Getting Tanked: One Writer’s 60 Minutes in Sensory Deprivation
It hadn’t really occurred to me to be afraid of floating in a pitch-dark, top-sealed tank until a braver and better-adjusted friend said that she’d always felt a secret hankering to try it but was scared. “Scared of what?” I asked, although by then my mind was running to extremes: the heavy air, the terror of enclosure, the risk of falling asleep and inhaling water. I envisioned myself hauled from the tank like Jason Bourne out of the Mediterranean, technically alive but lacking memories of life. (“I have professional skills I do not understand!” I’d shout. “I can sit at a desk for an extremely long time!”) Floating, known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST), promises many lifestyle benefits, including lasting calm, heightened creative thought, and greater suppleness of skin. As the hour of my first immersion neared, though, I began to wonder whether I might find myself calmer in a place that did not mimic the exact experience of death.
Sensory-deprivation tanks, once popular with stoners, scientific geniuses, and the sorts of people who prefer to polish their own chakra crystals, are reentering our culture in more mainstream therapeutic forms. It is possible now to go lie in one after lunch, much as you might visit a spa—except that tanks, unlike spas, are intended not only to help the body but to serve the mind. A REST tank is filled with about ten inches of water, into which a thousand pounds of Epsom salts have been dissolved. This solution, nearly saturated, is so buoyant that one can’t notfloat in it, even with effort. And the water is exactly at body temperature, obscuring the normal sensation of having discrete limbs in space; the floater’s ears sink just below the water line, leaving only two senses—smell and taste—untouched. Most people have not spent time without sight, sound, and feeling since leaving the womb. A good part of the intrigue of floatation tanks surrounds the question of the brain’s response in such bizarre conditions.
I hoped to try it without venturing too far from home, literally or figuratively. I’d been ill at ease of late—grumpy, impatient, exasperated with work—but a brand-new, upscale floatation center, Lift / Next Level Floats, had just opened in New York, apparently to cater to people as circumspect and world-weary as I. It sounded promising. One afternoon, after some mind-numbing phone calls, I went to Lift, near downtown Brooklyn, for my soak. The founders, Gina Antioco and David Leventhal, met me in their light-filled, loft-like lounge. They offered tea.
“We wanted to create an environment that had mass appeal,” Antioco, who wore shorts and a T-shirt, explained. She used to be a catering manager who suffered from insomnia; she tried sensory-deprivation floating as a solution. At a floating conference in Portland, in 2013, she met Leventhal, a wiry middle-aged man with Clubmaster glasses. For years, he’d been a partner at a law firm. Then he decided that he wanted to float. “The industry has just had an amazing resurgence,” Leventhal said. “A lot of centers in the past have bootstrapped themselves—they’re scrappy and ingenious.” In Lift, which has so far floated some eight hundred New Yorkers, they were aiming to catch the upper mainstream of the market—people who might have qualms about floating in a stranger’s apartment, which is traditionally how many centers ran—and to create a business that could be expanded elsewhere if its popularity grew.
Today, the science of floatation tanks is mostly honorable yet hazy. Their invention is attributed to John C. Lilly, the postwar researcher best known for his important but nutty research on dolphins. (Lilly, a neuroscientist, became convinced that the dolphin brain represented a supreme intelligence that humans could employ to solve a range of problems; he constructed cohabitation quarters—water-filled living rooms, basically—so that he and colleagues could live with the animals and cultivate what he hoped would become a common language.) Lilly was working for the National Institute of Mental Health when he invented floatation tanks, in the fifties, ostensibly with the goal of isolating the brain from normal perceptual experience. Later, in the sixties and seventies, he started experimenting with sensory deprivation under the effects of LSD and ketamine.
Floatation tanks fell out of fashion suddenly after the eighties—a casualty, according to Leventhal, of AIDS panic, since the tanks scared people unsure of how the illness spread. In recent years, they have regained a following, and, at the moment, the case for certain benefits is compelling. Under examination, floatation therapy has turned up encouraging results in reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels, reducing blood lactate levels after intense exercise, and other physiological improvements. It’s been shown to help manage anxiety, and it appears to be useful in dealing with addiction (although their waterless cousins, sensory-deprivation chambers, have seemed slightly more effective). One study found that competitive archers who floated for forty-five minutes before shooting arrows generally shot those arrows better than archers who did not.
I was personally interested in weirder stuff. Richard Feynman, the quantum physicist known for his lucid mind and zesty style, once met John Lilly after a lecture and began using tanks; in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he describes undergoing about a dozen long floats. For the first two, he felt nothing much. From the third on, though, he had hallucinations. “I had many types of out-of-the-body experiences,” he wrote. “One time, for example, I could ‘see’ the back of my head, with my hands resting against it. When I moved my fingers, I saw them move, but between the fingers and the thumb I saw the blue sky. Of course that wasn’t right; it was a hallucination. But the point is that as I moved my fingers, their movement was exactly consistent with the motion that I was imagining that I was seeing.”
Antioco and Leventhal said that their clients also had “experiences” in the tank, though they were vague on what the range of those experiences could be. Some people had become intensely aware of their heartbeats. A few felt odd aches in their bodies—points of tension that they didn’t realize they had. Some effects had been stranger. “After sixty minutes in the tank, someone came out, and I asked him how it was. He couldn’t talk, but he was all smiles. I asked him again and he still couldn’t talk, but he had this infectious, giddy laugh,” Leventhal said.
Their spa contains two kinds of tanks: One is basically a high-ceilinged, vault-like room with water in the bottom. This is the tank recommended for people with fears of claustrophobia. The other is a more traditional model, the Evolution Float Pod. It has a lid. Leventhal mentioned that the New England Patriots had bought two such tanks for their locker room, which assuaged some of my fears: If a linebacker could fit comfortably in the pod, I thought, I probably could as well. I wanted the “authentic” tank experience, too—the one that Lilly and Feynman had undergone.
I shared my fears of falling asleep and drowning. Antioco and Leventhal told me that this would be virtually impossible. The water is shallow and so salty that it stings the eyes, they said; if I fell asleep and rolled, I would immediately be stunned awake by the solution. In the history of floatation, they told me, there had been only one drowning in the tank—and that was of somebody who had physically paralyzed himself with ketamine. “Experiment with different body positions,” Leventhal told me. “My favorite is to put my arms above or even behind my head.” I followed him into my small, private floatation room, lined with tile. He showed me around, wished me luck, and shut the door, leaving me alone to soak.
The floatation tank appeared more welcoming than I’d expected. It was white and sleek, and it gaped amiably, like a big clam. Far from being sepulchral, it was huge—almost the width of my arm span, I guessed—and comfortably rounded. The lid domed up to make quite a lot of head space: I am six feet tall, but I discovered I could comfortably sit up in the tank when it was closed. As I showered, the water in the tank turned oscillating colors, like the backsplash in a European disco. I was scheduled for an hour—a long time for a bath, maybe, but a short time by the standards of a REST tank, where the temperature holds steady and the salt means that your skin won’t prune. Antioco told me that, sometime this fall, she plans to do an all-night float.
I got in. On Leventhal’s advice, I’d taken a small face towel in with me, to keep the salty water from dripping into my eyes when I sat up, and I hung it on the hinge joint of the lid. I put in the earplugs that Lift provides—not required, but swimmer’s ear is common—and shut the lid over me. I hit a button to begin, and lay back in the water. Slowly, the colored lights dimmed, and then the lights in the room, visible through the hinge of the lid, dimmed, too. It was pitch dark.
For three or four minutes, I had a vague feeling of panic. I was not afraid of anything much, and yet floating in the dark was so disorienting that I felt the need to reassure myself by touch. I felt the floor of the tank, only a few inches below; from time to time I’d reach out sideways and grab hold of the lid hinge. I’d begun to drift. Occasionally, I bumped a wall. Ethnic-sounding flute music had started playing; for a moment it was welcome, as another orienting detail, but eventually I groped for the big rubber button that would turn it off. Now it was quiet, too.
Many people are afraid of lulls in conversation; other people are afraid of silences in their own brains. As my body fell into a physical calm, my mind began to behave like a hammy actor in an empty theater. I did not hear my heartbeat, as those other people had. Was that a problem? my mind wondered. Should I hear it? Was I dying? Then there was the ache in my left shoulder. What was that about? And did I still feel my hands? I did. Was that OK? Finally, how high was the waterline on my cheeks, really? Should I be worrying about it trickling into my eyes?
So far, I did not feel particularly calm.
When I’d figured out my body, more or less, I found myself indulging in the most egregious of writerly tics: I started writing sentences in the dark. How would I describe this experience? my mind wondered. Although I wasn’t having any real hallucinations, I was seeing ghostly drifting geometric forms against the dark before me. In the outer fields of my vision I saw ripples—very faint, and indigo in hue, as if my brain were trying to make some visual image to match my sensory perceptions. I began to think of how I might describe these faint illusions. Most of all, they put me in mind of the Northern Lights, which I had seen once standing on a hill, in downtown Reykjavík, in late September. “Faint and pale and flickering, just like the Northern Lights at midnight”—that was the right phrase, I thought. The description was precise, and the phonetic voice-leading was musical, the A sound carrying from faint to pale, which broke the F alliteration just enough, and then the strong through-tone of like, lights, midnight . . .
I shook myself out of this pointless reverie—the normal drone of creative thought that I had wanted to escape. I began trying to think about my wrists. I could no longer feel the boundaries of my arms or hands, but I could feel my wrists, which floated at my sides. They seemed bizarrely heavy. Why? I thought of Leventhal, and tried putting my arms above my head.
I noticed that I hadn’t lost my sense of smell—far from it. For cleanliness, the water in the tank is micro-filtered between uses and treated with bromine. To distract myself from the chemical scent, I tried an exercise that Feynman had described. “I tried to think of very early memories. I kept saying to myself, ‘It’s gotta be earlier; it’s gotta be earlier’—I was never satisfied that the memories were early enough,” he wrote.
I acquired language young, and can normally recall—or seem to recall—moments and dialogue almost back to the time of my first words. What surprised me when I tried Feynman’s exercise, though, was the vividness with which memories came in the tank. Faint snapshot-like images (that blue door in a motel in Carmel or Monterey, where my grandparents had made peach Jell-O in a hurry using ice; the old back door into the yard of my parents’ house, before it was remodeled decades ago), were so clear now I could almost have written whole paragraphs describing them. Little licks of hazily remembered dialogue seemed to crystalize into full scenes. I can’t say that I remembered more, but I remembered everything much better. It was as if I had a telescope back into my own history, and the normal fuzzy light pollution of the atmosphere, the distractions of time and the moment, had been blocked, leaving the image sharp and pure. Like Feynman, I kept willing myself backward—further, deeper. I was surprised how immediate it seemed.
Suddenly, an electronic voice began to speak, and the lights in the tank came up. I blinked, bleary; an hour had apparently passed, though it had not seemed long enough at all. I got out, showered with fragrant soap and vinegar, to help dissolve the crystalizing salt, and wandered out into the hallway, which was bright with daylight. I had a couple more calls to take that afternoon, and chores to run, but they no longer felt as tedious. The immersion had done what I had hoped: I’d found a way of rediscovering my mind.