The Benefits of Self-Deprivation

by Margo Ruter

Flotation tanks have been making their way into the world of stressed out individuals for decades, but it wasn’t until 2005 that they started to get a bit of street cred in the Midwest when a Chicago Tribune reporter did some field research on the matter.  Kevin Pang found that his post-session state was the “epitome of tranquility and relaxation.”  Since then, these tanks have been re-defining relaxation.  A one hour session in this type of sensory deprivation tank has been considered the equivalent of eight hours of sleep.  Leave it to America to launch fast-food and now condensed relaxation sessions.

Sensory Deprivation is a technique initially used by neuro-psychiatrists designed to deliberately reduce or completely remove stimuli from one or all of the senses.  Traditionally called “perceptual isolation”, this technique can be as simple as wearing earmuffs or blindfolds to reduce outside distractions.

Just as stimulating your sense of smell can potentially aide your aching head, depriving your body of its senses may also have a beneficial effect.  Of course, there’s a placebo effect in many of these alternative practices, so let your practical self take a nap for a few minutes.

John C. Lilly decided to take it a step further than nose-plugs in 1954 when he began his academic research on the effect of sensory deprivation on his patients at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.  A neuro-psychiatrist himself, he sought to answer the question of what keeps the brain going and what the origin of it’s energy is.  He wanted to know how the brain responded to the elimination of various senses, so he designed what today is known as an isolation tank.

Early versions of this isolation tank were before their technological time. The tank was filled with warm water the same temperature as the subject’s skin, in which the subject was required to wear a large head mask to enable underwater breathing.  Great idea, right?  Not exactly.  These large masks ended up negating the purpose of the tank by distracting the subject from the experience of isolation.  Silence was impossible due to the constant movement of oxygen bubbles in and out of the mask.  The lens of the mask was painted black to eliminate the subject’s vision, but this required assistance entering or exiting the tank.  Basically, these early tanks were a hassle.

Early isolation tank, circa 1950s.

Newer tanks have conquered many of these setbacks by adding Epsom salt to the water in the tank, raising the water density and causing the subject to float without the aid of a head mask. The subject wears earplugs to cancel sound and if he or she knocks an arm or leg on the side of the tank, the sense of touch is semi-eliminated due to the water temperature matching the body temperature.  The air and water in the tank become the same temperature, thus causing the subject to lose recognition of which is which.  If the water contains chlorine, the sense of smell is not fully eliminated, but close enough.

In the 1970s, Peter Svedfeld and Roderick Borrie at the University of British Columbia began to fully discover the therapeutic benefits of using the tanks. They were called flotation tanks at the time, but are considered the same technology as isolation tanks. This theory was called the Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy, or R.E.S.T. (I like how that worked out, we all need a little soul-on-soul TLC.)

“Most importantly, the float tank is not a hypothetical laboratory phenomenon, but a viable, proven technology.” – Dr. Henry Adams, Nation Institute of Mental Health

Modern day sensory deprivation tank.

Fast forward from 1954, today these tanks are available for the public to use during scheduled sessions.  It’s kind of like a tanning bed, but it lasts longer and won’t slowly kill you.

As the result of a person subjecting themselves to these seemingly strange conditions, he or she often feels refreshed, relaxed and stress-free. It has been considered a way to enhance meditation and offer an out-of-body experience.  The sessions are usually one hour long and are for anyone looking to unwind, not just mental patients. The first forty minutes of the session are similar to the first half hour of a meditation session.  Random itching can occur, but is similar to the feeling of your foot falling asleep, annoying, but harmless.  The last twenty minutes is the most crucial part of the session; this is the time when the brain waves switch from alpha and beta waves to theta waves, the state it’s in just before sleep and immediately upon waking up.  This is a different state of thinking for your brain, unlike how it functions at 2:30PM after a few cups of coffee.  This theta wave state lasts for several minutes without the subject falling asleep.

Many people use this treatment regularly to enhance creativity, solve difficult problems, or to superlearn.  It can help facilitate the same results as meditation, but with a little help. Clearing the mind is a great stress reducer.

Piere Schulz and Charles Henry Kaspar have done considerable work dealing sensory deprivation and have concluded that “it has relaxing effects and is therapeutically useful”.

For those of you who are still a bit skeptical about these tanks, Australian Senator Richard Jones claims that Sensory Deprivation tanks are “[the] second best thing to being in Heaven.”  Now, I’m not sure if he has access to direct flights to Heaven, but for now I guess we’ll have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The senses are such a touchy thing with humans.  Increased sensitivity to various senses can have it’s benefits, but it seems that eliminating them can too.  Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself in such a tank and come out feeling like the new Einstein.  ZAP!

Passed Out






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