Written by Maxwell Barna, a writer in the men's lifestyle space, covering everything from food and booze, to auto, tech, and the Great Outdoors.
Explore to Restore is a content series documenting Ned's search for the world's best restorative traditions and natural healing modalities. We'll be sharing our experiences of the good, the bad, and the just plain... well, you'll see.
Sensory Deprivation Tanks have a very interesting history that, when approached from the wrong headspace, might sound, well, a little crazy. They were first developed in the 1950s by renowned writer, inventor, physician, neuroscientist, and self-proclaimed psychonaut Dr. John C. Lilly. To give you a small glimpse into Lilly’s world, for those who are unfamiliar, he frequently hung out with the likes of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, and once famously claimed that he was able to communicate with dolphins while floating in one of his deprivation chambers that he’d placed over a dolphin pool. It’s true. He said that.
Whether you believe Lilly’s claims or not, 70 years later people all over the world still swear by sensory deprivation tanks for reasons that have nothing to do with dolphins. Their fans say they’re an excellent place to turn off, tune out, and decompress for a little while. They say that floating for an extended period of time helps relax muscles, ease joint pain, and alleviate some of the constant strain gravity places on our bodies. They say isolation tanks are good for the body and mind.
Others, however, write them off as “alternative medicine,” the health benefits of which are unproven.
Rather than rely on a bunch of half-baked articles on the Internet (Take that, Wikipedia!), I decided to head on down to Floatation Philly, my local neighborhood float center and spa, to talk to owner Russell Stewart about floating, what it does and how it works, and then go for a float, myself.
I met Stewart at Flotation Philly’s new location in Philadelphia’s burgeoning Fishtown neighborhood. Ironically, the new spot is located on busy and bustling Front Street, less than a block from two popular coffee shops and a dive bar, and with the city’s loud SEPTA trains running feet above its roof. It seems almost crazy to have such a peaceful space in the midst of all the ruckus and commotion of Front Street, but to Stewart, who was an avid floater before opening up shop in the neighborhood four years ago, that’s just one of the beautiful things about floating.
“Float chambers purposefully put us in a place where we, these human animals, no longer have to control ourselves,” He says. “When you’re in them, there’s no sensing from your five traditional senses—light, sound, gravity, skin temperature difference, and smell—which kind of forces your body to adapt and approach ‘sensing’ in a new way.”
Stewart also places a special emphasis on what floating does to our perception of time, and why it’s important to the process.
“We could put a clock on everything in our lives,” he says, while taking me on a tour of the new space. “Everything we do is time focused. When we wake up, when we go to bed, how long we work, how long we commute, how long we eat—everything. When you’re floating, all that stuff goes out the window. A 90-minute float could feel like a magic trick that’s over in three minutes, or it could go on like a marathon, and it really all depends on what you want your brain to work through and experience while you’re in it."
While the psychological usefulness of Sensory Deprivation Chambers varies person to person (And, from what I’ve gathered, on the amount of times one floats), there is scientific research that backs it up.
One study published in >BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine studied 65 floatation therapy participants and found that people who floated saw significant decreases in stress, depression, anxiety and physical pain. Participants also noticed significant increases in over-all optimism and sleep quality, as well as a positive correlation between mindfulness in their daily lives.
Another meta-analysis of 27 studies compiled between 1983 and 2002 concluded that even though some of the studies were limited in size and scope, the sensory deprivation therapy has positive effects on human physiology, including lowering cortisol levels (The body’s stress hormone) and improving people's’ overall moods.
The floatation tanks aren’t just about psychology, though. In fact, Stewart says the whole reason he got into floating over a decade ago was because in a prior life, he was a Commodities Broker.
“I was flying all over, but my hands and ankles would swell up because of the cabin pressure,” he says. “One of the only things that’d really help me relieve the pressure and bring the swelling down was floating. So, it got to a point where the first thing I’d do in every city I’d land in was see where the closest float chamber was." It’s also used to help with arthritis, back spasms, sore muscles, etc. A study that appeared in Complementary Therapies in Medicine studied 14 patients with chronic osteoarthritis over six weeks, and concluded that every single patient reported improved health and fewer pain issues. There’s also a ton of evidence out there to suggest significantly lowers blood pressure.
Athletes (like Steph Curry) also use float chambers to recover, relax muscles, and decompress joints after games. Stewart says the reason for that is because float tanks are basically immersive, full-body Epsom salt baths.
“That’s the effect of the magnesium,” he says. “The water is very salty because of the salts, and your skin tries to absorb as much of it as it can. Taking in the magnesium from the Epsom salt helps with inflammation, joint soreness, and muscle recovery.”
After getting all the technical stuff out of the way and talking about the nitty-gritty of it all, I decide it’s time to hop into the chamber for myself.
There are some procedural matters to discuss before I’m allowed to drop trou and hop in, says Sam, the kind assistant at Floatation Philly. The first is that I should wear ear plugs to avoid getting water in my ear, and that I should put them in before I shower off, which I also have to do. The water is flushed and filtered after every session, but I imagine a clean body makes for a more pleasant floating experience.
Sam then instructs me on the use of the pod. There’s a handle that I can use to open or close the lid, a light switch, and a button to control the radio, in case I want to listen to some soothing tunes in the tub. There’s also a squirt bottle with regular water in it, in case I make the amateur mistake of getting some of the saltwater in my eyes (Spoiler alert: This happens to me several times over the next hour), as well as a head float pad in case I get uncomfortable with my hair in the water.
Sam also gives me a rundown on floating, and explains that the salt content in the water means I’ll float effortlessly. Sam has never seen me swim in a regular swimming pool before, but I probably give off the vibes of a guy who flails uncontrollably while trying to float, and then sinks to the bottom—because that’s exactly what usually happens. Fair evaluation, Sam.
She explains that when my time is up, a futuristic sounding voice over the speakers will let me know, at which point I’ll get out, shower again, and then put my clothes back on and slowly prepare to re-enter my chaotic world.
But for now? I float.
I can’t work to music, which means I probably can’t float to it, either. I hop into the tank, make sure my ear plugs are firmly secured, and then lay back, as per Sam’s instructions.
First, the water is incredible. It’s not like a hot tub or a swimming pool. It’s body temperature, which means it feels like I’m floating on a pillow, or like I’m suspended in zero gravity. Second, as expected, I start floating immediately. Once I get my wits about me, I turn off the inside light, and begin to float in complete darkness and quietude.
The 10 inches of water and size of the pod allows me to flex and stretch my arms freely. I start turning from side to side, stretching and rotating my hip flexors, stretch out my arms and legs, then fingers and toes, and focus on my breathing.
After God-knows-how-long of that, I continue on with the kind of head-to-toe body scan popular in most basic level meditation classes, starting at the very tip of my skull and slowly working my way down to my toes. Everything feels good.
At this point, I’m relaxing and feeling almost sleepy. I can feel my spine curving and my posture correcting without the drag of gravity behind it, and it feels like my lung capacity has increased to twice its normal size, as I breath and exhale deep. The Epsom salts are making my skin feel smooth (almost uncomfortably smooth), and then I start to think of how snakes feel. No, that’s not right. What about eels? Maybe they feel similarly. I wonder what a shark feels like.
And, just as I’m supposed to do, I let my mind wander from there.
My job, my family, my bank account, my dog Baxter. I decide I miss riding motorcycles, and will get my bike running this year. I think about what I’m going to eat for lunch. Should I have eaten before I got here? I wonder how people decided eating three meals a day was the proper thing to do, and why we can’t eat eggs for dinner if we want to. That’s it; I’m making myself a Denver omelet for dinner. What’s the proper spelling of “Omelet?” I have no idea, because I don’t have my phone. Oh man, do you think Cindy Snapped me while I’ve been in here? She probably thinks I’m dead. What’s death like? Is it anything like smoking DMT? Ugh, I should have eaten drugs before I got in this thing. You know what? This is nice. I should move into the mountains. I am getting old, after all. The old dog with the grey pubic hairs; that’s what I am.
I reach over and click the light on.
Yup, there are definitely grey hairs down there.
I reach over and click the light off.
After sitting in silence for another decade, the voice comes on—futuristic as promised—and tells me my time is up. Only, I haven’t been in here for an hour, as expected. I’ve been in for 90 minutes. In my subjective perspective of float time, 90 minutes might as well have been a decade.
I get out of the futuristic egg-shaped pod, rinse the Epsom salts away, and put my clothes back on. Just like that, it’s over.
So, what did I think?
I really enjoyed floating. It was the kind of thing you do and immediately start thinking about doing again. My skin felt good, my muscles felt good, my joints felt good. I felt good. I felt refreshed and relaxed.
I’m not a scientist. I’m just a guy who lays in pitch-black futuristic water eggs thinking about his grey hairs. But I can tell you that in that one float, I got to experience everything everyone told me I would—and it was great.