When I was young, I decided to make a thorough tour of my local library by starting at Dewey Decimal 000 and working my way up. I didn’t get too far because I got very wrapped up in 110 – Metaphysics and 130 – Parapsychology. Aside from books discussing psychokiesis, ESP, ghosts, and transmutations of the soul, there were books that discussed various states of consciousness and the (miraculously extensible) limits of the human body. This is where I first learned about things that continue to exist on the fringes of science, but that seem to be reaching more into the mainstream public’s spotlight of attention — lucid dreaming, cryonic preservation, and sensory deprivation, among others.
In works mentioning sensory deprivation, John C. Lilly’s work was inevitably highlighted. In the 1950s, while working at NIMH, Lilly — yes, the same Lilly that gave LSD to dolphins in the name of science — was at the forefront of a whole cadre of scientists investigating the effects of sensory deprivation. Although most of those scientists concluded that sensory deprivation was harmful and caused distress, Lilly was one of the few to realize that the methods employed by those other scientists were suspect. In an early lecture on isolation tanks reproduced in Tanks for the Memories, Lilly notes that others were strapping participants into chairs and forcing them to stare at blank walls, having them lie motionless in artificial respirators (iron lungs), or placing paper over their participants eyes while shining a bright light against the paper and playing loud white noise in the background (deprivation through masking stimuli). Tellingly, none of those participants asked to repeat those studies, particularly as prolonged sitting in one position can produce considerable discomfort / pain. Lilly’s method was notably simpler — put people in water in the dark. Much like me, Lilly was the type of scientist who believed that if you are going to subject people to an experiment, you should run yourself in it as well (excepting things like drug therapies tailored to certain illnesses, of course), and he and his wife subjected themselves to hundreds of hours of accumulated isolation time. They found they were absolutely hooked on it. Likewise, participants begged to be able to participate again and again, and from there, the whole thing took off. Lilly found himself building tanks wherever he went and making converts of those who tried it (including physicist Richard Feynman!). In the public’s hands, though, reports started getting more… mystical. People reported visual hallucinations, sudden healing, out-of-body experiences, spiritual breakthroughs, the ability to see into the future (<– I kid you not)…
Clearly, I was interested in trying it for myself.
Rochester, in 2013, opened its heart to the Bodymind Float Center. They are, apparently, “the largest float center in Western New York and [home to] the state’s only couple’s float tank.” I heard of them, though, only more recently through one of those pamphlets you see in racks at local cafés and theatres — the kind of pamphlet that, once in your possession, you can never really remember where you picked it up. It was $65 for a 1.5 hour float, which included showers pre- and post-float, and herbal tea afterward — comparable to other spa treatments, I reasoned — and, most importantly, I could book it from my smartphone. If it ended up being a 1.5 hour soak in the dark, well, at least it was bound to be relaxing.
Arriving at the center this morning, the first thing to greet me was a sign politely asking me to remove me shoes. Somehow this fit with the overarching feel of new-wave primitivism-being-best-ism. I wondered if I would find crystals within. The answer was: …sorta. Their interior decorating scheme was sparse but clean — whites and greys, mostly — but was also notably
preoccupied obsessed with salt. Framed photos of salt, salt lamps, even a salt therapy room (which basically sounded like a room where you can go sit quietly surrounded by salt… for… healing purposes?). After being greeted by a quiet-voiced counter-attendant, I was shown back to the room I had booked and introduced to the tank. It bore more than a passing resembance to an oven or a coffin, which made me vaguely uncomfortable, but I was here for an experience, dammit, so I tried to look calm and reassured. I expected a little more in the way of tutorial, but, when it comes down to it, there really isn’t that much to it. The flotation chamber is about 7 feet long, 4 feet wide, and about 4 feet tall. It’s filled with water and enough epsom salts to acheive a density where the human body is bouyant, and then it’s heated to approximately body temperature. You must shower thoroughly beforehand, and you enter the tank nude. There is a nightlight inside that you can turn off for complete darkness, and after that you just sort of… float there for an hour and a half. Quiet classical music is piped in at the end to let you know the time is up; you shower, and then retreat to the greeting area for tea.
So… my experience.
After showering, and upon entering the tank, I immediately realized (sitting in dense, body-temperature, salty water) that I needed to urinate. At first I thought I could ignore this, but I quickly came to realize that in the absence of other environmental stimuli, having to go to the bathroom is not ignorable. It’s like when you were young and on a car trip and you really had to go to the bathroom, but the person next to you was not sympathetic to your plight and started making waterfall noises to remind you of your increasingly full bladder as you waited patiently for the next rest stop two miles up the road. So, up, out of the tank, brief shower off, caaaaarefulllly on the tile floor so as not to slip, into the complimentary bathrobe, and across the hall to the bathroom. Relief. Okay. Now, back into the room, shower off my feet, and back into the tank. I tried to find a comfortable position, but quickly found that it was difficult for me to relax my neck. This turns out to be a common issue, so they suggest you try putting your hands behind your head, fingers locked, or that you try the included inflatable travel neck-pillow. Arms behind the head wasn’t bad, but made my arms tired, so neck pillow it was. Out of the tank again, grab the pillow, back into the tank. I was just starting to get the feel for this when I got a drop of water in my eye. “Oh, it’s just salt!” you might say. “Wrong!” I would say! Water with this much epsom salt in it burns, and so, as much as my eye was watering aplenty, it was necessary for me to use a damp cloth (provided) to wipe away the salts. So, out of the tank, wipe off eye, back in the tank. And then it happened almost immediately again as water dripped down my hair. Out of tank, wipe off eyes, back in tank. This happened about five times in a row. At that point, I decided to go nuclear — got out of the tank, showered again briefly to wash some of the salt off my face and to refresh the damp cloth, then back in the tank. Laying back down, I finally felt like I was starting to relax, when I noticed that there were two spots of light coming into the tank from the ventillation ducts. Realizing this would ruin my sensory deprivation experience, I begrudgingly got back out of the tank, shut off the lights in the room (leaving on the soft-light salt lamp in the corner, naturally) and got back in the tank. Okay, finally. Wonderful. Quiet, dark, warm, bouy– salt in the eye again. And again. And again. At this point, I’m starting to feel just about done with burning eyes, so I wipe off my whole face, decide to forgo opening my eyes again while in the tank, and just decide to float with my eyes shut. This troubleshooting has taken about half-an-hour, so I have about an hour left.
What was the rest of it like, you might ask? Well, as I suspected, it was basically like taking a body-tempreature bath in the dark. Sadly, not much to report. No visuals. No Ganzfeld Effect. No Prisoner’s Cinema. No out-of-body experiences. And certainly no visions of the future. From a cognitive standpoint, though, there were a few interesting, but mild, phenomena.
- When I first entered the tank and laid down in the dark water, I had a slight vertiginous feeling. Like I was tumbling sideways. This, I felt, was fascinating. The body, deprived of anchoring stimuli, had a hard time determining when the motion had ceased. I would find out later that Lilly and his participants had noticed the same thing, and he even suggests that by sitting up a little in the tank and then laying back again, one can provoke the sensation of tumbing head-over-heels. Repeating can intensify this sensation. Although I was at first concerned about becoming sea-sick, I found the feeling only lasted a few seconds at most.
- After turning off the nightlight in the tank, the relative dimensions of the tank still felt evident (I knew that the walls were approximately at arms reach), but my perception of the absolute size started shifting. I felt enormous. Like a whale in a tank. Perhaps the patina of “psychological experiment” was still coloring my experience, but this size-shifting was mingled with a sensation of being almost like a creature on display.
- At a later point, I also felt uncharacteristically small. Perhaps no longer than a foot in size. I have no explanation for this.
- When gently bouncing off the walls of the tank, I felt as if I had a sense of compass-like alignment. I felt I could determine how much I had rotated parallel to the surface of the water. I wonder how much of this was due to feelings of water gently moving the water bubbles trapped in my body-hair, creating a feeling of directional flow. Inevitably, I would find myself bumping into the same wall again, meaning that my imagined path was entirely incorrect. So much for being able to connect with my body’s inner compass…
- When my brain was finally was able to stop thinking about work and the things I needed to do in my life, I found that I reached a state of profound restfulness. If my eyes hadn’t been closed, I would have said I was seeing things from a place further back in my head than my eyeballs, as if stepping back in my own brain and looking from a more remote vantage point. But even this is not quite correct, as it didn’t feel more removed, but rather just more… in. Deeper within my own head. Whatever this state was, I imagine it may be what people who meditate (in certain traditions) seek — lack of thought and simple sense of calm being. It sort of surprised me, to be honest, so I was not able to stay in this state for more than a minute or so before my brain wanted to think about what was happening, leading to more thinking about my life stresses and chores and what-have-you. When I was able to distract myself again, I found myself again in this more “within” state for no more than a minute or two. However, taken altogether, this was a curious enough feeling that I would attempt to float again just to chase after this sensation.
About at this time, I started to hear the light classical music, and so exited the tank, carefully entered the shower, used the provided vinegar solution to remove the salt from my body, dried myself and dressed, realizing that I had to go to the bathroom almost like I had never gone before. I also realized that I was starting to feel sort of disoriented and woobly. I exited the room and found the soft-voiced counter-attendant coming from one of the back-rooms, smiling and saying, “Welcome back to gravity. How was your float?” This irritated me greatly at the time — partially because I had just spent a lot of time in the tank thinking about how gravity caused us to feel the physical sensations of weight and pressure, and partially because I really, really, really had to pee. (In retrospect, I find it kind of charming as part of the experience.) After relieving myself for what seemed to be forever, I stumbled (yes, I was feeling that disoriented) to the lobby, made myself some herbal tea, and while I was rehydrating, read one of Lilly’s lectures and paged through the guest book.
Looking at the various entries, I started to form a general hypothesis. Lots of people claimed astro-spiritual experiences, and a bunch more noted how disoriented they felt. I concluded: this was about 90% placebo, and about 10% moderate dehydration. As I made my way home, though, there were some other lingering effects. I did feel happy. I could feel myself smiling for no apparent reason. Things also seemed… less important. Like all the nonsense that grinds our gears day in and day out really… didn’t matter all that much. And what was more important was the sensation of living and of being alive — and that perhaps there could be no greater expression of that than moving somewhere where the weather is good and ocean waters are warm. A place to float….
Since arriving home, I’ve continued to rehydrate and am starting to feel more “normal”. That said, while writing this post, I was doing laundry. I just went to go check on the wash only to discover that I’d never closed the washer lid, leaving the clothes soaking in a washer full of sudsy water. My brain is apparently not quite back online yet.
Also, having washed myself off post-float with vinegar, I smell like a pickle.