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Before discussing the synergistic benefits of sensory deprivation and float therapy, it should prove instructive to define these terms.
Sensory deprivation is the intentional decrease or removal of stimuli from one or more senses, often for relaxation, meditation and introspection.
Sensory deprivation techniques have been researched in many contexts and settings, from psychological and medical applications to experiments in human perception.
Float therapy is a relaxing and stress-relieving form of sensory deprivation that allows you to float in total darkness, weightlessness, and, mostly, silence. You’ll be enveloped in water that’s been heated to body temperature so you can truly relax.
The scientific study of sensory deprivation combined with “floatation therapy” began in 1954, when John C. Lilly was invited to conduct experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
He was interested in studying hallucinations and altered states of consciousness in humans, including religious experience, so he wanted to eliminate external stimulation and allow people to focus inwardly.
"All the average person has to do is to get into the tank in the darkness and silence and float around until he realizes he is programming everything that is happening inside his head." - John Lilly
He invented a water tank that could be used for this purpose; he called it the “floatation tank” because one would float in it rather than swim. This device was later called an isolation tank by others who adopted its use.
Today, sensory deprivation tanks or isolation tanks have developed because of scientific breakthroughs, manufacturing improvements, and ever-expanding interest among those who are looking to harness the combined calming powers of sensory deprivation and floating.
Table of Contents
Recalling my Sensory Deprivation Floating Experience
The float tank is a lightless, soundproof pod filled with Epsom salt-infused water. The solution’s high density means that it will support your body weight and allow you to float effortlessly.
Floating involves slowly lowering yourself into the water before lying back and floating.
The combination of sensory deprivation and low levels of stimulation can lead to powerful psychological experiences (which most people enjoy).
I’m now recreating my first sensory deprivation floating session in my mind’s eye. I close the pod door and shut out the outside world.
There is no sound, no light, and no distractions from any other person or thing. When I’m floating, it’s just me and my thoughts — nothing else matters except what’s happening inside my head — not that there’s much going on. 🙂
I close the lid and instantly feel my body relax. There are no sounds or lights to inform me of what is going on outside of my pod, so I fully immerse myself in relaxation mode.
The pod’s darkness and silence are soothing, allowing me to zone out and forget about all the problems that stress me out during the day.
If you’ve ever taken a walk on a beach at night, you know how pacifying it is to be without sight or sound, save for the soothing ocean waves. (I can hear the faint, white noise humming of the sensory deprivation tank, too, which settles me).
For 60 minutes of sensory deprivation floating, I can recreate the “calming womb experience” more intensely than ever before ... and so can you.
I see you floating in the darkness,
A sea of nothingness.
Your mind is free to wander,
No external stimuli to distract you.
You're not thinking about anything,
You're feeling everything!
Float Therapy Benefits
There are many benefits to floating in sensory deprivation tanks. They include:
1) Improvement of vital markers
The relaxation response is a physiological state of deep rest, in which muscular tension, blood pressure, and heart and respiration rates are lowered. The body’s physiology changes from the active “fight or flight” mode to the more quiescent “rest and digest” mode.
Float tanks provide an opportunity to escape from stressful situations, allowing the mind and body to relax completely. The pleasurable experience can simultaneously improve vital signs.
2) Greater blood flow and circulation
The effects of sensory deprivation tanks on blood flow and circulation are favorable. This is a natural conduit of the point previously made.
As blood pressure reduces and the heart rate and respiration rate lowers, our blood vessels more easily dilate, which leads to concomitant improvement in blood flow and circulation.
Blood flows more readily, too, as gravity does not pull blood into the lower extremities, and more readily flows into the brain.
3) Pain reduction
There are several ways to ease pain, but one of the most popular is sensory deprivation.
The practice has been a staple in therapy for decades, and research has proven its effectiveness in treating many ailments, from anxiety to addiction.
The premise is simple: if you take away all external stimuli and give someone’s brain time to rest, it can naturally heal itself.
It’s as though the brain is taking an internal vacation, not worrying about the outside world and its distractions.
In fact, when you’re floating in sensory deprivation tanks, there are no external stimuli to distract you at all—you’re completely alone with your thoughts and whatever music you’ve chosen. (Music may be played the first 10 minutes of a session, and the last five minutes before the session ends.)
It’s this complete absence of sound (save some relaxing music) that makes floating so effective at reducing pain.
Brain imaging has shown that when people experience chronic pain or anxiety, they have increased functional connectivity in certain areas of their brains.
This means that these areas are linked more closely than they would be if they were functioning normally. This, in turn, leads to sensations of pain and triggers overreactions in their pain system, which can be reduced through floating, which “disconnects” these brain regions.
Based on anecdotal evidence alone, sensory deprivation floating decreases pain in the short term. It remains to be seen if there are consistently positive long-term benefits.
4) Positive effects on the psyche
Floating in a sensory deprivation tank is an effective way to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s also been shown to have positive effects on people suffering from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).
Now there may be several reasons floating can help relieve symptoms of anxiety. For example:
The quietness of the environment helps you focus on your breathing and other body functions. This helps you relax deeply and reduces the activity in your sympathetic nervous system—the part of your nervous system that deals with stress responses (fight-or-flight response).
Being weightless for extended periods of time increases endorphin production in the body. Endorphins are chemicals that act as natural painkillers and also have calming effects on the brain.
5) Enhanced creativity, problem-solving, and focus
“The irony of sensory deprivation tanks is that in order to think outside the box, you must first go inside one.” ― Ryan Lilly
Float artists and musicians often use tanks to enhance creativity. In fact, there is some evidence that the effects of floating extend beyond simply being creative in the moment — people who have floated have reported that they continue to be more creative long after they’ve left their tanks.
People who float are better at problem solving and focus as well. Float tanks allow you to step outside yourself and think more objectively about problems that may stump you and with greater focus.
So many folks use float tanks when trying to solve complex problems or make important decisions.
6) Promote sleep
Sensory deprivation float therapy is an effective way to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders -- at least in the short term.
Evidence shows that floating for 60 minutes can eliminate sleep-related issues (such as problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much).
The process works by eliminating the stimuli to which you’re accustomed. This lack of stimuli triggers a relaxation response in the body that allows you to sleep naturally and deeply.
The scientific research behind float therapy is still in its infancy, but studies suggest that sensory deprivation affects the brain’s production of hormones like melatonin and cortisol.
Inducing a deep meditative or hypnotic state while reducing external stimuli allows your body to produce endorphins and other neurotransmitters that create feelings of calmness and well-being, as well as warmth in the body. These chemicals allow you to sleep more easily.
7) Rewire the brain
Floating, just like meditation and mindfulness, helps you focus on one thing at a time, allowing for an uninterrupted experience of being in the moment.
And when you can clear your mind and remove distractions, you’re able to tap into your subconscious and make space for new ideas and thoughts to come through—which can lead to major breakthroughs.
According to meditation teacher and bestselling author, Michael W. Taft, floating is one of a few interventions that can “reset” the brain’s pleasure center, or nucleus accumbens.
The nucleus accumbens is a group of neurons centered on the brain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA), which has been linked to feelings of reward and pleasure. Just as the VTA is associated with feelings like these, it’s also linked to feelings like pain and depression, but float therapy foments positive emotions.
According to neuroscientist, Dr. Justin Feinstein, Floatation-REST (restricted environmental stimulus therapy) decreases activity in the amygdala. This is the part of our brain linked to fear and stress, while increasing activity in the hippocampus, where our memories are stored.
In addition, it’s possible that being in an environment with no external stimuli helps people to focus inwardly on their thoughts and emotions.
In one study, Feinstein and his team had volunteers have resting-state brain scans before and after three weekly sessions of sensory reduction either floating in a tank with reduced external stimuli, or reclining in a chair with reduced external stimuli.
This sensory deprivation experience is called “isolation tank experience”, or ITE, The logic behind the experience is that sensory deprivation can help people relax, become more focused and increase creativity. It’s an experience that seems to be pretty geared toward increasing productivity.
The researchers found that after their three weeks of floating, participants had decreased functional connectivity within and between brain regions responsible for mind-wandering and bodily representation.
In other words, when volunteers were isolated from the outside world, they were less likely to daydream or think about their bodies while they were in a resting state—they could stay focused on one task at hand better than before.
The study results suggest ITE affects neural systems associated with mind-wandering and self-representation (the “default mode network”), which enables more focus and concentration on singular tasks and blocks out mental chatter.
Common Float Therapy Questions
- Why do people seek sensory deprivation float therapy?
A typical float tank experience lasts an hour, but it’s common to feel refreshed and relaxed for longer afterwards, not unlike waking up after a nap.
People use float tanks for a variety of reasons—besides the therapeutic benefits (listed above), they’re also used in some spas, hotels and even cruise ships for the total relaxation experience.
Professional athletes, such as Stephen Curry, have even used them to recover from injuries and reduce stress levels. It helps them develop an elite athlete's mindset.
The practice has been scientifically proven effective in reducing stress levels, which can be caused by pain, anxiety or depression. It also helps to improve vital signs, foment better circulation, improve mental clarity, focus, sleep, and more.
- Are float tanks safe?
Float tanks are safe to use, but there are some caveats. The first is that it’s important to make sure the tank is properly cleaned and maintained. If you notice any discoloration in the water or if the water smells funny, this is a sign that something has gone wrong with the water treatment system.
It’s also important to make sure you don’t have any open cuts or scrapes on your body before going into the tank. The salt water in the float pool will sting if it gets into an open wound, so make sure all cuts are covered up and protected before entering.
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, always talk with your doctor before using a floating therapy tank. In fact, it is advisable to confer with your doctor about float therapy, even if you feel your health is not compromised to ensure safety.
- What safety precautions should I take before using a sensory deprivation floating tank?
You should observe the following precautions before entering a float tank:
Do not use floatation therapy if you are under 18 years old, pregnant or breastfeeding.
Do not use the floatation tank if you have an open wound or skin condition that water exposure may aggravate.
Refrain from going into a floatation tank if you are claustrophobic.
Consult your physician before using a floatation tank, especially if you have serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, immune mediated disease, etc.
Do not use if you have epilepsy or seizure disorders and have not received prior medical clearance from your doctor.
Do not use if you are taking any medications that can cause drowsiness or dizziness (e.g., antihistamines, sleep aids).
Stop using any medication for pain management at least 24 hours before entering a float tank as these medications can cause drowsiness or dizziness when combined with floating and could contribute to accidents while floating in the tank.
Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before any float session, to help prevent nausea and motion sickness.
- Are floating tanks sanitized?
Float tanks are sanitized, as they have multi-layer filtering units. Many units inject water with Ozone, and then run it through a UV filtration system, and then a one micron bag cartridge.
Ozone kills bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi.
UV light kills bacteria, viruses, and protozoa.
A one micron bag cartridge filters out all particles larger than 1 micron in size.
Epsom salt, too, is a sanitizing agent.
- Can you fall asleep in a floating tank?
While it would seem unlikely to fall asleep while using float therapy, some people report they tend to drift off after about 10 minutes.
This is because the water is extremely relaxing. Overwhelming sensory input is also not present. You hear nothing outside of the tank, see anything but darkness inside the tank, or feel any vibrations from external sources like car engines or loud music.
This environment is conducive to sleep!
- How should I dress before a floating session?
Here are some tips for dressing for your float session.
- How much money does float therapy cost?
Most floating facilities offer packages that include access to the facility for one month or more, unlimited floating time, and discounts on additional services such as massage therapy or other relaxation therapies.
Single sessions are also available for those who just want to try it out, generally below $100 per hour (typically from $55 to $80). Look for discounts or coupons as they may be available.
Of course, prices vary depending on the geographic location and the facility offering float therapy.
Regardless of price, floating can become addictive once people experience the benefits firsthand. The good news: You should be able to find entities offering this service near you.
- How much does a floating tank cost to buy?
The price of floating tanks (whether commercial or at-home) ranges, generally from $5,000 to $30,000 per pod. The cost depends on the size, features, materials used and installation expenses.
Look to spend about $10,000 to $20,000, Though the cost may seem prohibitively expensive, many people consider it a worthwhile investment for their health.
And if you’re looking to make the most of your purchase, you’ll want to make sure you do your research before you buy so that you can find the right device for you and your needs.
Final Thoughts on Sensory Deprivation and Float Therapy
“The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool that I’ve ever used for developing my mind.” - Joe Rogan
Floatation tanks provide a unique opportunity to experience sensory deprivation, and the resulting relaxation that comes with it.
The idea is simple: you lie in a float tank filled with water so salty that you float on top of it. The tank is soundproofed and lightproof, so you cannot hear or see anything inside or outside of the tank.
As you lie there, your body relaxes and your mind drifts into a state of calmness that you might not have experienced since childhood—if ever.
Some people use floatation tanks as part of their meditation and spiritual practices, some people use them for their physical health, and others come just to relax.
What is the commonality between all these tank users?: an increased sense of well-being after floating.
That’s because floating provides several benefits for your body and mind, which are well-documented and scientifically proven.
Floating has been shown to improve vital signs (blood pressure and heart / respiration rates), enhance blood flow and circulation, help with pain management, decrease stress, improve sleep,foment greater creativity and focus, and even rewire the brain for optimal functioning.
For all these reasons, consider adding float therapy as another holistic and health-promoting activity.