When I close the clam-shell lid, I am bathed in green light and my world shifts into the sci-fi, as though I am some mad scientist stripped of his clothes and set on incubating for decades while all the world crumbles around him.
Needless to say, it’s a strange feeling.
Stranger yet, as I lay back in the water, getting a feel for the spacious cube where I’ll spend the next hour, my body rises a half foot off the base of the chamber, and I begin to float as if though I was in a self-contained section of the Dead Sea. One where “My Heart Will Go On”-style flute music plays on underwater speakers.
I settle in and, within minutes, I feel like a piece of driftwood floating amongst the ship’s remains. “Come back, come baaaack,” I chuckle as I give my best Kate Winslet impression. Even through my earplugs, I could hear the echo of each word, and the small splashes of water that my body caused. Settling down is proving a bit more difficult.
But, as an overly-stimulated modern man, one who can’t walk to the convenience store without a music soundtrack, I knew the experience of settling into a sensory deprivation chamber would be a challenge. Still, this procedure— also referred to as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST)— forces one to empty his head, to release any nerves and just exist in this neutral space. And they say it's great way to clear your mind from the stress that hinders sleep.
While it’s not safe for the claustrophobic or those who suffer from seizures, the process has plenty of benefits, both spiritual and therapeutic. A 2005 analysis of 27 studies concluded that tank-time lowered blood pressure and stress. There’s evidence that a regular floatation routine helps people sleep better and reduce symptoms of chronic pain, too. What's more, sessions also conjures theta brain waves, those that appear during daydreams, and could result in vivid hallucinations.
Sensory deprivation was first explored by neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly in 1954, although his method involved a strange, S&M-like latex mask that covered the entire face (leaving holes for oxygen tubes that would float above the water’s surface). He didn’t use Epsom salt, which was later introduced (some 800 lbs. of it, per 160 gallons of water), and the mask was discarded since the salination allowed people to float on their backs atop the salt. The first commercial float center was opened in 1979 in Beverly Hills, and the trend grew steadily over the next decade.
The late 80’s saw a downfall, however, at the height of its first wave. The culprit was sanitation concerns—primarily the public’s lack of knowledge of HIV transmission. People were too afraid to soak in a tank that so many others had occupied. (You cannot contract HIV in this way; we know this now.)
“Floatation as an industry in the US was all but dormant for two decades,” says David Leventhal, co-owner of Lift / Next Level Floats in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, the site of my sensory-deprived time. Leventhal credits TV and podcast personality Joe Rogan for the recent resurgence in popularity, since so many of Lift’s first-time clients hear about floating through Rogan’s talk show. He’s a huge proponent of the meditation.) There is also an annual industry conference in Portland, Oregon that networks the community and has helped people open a large percentage of new float centers.
“After decades of bingeing on material goods, and having our brains literally rewired due to dependence on smartphones, people are valuing meaningful experiences over possessions,” adds Leventhal. “[People now] understand that practicing mindfulness techniques is a critical part of maintaining one's well-being.”
I wanted to value it, too. So, after five minutes of allowing my mind to race, it was time to embrace the very purpose of this chamber: to deprive my bombarded senses and experience total isolation. I click a button that turns off the music, then another that controls the green light. Everything goes quiet, dark. My neck is a bit achy, so I reach for the support pillow that was fastened inside the tank. I float like this, with only my thoughts, with no sound or sight or surface.
To my surprise, the hour quickly expires. It felt more like 30 minutes, actually, since I had no sense of time. So I removed my earplugs and showered off, then emerged to the quiet reception area for tea. I felt like the human equivalent of a computer that had just been rebooted, as though all my processes were powered down so that I could start clean, start spry.
It was a different kind of relaxation than one gets from a power nap or even a deep massage, though I felt like I had napped, and like my muscles had been relieved of any strain. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Not every week, but it’s a great substitute for a periodic massage or a personal training session. And neither of those offer a chance to a hallucinate.