What is a Sensory Deprivation Tank?
Imagine stepping into your very own little world for an hour of rest and rejuvenation. The perfect temperature no matter what the weather is like outside. Floating effortlessly, leaving the busy world behind. And that’s not where it ends!
Imagine an altered state of consciousness presenting itself to you, pain and tension melting away, stress, anxiety dissolving, creativity, athletic performance enhancing. This may sound too good to be true, but researchers around the world have discovered these benefits from sensory deprivation tanks also commonly referred to as float tanks.
If you haven’t yet experienced a sensory deprivation tank, you may be wondering what they’re like. Isolation chambers have been around for decades, but these tanks aren’t meant to cause harm like their predecessors. These tanks were created as part of a medical doctor’s neurology research project in the 1950s. Dr. John Lilly wanted to determine if the mind needs stimulation to remain conscious. In the first experimental trial, Dr. Lilly was the only participant. He was fully submerged, upright, in a tank of water, wearing a mask and breathing apparatus. What he and others after him found was, instead of depriving us, isolation tanks provide a rich experience.
“When given freedom from external exchanges and transactions the isolated, constrained ego has sources of new information from within.” John Lilly
Feeling there was great value to this discovery, Lilly remodeled his tanks to make for a more comfortable experience. He began adding Epsom salt to aid with buoyancy, which allowed people to lie on their backs, eliminating the need for a mask and breathing tube. Enjoying his reconstructed tanks so much, Lilly began putting them in his home and often invited friends over to try them. Delighted by the benefits, more and more people began installing tanks in their homes including John Lennon and Robin Williams.
So a natural question is, what happens to people in these sessions that makes them want to install these sensory deprivation tanks in their home?
What was originally discovered was that the sensory deprivation tanks provide a safe space for us to reach higher states of consciousness. Many people can reach this state through meditation and hypnosis in the comfort of their own home; however many others find even the slightest ray of light or bit of sound to be immensely distracting, which blocks the experience from unfolding.
So what makes the sensory deprivation tanks so special that our ‘higher self’ tends to express itself here?
Typically most sensory deprivation tanks are set up in a similar fashion. They are in a warm, dimly lit, soundproof room with soft music playing-an ambiance that fosters complete relaxation. The tank has a hinged lid that opens and closes with ease from both the outside and inside. You enter disrobed into about a foot of water that’s set to the average skin temperature (about 34°C), although some spaces allow you to adjust this a couple of degrees. The water is filtered and sterilized with chlorine and/or a UV-light between sessions. Different places may use different amounts of Epsom salt, but it’s enough to allow you to float comfortably. The facilities typically have Vaseline or a similar product to put over minor wounds to prevent the salt from entering. Earplugs are also provided to prevent water from entering the ears. People are able to adjust an underwater speaker and lamp to their comfort level, or shut them off completely for the full experience.
What happens next?
You may be wondering what happens to your mind and body when you climb into the sensory deprivation tank and close the lid, eliminating sight and sound. Well since everyone is unique, each person will have a unique experience. However, many have expressed similarities in how the process unfolds. When you enter the tank your mind may continue to race for a little while. This is because the conscious, logical, part of the brain wants to make sense of the experience, ensure you’re safe or use the time to analyze everything that happened in the last few hours, days or weeks. But much like when you’re about to fall asleep at night, the lack of stimuli in the environment causes this part of the brain to slow down and eventually rest. Then the creative, subconscious side comes forward. Although the Western world does not discuss this part of the mind as much as other cultures do, it has been embraced and called upon by many civilizations for hundreds of years. Trance states were utilized by Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans for self-healing and transcendence. Monks, Shamans, Priests and healers continue such traditions. Artists and writers often seek isolation to get in tune with themselves in order to create. Being stranded or lost or near death often brings out life altering spiritual connections. And it may be something we intuitively seek, but don’t give a name to when we search for solitude to read, bathe or vacation.
What is an Altered State of Consciousness?
When we enter altered states and engage the subconscious mind, rapid transformation can take place involving the spiritual, psychological and physical sides of ourselves. It was Charles Tart that first coined the term altered states of consciousness. He believed this state arises when you feel as though your consciousness is behaving radically different from the way it typically functions. This form of consciousness may vary between a lighter trance state (similar to meditative daydreaming), to more profound perceptual, or transpersonal experiences.
What happens in an altered state of consciousness is really interesting. Before beginning your session, you may want to address your subconscious with an intention or question you’d like clarified. Or you can go in with no expectations. You enter your subconscious state much like you enter sleep. It’s a progressive relaxation, and the deeper you slip into relaxation, the more your subconscious mind is accessed. Since everyone’s mind works a little differently, you may experience some or all of the following while in your altered state:
While in a sensory deprivation tank you may experience a loss of time. For example if you were in an altered state for an hour, it may feel like only 20 minutes has passed. Similar to if you were driving somewhere and reached your destination in what feels like half the time, but it was not-it feels like you lost time. Alternatively it may feel as though time is standing still.
Heaviness or Weightlessness
Your body may feel very heavy, like it’s melting into the ground, or as if it’s being weighed down by a ton of bricks. In turn you may feel as though your body is floating or drifting into the heavens. Some may even have an out of body experience. Although this sounds strange, the majority of people find this to be a positive experience, feeling as though they can move beyond the normal restrictions of the body.
You may experience an altered state, much like how you experience a dream. You may see colours, symbols, objects, snapshots, movie clips, or full scenes play out before you in your mind’s eye. But remember you’re in an in-between state, you’re fully aware of what’s happening, you’re not asleep and you’re not dreaming.
Taste and Smell
Some people find that their sense of smell or taste is enhanced and the information that’s coming forth is expressed in this way. Smells or tastes may be familiar or new. For instance, you may be able to smell fresh bread baking or suddenly taste what was your favourite candy as a child.
While some people receive messages through visions or smells, others may hear words, sentences or music very clearly. Although this may sound alarming, research suggests people typically do not feel frightened (as they do in pathological states) but rather feel as though the voices are friendly, advisory or encouraging.
Some floaters may physically feel the experience, perhaps through heartache, goosebumps, warmth, etc. and be compelled by a sense of knowing simply through the intuitive feeling they’re receiving.
You may have experienced some of these sensations in waking life or in dreams. Western researchers are only beginning to unravel the mysteries of the subconscious mind. But exploration into this field suggests that if you set your intention on self-healing, performance enhancement or the like, that may very well be what you receive.
Possible Physical Transformations
It’s well known that when we sit, stand, walk or sleep gravity is holding us down working with us to enable function. Gravity can also work against us, putting pressure on our joints, spine and tense muscles causing pain, discomfort, shallow breathing and the like. In turn, when in a sensory deprivation tank, we’re decreasing the gravitational pull. This allows us to breathe easier, which means the heart can pump blood effectively, enabling oxygen and healing properties to reach the brain and parts of the body in need of repair. If there is no pressure on any part of the body, then pain and tension are naturally reduced. When we relax not only are we physically feeling better, but psychological changes occur as well.
Possible psychological changes
Many researchers have found that as the body physically relaxes, chemicals in the brain begin to change. For example the relaxation of floating has been found to reduce norepinephrine, epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol and ACTH chemicals that are released in response to stress and anxiety. High levels of these chemicals are linked to stress related illnesses including heart attacks and depression. Further, Candace Pert a neurologist believes that people can stimulate the release of desirable chemicals while inhibiting the release of the undesirable ones. For example those who can easily release endorphins for a given stimulus -such as seeing a cute puppy- are more likely to experience happiness from it, over those who have difficulty doing so. Therefore Pert believes that to increase the release of this chemical naturally, one must create more moments to consciously do so (interact with more real or imagined puppies). Think happy thoughts, or so the saying goes. To do so you need to become aware of the part of the body, the chemical and sensation you wish to change (e.g. wanting to be happier). Then monitor it through awareness and assume control. Training your body and mind in this way allows you to behave and experience life in a new way.
If people can change their brain chemistry, imagine what else they can do! Athletes, musicians, artists and all those who desire to enhance their abilities may find isolation tanks can help them do so. For instance, after the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles teams installed tanks in their training rooms, they went on to win the World Series and Superbowl in 1980-1981. Floatation has been found to help athletes whether they’re new to a sport or professional players. Providing participants with suggestions of imagery to play in their minds while floating helped improve the performance of free throws and intercollegiate tennis performance. Tanks have also been installed in higher learning centers, colleges and universities as researchers have found they improve learning, IQ, memory recall and sensory abilities that lasted weeks.
So if you’re looking for a place to unwind, recharge your batteries or escape for an hour of peace and quiet, sensory deprivation tanks are a great option. You may go in with no expectations, but who knows, you may leave with an idea for an invention, a stellar closing argument, a perfected golf swing or maybe just a new outlook on life!
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