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A Remedy for the ScreenTime Epidemic from an Unlikely Source: A Neurophysiologist’s Experiments with Isolation, LSD and Dolphins

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Long before Spas and health retreats popularized sensory deprivation as “Floating Therapy”, an early pioneer in the study of human consciousness, Dr. John C. Lilly, was pivotal in the exploration of the effects of sensory deprivation on the mind. These experiments where considered radical at the time, as was his use of himself as research subject and his parallel research into LSD and it’s effects on human consciousness, together with other famous names from the sixties such as Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg.

Lilly is best known for his intra-species communication studies, particularly with Dolphins, and even built a lab for humans and Dolphins to live together in order to attempt to communicate. These radical ideas and studies, chronicled in his two books: Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments and The Center of the Cyclone, whose first publication in 1972, ultimately led to both the acknowledgement of high intelligence in Dolphin, as well as health and mental health benefits, to what is now commonly called “Floatation Therapy”, an apparently less negative name than “sensory deprivation”.

Fast forward to 2019 and we find ourselves in a world where over-stimulation of our senses, particularly our excessive visual and mental focus on “screen-time” is not only the norm, but a problem of epidemic proportions. Apple’s “ScreenTime” feature, designed to limit the use of its own products, is a testament to how all pervasive this issue has become.

With all the outside noise, commotion and our daily “endless” tasks to do, the mind and body can often feel the weight of life’s stressors. Popping up all across the country, spas are now offering services with float tanks as one of the ways to take a pause and detach for a little while from all of life’s distractions and relax.

At these centers, users enter a flotation tank, also known as an isolation or sensory deprivation chamber.  The enclosure is sound and light proof and filled with salt water, usually heated at around 93 or 94 degrees Fahrenheit, to best match skin temperature. The tanks are usually filled with water 12 inches deep and approximately 800-1000 pounds of magnesium sulfate (medical grade epsom salt) are added. The combination of warm water and salt create a higher water density and allows for optimal buoyancy that any body type can float upon.

Depending on your location, prices for a session can range from $40 to $100, yet owning your own isolation tank can cost upwards of $10,000!

Image of a man floating inside of a sensory deprivation isolation tank, also known as a salt water floatation tank, often used in meditation, therapy and alternative medicine. Photo / Adobe Stock

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The Science of Floating

Floatation Therapy was first developed in the 1950’s from the work of John Lilly’s research on sensory deprivation and the effects on the brain. Sensory deprivation involves significantly reducing or eliminating outside stimuli like light and sound. Other research studies refer to the phenomena as REST – restricted environmental stimulation technique.

Athletes are among one of the types of people that utilize the therapy, NBA star Stephen Curry floats to help relax, recharge mentally, and to create a clearer focus and relief from body aches. A pilot study in 2016, published in the Journal “Performance Enhancement & Health”, found that athletes that floated after exercise training showed some improvement in physical condition (muscle soreness) and mood.

The popularity of the therapy is growing fast, partially due to the benefits found by top level athletic performers such as Stephen Curry, mentioned above, and a host of celebrities, athletes and historical figures, such as Carl Lewis, Joe Rogan, John Lennon, Elle Macpherson, Rachel Hunter, Jeff Bridges, Kristin Wiig, Russel Brand and even Navy Seals.

Dr. Justin Feinstein, a Director at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), studies the clinical impact floating has on people that have anxiety, and he is breaking new ground as one of the few researchers to study this phenomena.  In the 2018 study, Feinstein sampled fifty participants that had anxiety disorders and found that, post-float, the experience reduced self-reported anxiety amongst all the participants and showed mood improvements in subjects, compared to pre-float condition. 

Mental and Physical Benefits

Floating was created to artificially promote relaxation, engage meditative thoughts, and ultimately quiet one’s thoughts. However, while being in a relaxed state, additional benefits including reduced body tension, pain relief, positive changes in mood, decreased stress, better sleep and even increased creativity has been reported.

Brainwaves have been known to shift while in the water from Beta to Theta – taking the floater into the relaxed state both of body and mind. Our normal Beta stage occurs when we are awake and are utilizing our cognitive functions (e.g. communication and problem solving); compared to the Theta stage, a more unconscious state that occurs during light to REM sleep and has been linked to increased creativity.

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The “How-To’s” to Floating

Spas offer float experiences that commonly last for thirty to sixty minutes, however, more experienced floaters can have longer sessions.

Floaters have the option, based on personal preference, to go nude or wear a bathing suit. Most centers require that you shower before the session to remove any grooming products from your body, as well as showering after to remove the epsom salt.

To achieve the optimal relaxation, it’s best to close the door or lid completely, which will vary on the type of tank. Upon entering and lying down in the water you will immediately become buoyant, this, coupled with the dark will take a few minutes of adjustment, so do not worry if it initially feels awkward or uncomfortable.

For first time floaters, we would recommend that you do the following:

  • Insert waterproof ear plugs to avoid prolonged water exposure to the eardrum.
  • Apply petroleum jelly to any cuts or scrapes (since exposure of salt to open wounds will create a painful stinging sensation)
  • Do not shave prior to the flotation session

Whether you are an athlete, someone with anxiety, or busy and stressed, floating is a way to force yourself to literally do nothing. The wonders of what a little bit of nothingness can do has the potential to unlock many benefits to your mind and body. Learning to relax does take practice and trying out floating is just one way to learn!

**If you are a person that cannot handle enclosed spaces, (although the lid/door can be open) floating may not be a treatment to try.


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