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What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer's still not quite clear.
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Isolation tank. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Isolation tank. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“It’s almost better than therapy,” said the spa owner. We were sitting in the common room, which looked like a minimalist, high-class Chinese restaurant that prefers the word “cuisine.” Freshly washed and nibbling dark chocolate, I had just relayed a rather macabre vision from my first 90-minute “float.” My holistic spaman’s comment was not wholly appreciated.

Over the past few years, sensory deprivation tanks—you’re suspended in a few inches of body-temperature, epsom saltwater completely removed from light, sound, and touch—have gone quasi-mainstream. The goal is deceptively simple: Reducing external stimuli to an absolute minimum. Purposely striving for a state of purposelessness. Some say it provides a kind of natural buzz. Those who lack the dexterity for yoga and/or patience for sitting still in the lotus position say it helps them achieve a kenshō-grade meditative state. Others even suggest it has medicinal benefits.

I was skeptical. My last serious attempt at mediation did not go so well. But considering the circumstances surrounding that incident, I was confident things couldn’t get any worse this time around.

SCIENTIFIC STUDY INTO ISOLATION and sensory deprivation began in earnest in the 1950s, ground zero being McGill University in Montreal. The 1950s was a period of major laboratory efforts in the field of psychology, a shift from the couch to the IRL. This period of institutional experimentation saw the human mind being treated like silly putty, the least damaging results being incidents that sound like local emo bands: MKULtra, the Milgram Experiment, Zimbardo’s prison study. Initial isolation studies locked participants in four-star solitary confinement with amenities like complimentary white noise and comfy blindfold masks.

Never mind cave divers, humans almost never experience this kind of almost complete aloneness. With absolutely no outside stimuli—even prisoners in solitary can scratch the walls—you’re confronted with the existential clown parade marching inside your own head.

Dr. John C. Lilly developed the first floatation tank in 1954, its basic design still mostly unchanged today. A neuroscientist, Lilly had been working for the National Institutes of Health in areas like brain activity, cognition, and dolphin communication (he was Jane Goodall of the sea), when he created his invention. He’d come up with the idea for the tank after wondering, “What would happen to my mind if I freed myself from physical stimuli,” which is as close as there comes to a straight answer from Lilly regarding, well, anything. Lilly eventually moved to Florida, where he combined his work on the flotation tank with his studies of animal brain activity. Oh, right, and LSD.

Lilly began floating while dropping acid, claimed to conference with aliens from another dimension while in the tank, gave dolphins a “100 mcg dose” of his synthesized sacrament as part of his interspecies communication studies (Goodall = amateur), and occasionally took PCP bicycle rides (not a druggie euphemism). And as frequent drug users do, he talked about it. A lot. Of the 1960s hippie mafia that helped define the New Age stereotype, Lilly’s a top Don, and for the next 50-odd years he went exploring what he called innerspace.

I was more than ready for innerspace travel. But there were launch issues. Being inside the tank for the first time is so unnerving because it’s so unnatural. Your first time, it takes a while (15 minutes?) to adapt to floating on the saltwater like a fishing bob. There’s slight discomfort, your body knowing damn well this kind of prolonged and effortless physical suspension is not normal. Then there’s the isolation. Never mind cave divers, humans almost never experience this kind of almost complete aloneness. With absolutely no outside stimuli—even prisoners in solitary can scratch the walls—you’re confronted with the existential clown parade marching inside your own head.

How else to explain the macabre vision: floating in a void, having a disagreement with a bloodless, severed forearm that skittered over my body like a pesky spider. Annoyed, I tried to throw it into the darkness, but if came back like a magnet boomerang. This was the better-than-therapy my spaman was talking about.

PETER SUEDFELD BECAME THE tank’s champion after Lilly. Suedfeld gave the experience a scientific name with mass appeal: Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique. His numerous studies, as well as those of other REST enthusiasts, indicate that floatation tanks have positive effects on a plethora of issues: hypertension, child autism, smoking cessation, obesity, even PMS (so long as the woman experiences symptoms before entering the tank).

As with any cure-all, the studies are mostly inconclusive. And unlike Lilly’s alien meetings, the Suedfeld crowd has enough sense to direct most of the focus on the mental health benefits. From a psychological standpoint, REST reportedly improves concentration and creativity. More concretely, it allows people to organize their noise-filled lives, a power-nap for your senses. My spaman told me he has some weekly clients, several of whom are doctors and nurses who use the tank to clear the mental detritus after a three-day shift.

My second time in the tank, it took almost no time to get still, physically and mentally. I knocked idle thoughts away like soft pitches at batting practice. But every time I felt my “self” begin to disappear, I got excited. At those moments, I’d be pulled back into self consciousness, aware that I was lying naked in a saltwater tank that smelled a little of mildew. Clearly, I was doing something wrong. And, frankly, it was all rather stressful.

A vague sense of melancholy came at the end of the session, marked by the drowsy sounds of a didgeridoo track (perhaps this partially explains the severed boomerang). Imagine how you feel being snapped back to reality when a lover’s massage finally ends. Relaxed but glum. After nibbling dark chocolate in the common room for 10 minutes, I left. Outside, the colors weren’t brighter, the sounds weren't clearer. Just before turning the key to my engine, only one thought came to mind: I’ve got to come back. I need this to work.

WHATEVER THE SCIENCE, REST clearly has a positive effect on a lot of well-to-do people. Early next month in Portland, the fourth annual Float Conference will take place. Float centers are popping up in just about every major city. If you can’t throw down $50 to $100 per session, put that money in a piggy bank because tanks are available for purchase—new, between $10,000  and $45,000, while previous-floated tanks go for about $5,000.

Joe Rogan, the former Fear Factor host and current UFC commentator, is often credited with tanks resurgent popularity. Rogan has been talking up float tanks for years, and not on a street corner; dude has a podcast. Even my spaman volunteered that the comedian is largely responsible for the tank’s recent popularity. The vanguard of the new REST movement, Rogan takes a little from Lilly’s philosophizing and a little from Suedfeld’s science. That is, while he espouses of the tank’s mind-altering, quasi-psychological benefits for creativity and insight, Rogan’s pre-tank regime is pretty straight-forward: “I like getting really baked.”

During my third and final session, I spent some time debating what would have been worse: showing up really baked or floating sober. The former so impolite, the latter so incredibly boring. Even my subconscious was twiddling thumbs. During a theta state, I “walked” out of the tank and had an out-of-body cigarette break before grudgingly returning to my terrestrial form. Mine was clearly not the kind of experience that supposedly helps with smoking cessation.

Nor did I see much improvement in other areas. My hypertension, for which REST is a supposed alleviant, did go down. For a day. Despite all the planning, the scheduling and the billing, everyone—the literature, my spaman—made it clear: Expect nothing and nothingness you can expect. It was maddening. I even considered doing a fourth session. Just one more taste. One more meditative short-cut, perfectly compartmentalized within a 90-minute session. I would spend my time in REST contemplating the nature REST itself. I would reach distant sectors of innerspace, maybe wave (respectively) to the alien overlords.

In the end, this seemed as unwise as acid tanking. The contemplative equivalent of mirror-on-mirror infinite regress. Or Googling “Google.” Trying to figure out where I went wrong, I kept going back to the meditative encounter from years ago. I’d spent a week at a Buddhist monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu, one day shy, in fact, of shaving my head and going full monk. An unruly night, a sort of “last hoorah,” in a back-alley cathouse put an end to that plan, but I’ll never forget the training the head honcho had me doing that week. It involved walking a straight line, putting one foot in front of the other, concentrating all the energy into every movement until a sense of stillness and calm was achieved. Obviously, it didn’t work out as planned, but I’m keen on the idea. No shortcuts, no appointments, no “break” from the real world, no nothing. Just nirvana with each step. It’s not easy, but it’s free.