By Megan Baksh
Flotation-REST. What on Earth is it, and how can it benefit me? If you find yourself pondering this out loud, rest assured, you are not alone! Before the Duffer Brothers’ sensational debut of their hit Netflix series Stranger Things, I too knew very little about what it was, and even less about the positive effects that it could imbue upon the mind, body and dare I say—soul?
After binge watching the entire series of Stranger Things, I, like so many others, became intrigued by the idea of sensory deprivation and the subconscious. As always, I decided to research and review the literature that science has to offer before reaching any conclusions of my own.
A Little Background, If You Will:
As it so happens, initial interest in sensory deprivation arose during the late 1940s and early 1950s—a period of time in which man needed to survive in conditions of excessive sensory and social isolation, such as: space travel, deep sea diving and Arctic radar installations.
Extreme sensory deprivation and its effects in brainwashing was of high interest, as it was heavily exercised during the Korean conflict and the Cold War. This particular type of research went to the dark side—exploring the destructive and enervating effects of sensory deprivation. The periods of time in which these studies were conducted generally ranged anywhere from 12 hours to a month, in conditions of significantly reduced or repetitive visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory stimulation.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s that neuroscientist, Dr. John C. Lilly, industrialized a technique to generate profound sensory deprivation. In 1954, at the National Institute of Health, Lilly studied a soundproof water tank constructed during World War II, for experiments on underwater swimming. Lilly’s first tank was constructed in a manner in which the subject was intended to float in an upright position, wearing a breathing-mask, while seawater was propelled into the tank from below—ultimately providing the necessary supporting capacity.
Shortly after, Lilly decided that he would—quite literally—immerse himself into his research, by floating in his own tank. His personal experimentation was met with much disparagement from the scientific community, as they were certain that sensory deprivation was indeed a one-way road to madness. However, through his experimentation, Lilly was delighted to encounter highly crafted states of inner experience, rather than the madness assumed by his critics. He believed that being immersed in the water was extremely beneficial for personal growth as well as self-analysis.
Lily continued to experiment with flotation, and was able to construct a tank that made it possible for the participant to float in a more stress-free environment while in a supine position, as the face and the ventral parts of the body lay above the waterline. The tank’s new structure also allowed the water to be saturated with magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), which resulted in high levels of buoyancy. Methods for heating the water and maintaining a filtering system for cleanliness were later specialized. The new tank—known as the “Lilly Tank”—became the modern norm, and is commonly seen in present day flotation centers.
Taking his experimentation techniques up a notch, Lilly began to employ psychoactive drugs as an accessory to flotation—an act that would essentially purge sensory deprivation research from the conventional scientific community for several years. However, an amplified level of interest in flotation resurfaced as the accessibility of flotation for relaxation, pleasure and personal use began to increase.
In the 1980s, eminent researchers, Dr. Peter Suedfeld and Dr. R.A. Borrie, advocated the acronym REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Technique) as a replacement for the term sensory deprivation, in hopes that it would help redirect the view of flotation-REST as a stressor to the view of a stress reducer.
Scientific Studies on the Effects of Flotation-REST
Utterly captivated by the history of the evolution of Lilly’s tank—as well as Lilly himself—I decided to delve into the science of flotation-REST in search of the positive effects that could perhaps be gained from floating. Here is what I found:
In one study, sixty-five participants were randomized to either a wait-list control group or a flotation tank treatment group, where they would go on to participate in a seven-week flotation program, consisting of twelve flotation sessions in total.
Questionnaires were used to measure psychological and physiological variables such as stress and energy, depression and anxiety, optimism, pain, stress, sleep quality, mindfulness, and degrees of altered states of consciousness (ASC). Measurements were taken before and after the treatment period.
Compared to those in the control group, the results of this study yielded significantly decreased levels of experienced stress, pain, anxiety and depression, as well as significantly increased levels of sleep quality and optimism in participants of the flotation tank treatment group.
Another study investigated the effects of flotation-REST on perceptual-motor skills and creativity in college students enrolled in an intermediate-level jazz improvisation class. A group of eight students floated for a duration of one hour a week, for four consecutive weeks. The comparison group, a group of five students who were enrolled in the same class, did not participate in flotation.
The dependent variables were: blind ratings of improvised pieces collected before and after treatment, the instructors’ ratings of perceived change in improvisational ability, and final class grades.
Within the flotation group, both blind and perceived change measures yielded higher scores on technical ability. In contrast to the comparison group, the flotation group displayed higher final class grades as well. Results of this study indicated that flotation-REST can in fact improve perceptual-motor skills in jazz improvisation.
In addition to the these two studies, another study aimed to analyze whether or not flotation-REST could perhaps be applied within the field of pain relief. This particular study consisted of 37 patients (14 men and 23 women), each suffering from chronic muscular pain located within the regions of the neck and the back. Participants were randomly assigned to either a control group (17 participants), or an experimental group (20 participants).
Approximately half of the patients participating were recorded to have complaints of more than one type of pain. Roughly the same number of patients described the onset of pain as immediate. During the course of experimentation, patients refrained from using any form of medication for pain.
Participants in the experimental group partook in nine flotation treatments, three times a week, for a duration of three weeks. Each treatment lasted for 45 minutes, with a sum of 300 hours of treatment in total.
Additionally, participants were all required to complete various types of questionnaires estimating self-assessed pain severity, duration, onset and treatment, as well as experiences and symptoms of other types of complaints.
The results indicated that flotation-REST encouraged a significant reduction in pain intensity, as well as a substantial reduction of anxiety and depression, concurrent with an increase in the degree of dispositional optimism. The amount of time it took participants to fall asleep significantly decreased as well. The findings of this study suggest that flotation-REST may provide an effectual method for assuaging low to moderately severe pain caused by muscle tension.
Getting My Float On!
Armed with an arsenal of information, I decided to find the nearest local float center in an attempt to satisfy my interminable curiosity and to also confirm what I somehow already knew—floating was going to be profound.
As I walked into what can only be described as an Oasis of Zen, I couldn’t help feeling a bit anxious of what was about to unfold. I was greeted by an ever-enthusiastic young man who seemed to have an overflowing wealth of knowledge on everything float, and who practically oozed Zen. My appointed Zen Master proceeded to give me the rundown of how the tank worked, as well as the do’s and don’ts for the ultimate flotation experience.
He informed me that for the next 90 minutes I would be floating in a tank filled with ten inches of water, with approximately 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt! The water—which is maintained at 94.5 degrees—is considered to be skin-receptor neutral. This means that once you’re in the tank, you have no concept of where your body ends and where the water begins.
Shortly after, I learned that I would be floating sans clothing—yikes!—and that I was to prepare for my session by first showering in the shower station located within my designated flotation suite. Showering before and after each float session ensures that the salt solution within the tank is kept clean, and that the salt residue is removed from your body afterwards.
Zen Master quickly wrapped up his anxiety-inducing spiel and guided me towards my suite. As he opened the door to anticipated nirvana, I caught sight of what appeared to be an explosion of northern lights emanating from a contraption that resembled a colossal refrigerator—my flotation tank. As I peered into the giant refrigerator-like tank, I noticed two bars on either side of the door—which apparently was designed with safety in mind, as the bottom of the tank can become extremely slippery.
Before bidding me farewell, Zen Master pointed to a step-by-step flotation diagram on a bench near my tank. Next to the diagram, there lay a set of colorful putty ear plugs and a large fluffy towel. I quickly disrobed, inserted the ear plugs, and popped into the shower—beyond ready to embark on my journey
It was finally time to step into the colorful abyss and get situated for what would no doubt be a rollercoaster of emotions. As I carefully stepped in—making sure to hold on to each safety bar for dear life—I noticed a few things. On the side of the tank closest to the door, there were two large silicone buttons with a small intercom in the middle. One button controlled the light, the other controlled music. The intercom can be of service if help is needed during a session; it can also be used to alert the floater that their session is over.
Hanging above one end of the shallow pool of dancing neon lights, I discovered a foam neck pillow. I let go of one of the safety bars and grabbed it. This was it. I was now ready. I was also now terrified. It was time for me to hit the light button and prepare to be a human buoy for the next 90 minutes.
I positioned the foam pillow around my neck and lowered my body into the water. I was stunned! There I was floating effortlessly in a supine position, in ten inches of water! I knew it was time to hit the light button and finally leave the safety of the ethereal northern lights’ glow.
I mustered up all of the courage I had as I hit the light button. At once, the tank turned pitch-black and I was alone in every sense of the word. To my surprise though, it wasn’t terror that I felt. Instead, I felt a vast wave of calmness rush over me like I had never before experienced—it was exceptionally surreal.
I quickly remembered one of the do’s on Zen Master’s list. He had advised me to focus on my breathing the way I normally would while meditating. Eyes wide open, I began to concentrate on my breathing. Somehow it felt as if the darkness was facilitating the ebb and flow of my breathing, eliciting a sensation of sheer tranquility within me.
Within what felt like mere seconds, I was able to reach a meditative state with an ease that I’d previously never been able to achieve. As I let my mind coast back and forth from the meditative state to fluid thought, there was no sense of time or space. I found myself able to process my thoughts, emotions, and my beliefs with such natural clarity. Immersed in water, surrounded by darkness, I had become illuminated.
Before I knew it, 90 minutes had gone by in the blink of an eye and the voice over the intercom was letting me know that my session was over. The neon lights suddenly reappeared, signaling that it was time to get out. As I exited the tank and headed to the shower station, my body felt as though the skin of the former me had been washed away and a new version of me had been born. After showering, I got dressed and exited the suite—all at once, every single one of my senses felt heightened.
Zen Master suddenly reappeared, wearing an omniscient expression. He informed me that the effects would continue to remain intense for a while and that I should stretch properly in order to reap the benefits of floating long after the session has ended. I smiled and promised that I would oblige.
As I drove home, everything seemed brighter—the trees, the sky—just everything. My mindset had been recalibrated and flotation-REST had taught me a few things: in the tank there is no room for ego; self-love radiates from within; and the greatest love of all, is love for one another.
In conclusion, my time in the tank was one of the most wildly cathartic and intimate experiences that I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of and I would recommend it to anyone who is ready for a positive transformation.
Please consult your physician before beginning any new health program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional.
Megan Baksh received her Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science at Nova Southeastern University in May of 2016, and is currently pursuing an education in the field of psychology.