Lately a new health and spa craze has popped up all over the place you may have heard of or wanted to try: Sensory Deprivation at a “float” spa. If you were a Stranger Things fan you might recall the sensory deprivation tank the lead character Eleven is forced into as part of government experiments that unleash all hell on Indiana in the 2017 show. But the practice of depriving the brain of external sensory information in order to reap the benefits of letting the brain tap into its subconcious is a practice dating back nearly seven decades.
Physician and psychoanalyst John C. Lilly developed the isolation tank used for sensory deprivation for The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1954 as part of studies on conciousness. While Lilly would go on to study dolphin communication and the usage of LSD and Ketamine in conjunction with isolation tanks, the “float tank” concept of isolating the brain from external stressors has had a resurrgance in this hectic modern world where worldwide insomnia is increasing as are stress-related illness and disability and what is thought of in neurology as a “busy brain” that just can’t stop tuning in to incessant cellphone alerts of who posted what on Facebook. Medical professionals around the world agree emphatically that we need to slow down and tune out, and the float tank promises to force us to do just that since we clearly are having trouble as a species choosing to do it ourselves.
The idea is simple: you float in a shallow pool of incredibly salty water for an hour or so with no lights or sound or clothes (just kidding on that one- a bathing suit is optional. Or nakedness is optional. One of those.). But hold on, you say, what was with the whole deep-sea diving get-up they strapped Eleven into in Stranger Things? I hear you and let me ‘splain real quick: Lilly’s original tank was an actual big-arsed water tank and required the experimental subject to wear a helmet, et all to be submerged in water. Remember, the show takes place in the early 80s. Today’s float tanks are worlds away from that claustrophobic experience and more like a cozy little people-pea-pod.
While I was doing research to write Look Left, Walk Green I came across several references to Lilly’s work with sensory deprivation and while it was something I’d been previously familiar with, the Stranger Things link is what actually got me interested again. Since having ECT, my brain seems to be permantly beset with chatter. And while this is partly just how I’m wired naturally, I came to have an extremely short span of attention. This wouldn’t be quite so bad but my job requires me to pay attention to a series of pretty hum drum actions and at present I take medication which helps somewhat but doesn’t let me off the hook for some serious mindfulness work all the time. And frankly, I suck at mindfulness because, well, i suck at paying attention. So this is something I’m always looking for solutions to.
But if you’ve been noticing, references to mindfulness are popping up everywhere – I counted four in the grocery checkout line the other day as I was not mindfully bagging the groveries- as well as mindfullness’s more serious cousin Meditation, which has plenty of health benefits. And both of these center around the premise that you focus your attention and breath on one thing, which is tough with the TV and the phone alerts and traffic and what I need to cook for dinner and my dog playing soccer with himself in the hallway. I digress.
What do mindfullness and meditation have to do with float tanks? Well, they have much the same desired outcome. In both meditation and sensory deprivation the brain is able to chill out and generate a theta wave. At any given time the brain generates waves particular to what state it’s in. If you’ve ever had an EEG test or seen someone in a movie with wires on their forehead connected to a machine making a printout, the little squiggly lines being printed are waves the brain is generating and studying them can tell us what’s going on in general at the time the test is being administered. Whether the person is awake or sleeping, dreaming or seizing can all be seen on this type of test.
Of the the four types of brain waves (alpha, beta, theta, delta), theta are associated most with relaxation, good mood and creativity. They’re sort of the “yeah, man, far out” of brain states. Theta waves pop up in the brain when we engage in activities like daydreaming, meditation, deep sleep or repetitive tasks. Ever have a brainstorm when you’re doing the dishes? Do you keep a tablet by your shower for your next stroke of brilliance? The reason why lots of people get great ideas while doing mundane things is that the conscious is busy keeping an eye on those things while the subconcious in theta wave can run free on its own.
What sensory deprivation does is remove the external stimuli and stress from the brain so it can slide right down into a theta state without all the sidetracking. Because while we can sit in a dark room without TVs or radios or phones and focus on relaxing, the feel of the fabric on our skin, the ambient light from a streep lamp or the breathing of a partner in bed are all external stimuli our brain is picking up and analyzing all the time even if we’re not conciously aware of doing so. Now while there are some people who are masters at meditation who can certainly alter their brain waves with no extra help, I’d say the bulk of us can benefit from both meditation and floating either alone or certainly combined. And because the brain is the boss of every process in the body, anything beneficial to the brain directly has positive effects on other systems.