With the number of flotation centers surging nationwide—149 opening since 2011 and more than 200 planned over the next two years—we are republishing Mary Carpenter’s story on sensory-deprivation tanks. Beyond relieving stress, depression and anxiety, the tanks now appear also to help children diagnosed with autism and veterans struggling with PTSD. While such clinical changes have been ascribed generally to the combination of sensory deprivation and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), researchers are currently focusing on how exactly these effects occur.
AT BETHESDA’S HOPE Floats, hallways painted in lovely watery aqua shades lead to private rooms spacious enough for a shower with sumptuous towels, shampoos and candles, as well as the flotation tank that looks like a giant coffin with a front door that, once closed, leaves you in total darkness. Inside, salty water about a foot deep is kept at average skin temperature, around 94 degrees.
Also new is the vocabulary: Reduced Environmental Stimulus Therapy (Flotation REST) has replaced “sensory-deprivation,” although credit is given on Hope Floats brochures for “work done at the National Institutes of Health in the 1950s” on “flotation therapy” and “sensory reduction to promote relaxation and healing.” That work was spearheaded by John Lilly and focused on psychedelic experiences and other mental effects of sensory deprivation as depicted in the 1980 film “Altered States.” (“Chamber REST” refers to similar complete sensory deprivation without water.)
The clients are new as well. Instead of “aging hippies,” they are “stressed-out city dwellers seeking to get away from their devices while perhaps approaching the theta brainwave state, usually only achievable after years of deep meditation practice,” according to Phyllis Fong in Men’s Journal.
Researchers in Texas and Colorado found that floating increases the brain’s production of theta waves, creating feelings of “conscious drowsiness” usually experienced in the twilight state between waking and sleep. Theta waves keep the mind open, or uncritically accepting, to verbal material or to learning almost anything that the brain can process. “Theta offers access to unconscious material, reverie, free association, sudden insight, creative inspiration,” writes Michael Hutchison in “The Book of Floating.” Swedish researchers found the theta waves of “floating” helped patients cope with depression and anxiety.
Dr. Peter Suedfeld, in research done at Princeton and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, found an array of REST benefits: cognitive effects including “an openness of mind” that led to improved performance on tests of creativity, as well as a reduction in memory loss; behavioral modification that helped people quit smoking, curb over-eating and “partially overcome a powerful fear of snakes;” and health benefits including reduction of chronic pain, insomnia and the effects of stress.
Also new since the 1950s is an abundance of research on magnesium, in which most Americans today are reportedly deficient. The best way to up levels is bathing in Epsom salts, or hydrated magnesium sulfate, of which each Hope Floats tank contains 850 pounds, enough to keep you afloat like the Dead Sea. Nothing touches your body except warm salty water, with “no distractions for the senses of touch, sound or sight,” according to the brochure.
Magnesium levels of most Americans have dropped by half in the last century, which may contribute to heart disease, arthritis, digestive maladies and chronic fatigue, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Reasons include industrial farming that depletes magnesium in the soil and thus in our bodies, as well as salt and fats in the American diet itself. In addition, taking supplements of calcium can deplete magnesium, although calcium’s effectiveness relies on the presence of sufficient magnesium, explains Melissa Breyer on the Care2 website.
Magnesium is best absorbed through the skin, as is sulfate, which plays a role in digestion and ridding the body of toxins. Magnesium supplements do not always increase levels and can create other problems. Magnelevure, a popular powder taken for its calming effect as well as for improving dry skin and hair, can cause restless legs, muscle aches and a strong laxative effect.
When I first tried a flotation tank in Manhattan in the early 1980s, my work was so stressful that I barely got myself and a friend to the downtown location. Afterwards we emerged into a sparkling New York evening, feeling like we’d taken a marvelous drug. I didn’t have quite the same sensation emerging into midday downtown Bethesda, maybe because I am generally less stressed, but the same marvelous relaxation endured for hours. At Hope Floats, you are told that chimes will ring softly when it’s time to get out. Once you close the tank door, quiet music is played to start you off. “Twilight state” and “unconscious drowsiness” are apt descriptions of how I felt, although that drowsiness morphed into unconscious as I slipped into a nap that seemed a waste of floating. Although I had worried about how to spend 60 minutes doing nothing, the chimes seemed to ring much too soon. With every additional float, people report more health benefits as well as staying awake more easily and for more interesting experiences—ever deepening emotions and ever more psychedelic hallucinations. If only I’d known: I would have kept my eyes open instead of squeezing them shut against the stinging salts.
At Hope Floats, one hour costs $75; 90 minutes, $95; and a package of three 60-minute sessions is $175 for first time floaters, otherwise $195, with larger packages available. Another option is the 60-minute flotation-plus 30 minutes in an infrared sauna for $95. Make sure you have no cuts and do not shave that day. One hour might be best to start, although buying a package should improve the chances of healthful, emotional and psychedelic experiences.
See more of Mary Carpenter ‘s well-being posts.