So far, the number of times I've achieved enlightenment and broken mental plateaus because of a Groupon is remarkably low, but that didn't stop me from purchasing three sessions in a sensory deprivation tank. I always thought it would be very relaxing to put on scuba gear and go to sleep underwater, so, filled with a cautious optimism that one experiences before drinking expired milk or (I imagine) playing Russian Roulette, this seemed like the next best thing.
Sensory deprivation tanks have been around since 1954, when neuroscientist Dr. John C. Lilly developed them for the purpose of exploring one's consciousness. Lilly is best known for studying dolphin communication and taking LSD, as well as giving dolphins LSD. This may not seem immediately relevant to the floating at hand, but makes sense when reading his book, Deep Self: Consciousness in the Isolation Tank, and he refers to things like the "metabelief operator," a suitably psychedelic concept aimed at tempering one's expectations before hopping into an isolation chamber.
"In the province of the mind, in the inside reality, what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits," Lilly writes in the book, which sounds like acid-dosed dolphinspeak for the psychology term "self-fulfilling prophecy," and I am glad I did my sensory deprivation sessions prior to reading this book.
Lilly's first sensory deprivation tank required an underwater breathing apparatus. Luckily for me, they no longer require any such machinery. It is just a tank filled with over 1,000 pounds of epsom salts and "skin-temperature water" (roughly 94 degrees) devoid of any outside stimuli. Your body is suspended in this salty solution, which allows you to float. After a few moments, "you lose track where your body ends and the water begins," according to promo materials—apparently just like the 90s Capri Sun commercials where you turn into a puddle of Mercury.
It is Saturday afternoon. Per the internet's advice, and common sense, I have refrained from indulging myself in large amounts of alcohol the night prior, and have not had any coffee in the morning (you're not supposed to have caffeine less than 8 hours before, as it can prevent the desired relaxing effects of floating).
I would describe this experience as having peaceful dreams, and then waking up because your roommate is waterboarding you
I am the only non-white person in the establishment. They make you watch a 5-minute video on an iPad before floating. This is the first time I've been called a cosmic journeyer. As part of the FAQ, they address the "isn't it boring being in there for an hour" with a very defensive "if you get bored with your thoughts, what does that say about you?" They compare the floating experience to being in the womb, which I don't personally recall, but imagine this is supposed to be peaceful.
I get in the float pod. Once I settle in, some zen/screensaver space music plays for the first 10 minutes. I feel like I am floating through space, like a line of text from the Star Wars opening credits. At first, I think this is a psychological sensation, until I physically bump into the wall. This continues to happen throughout the session, as there is not much clearance on either side of me. This is irritating, as each time I feel I am on the cusp of nirvana, I hit a wall. Maybe this is intentional, to serve as a metaphor for life. But these tanks can cost $10,000 or more, and the sessions were $45 per hour (thanks, Groupon), so that is an expensive metaphor.
You have to take some time to calm down in the pod, with many people saying it takes about 20 minutes to get comfortable. I begin to think about what I'm going to do after I get out of this pool. My mind begins to relax, and I start feeling guilty that I've paid money to float in a salty puddle, while some people don't get to eat. Eventually I fall asleep.
I wake up, a bit confused as to where I am. Music has been playing, and there is a light on, both signals that your session is over and it's time to get out. I am startled, as I am naked, and don't want of these peaceful receptionists to open the tank and see me laying there, naked (also note, I am naked). This ordeal reminds me of the scene in The Matrix when Neo wakes up in the weird bathtub. I would describe this experience as having peaceful dreams, and then waking up because your roommate is waterboarding you. This is dumb, and I'm never doing it again.
While the efficacy of sensory deprivation tanks has not been concretely shown in traditional literature, they are embraced by the alternative medicine community. Beneficial meditation can happen while in the tank, and proponents claim more tangible physical effects continue once leaving. One of my float guides/senseis/receptionists noted that floating in magnesium sulphate helped her bones heal from the "pains of life, and standing up," while another noted the floating sessions helped him recover from his Brazilian jiu-jitsu sessions.
A 2009 study on short-term sensory deprivation found that "hallucination-prone individuals experienced more perceptual disturbances when placed in short-term sensory deprivation than nonprone individuals." So sitting in an isolation tank is liable to make you hallucinate, especially if you're already prone to doing so. This seems to support Dr. Lilly's concept of the sensory deprivation tank being limited by your metabelief operator, or your own ability to open your mind to new possibilities.
I have found a float station closer to my apartment. I have opted for a float room, which is offered for those who are claustrophobic. This seems counterintuitive once I see the room. It is barely larger than the pod. I still bump into the wall. It is 7:30 PM on a Wednesday evening, and my mind is wandering much more than it was on a Saturday afternoon. One recurring thought is that this may be the longest hour of my life.
This place has not done proper soundproofing, and it is unnerving to head the occasional footstep or shutting door. I know it's not going to happen, but part of me thinks maybe someone will open the door to this tank and steal my kidney. I begin to think, does anyone know I came here? Why didn't they take down any of my information?
No one steals my kidney. Again, I am reminded of the previous float's thought: I am floating in privilege, and my body is soaked in guilt. Eventually, I fall asleep again.
After what seems like an eternity, I am woken up due to a slight suction-like feeling near my back. The water level seems to be lowering. I had missed the musical cue, it seems, and my fear of being found naked is about to be realized. I try to find the door to the pod (there is no light, and it's pitch black) and over the course of the float I've moved 270 degrees. I remind myself that there is in fact, a door somewhere, and find it after a half a minute or so. Again, not very relaxing.
For a less psychedelic perspective than Lilly's, I spoke to a friend, Dr. Deepak Cyril D'Souza. D'Souza is a Yale faculty professor and psychiatrist who runs a schizophrenia research lab and has used sensory deprivation as a medium for research in the past.
"You can't tell a monkey to tell you if it's hearing voices," he explained, so instead, his team will induce hallucinations in healthy human subjects as part of schizophrenia research. The hallucinations are induced via mind-altering drugs such as ketamine, THC, and salvia, paired with a sense-deprived environment. In this case, they use a "mindfold" and noise-cancelling headphones.
D'Souza has tried this environment for himself sans the drugs, and said it was "unnerving" and that he quickly "lost track of time" and experienced "perceptual alterations." Many of his healthy subjects experience perceptual alterations within 20 minutes of sensory deprivation, even in the absence of drugs. This supports the prior claim, where people in sensory tanks feel like they are melting in the water, within 20 minutes of floating.
It's 10:15 on Monday evening. I arrived early, so they're going to let me float for 75 minutes. I've not had caffeine for at least six hours, and I went to the gym earlier, so I am pretty tired. These details are relevant, as they help you understand how I fell asleep relatively quickly into the float.
I wake up prior to the soft warning light and music coming on. For a brief moment, I think I've been sleeping for a few hours, and the guy who runs the place has locked up without me. The music comes on, and I get out, relieved. (Note: the door is never locked.) I feel a bit lighter, very ready to go to sleep, and overall relieved that I don't have to do this anymore.
D'Souza seemed skeptical of the sensory deprivation tank business, especially the capacity in which I was using it. He notes that some people are more prone to hallucinations, which can be measured by scales like the Wisconsin Psychosis Proneness Scale and the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire. People who "score" higher on these tests are more likely to believe in phenomena like alien abductions, and are often more suggestible, he noted, and he figured these are probably more likely to use sensory deprivation tanks recreationally. I made it clear I was attending the tanks "on assignment," and not as a tinfoil hat owner.
The mindset one should enter a sensory deprivation tank is similar to taking a placebo pill that might be LSD. You should have an open mind and a positive attitude, otherwise you may have a very unpleasant time. Your brain can enter a theta state, which is that magical drowsy feeling before you fall asleep, where dreams and reality are one, and also a great tagline for my future sensory deprivation tank business.
The overall effects of the sensory deprivation tank seemed positive. Aside from waking up and not knowing where I was, and briefly choking on disgusting epsom salt water, I did seem to sleep better that evening. I felt at rest, but nothing more than a 60 minute nap will do. I did seem to enter this "theta" brainwave state, as I do remember drifting off to sleep and waking up multiple times.
Be wary that all the "supporting evidence" for sensory deprivation that you'll see from these businesses seem to be very beneficial for them, financially—e.g. "You should float regularly for optimal results." Still, if you have the money and don't have claustrophobia, it can't hurt to check out. I probably won't pay for this experience again, as I can't deal with the pangs of guilt associated with driving somewhere and paying money to take a nap in a $10,000 bathtub.