Sensory deprivation tanks have seen a resurgence in popularity around the globe. We explore the history, controversies and sensations of REST tanks.
Imagine, for a second, what it’d be like to have no body: No light, no sound, no sensation. Imagine complete separation of your mind from your body.
It’s an intimidating prospect, isn’t it? On an instinctive level, we balk at the notion: The abolition of the senses through which we experience the world. If you don’t believe in the afterlife, it sounds a lot like death.
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want this experience. It’s hard to imagine that such an experience even exists. But it does. It costs $70 per hour.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF FLOATING
These days, you may hear sensory deprivation therapy being referred to as REST, or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy.
Once the domain of aging hippies, stoners and eccentrics, sensory deprivation therapy has seen a contemporary resurgence in popularity. The treatment was first pioneered in 1954, by American scientist John C Lilly, whose diverse fields of studies ranged from the visionary to the oddball: He was the first person to map pain and pleasure pathways in the brain, the first to pioneer communication with dolphins, and a proponent for the use of LSD. He studied yoga, rubbed shoulders with Allen Ginsberg, and – while high on ketamine in a sensory deprivation tank – claims to have been visited by extraterrestrial intelligence called The Earth Coincidence Control Office.
Like its founder, the roots of sensory deprivation therapy have a patchy origin. The original advocates for sensory deprivation tanks called themselves psychonauts, loosely translated from Greek to mean ‘sailors of the soul’. It was originally used as a catch-all to describe global subcultures that attempted to induce alternate states of mind: Native American shamanism, Tibetan Buddhism, LSD enthusiasts.
Sensationalist accounts abound about the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation on the human psyche: It has been misrepresented as wholly malignant, conflated with white torture and the solitary confinement techniques used by governments and prison systems. A study conducted at Montreal’s McGills University in the 1950s reported that participants subjected to sensory deprivation experienced hallucinations, mood swings and panic attacks.
He studied yoga, rubbed shoulders with Allen Ginsberg, and – while high on ketamine in a sensory deprivation tank – claims to have been visited by extraterrestrial intelligence called The Earth Coincidence Control Office.
A cursory inspection shows that the experiment -which strapped its subjects to beds and played white noise and tapes – exposed its participants to what could be more accurately described as sensory overload than sensory deprivation. The same holds true for the tiny, fluorescent-lit cells used on inmates during solitary confinement sessions in prison systems around the world.
Despite these early misconceptions, the pendulum has begun to swing in the opposite direction: Sensory deprivation therapy has gained a following in Australia and the American West Coast. Notable users now include popular American comic Joe Rogan, footballer Wayne Rooney and novelist Michael Crichton.Its advocates now claim that sensory deprivation therapy not only enhances creativity, but also alleviates every physical ailments ranging from insomnia to sports injuries.
Sensory deprivation tanks, isolation tanks, flotation tanks; one can’t help but notice how the words used to describe floating have evolved in usage over the years, growing decidedly less ominous as the trend gains mainstream acceptance.
HOW ISOLATION TANKS WORK
Regardless of its name, the practice has remains largely unchanged since its first major modifications: The original flotation tanks resembled coffins in their design; users were suspended in 160 gallons of waters, with all but their heads submerged. A black-out mask supplied the practitioner with air, while blocking out light.
For a treatment that claims to be transcendental, the technology behind modern sensory deprivation tanks sounds primitive on paper: A lightproof, soundproof tank is half-filled with water, heated to body temperature and saturated with 800 pounds of magnesium salts, a solution so dense that it allows the practitioner to float on the surface, inducing a feeling similar to being detached from one’s body.Simply closing one’s eyes or plugging one’s ears deprives the person of sight and sound, but the tank is designed to eliminate the other stimuli of touch and smell.
If you believe the advocates, there are numerous reasons as to why floating in a glorified tank of Epsom salts has such a profound effect on the human mind: The lack of sensory input forces the brain into a ‘theta-state’, a drowsy, dream-like state that induces a heightened sense of introspection and reported out-of-body experiences.
It’s the sort of ‘brain-in-a-vat’ imagery one expect from Cartesian philosophy, or a sci-fi movie by the Wachowski siblings. But how does it actually feel?
THE EXPERIENCE OF FLOATING
You would expect to feel claustrophobic in a float tank that’s 8 feet in length and 5 feet in width. But when space, time and the sense of your own body is suspended, one barely notices how close the walls of the tank are.
The suspension of your sense-experience will happen gradually. The last bodily perception you’ll be aware of will be your sense of smell, as your nose acclimatises to the subtle, chemical scent of the magnesium salt-infused water.
It’s at this point that your mind – overstimulated, over-caffeinated, inundated with deadlines and emails – may begin to rebel against this suspension of normal programming. Float therapy users have reported a wide range of different experiences at this stage: enhanced creativity, a sense of collective belonging, childhood regression.
I experienced the latter state: Scenes from my childhood emerged from my subconscious with crystal clarity; the sun setting over a flyover leading into a city of steel and concrete; the sensation of getting my fingers nipped by a crab; the light-headed, crystal clear sensation of panic, of almost drowning in a hotel swimming pool on a family trip to Phuket.
Time slowed down, took on the quality of molasses, ceased to exist as anything beyond an abstract concept.
And then I jolted awake, as music played to cue me that my session had expired.
Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard once likened the world we live in as a world of simulacra, a world where the symbol is more real than the thing itself. It’s a bleak worldview that seems to reflect the current state of the developed world.
We have a primal fear of isolation. Hence the meaningless feedback of social media platforms. Hence the digital chirps of Facebook notification and Instagram likes: Cries for affirmation, that the user exists, that he or she is significant. Hence big city, 4G-enabled life, as experienced on a mobile touch screen, giving the illusion of connection to a thousand other isolated existences.
Perhaps, in this era more than any other, we no longer fear death in and of itself. We fear the notion of not existing, of being irrelevant.The sensory deprivation tank is the antithesis of our conscious, every day lives.
Perhaps, in this desert of the real, we have to come to terms with the reality of our own thoughts. Perhaps, with isolation tanks, we’ll discover that solitude is not as frightening as it seems.