Float-Tank Therapy: Experiencing Sensory Deprivation

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While I meet a handful of colorful characters—folks studying shamanic medicine or making claims to know how to build power generators that draw from the earth’s magnetism—I talk to just as many people who are simply looking for relaxation and the feel-good afterglow of flotation.

I’ve followed the simple instructions from the pamphlet Beginners’ Guide to Floating: “Don’t shave or wax before.” Check. “Eat a small meal one and a half hours prior.” All right. “Don’t drink caffeine before.” Done.

I’m on Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, Oregon, when I come to a window covered with a starburst tie-dyed tapestry. The other windowpanes are so thick with condensation they display only smudges of bright movement inside.

This must be the place. “Float On” reads the steamy door.

I’m here to begin an investigation into sensory deprivation with a 90-minute “restricted environmental stimulation technique” (REST) session in one of Float On’s four commercial flotation tanks.

In the waiting room, the humidity’s as thick as pink insulation. A turn-of-the-head survey reveals a multigenerational clientele, unified in quiet calm. This is the den of the nothing eaters. Couches and bookshelves line the public space, and clean hardwood floors–as well as tables dotted with drawing books, pastries, and teacups in various states of use–offer visual warmth.

A man behind a computer greets me by name, as if he’s known me for years. He is Christopher Messer, sensory-deprivation enthusiast for four decades and one of the owners of Float On. Messer shows me to the last in a row of private float rooms, each containing a tank, a shower, fresh towels, robes, and slippers. He explains the process: I’m to shower first, put in earplugs, turn off the light, then float calmly and effortlessly on my back, buoyed by the thrice-filtered water, which is 40 percent Epsom salt and kept at a temperature of 93.5 degrees.

Moments later I’m stepping from the shower and into the dark, black box.

I am kinda freaked out by the idea of floating. For me, the terms “sensory deprivation” and “flotation tank” are connected to ominous images of steeple-fingered scientists behind mirrored glass.

Consider a passage by E.R. Hilgard from Clinical and Experimental Restricted Environmental Stimulation discussing early experiments with sensory deprivation: “A student could be isolated for two or three days in a soundproof compartment box with a bed in it. . . . Communications between subject and experimenter were made through a headset.” The subject wore goggles over his eyes and cardboard sleeves over his arms and hands to snuff out any outside disturbance.

The public perception of modern-day sensory deprivation and recreational float tank use is improving as more commercial float centers sprout up around the globe (with the highest concentration in Sweden). Peter Suedfeld, one of the world’s leading experts on REST, cites subjects’ overwhelmingly positive emotional response to it. And research indicates that float tanks are a viable option for treating various physical ailments and mental and emotional disorders.

Suedfeld finds a strong link between REST and smoking cessation in 53 percent of patients. A study by Roderick Borrie and Tamara Russell observed a 25 percent reduction in pain after a fibromyalgia patient’s first float (which increased to 33 percent after the third session), as well as an increased level of relaxation and a decreased sense of stress. Trials conducted by Marianne Barabasz and Arreed Barabasz found REST an effective method in treating autism, curing eating disorders, and reducing alcohol consumption. Links are also being made between REST and heightened creativity.

Over a two-week period I spend nine artificial nights in the flotation tank, in the fashion of the nothing eater. My longest session is two and a half hours; the others are 90 minutes.

During my first session, I am initially bored and unsure of what to do with my time. This slowly gives way to a feeling of reliving some experience I never committed to memory, then hallucinations–smears of light like the anti-shadows of passing cars and the silhouette of an animal’s skull morphing into a single candy corn.

Each of the following sessions is a little different, but with commonalities. A disoriented sense of time is the most ubiquitous reoccurring theme: After the first half hour in the tank, a minute could be an hour and an hour could be a minute. Losing the will to think in terms of language is another common occurrence; the hallucinations are a repeating but less frequent feature.

Intense inward experience isn’t the only outcome. After my third session, beer–a once-favorite beverage–becomes entirely unappealing, along with alcohol in general, a side effect that lasts for weeks after my ninth session. I also notice a marked increase in my overall sense of well-being, while my persistent anxiety disappears completely. Additionally, I begin to write creatively with an uninhibited ease that I haven’t experienced in years. I am astounded by the changes.

Through discussions with other floaters, I learn that these experiences aren’t uncommon. Samantha LaMont, a professional baker, could be a poster child for the benefits of floating. Since her first session in February 2011, this weekly floater has quit smoking and lost 60 pounds following a tank-born urge to take up swimming, while eliminating sugar and alcohol from her diet for several-month stretches. “I feel like I’m a totally different person,” says LaMont.

Endorsements for floating have come from some surprising places. One afternoon, sitting on a couch at Float On, I’m introduced to mixed martial artist Pat Healy. Healy is currently a regular in the Strikeforce mixed martial-arts league and has graced television screens around the world as a participant in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He floats before his fights and uses the tank to visualize his wins. Other mixed martial-arts fighters, such as Dave Jansen, describe floating as a “secret weapon.”

And while I also meet a handful of colorful characters–folks studying shamanic medicine or making claims to know how to build power generators that draw from the earth’s magnetism–I talk to just as many people who are simply looking for relaxation and the feel-good afterglow of flotation REST.

“Normally my head is several different radio stations playing at once,” explains tattoo and comic artist Levi Greenacres. But in the tank, he found relief: “With the lack of sensory stimulation to intake and compute, I discovered an inert state of un-ness, the need to think, feel, and feed completely abolished. The quiet in there is total comfort.”

“After floating I feel very open and calm, and less prone to distractions,” says illustrator Natalie Phillips. “The better I feel emotionally or physically, the better I am able to focus.”

And that might be the most levelheaded walk-away message yet. Whether you’re a fighter about to beat the crap out of someone or an artist mining your creative muse, feeling good can only make your tasks easier. Despite Float On’s tie-dye dressing in the fogged-up windows, the positive scientific evidence and floater experiences are convincing.

Sensory deprivation has not been fully explored from a medical or neurological standpoint, and I’m not claiming that everyone who floats is going to stop drinking or lose a ton of weight. But it’s like this: When people ask me about floating, after describing the benefits I’ve experienced, I tell them, “At the very least, it’s like a blow job for your body.” And as Forrest Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that.

Matt Stangel writes about art for the Portland Mercury and music for Into the Woods. Excerpted from the Portland Mercury (February 2, 2012), Oregon’s always-surprising alternative weekly.

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