Sensory deprivation tanks are old, but newly-popular items used to deprive oneself of sensory stimuli for the purposes of relaxation, stress relief, extra-sensory perception, or enhanced creativity. They are lightproof, soundproof tanks filled with extremely buoyant saltwater that is kept at exactly skin temperature. When one floats in one of these tanks for an extended period, he is supposed to be relieved of all light, sound, and tactile feeling, and experience relaxation and bliss.
If you live in a city/town that has an “up and coming” district where hip, affluent, late-20s yuppies congregate to indulge in a variety of gimmicky activities to distract themselves from their crippling psychological problems, then there is probably a sensory deprivation float center open or opening near you. While these float centers, much like the oxygen bars, self-serve FroYo restaurants, and pole-dancing-for-exercise gyms that often surround them, are an expensive, trendy ploy to extract money from the bank accounts, trust funds, or credit cards of those inclined to develop short-lived obsessions with anything vaguely interesting, they are also very, very cool.
Since viewing my mother’s VHS copy of the 1980 film Altered States, in which an eccentric scientist (William Hurt, ladies and gentler-men) repeatedly doses himself with gratuitous amounts of an untested hallucinogenic drug, floats in a sensory deprivation tank, and eventually transforms into a feral, pre-historic ape-man who wanders the streets and terrorizes stray dogs, I have had a strong desire to try out an isolation tank myself.
One of these facilities recently opened in my area, and my roommate and I decided to give it a try. Upon arrival, we were each assigned private rooms, in which we were instructed to disrobe and shower before entering the tanks. While floating in the dark does not sound particularly difficult, I found that it took a good half hour to master. Luckily, the appointment was for an hour and a half, so this allowed plenty of time for my learning curve. The first difficulty I encountered was my inability to remain stationary in the water. The tanks are only slightly larger than a large person, so it takes some practice to remain in the center of the tank and keep from drifting into the walls. Several times during my struggle to achieve equilibrium, I splashed water in my eyes, which was extremely painful, because the water was saturated with 1,200 pounds of Epsom salt.
Somehow, after thrashing around in the dark and adding to the salt content of the tank with the tears from my burning eyes for about 25 minutes, I was able to come to rest. Once I was still, I found my way into that state of mind that is somewhere between sleeping and waking, the one where you have absolutely no idea what’s going on. A Google search revealed that this state is known as Hypnagogia. While in this state, I experienced a series of short lived and rapidly cycling scenarios. When I say scenarios, I do not mean dreams, because I was not asleep, and I do not exactly mean hallucinations, because I didn’t necessarily see them out of my eyes. It was more like I was thrust, unknowingly, out of my mind and body, and into a scenario, in which I would see people, things, and places, most of which were very brightly colored and had nothing to do with anything in particular. Each of these scenarios lasted what I estimate to have been about 10 or 15 seconds, but could actually have been any amount of time. Between each scenario, I would realize briefly that I was, in fact, a naked guy floating in a dark bathtub, but could never seem to hold onto this revelation for more than a few seconds before drifting back into another colorful, random scene. This was all accompanied by a sense of bodily well being, similar to that achieved upon waking from a very short nap.
After the session, I felt relatively good, but had salt in my ears for at least a week. That was ok, because I liked picking salt out of my ears. I really like picking at things in general.
Overall, I have no idea what happened, and don’t even really remember it all that well. I liked it very much, though, once I got the hang of it, and I will likely go again soon, hopefully under the influence of one or more psychoactive substances. To anyone interested, I would advise giving it a try, you might just become obsessed.