I often write about the harmful effects of overstimulation due to the insane amount of information we receive daily. Putting away our digital devices for a weekend is one thing, but what would happen if this was taken to an extreme? What if we removed not just digital inputs, but sight, sound and touch all together?
I had heard of sensory deprivation tanks years ago, but due to a deal in a local coupon book I decided to finally try one. A health and wellness center about 10 minutes away from our house had one available. Some will know them as ‘float tanks’, because inside this human-sized chest freezer is about 8-10 inches of water, 35% saturated with over 800 pounds of epsom salt. As a friend of mine mentioned, “It’s like the Dead Sea in a box”. The epsom salt increases the density of the water allowing a person to float effortlessly inside the tank. From The Wellness Center website:
The tank is an enclosed shallow pool of warm water (93.5° skin temperature). Free from gravity’s pull, the body can release tension, easing pains and stress – often relieving long-held pain.
When I arrived to the facility I signed in and was given some specific instructions about the process. Using the float tank requires extensive showering before and after to prevent any oils from getting into the water. Total water replacement is not necessary, as the salt is a natural disinfectant, and the tank water is both filtered and passed through a UV light to complete the cleaning cycle between patrons.
In the connected bathroom, they provided shampoo, bath soap, towels, and everything necessary for the float. They even provided these cool wax ear plugs that prevent water from going into the ear canal (they were optional, but recommended). The aid mentioned that salt water is a pain to get out of your ears and since my ears would be fully submerged in the water for 60 minutes, I followed their advice. It ended up having some strange effects during the float, but we’ll get to that in a bit. I showered per the instructions and made my way back over to the float tank. I cracked open the door, took a look inside, and I will admit that it wasn’t the most comforting thing to peer into.
Warm, humid air emanated from the tank as I opened the door to look inside. It lifted easily which was slightly comforting as the thought of being trapped inside this odd contraption was not one I wanted to live out. Despite the small blue light inside, it was still quite dark, causing the flash on my camera to engage (below). The two holes in the back wall are for a flow of warm air to enter and exit the tank, which I hadn’t realized until afterwards.
I made my way into the tank, sat down in the water, and pulled the door closed. It was spacious, but I wouldn’t call it ‘roomy’ either. The water seemed deceptively shallow as I began wondering how I’d actually float in it. I leaned back into the water and my entire body lifted up off the floor of the tank. Effortlessly floating was quite an odd sensation at first. In a pool it requires some work to balance in order to float properly, with feet and legs usually sinking downwards into the water. This was not the case in the tank. The strangest part about this was feeling near 100% perfect distribution of support across my body. I suddenly realized that this might be the closest I come to feeling the zero gravity environment of space. My brain was definitely used to weight distribution focused on ‘pressure points’ like the mattress commercials talk about. It didn’t feel like laying on a mattress, sitting, or any other experience I’d had previously and it didn’t feel quite right. My brain kept wanting to place a disproportionate amount of weight where it expected to, as though lying on a mattress or sitting in a chair. Eventually, I relaxed.
After about five minutes of acclimation in the tank, I reached for the white box to turn off the blue LED light.
Click. It was the darkest dark I have ever experienced. It was so dark that after a few more minutes I was not able to tell whether my eyes were open or closed. There was no visual indication and after a while longer, I began to question if I was actually opening them or not.
Due to the wax earplugs, the darkness was completely silent except for two, rather bothersome, sounds: My heartbeat and my breathing. The two primary indications of an alive human were the only things I heard for 60 minutes. Due to the loudness of breathing, there were few times when I didn’t have to manually control my breath during the session. It was so disruptive that my mind wouldn’t let the autonomous function take over. I was hyper aware of my breathing and that didn’t change other than a few stints where my mind wandered.
Around (what I believe was) 30 minutes through the 60 minute session, I lost all sense of space and time.
I had no idea how long I had been in the tank, or where my body was positioned within it. Every now and then I’d feel the side wall on the edge of my hand and the slightest hand movement would push-off and center me again. It was around this time that I started seeing dim waves of light across my vision. Definitely no hallucinations as some people claim, but whether my eyes were open or closed, the same dim lights and patterns danced across my vision field.
I started to wonder how long I had been there. What if I wasn’t able to hear the music that would alert me that the 60 minutes had passed? How could I possibly hear anything with wax earplugs, submerged in water in a soundproof tank? I wouldn’t call it a panic attack, but I definitely started getting anxious about it. I wondered what would happen if I actually had missed the queue and someone needed to come get me out of there. I thought myself out of that situation realizing I’m sure someone would just come knock on the tank if there really were a situation of that nature.
About 20 minutes later, I started to get ‘sea’ sick. I didn’t sense it coming on, but suddenly started feeling slightly nauseated and dizzy. Yep, I got motion sick in about eight inches of water. Faaantastic.
At (what I now know was) 55 minutes into the float session, I turned on the blue light and pushed open the door.
The cool, fresh air on my face was a welcome relief from the moist air in the tank. I had convinced myself that there was no possible way an hour hadn’t passed, plus I was starting to feel queasy. I have to imagine the motion sickness was due to tiny waves in the tank created by my breathing. Perhaps my inner ear had enough of it and gave up dealing with this loss of perception while trying to figure out exactly how my body was oriented relative to the earth.
As I stood up, the syrupy water slowly rolled off me. It wasn’t sticky, but just… thick. It dripped from me as I reached for the towel above the tank and dried off. I pulled the wax ear plugs out and made my way over to the shower. I could tell the saltwater had dried out my skin so I made sure to wash as much of it off as possible. After hopping out of the shower and getting dressed, I immediately snapped this mirror #selfie.
All in all, I’m definitely glad that I tried the float tank and I’m pretty sure I’ll be interested in trying it again now that I know the routine of it. I have to imagine that it would be easier to reach deeper levels of relaxation being more familiar with the process and panicking slightly less than I did at times. On my way home, I remember thinking that the $65 cost of a float session would be better spent on a seated massage if it were only for the muscle relaxation aspect of it. In other words, I didn’t hate it, but I’m not sure I would do it regularly at this point.
For the rest of the afternoon, I did notice that the tension in my back had eased significantly. I wouldn’t say that I felt particularly energized or different, though. I hadn’t come to any resounding conclusions about the meaning of life, the ever-expanding cosmos, or what I would want for dinner, either – perhaps next time.
Have you tried a float tank before? I’m curious if your experience was similar to mine. Let’s chat on Twitter or below in the comments.