Sensory Underload: Ninety Minutes Inside An Isolation Tank

Because 5 months in the woods wasn’t enough to isolate me from the surrounding world, I decided to kick it up a notch.

While on my little walk thingy, I became a big fan of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. It served as my social fix when I wasn’t in the mood for actual interaction. For those who are unfamiliar, Joe Rogan is a stand up comedian/UFC commentator/host of Fear Factor/Carlos Mencia basher.

One of the many reoccurring theme’s on the podcast is Rogan’s fascination with introspection. In several episodes, he would reference a “sensory deprivation tank” (aka isolation tank/flotation tank) that he had set up in his house. The tank, as Rogan puts it, “is the most important tool that [he’s] ever used for developing [his] mind“. This, coming from someone who is an outspoken proponent of both psychedelic drugs and marijuana.

Naturally my curiosity was piqued.

For those who are unfamiliar (me, as of 3 months ago) an isolation tank is basically a giant metal coffin with about a foot of salt water at the bottom. The water is heated to the same temperature as a human body, eventually resulting in an inability to feel the water. After an individual gets inside and shuts the door behind them, there is only total darkness. Once the water settles, the only sound you can hear is your own breath. Because the water is extremely dense – about 800 lbs. of Epsom salt is dissolved into it – a human body, which is made mostly of water, floats very easily. The theory goes that because there is no sensory input causing distraction to your brain, the mind is left to more freely wander. Beneficial claims include everything from pure rest and relaxation, to improved health and vitality, to being a shortcut toward enlightenment.

Enlightenment box

A quick Google search for flotation tanks pointed me toward A New Spirit, a spa in the outskirts of Denver. I scheduled an appointment for the following day.

One would assume that living in a black bear’s habitat for a half year may help to calm someone’s nerves before going into something like this. I suppose that’s true. Pre-trail, lying in a coffin for an hour, being anything shy of “very dead”, would undoubtedly result in pooping and panic attacks. With that said, I was still mildly nervous.

After a quick pre-tank shower, I stepped into the isolation tank room. I put the ear plugs in (which is apparently more for preventing salty, crusty ears than reducing sound), opened the coffin door, and stepped inside, leaving the door as wide open as possible. I first sat down, then slowly moved into a horizontal position, finding myself surprised by how easy it was to float. In a pool, (for me anyways) there is little margin for error in finding a position that allows for effortless floating. In the tank, you can raise your hands and feet out of the water, and still not make contact with the bottom of the tank (keep in mind the water is only 10” deep). I was already impressed. It was time to face the inevitable and shut the door. I did.

PANIC.

Holy shit- apparently I was not ready for such a sudden transition to darkness. My heart raced, my mind lapped it, and I quickly sat up and re-opened the coffin door. I took a few breaths and reminded myself I could leave at any point if I wanted. I laid back down and closed the door, again. This time the anxiety seemed to disappear almost as quickly as it arrived. Time to float.

At first, although there was nothing meditative about it, the sensation of floating without being able to see anything was really trippy. My mind was telling me that I was floating off in distant directions. The fact that I wasn’t making contact within the small coffin walls was proof that my brain was playing tricks on me. Instead of fighting it, I rode the roller coaster for a bit and enjoyed my faux trip to nowhere.

Once the drifting sensation subsided, it was time to wrestle around with the anarchy of thoughts that rule my head. “I wonder if the spa lady is single?” “Did I forget to print out my Daily Social Whole Foods voucher? I crave Kombucha.”What’s Dennis Rodman up to these days?” After about 10 minutes, the circus of insanity ceased, and I reminded myself that I didn’t come here to float, I came here to achieve enlightenment. Shut up with the Dennis Rodman.

I practiced some Dr. Andrew Weil breathing meditations. Although I had done these many times in the past, the sensations seemed to be exponentially more powerful inside the tank. An almost surreal energy passed through my body (wherever that was), but just as I thought I was going to disappear into space, I would brush up against the side of the tank, and get pulled back into my thoughts. Sensory input has a way of doing that. I would go in and out of this routine many times over and again.

It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort of turning my brain off entirely that I really felt the potential of the isolation tank. I disappeared into a state somewhere between sleep and quiet alertness, into a place where time loses its effect. I say this because it felt like I was in the tank either forever or almost no time at all. Both seemed true. There is no way to put an accurate depiction on it. Having a grasp on time is hard to do when you lose sense of your body.

Just as I began to think, “I wonder when my hour is….” I heard the knocking to indicate that my hour was up. As I slowly climbed out of the tank, I noticed my body was shaking similar to the how it would after an intense weight lifting session. Considering all of the muscles in my body were as relaxed as can be, I’m guessing this was the result of inner tension being released, but that’s only speculation. After another quick shower (three showers in one day = a months worth of showers on the AT), I sat in the lobby for another 30 minutes, too relaxed to move, and tried to comprehend what happened over the previous 90 minutes (spa lady was nice enough to give the N00B some extra time).

It’s fairly common knowledge amongst float-ologists that the first couple of sessions are merely introductory. You build on your next float from the previous; it’s a cumulative effect.

If this is the case, I may have just discovered my newest addiction.

For anyone who is interested, this website will help you find the isolation tank facility nearest you. As you may have already guessed, I recommend it.

  • Sherry Rogers

    Zach, thanks for sharing your experience. I find this really interesting …. I want to check this out for myself. Although I am a proponent along with the Dalai Lama … there no short cuts to enlightenment although it would be great if there were ;-). I find the concept and practice of this floatation chamber rather intriguing. Personally speaking, personal peak experiences can create a solid stepping stone for which the Soul can travel on through the land of the ego. (As a side note, apparently the D.L. gets asked quite frequently about ‘shortcuts’. One day he broke down and sobbed … his response was enlightenment is not fast, cheap or easy.

  • I wonder how much the Dalai Lama thinks enlightenment costs?

    I think some of the claims are exaggerated – as is the case with anything that costs money. With that said, the tank seems to be a very unique experience. You get out of it what you want to get out of it. Some people use it to unwind, some use it for health, others use it for “enlightenment”, other’s are just experimental.

    I think you’d get a kick out of it Sherry. Let me know if you end up doing it, I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

  • Mark Dalton

    What aboutclostrophobia? I freak out at the water slide park if the tube is enclosed and dark.

  • Sherry Rogers

    Actually, I don’t think D.L. was referring to money …. just that enlightenment is not necessarily an easy road to walk down and if you’re looking for shortcuts … well, forget it. I am really looking forward to trying the floatation tank out! I am located on the east coast, Maryland and I believe the closest venue is Chesapeake, VA. I was chatting it up with a couple of girlfriends over morning coffee/tea on Friday. So, road trip it is! Although, not certain about dates … that will be discussed over wine on Tuesday night. I will certainly let you know how our experience turns out. As a sidenote, one of my girlfriends who is interested in participating, participated in one of JHU’s consciousness studies where they used music and Psilocybin … this might be right up your alley although it would mostly mean a Maryland residency for a half-year or so.

  • Kathy Dalton

    What about pulling an Altered States ???? My concern would be I’d pull a William Hurt and have more hair than Zach does now…maybe you have to see the movie to have any idea what I’m talkin’ about. But suffice it say, genetic regression does not look fun. (See the 1980 movie for more info…TRIPPY!!)

  • Kathy

    Oops – that was KathyDalton replying to Mark’s post. Is it weird to reply to your own husband on a comment thread? Oh well…add to my list of weirdo things to do.

  • Pingback: Badger's Appalachian Trail Omissions: West Nile Virus | The Good Badger()

  • Pingback: Environmental Stimulation and Its Effects on The Brain | The Layman's Guide to Psychology()

  • LevanahMoon

    Just found this blog and your comment, Sherry Rogers. Are you saying that you’re also a proponent of enlightenment (I hear that!) or that the Dalai Lama is a proponent of the sensory deprivation tank (which I had *not* heard!)??

  • Micah Weller

    I found a flotation tank an hour from my house and went to try it out.

    During the first session I started to watch my mind chatter for several minutes before hearing the ocean sounds that signal the end of the session start to play. I had fallen asleep! I was so disappointed after hearing such grand stories from other floaters of amazing experiences. After my shower I spoke with the owner for a couple hours during which time I realized that I felt AMAZING. I then asked if I could jump back in for another hour and did some tantric breathing. The second experience was great! I started giggling like a little boy for some of it because of how happy I was.

    I went back to the gentleman’s tank 2 more times in the following month before finding a homemade one for sale online. I now have it in my garage and love it.

    The greatest benefit so far has been its stress reducing abilities. I work 12 hour shifts at night as an RN and when I come off of a work stretch I am down right cunty for a day or two if not more due to the physical stress of staying up until 8am working. Doing a few floats in it has such an amazing ability to suck that out of me and leaves me feeling fairly normal. I would recommend it to anyone. The downside is that so many people have an addiction to “stuff” meaning sensory input and action, and if the tank is anything at all, it is nothing. It, in my experience, is a greatly relaxing and enjoyable nothing. However, in others experience it can be a tortuously boring, and unproductive nothing.

    One benefit that I didn’t expect was its positive effect on my spine and neck. I had a fusion of C-3 and C-4 12 years ago and have constant neck tension and discomfort. Since beginning floating, my neck has started popping more due to an increased range of motion. Tension in my mid back has also greatly reduced.

    I’m going to school to become a Family Nurse Practitioner so that I can work in private practice and help people get healthier. Along with getting certified in Craniosacral therapy and Fascia release, I will use an isolation tank to help people manage stress and help their backs.

    If you can’t enjoy an hour alone with yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?
    -The owner and founder of Samadhi tanks (I may have altered the wording a hair as I read it a month or so ago)

  • Guest

    How

  • Fernando Trochez

    How well does the float tank work for people with anxiety disorders?? I’ve been trying to look that up but can’t seem to find much about it. Anyone can provide me with some info? Much appreciated 🙂

  • Fernando Trochez

    would you recommend the tank for people with anxiety disorders?

  • Micah Weller

    Although my anxiety levels probably don’t match yours, it has helped mine.
    I’ve never dealt with anxiety before in my life but the combination of working nights and doing school has started to make me feel “compressed” is the best I can put it. I feel like I’m smashed down into this small space and I become very edgy and angry. For this the tank has helped quite a bit. My girlfriend has even said that when I come out of the tank it’s like I’m a new person with a much better disposition.

    Of course results may very and if you’re so anxious about the tank that you can’t stand to be in it then it obviously can’t work.

    Only one way to find out! 🙂

  • Fernando Trochez

    Well, I’m open minded, interested and eager to try anything to fix, cure, my problem…I’m not claustrophobic so getting in the tank is not the problem, only worry i have is whether this will make my problem worse or actually help…but you’re right, only way is to find out…thanks for your response, i appreciate that.

  • FloatBuoy

    Been running http://www.floatworks.com for the past 20 years and we’ve yet to have anyone go in tank that came out any worse. Floatation is a learned experience, which sometimes takes 2 or 3 sessions before you start to get the most profound benefits – in our experience we’ve found that people with anxiety respond really well to floatation sessions.

  • Greg

    You’re in luck! Floating is great for anxiety. So much so that there is currently a float center being built at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa Oklahoma. Anxiety is one of the psychiatric conditions they will be studying and eventually have published as scientific research. http://www.laureateinstitute.org/justin-feinstein.html for more information.

  • Greg

    The thing about a water slide tube is that you can’t just stop when you feel claustrophobic and crawl out of the tube from where you are, you have to finish the ride. In a float tank, pod or room, if you feel claustrophobic you just push the door open. A lot of people have this concern but are pleasantly surprised by how quickly the concern dissipates when they are in the float tank.

  • Fernando Trochez

    Really?? i wanna volunteer for that! if they’re looking for any 😀