ever. Who knew that it took that much effort to stay upright? I genuinely feel like my head is floating on top of my neck. For some reason, an hour’s nap in the pod translated to feeling like I had a really, really good night’s sleep after a long massage.
Did it help break my phone addiction? Well, no. I feel so well-rested that I can’t get to bed. When Plowman asks me how I slept that night, I have to be honest with him: I stayed up till 1AM that night scrolling through Twitter. He emails back: “Your phone can certainly undo a lot of the good work :)."