Float On

Floatation tanks appear to be having their mainstream moment so what is floating like and what does the research say?

As I took off my last remaining piece of clothing in a small room in the heart of Gastown, I had to remind myself why I was about to try “floating” for the first time. For 90 minutes, I would lie in complete darkness – on my back – in 12 inches of salty water, very carefully set at 34 degrees Celsius – a temperature which I imagine to be the precise definition of “tepid.” The water is supersaturated with over 1,200 pounds of Epsom salts, added for their therapeutic effects and their ability to dramatically increase the buoyancy of the floater. My senses were about to receive almost zero inputs for the next hour and a half.

According to preliminary research and the testimonials from enthusiastic members of the floaters community, floating can yield extraordinary benefits. I reminded myself of this and turned toward the darkness of the floatation tank. As I closed the lid, my final sensory input was the sound of the tank’s heavy door closing, sealing me away from the outside world.

Floating — known in academia as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) — is not a new phenomenon, but it appears as though the once fringe therapy is having its mainstream moment. Floatation centres are popping up all across Vancouver and are appealing to many people including the large local student population. It’s not difficult to imagine why this experience of near-nothingness is being sought out. In our hyper-connected world of smartphones and social media, it is rare to find a few moments of silence, let alone 90 minutes of near total sensory deprivation.  

Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus in UBC’s psychology department, is the pioneer of REST research. A quick search shows studies authored in part or in whole by Suedfeld, claiming that floating positively affects memory, creativity, athletic performance and more. Scientific claims range from a Nature article claiming REST helped Alzheimer’s patients, to an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment showing benefits for those suffering from substance-induced mood disorders. One study shows therapeutic results for autistic children. Another shows that REST was successfully used to help smokers end their dangerous habit. Is floating a magic bullet? If so, why is it not a mainstream medical treatment?

Illustrations Jerry Yin / The Ubyssey

REST therapy has a long history of research and experimentation. Research dates back to the 1960s, a time when REST researchers such as Suedfeld encountered a difficult academic environment. Isolation tanks were believed to be dangerous, leading to “hallucinations, emotional upheaval, intellectual deterioration and temporary psychosis” according to a 1961 publication called Sensory Deprivation; a symposium held at Harvard Medical School. Although this was later shown to be untrue, this sentiment still exists among some people today. Researchers have found, however, that with the right setting and in modest time intervals, REST therapy is not only safe, but in fact appears to confer benefits to the floater.

“[REST] enhances intellectual processes … it has been used successfully as a tool in stress management and a treatment for chronic pain, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, cigarette addiction, overeating, phobia and compulsive self injury,” wrote Suedfeld in 1997.

Not all academics are as enthusiastic of REST research as Professor Suedfeld and his work has been scrutinized in the past.

“There’s a fairly wide range of claims from the industry, but they’re not always based on the most rigorous science,” explained Mark Holder, a professor at UBC Okanagan. The psychology researcher lists small sample sizes and a lack of control groups as examples of methodological errors in much of the existing scientific literature addressing floating. In light of lacking rigorous science, Holder is conducting his own study. The premise of the study is simple — to what degree do people self report well-being after a 90 minute REST session?

Scientific claims range from a Nature article claiming REST helped Alzheimer’s patients, to an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment showing benefits for those suffering from substance-induced mood disorders.

A group of 126 floaters was asked to fill out a questionnaire before and after their float session as well as follow up studies 24 hours and one week later. The studies showed that happiness and life satisfaction did, in fact, improve significantly after a floating session while anxiety and depression decreased, even when controlling for expectation of supposed benefits. Holder’s research is encouraging, but it is — as opposed to earlier, more exciting and controversial claims — a little bland. The need remains to replicate earlier studies conducted by Suedfeld and his colleagues to find out whether or not their claims can be backed by more rigorous science. Can something as simple as floating really help people with autism, Alzheimer’s, mental illnesses and more? “How could that be?” asks my inner scientist and skeptic — and hopefully yours too — and what could the mechanism of action possibly be?

To understand the benefits of silence and solitude on the brain, we have to understand that our evolutionary relatives were spectacularly connected with their natural environment. People today live a sedentary lifestyle and are constantly bombarded by sensory stimulation. Compared to today, silence and solitude was much more likely to be a common experience for your average hunter-gatherer and an important part of their psychological life.

This offers one reason why floating might be good for us. Our brains and bodies have evolved to use moments of silence and solitude. Lying awake at night in the forest, listening to nothing but the leaves blowing in the wind was commonplace, as were hours of focused silence while hunting game or gathering food. This environment is vastly different from our modern online landscape of views, likes and shares. Instead of filling their time with technology and 24-7 entertainment, our ancestors were used to spending time in silence and solitude. 

Floaters report feeling like their brains “switch gears” and their emotional, cognitive and spiritual abilities are able flourish in response to the new neural environment.

The brain is affected by reduced environmental stimulation in powerful ways, argues Paul Maclean, the former chief of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health. Our “three brains” — the reptile brain, the paleomammalian brain and neocortex — are all strongly affected by reduced sensory activity. In moments of silence, our brain functions differently and we can harness the fruits of these differences such as increased creativity and self awareness to improve our lives. Maclean’s theory is supported by floaters’ anecdotal claims. Regular floaters self report their minds becoming more creative and self-reflective, and many claim they leave with the feeling of having spent quality time with themselves — a valuable experience in our never-a-dull-moment society. Floaters report feeling like their brains “switch gears” and their emotional, cognitive and spiritual abilities are able flourish in response to the new neural environment. How a restricted sensory environment actually leads to these effects remains an enigma, but the scientific consensus — at the moment at least —  is that floating is healthy for the human psyche.

At first, my time in the floatation chamber was enjoyable. Although the space was barely larger than a hot tub, I felt no claustrophobia. I tried playing around with the idea of falling asleep and drowning, but felt comfortable that I would be safe even if I happened to fall asleep. I remained a bit anxious at facing so much time alone with my thoughts, but the water, salt and the general experience of nothingness quickly dismissed these fears. As the float continued, I contemplated what to do with my mind.

The advice given to me was to simply be present and to let whatever wants to unfold to unfold. I did my best to follow this advice and did in fact feel more present. As the minutes went by, I started to feel as though I was merging with my surroundings, a sense of becoming one with my external reality, unsure where my body ended and the world began.

After the first hour of my float, the initial calm and relaxation started to turn towards boredom. I too am a member of our information-driven society after all and am used to being constantly inundated with sensory stimulation. Instead of having a profound inner experience as many floaters report, I opted to play with the sides of the tank, even sitting up cross-legged for a few minutes. I was relieved to hear the music start to play which signaled that I had 15 minutes to exit the tank, shower, put on my clothes and head to the “post-float” room for some tea and relaxation.

Illustrations Jerry Yin / The Ubyssey

As I exited the room, reality came surging back at me. Colours seemed more vivid than usual and I was in a great mood. My girlfriend Emma and I exited Float House and made our way to a fancy Gastown café for $4 drip coffees while we reflected on our first floating experience. I certainly felt better than I did going into the float as though I had gone through a psychological cleanse. Emma did not. Instead, she felt tired and nauseous. Perhaps our expectations played a role in this discrepancy or perhaps the difference was due to the way we managed our time in the tank. Or maybe Emma just shouldn’t have ordered the bang bang shrimp the night before.

“A lot of cool things can happen in this environment,” said Nathan Navetto, the marketing and communications manager for Float House, a Vancouver-based business that offers float tank rentals.

“People come out knowing exactly what they need to do in their lives, whether it’s to start a business, work on a relationship or make improvements to their selves. There’s just so many cool things that can come from floating.”

Float House now has four locations across Vancouver and Victoria, and are currently building two more in Langley and Edmonton. The commercial floatation centres are flourishing and the people at Float House couldn’t be happier to be bringing floating to the world. Challenges remain for the company, the biggest being the task of getting people to try floating more than once. Floating is a practice much like meditation or yoga and it’s impossible to get all the benefits of floating by just trying it once. That said, keep in mind the floatation centre has a business model that depends on that rate of returning floaters. While it’s probably good for the floater to float regularly, it’s also good for business.

“People come out knowing exactly what they need to do in their lives, whether it’s to start a business, work on a relationship or make improvements to their selves. There’s just so many cool things that can come from floating.”

— Nathan Navetto, marketing and communications manager for Float House

After having tried floating first hand and having reviewed the scientific literature, I have come to believe that this therapy belongs among the ranks of alternative practices such as meditation, yoga, intermittent fasting, connection with nature and holistic nutrition as practices that have strong merit as performance-enhancing and healing modalities — even as radical tools of self transformation. Years of future innovation or coupling the experience with other treatments such as psychedelic-assisted therapy could provide floaters with more impressive results.

In a world full of quackery, it is wise to approach all such supposedly beneficial activities with a skeptical — but genuinely — open mind. Floating is backed by (some) encouraging science and appears to be safe. Stepping out of your comfort zone and going for a float – or better yet, a series of floats – could prove to be one of your better decisions of 2016. At least better than your decision to take linear algebra as a “breadth elective.”

So, would you give floating a try?