I’ve just opened the door to a whole new world. As I step inside the float tank, I feel a roller coaster thrill; I’m about to experience something both awesome and completely out of my control. When you enter the float tank, you’re struck by how dark and quiet everything feels.
Your mind is about to be blown. You are in for the ride of your life.
The Original Sensory Deprivation Chamber
The float tank is also known as a sensory deprivation chamber or an isolation chamber. It was dreamed up in the fifties by a brilliant and colorful scientist named Dr. John Lilly. Lilly’s idea was to remove all sensory inputs and thereby answer some philosophical questions about our mind and how it interacts with the world around us.
When, after years of experimentation, Lilly’s chamber could completely shut out all sensation, the effect on the human mind was earth-shattering.
The original sensory deprivation chamber was a spooky experiment. The subject was suspended in water and wore a scary mask (you can see it on Lilly’s website) to block out all light. There was also a tight body suit. Lilly stood outside monitoring you.
A lot has changed since then. Now, sensory deprivation chambers are essentially large baths with a few out-of-the-box modifications. Most float tanks are eight feet by four feet, and four feet tall. The super high-class (and pricey) “float rooms” are eight feet by six feet, and seven feet tall; essentially a bigger tank. You walk into this rectangular cube and close the door. This is when the magic starts.
The Saltwater Breakthrough
During the 1950s, there were two independent research groups studying sensory deprivation. Each group had a very different purpose. One group, led by Dr. Donald Hebb, had been studying brainwashing. Hebb’s studies were funded by the U.S. government in order to understand Chinese brainwashing and Russian methods of obtaining forced confessions. Dr. Lilly’s group at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was trying to understand philosophical questions about consciousness.
Lilly began noticing that his subjects were experiencing amazing states of relaxation. He experimented with the chamber himself. While in the tank, Lilly “woke” to the realization that the chamber was a massive breakthrough to inner peace and expanding consciousness. He also divined that something was wrong with the sensory deprivation studies that were conducted at the NIH. Lilly left the NIH and moved to Hawaii, where he studied dolphins and interspecies communications, hence taking the chamber to a whole new level.
By the 1970s, the chamber had evolved considerably, with some help from the dolphins. Dolphins live underwater, but they come up for air to breathe. In his modified tank, Dr. Lilly would float in shallow water, face up, heels pushing down against the floor (to help him stay above water). He would take a deep breath. This would keep him above water. The exhalation and inhalation were done very quickly so that he wouldn’t sink in between breaths. At this crucial stage, Dr. Lilly acquired a floating protégé, named Glenn Perry.
In 1972, Perry, a shy software engineer, tried out the chamber for the first time. Since he was very thin, Perry’s body sank (even with deep breaths). Dr. Lilly suggested using ocean water (three percent salt content), like his dolphins, in order to add buoyancy. Perry made his own tank and upped the salt to 10 percent. Dr. Lilly tried Perry’s tank and then upped the salt to 25 percent. This changed everything.
When you float in the modern chamber, you are immersed in massive amounts of Epsom salt. The standard chamber contains about 170 gallons of water (your average bath contains 50). The water in the chamber is spread fairly thin, less than a foot deep. But you never touch the floor. These 170 gallons of water contain 850 pounds of salt! Think the Dead Sea times five. This solution of water and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) is so dense that your body floats effortlessly. You can’t sink if you try. The salt saturation is what allows a comfortable, and even pleasant, sensory deprivation experience.
Are You Ready?
Are you ready to try the sensory deprivation chamber? There are two wonderful places to float near you, Hope Floats and Om Float, and I recommend experiencing both of them.
Hope Floats: This beautiful float center is located in Bethesda, Maryland. You’ll meet Kimberly, Linette, and CJ, who give the center a comfortable, at-home flavor. From the fragrant candle in the float room, to the chocolate when you finish your float, the experience is wonderful. Find out more at HopeFloatsUSA.com or call 202-236-2099.
Om Float: Located in Ashburn, Virginia, this float center can be a drive for some Maryland residents, but the prices more than compensate. Its owners, Brooks and Amy Brinson, built the center from scratch using an architectural design that Brooks conceived in his home float tank. From the floor to the ceiling, every detail is designed with function in mind. You feel like you’re walking into the future. Find out more at Omfloat.com or call 703-858-3730.
Not quite there yet? You can get yourself a step closer to taking the plunge by reading about my experiences at both locations the next two issues of Kol HaBirah.
By Rafael Ender