By Nicole Dobarro
I was naked in the darkest space I have ever been in. I willingly shut the door but my fingers refused to let go of the handle. Instead they only gripped tighter. My mind filled the seemingly silent space with an intensely loud, body-shuddering noise. As the first couple seconds passed the sound of my breath grew loud, competing with the rhythm of my racing heartbeat. I voluntarily decided that I was going to stay in this pitch-black, salt-water filled tank, also known as a sensory deprivation chamber, for an entire sixty minutes. It was a decision I started to regret.
After what felt like ten minutes, my mind progressed from a state of panic to reason. I was only naked in a soundproof tank where I couldn’t see anything. I thought, “How bad could it be?” My fingers finally released the death-grip I had around door handle and I began to sink back into the salt water. As I surrendered, my entire body was instantly lifted by the insane amount of Epsom salt mixed into the water. I was experiencing my first “float” and it felt really weird.
The story of sensory deprivation chambers begins in the 1950s with Dr. Jonathan Cunningham Lilly. He was sort of a fringe science jack-of-all-trades. He was a physician, biophysicist, neuroscientist, inventor and author. Many call him a pioneer in the counter-culture of modern science, while others would simply call him batshit crazy. Besides being the inventor of sensory deprivation chambers, Lilly is more famously known for his research done on communicating with dolphins and doing a lot of LSD in the name of science. His so-called eccentricity went on to inspire films like Ken Russell’s film Altered States and Mike Nichols’ film The Day of the Dolphin.
While Lilly’s research produced somewhat of a cult following, he was aiming to learn more about the human state of consciousness and its limits. Lilly’s research began in 1953 when he took at job with the National Institute of Mental Health. There he began studying how our brains work, what keeps it functioning and how it reacts to our environment. Lilly began toying around with sensory deprivation tanks to study the effects on the brain when all stimuli are removed. Stimuli in this case refers to vision and hearing. Lilly hoped that isolating these senses would prove that even without external stimuli, the brain and consciousness would continue to function.
Since research like this had never been done before, Lilly and his colleagues acted as the test subjects. Early designs of the tanks required them to be fully submerged in a water-filled tank wearing only a tight mask with a pipe for oxygen. Because of the uncomfortable state of having their heads wrapped in a tight neoprene fabric, the design evolved into the coffin-like tank design common today. Once the design proved more logical, Lilly began promoting the use of these tanks by sharing his experiences. Perhaps the most intriguing experience he shared with people he titled “First Conference of Three Beings” which is currently published on his website. Lilly recalls leaving behind his body in the tank and having a conference with three unknown entities “in a dimensionless space, the spaceless set of dimensions somewhere near the third planet of a small solar system dominated by a type-G star.” Was Lilly tripping or was this a legitimate experience? Who knows? However the act of floating in what feels like a zero-gravity tank caught on and is growing in popularity today. Today people “float” for different reasons. Most people float to reap the mental and physical benefits, though there are some who float as a shortcut to meditation and out of body experiences.
To gain a better understanding of how sensory deprivation tanks work, I decided I would need to get into the tank. I contacted Allison Walton, the owner of the Bay Area’s oldest float center called FLOAT located in Oakland. Allison opened FLOAT, which also acts as a constantly changing art space, in 2005 after she experienced a life-changing float twenty-five years ago. There are actually a couple spots in San Francisco that have float tanks, but none of the ones I found focused only on floating. I didn’t want to go to a spa that happened to have a tank. I wanted to talk to someone who actually knew what she was doing.
When I entered the space Allison greeted me with a glass of water and talked me through what I was going to do and what I could expect. She explained the types of tanks she had, which are manufactured by a San Diego company called Oasis. “Our tanks are the largest in the Bay Area. Everyone can fit in them,” says Allison. The white rectangular box is made of fiberglass with a vinyl inner liner. Allison explained that the solution, or water, used to float contains a high concentration of Epsom salt which increases the density of the solution causing a body to naturally float. “Average tanks require about 800 pounds of salt, but we use 1000 pounds,” Allison told me as she pointed to a stack of what looked like giant rice bags. “These tanks are also the most sound and light proof,” says Allison. “These don’t depend on the room it is in for a lightproof or soundproof float.”
She continued to explain what my brain might experience when it is disconnected from all stimuli. Though first-time floaters rarely completely “let go” and experience out of body experiences, it was likely that my brainwaves would slow down and enter the state of theta. Our brains experience five states of being; alpha, beta, theta, delta and gamma. In the beta state, our brain waves reflect a waking state and entirely conscious state. In the alpha state, our brain waves reflect a relaxed state. This usually happens when our eyes are closed. And theta, the state our brains are likely to enter while in the tank, is when our brain waves slow down and allow dreaming. We generally experience theta when we’re falling into a deep sleep or are awakening from a deep sleep. The theta state is also when lucid dreaming occurs. Some people even recall experiencing vivid visualizations comparable to visualizations caused by hallucinogenic drugs. “Some people go straight into the theta state, even during their first float. But the rest of us are mortal,” says Allison.
I finished drinking my water and headed upstairs to the second floor loft where I would enter a tank and “unplug” from the world. An hour later, I was not sure about what I had experienced. What I had just done was weird and I could not tell if removing myself from external stimuli affected me in any way. I only remember waking a couple times from a light sleep and before I knew it the hour was up. “It’s is a really weird thing,” says Allison. “Not everyone gets used to it and just fights the experience the whole time. I once had a friend that refused to let go of the handle and she exerted herself so much to prevent herself from floating that she eventually fell asleep.” Because our reactions to the tanks all differ in experience, the types of floats experienced differ as well. No two floats are ever the same. “Everyone’s brain is completely different,” says Allison. “Some people see crazy light shows or budding paisleys the second they close their eyes. Some people don’t fall asleep but just think.”
When I asked about the type of people that float, the answer I got surprised me. I honestly that it would be a small niche of people into odd alternative medicine. “When I opened, I thought there’d be a type of client,” says Allison. “But our clients are really busy people, business people or people with families. There really is no profile because we get all ages and all ethnicities.” Allison did mention that her clients do tend to be of the more creative type if anything. “Lots of people float to clear a mind block, whether it be doctors or artists or writers,” says Allison. “And every time someone comes to float because they need a new idea, the second they step out of the tank, they got it.”
The benefits of floating truly seem to be all over the grid. The benefits range from mental relaxation and rejuvenation, similar to the effects of a deep meditation, to physical relaxation, like entering a state of savasana. “We’re constantly reacting to stimuli in our environment, in particular to technology,” explains Allison. “Our bodies are doing things [like using technology] that humans aren’t designed for. We’re designed to be creative, thinking beings.” Floating is a way to unplug from it all. Today, floating promotes the entire and complete relaxation of our most complex organ, our brains. “For almost everyone, floating will be the only time we’re completely alone with ourselves since the womb,” says Allison.
It seems like Lilly’s isolation tanks are all grown up. Even the language is evolving from sensory deprivation chambers to isolation tanks to float tanks. “It’ll probably be another ten years before they’re actually called float tanks,” says Allison. Though the change in views on floatation therapy will take some time, Allison believes that we will soon be seeing float tanks, or “unplugging stations,” everywhere. We are continuously online and the growth of technology doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. So in order to keep our heads screwed on while constantly receiving new information and the stress that follows, we need to find a way to disconnect. As crazy as paying to be shut into a dark, soundless water tank sounds, it may be one of the few ways to keep us sane.
Photos Courtesy of Allison