Floating: My Experience Of Sensory Deprivation Therapy

Doing nothing really does something
Doing nothing really does something

At the bottom of Park Street is the back shop, Back In Action. You may have passed it on your walk up to the museum, perhaps trying to figure out how to sit on the unusual furniture in the window. I am here to use their Flotation Centre.

I cross the road from College Green and enter, wandering between the ergonomic chairs set out like modernist sculptures, complete with a gallery-like quietness that feels deeper after the noise of the street.

Harriet walks over and shows me downstairs, below street level, where it’s even quieter; just a sound of churning water and a low motor hum. She lists the reasons that people come and float – for insomnia, high blood pressure, autism, anxiety; athletes preparing for competition, students revising, pregnant women enjoying the weightlessness, couples celebrating their anniversaries… People respond to the lack of stimuli in different ways, and will each get something different from the experience. Every float is different, she says, using herself as an example – sometimes she’ll leave a session full of energy and other times she’s ready to sleep. She tells me how some enthusiasts book a pod for a whole night and get into some serious trippy introspection, but that most people take more of a little-and-often approach to keep on top of their stress.

Harriet opens the door to a room off the corridor where the water noise is coming from. A large, orange, egg-shaped tank takes up most of the room. I have chosen to use the pod rather than the cabin. It looks like a prop from a sci-fi film – an alien incubator, maybe. The lid is up and the water inside froths invitingly. I will be floating in a solution of epsom salt (magnesium sulphate), which increases the water’s density to the point that it can support a body. Saltwater stings if it gets in your eyes, so Harriet shows me a little spray-bottle of fresh water to wash this away. There are buttons on the inside of the tank to control the lid and the lights inside the pod. The light in the room is motion-controlled so it will turn off a little while into your flotation.

Before the float, though, I am going to use the Mobiliser. We walk to the end of the corridor to a room with two sort of lumpy massage tables in it. I lie down on one, lining the lumps up with my ankles and knees. Harriet switches the machine on and they slowly, firmly, roll into position at my pelvis and then up and down the muscles by my spine, putting it into flexion and extension in a way that feels quite different to anything I’ve been able to achieve with foam rolling and stretching. After fifteen minutes, the difference in how my back feels is really noticeable. Harriet says how many people just use the Mobiliser on its own, but how pairing it with flotation can be particularly effective. For me, as well as improving the mobility of my spine, I think I benefited from just having 15 minutes to wind down and focus, rather than taking that time out of the actual float.

We return to the pod and Harriet goes upstairs to the office, where she will remotely start the session. I shower, put my earplugs in, climb in and close the lid. Dull light filters through where the lid joins the rest of the tank and the sound of waves plays next to my head. This slight visual and aural stimulation slowly moves me into the flotation state rather than it being suddenly dark and silent. I keep my eyes open and try to slow my breathing to be in time with the waves. It feels very pleasant, but no nicer than being in a particularly relaxing bath. Suddenly the light in the room goes out and I am plunged into total darkness. I am struck by a strong feeling of loss that slowly turns into a sense of relief.

It’s hard to describe the rest of the hour I was floating. I sort of cycled through different focuses. First, I would feel very aware of my body and think about areas of tension. Being totally suspended in body-temperature water, I became aware of the tension in the left side of my neck and left hip. Everything was exaggerated – It felt as though I had my left ear on my shoulder and my left leg out at a right angle. I would wiggle around and try different ways of holding my body – with my palms facing down or up, above my head or by my sides. Then I’d think I should relax and stop moving and my brain would fill with ideas and plans for the future. It was amazing to have all these thoughts but frustrating to not be able to write them down. I worried that I would lose them forever but then gave up and try to let myself meditate. Then… just, nothing… It was very strange to feel as though I wasn’t thinking at all – I’d only rarely been able to reach that state, as an inexperienced meditator. But soon I’d start to feel aware of how much rock there was above me, floating in the basement. I remembered the story I’d read years ago of the scientist who drank billion year-old cave water. I imagined ancient buried lakes, with me drifting on the surface. Then I’d think “oh! I’m sleeping”, come out of that and start the whole cycle again, repeating until the wave sound faded in again and I slowly emerged from the tank, completely unable to believe it had been an hour. It felt like I’d only just got in, but at the same time as though I’d been in there for far longer.

I had a strong feeling that I’d only just started to make the most of the experience. It’s a cliché, but it felt as though I was going “deeper” and struggling against it less the longer I was in there. Harriet said that is one of the few commonalities of people’s experience – that they can access that meditative state quicker the more they float. I also felt like I didn’t really know what had just happened, and that I wanted to find out more.

Since then, I have read a little about what seems to happen to the body during flotation. Dr. John C. Lilly built the first sensory deprivation tank at the National Institute of Mental Health in America in the mid-50s. He wanted to study the brain without external stimulus, and combined it with his interest in psychedelic drugs as a means of self-exploration. Later in his career, Lilly spent a lot of time trying to communicate with dolphins, had ketamine dreams of AI apocalypses and became convinced of the existence of a cosmic ‘Earth Coincidence Control Office’. I think that his work on flotation has been grouped with these wackier ideas and the proverbial baby has been thrown out with the saltwater (*ahem*).

This is a shame, because the few legit studies that have looked into REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy) have found some remarkable benefits – increased well-being, increased performance, mild euphoria, increased creativity, reduced anxiety, enhanced sleep quality, less muscle tension, lowered blood pressure and altered states of consciousness, as well as improvements to conditions such as Aspergers, ADHD, PTSD and chronic stress and pain (see Jonsson and Kjellgren, 2014).

Sweden has gone so far as to offer flotation through its health service, but here the treatment is provided by places like Bristol Float Centre. Obviously, outside of the public sector, companies have to make money to stay in business, and this has unfortunately led to some less-responsible centres making inflated claims of the effects of flotation in order to sell more sessions (for examples, see Jonsson and Kjellgren again). This can be another obstacle to access if you’re someone with pretty active woo-woo sensors, which again seems a shame given the potential real benefits.

In the months since that session, I’ve thought about it often. I have tried to be more consistent with my meditation, though the form of it (mindfulness) and method feels very unsatisfying in comparison to the float. I think of floating as a sort of “turbo-meditation”. Perhaps this is paradoxical and missing the point of a deep meditation practice (I’m sure that a monk just exploded somewhere) but I think there is a lot of power here in providing the many people who find it hard to reach clarity (like me) access to a deeply relaxed state they haven’t experienced before. I’m sure it’s possible outside of a pod, but achieving that is harder. Floating gave me a sort of destination to aim for – I know what being very relaxed feels like, and I can now tell when I’m closer or further from that state, rather than just sort of wandering around in my consciousness with nowhere to rest, as I had been before. It has also reinvigorated my interest in meditation more generally, and convinced me that I should look at other options for my practice beyond “mindfulness” apps.

I am pretty convinced of floating’s (evidenced) benefits, and if I could afford it I would program a session on every rest day I have. Writing this article has made me really crave that state again, and I think I’ll do a session to mark the end of the year. An hour float costs £49, and our nearest pods are at Bristol Float Centre.

Thank you so much to Jez and Alice for buying me the flotation session for my birthday, and huge thanks to Harriet at Back In Action for being so helpful during the flotation and the interview we did towards this article.

(FYI the gym didn’t receive any payment or anything for writing this).