Giving the Brain a Break: A Sensory Deprivation Tank Session

My brain works hard, not on anything particularly important, but it keeps me alive, healthy, mostly sane, and really good at bar trivia. So I wanted to reward it with some time off, which even in sleep, it never gets. I wanted to give it an hour where it could take a break from handling the overwhelming flood of sensory input it processes, sorts, and very rarely, calls my attention to everyday.  So I decided to reward it with a session in a sensory deprivation tank, or “float tank.” These are tanks, first invented by scientists in the sixties and now adopted by the spa and new-age crowd, that let you float in body temperature salt water in a dark, silent tank, completely cut off from all sensory input. My brain, and my body, would have an hour off from input and gravity.

Basically, I wanted to see what my brain does off the clock.

What happens when you unplug your brain while still awake, with nothing coming in? What would it do? What would it focus on? We know the brain is always trying to construct a reality out of whatever it’s given. What if you cut it off from the input, the raw material, what if you threw it in solitary? Would it go crazy? Or would it finally be off the clock for real and free to use its immense powers on the larger questions of reality and being, of self and awareness? Would it transcend the daily drudgery?

I had read about sensory deprivation tanks recently on Slate.com, and I had heard them discussed while listening to the surprisingly excellent, deep, and philosophical Joe Rogan Experience podcast. The discussion of the a tank session as an opportunity to have a transcendental or hallucinogenic experience  had made me want to get naked in some salt water, although maybe not while on pot brownies like Rogan suggested. At least not the first time.

This is what the inside of the float tank looks like. Notice the darkness.

This is what the inside of the float tank looks like. Notice the darkness.

I made an appointment with Sam Zeiger at Blue Tank Floatation a few weeks in advance, because business is apparently booming. I showed up at Blue Tank, which is in what appears to be Sam’s apartment in Chelsea.  Sam has been running Blue Tank since 1985 so his lengthy “orientation” speech was practiced and professional, but was delivered in a totally in-the-moment and organic way that made it feel like he was teaching me, not just rattling off info. I took in this orientation, which was all very practical advice on how to relax, how to get in and out of the tank, and gentle warnings about the technical realities of floating, like “don’t scratch your nose, because the water from your hand WILL run into your eyes because your head is tilted back way more than you think, and the water is salty and it stings” which I know was totally correct because I didn’t follow it and his prediction of ocular discomfort was stunningly accurate.

I sat on a very comfortable couch and listened to his patient description of the realities of the tank, a description that stayed away from deep existential or mystical explanations of the human consciousness in the tank environment and stayed in the physical world and its obstacles. This was taking place in a room filled with prominently displayed books on meditation, awareness, and new age philosophy, including a book I recognized by the great and incomparable Ken Wilber, whose book “A Brief History of Everything” should be required reading for everyone in spite of its grandiose title. After the orientation, which took about fifteen or twenty minutes, Sam asked me if I had any questions. I replied that I didn’t have any questions about the nuts and bolts of it, but I was curious about the general nature of the experience. How long do you go in for? I asked. He told me he used to go in for an hour or so every day, but nowadays he just does one long session a week.  He had just done a three hour session the day before. He told me that when he was doing it an hour or so a day, he actually needed far less sleep.

It must be very much like a sleep state, I said, and I began to ask him about the similarities between the way your brain operates in the tank and the way it does when you’re sleeping, when he gently and politely cut me off.

“It’s best to just experience it and see for yourself what it’s like,” he told me.

And there it was. My problem and a problem shared by a lot of people in this intensely analytical and spiritual devoid time, a time when every experience must be cataloged, photographed, documented and shared. I wanted to talk about the nature of an experience instead of actually experiencing it.

I laughed at myself, and told him let’s start, while sort of apologizing for wanting to get theoretical with it.

“Well, that’s an easy trap to fall into,” Sam said.

I really, really needed to turn off my brain. We probably all do.

After a quick shower, I stepped into the tank pre-room which felt like an air lock from a sci-fi movie. It was narrow and in the corner were all sorts of pipes that were silently waiting to do whatever filtration was necessary between sessions. I opened the door to the tank room, and slowly, as I was instructed, lay down.

When I pictured sensory deprivation tanks in the past, I pictured something like a tanning bed, a sort of tube, that I imagined being a bit claustrophobic. But the room is a large private bathtub, the tub itself being about seven feet long and three feet wide. There’s no airlock, just a hinged door that you step over the base of as you enter, so entering the tank room is just like stepping into a bath tub. What makes the bath tub special is that the highly purified water in it is filled with 1000 pounds of Epsom salt, which makes you float, in addition to opening your pores and cleaning you more than soap. It also makes you feel like you’re floating through space, and after a few minutes of floating, the salt and the temperature (94 degrees) makes it feel like you are sort of melting into some sort of body-temperature Jell-O, which as someone who has long fantasized about a swimming pool filled with Jell-O (shallow end only, to drown in Jell-O sounds like a recurring nightmare that only Bill Cosby has) this was worth the price of admission.

Once you lay down, you hit a round underwater button by your left hand that turns off the lights.  Once you do that, there is no light, no sound, and no smell, but you do have to feel the sides of the tank to stabilize yourself. Otherwise, you will float from one side of the tub to the other, since any motion at all sends you drifting, and since the tank is rather small, if you drift at all a hand, foot, or the top of your head will hit the side, thus destroying the floating-through-space effect. The key is to gently extend both arms away from your body until your pinkies both touch and anchor you to the side of the tank. Then once you are stabilized, you let your arms drift away from the side and begin to float.

The weird thing is, in spite of the fact that I was trying to relax, focus on my breath, and practice some very basic mindfulness meditation, I kept feeling like I was drifting to my left. Pretty soon, I realized that was impossible, because although I had the very real sensation of moving to the left, after a few seconds, I knew that I couldn’t have been for the simple reason that the tank was three feet wide and that if I was moving in any direction I would have hit the side of the tank within a second or two of starting to drift. I realized that my mind was playing tricks on me.

I told Sam about this after I got out of the tank and was enjoying my on-the-house herbal iced tea, and he told me that the sensation of drifting toward one side of the tub or the other was very common. He also told me that many people get the sense that they are spinning in the tank.

These are the weird things your brain does when it has no input. Some people apparently itch for the first twenty or so minutes in the tank. Like some old butler who finally gets a day off after forty years and ends up doing chores because he knows nothing else, the brain creates input or sensory sensations that don’t exist, in effect it creates work for itself to do. The easiest sense to fool and create false input for when input has been cut off from the traditional sensory sources is the sense of balance. Which is pretty weird.

After a few minutes I lost the sensation of floating to one side and found a good equilibrium. I tried performing an exercise Sam suggested called a body scan, which is just the simple process of being aware of your toes, and then your feet, and then your ankles and so on until you reach the top of your head.

This is a very simple meditative exercise, and I’ve done it plenty of times outside of a flotation tank. The idea is to just become aware of your whole body, and through that process, relax your body and mind. Although the relaxing part was not hard, I noticed my awareness constantly drifting away toward other things, which required me to direct my awareness back to the part of my body I had been scanning. This redirection of lost attention is a normal part, even the point, of any meditative practice. But this was a bit different, I found my mind was harder to control and focus, that my brain, instead of being free of distraction and therefore more easily used as a tool, was more like a dog off the leash, ready to run in any direction and pursue any idea, thought, or perception.

After the body scan, I decided to just give into the experience and let my mind wander away, which might be overestimating my own choice in the matter. As I became more relaxed and the perception of where my body ended and the primordial space goo started to blur, I found that my brain was operating very much like it does when it’s asleep. That is, my brain was making strange, nonsensical connections and it was combining fictional characters and real people I knew into imagined conversations, it was organizing reality and fantasy, memory and hope, into bizarre collages of thoughts and images that made no real sense. It wasn’t stressful in anyway, and I was wide awake, so I was able to consciously understand that this was happening and I could have wrestled myself back into some sort of intellectual analysis, however temporary, at any point. But why would I? I was having waking dreams, far more vivid than any daydream. And they were relaxing, pleasant dreams. But like real dreams, I could not repeat what any of them were even if I wanted to.

After a few minutes of this, I found that my body would occasionally twitch involuntarily, which both forced me back into the physical present by reminding me I had a body and wasn’t just a cloud of dream energy floating through the cosmos, and by creating enough motion to cause drifting (for real this time), which in turn required me to stabilize myself.

These twitches were very similar to the ones you have in your sleep, and when I asked Sam about them afterward, he again assured me that they were common. He explained that you build electrical charges throughout your body during the day, and at night part of the healing process of sleep is to get rid of these charges by firing them off. That’s what your body does in the tank; it begins the healing process that we experience every night. Except this healing process is more refreshing than sleep because you are giving your body an hour off from gravity, which is something it never gets, unless you’re an astronaut or super hero, and much of what your body is and how it operates is a function of the constant need to maintain an equilibrium against gravity.

After re-positioning myself in the middle of the tank a few times, I no longer had any charges that needed to fire off. I happily floated and watched my brain do weird dreamy things. I’ve never had a lucid dream, as far as I know, and I wouldn’t even call these lucid in the sense that I wasn’t consciously creating the content of the dream, although I was consciously aware that I was in a sort of dream state at all times. At some point, I wondered how much time had gone by. I had purchased an hour-session for $80, and I estimated that I was probably approaching the half-hour mark. When I first started floating, I thought “an hour is a long time,” but now, fully relaxed and happy to watch my brain run around off the leach, confident it would stay in sight, I was looking forward to the second half of my session.

Then the gentle music came on from the speakers at the bottom of the tank. My session was up. It had been a full hour.

I was amazed. I was sure I had been in there for thirty minutes at the very most. As a sporadic and not very committed or disciplined practitioner of meditation, I was used to thinking I was close to the fifteen minutes I had committed to meditating and then looking at my watch and seeing only seven minutes had passed. I had never experienced any sort of meditation or exercise session, or anything that required doing nothing, that flew by faster than I expected.

I began to move a bit in the water, just to see what it was like to create some gentle waves on purpose and feel my body move against the goo, instead of rest within it. It felt great. I really didn’t want to get out.

I hit the light and slowly sat up. I felt relaxed in a way I never have before. I could feel every pore. My brain had run around off the leash, and now that it was back on it my brain was calm, satisfied, and completely obedient. My head was clear. When I stood up it was like I could feel each muscle fiber gently extend and contract in unison like a group of happy factory workers from an early Disney movie whistling while they worked.

I felt great.

After rinsing off, I put my clothes on, and returned to Sam’s couch. He unhurriedly asked me about the experience, patiently answered my questions, and even, prompted by me, talked a bit about the rising popularity of flotation tanks and the increasing need people have to take the time to unplug their brains due to the ever increasing level of information the brain is battling to keep up with on a daily basis.

After leaving a thought occurred to me.

In the tank, which is dark, silent, and super comfortable I had:

1)      Twitched like I was asleep.

2)      Dreamt like I was asleep.

3)      And lost track of time, as if I had fallen asleep.

Good god, I thought. Did I just actually fall asleep in there?

Would I even know if I had?

I was sure I had stayed awake the whole time. I thought about the experience and tried to remember everything that I had contemplated in the tank as I walked through the ridiculous heat to the subway. What I had experienced, I decided, was a state very similar to sleep, but any attempts at cessation or minimization of the conscious mind would be.

I was sure, looking back, that I was awake the whole time. But I couldn’t prove it in any real sense. It’s possible that my ego wouldn’t allow me to think I spent $80 on a nap. I think it’s more possible that sleep and awake are two components on a spectrum of consciousness, and the only two components I experience in my day to day life, which meant my experience in the tank got thrown into that limiting dichotomy. We know there are many other kinds of consciousness on the spectrum of conscious states that can be experienced through meditation, drugs, or sensory deprivation tanks. I had experienced one of them.

And just like that, my brain was back on the job.

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