Sensory Deprivation Tanks: Therapy or Just Another Way to Cop a Buzz

Sensory Dep tank

Vice recently released a documentary short on the subject of sensory deprivation tanks, aptly titled, “Tanks for the Memories.”  In the piece, Vice resident “psychonaut,” Hamilton Morris, visits several sensory deprivation facilities and goes for what is (or should be) commonly referred to as, a float.  While “Tanks for the Memories,” may not be the greatest documentary ever produced it is a captivating exposé on a practice that is, well, less than mainstream.  At the conclusion of the piece, two things become clear: First- Advocates of floating believe the practice can be of great therapeutic benefit, aiding in the relief of stress, pain, high blood pressure, and other common ailments.  Also, sensory deprivation (or isolation) tanks can also be used as a vehicle to simply turn off the distractions of the modern world and be alone with one’s own thoughts.  Second- Floating in sensory deprivation tanks can produce hallucinations.  Strong hallucinations.   Strong, drug-free hallucinations.  The bit on hallucinations cannot be understated as that was the real primary reason for Hamilton’s visits to the various sensory deprivation facilities.  As for myself, therapy combined with drug-free hallucinations sounds awesome and after watching “Tanks for the Memories,” I wanted nothing more than to experience floating in a sensory deprivation tank as soon as fucking possible.

Before I go any further, I feel obliged to explain what the hell a sensory deprivation tank is.

For the uninitiated, a sensory deprivation tank is a completely dark (zero visibility), soundproof (zero sound) container, inside of which occupants float on their back in a ten inch pool of Epsom salt laden water.  The tanks are designed to keep water and air (equally important) temperatures exactly the same as the occupant’s skin temperature- about 93.5 degrees.  The constant temperatures are essential in creating an environment in which the sensation of touch is muted.  Inside the tank, the occupant floats, completely void of stimuli.  All sensation is (or is intended to be) removed or deprived; thus the name- Sensory Deprivation Tank.  The idea is that when the body and brain are completely removed from stimuli they both begin to relax.  It is this deep relaxation of the body and mind that create the therapeutic benefits, and the hallucinations.

Lisa in Sens Tank

Now, truth be told, I was not all that familiar with sensory deprivation tanks before seeing this documentary.  My only prior reference to sensory deprivation tanks was from episode 219 of the Simpsons, and that scene (the one with Lisa and Homer floating) didn’t really register as a real, honest to goodness thing.  By which I mean, before seeing the aforementioned documentary, I didn’t know what Lisa and Homer were doing.  But now, it makes sense.  They were in a tank, floating in a shallow pool of Epsom salt water, in complete darkness and silence, trying to trip out.   Well, Lisa was tripping out.  Homer was on a whole other kind of trip.  Watch the episode.

Homer in sens tank

Within minutes after concluding, “Tanks for the Memories,” I was on the phone with a gentleman who goes by the name of “Crash,” from Float Lab Technologies, located in Venice Beach, California.  Crash and Float Lab Technologies were featured in the documentary and being that Venice Beach is a stone’s throw from my home, it seemed like the logical place to go.  Luckily, I was able to get an appointment for a two hour session in one of Crash’s deprivation tanks that very same day.

Admittedly, I was excited.  Perhaps too excited.  Too excited to really think about or process what I was about to engage in.  All I could really think about was getting really, really high on some quality marijuana prior to my first float in the tank.  My motivation for smoking marijuana was different than my usual reason, which is, just because I feel like it.  In the documentary, marijuana is touted by Joe Rogan (comedian, UFC commentator, and apparent sensory deprivation guru) and others, as a means to further one’s experience inside the tank.  Marijuana is said to aid in the relaxation of the body and activate the mind when floating.  So, from the moment I got off the phone with Crash, and for the next three hours (time from call to appointment) I smoked… a lot.  Hell, I just wanted make sure all given advice was heeded and, heeded it was.

Maybe it was a bit of paranoia from the marijuana, or maybe it was just reality settling in, but on the drive over to Float Lab, my excitement waned.  I became fixated on the thought of sharing a tepid pool of salt water with who knows how many people before me.  I’m not exactly a huge germaphobe but I’ve always had an aversion to swimming in public pools.  The idea of sharing water with perfect strangers, all of whom undoubtedly relieved themselves while in that water, has skeeved me out since I can ever remember.  Of course, Float Lab Technologies and other facilities claim to have state of the art filtration systems inside their tanks to ensure the utmost sanitary, hygienic, germ-free conditions.  Still, all the reassurance in the world was not going to convince me that this communal, public pool was perfectly clean and completely free of the vile, gross, disgusting, unmentionable secretions that ooze from the human body.  But with the Venice Beach exit in sight, I knew I was much too close to my destination to abandon my mission; so, against my better judgement, I continued my drive and resolved to go through with this- for better or worse.

I arrived in Venice Beach.

Venice Beach CA

Venice Beach is a cornucopia of humanity.  I hadn’t been there for years.  Los Angeles locals don’t go to Venice Beach but to entertain out-of-towners or maybe pick up a glass weed pipe on the cheap.  There’s really no other reason to go there.  I forgot the immediate culture shock that walking along Ocean Front Walk brings.  Hippies, dippies, druggies, freaks, weirdos, and gangsters abound.  It’s the dregs of society intermixed with unassuming simpletons from Middle America and various parts of Europe.  The visual shock of Venice Beach got my mind off the skeeviness of the day’s activity and on to the now daunting task of traversing the hoard of degenerates and tourists that congest Ocean Front Walk.  Luckily, the locals were sufficiently medicated, the visitors adequately distracted, and I arrived at Float Lab Technologies, none the worse for wear.

Upon my arrival I was greeted by Crash himself.  I did not bother asking the man if “Crash,” was indeed his real name.  Within seconds of meeting him, it became clear that this man earned the name Crash, either by surviving a real crash (as in a car crash), or by crashing in a metaphorical sense from doing too many drugs, too many times.  He wore sunglasses the entire time.  Cheap, dinged up, kind of futuristic (Blade-esque), sunglasses which he undoubtedly scored from one of the countless derelict street vendors that sell their wares on Ocean Front Walk.  His face had a disconcerting amount of open sores, scratches and cuts.  It looked like the man had just crashed through a glass windshield or maybe he had picked at his own skin in a drug addled state as I am under the impression drug folk are prone to do.  For the record, I can’t say for certain if the man was on drugs but I can say that his appearance and demeanor was… unsettling.

In an effort to create a bit of small talk, I asked Crash if he was busier than ever due to the Vice documentary.  He seemed confused by the question and for some reason he was compelled to show me his scheduling book to prove that he was busy before the documentary ever existed.  My brief discussion with Crash led me to believe that he harbored some sort of animosity or hostility toward Hamilton Morris.  Crash confessed he stopped watching the doc after part one- his part.  I told him Hamilton travels to a sensory deprivation facility in Colorado, where he ultimately goes on an eight hour long float.  Crash and a younger gentleman who I assumed to be Crash’s assistant, scoffed at the notion of an eight hour long float, and implied it was impossible.  Crash’s assistant added that it would simply be too cold to float that long.  Crash agreed.  Although Crash, his assistant and I exchanged few words in our brief chat, I was left feeling that Crash was dismissive of Hamilton and I left under the impression that Crash felt Hamilton was a bit of a bullshitter- a bit disingenuous.  I did not press either man for further explanation for this was not a conversation I wished to endure a moment longer.  These were not men of words, and every word they uttered made me feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Immediately prior to my float, Crash sat myself and a twenty-something year old gentleman who had the same appointment time, down for a very brief overview of the facility.   He handed us a laminated card which described the facilities cleaning and maintenance processes.  He then asked if either of us wore contact lenses, which the gentleman next to me did.  Crash then went on a manic rant about contact lens solution and how he only purchased contact lens solution which specifically labeled that a certain preservative was added.  Crash was convinced that every contact lens solution, whether labeled or not, contained the preservative.  Crash appreciated the honesty in the solution’s labeling and that’s why he purchased it.  He tried to transition the thought on contact lens solution into a diatribe about the quality of Epsom salt he uses in his tanks but at that point I was tuned out.  As Crash rambled on about nonsense unrelated to sensory deprivation tanks or floating, I became transfixed on the sores and cuts on his face.  I couldn’t help but think that Crash himself, sores and all, had laid naked in these tanks countless times before.  The thought was making me ill, but at this point it was too late to back out.  I had to go through with it.

Meat locker looking tank

Crash concluded his spiel by reminding us to shower before and after the floating session for sanitation purposes.  He also reminded us not to wear anything while inside the tank, which indeed meant naked.  He handed me a pair of earplugs and shut the door behind him.  Finally, I was alone with the tank which looked like a meat locker or some sort of industrial refrigerator that was repurposed for the sake of floating, therapy and of course hallucinating.  No explanation was given on what to do while inside of the tank, but none was needed.  I had watched several videos on the subject prior to arriving at Float Lab Technologies (I had to do something while smoking all that weed) and it was pretty clear that the occupant, simply lies in the water, née, floats in the water, and relaxes.  And so, after a quick shower, I got in the tank (completely naked), closed the hatch and proceeded to float, in absolute darkness and silence.

The first while was uncomfortable to say the least.  The tank was smaller than I had expected.  I could not stretch my arms out in either direction without hitting the sides.  My head and feet had about twelve inches of clearance.  The only way to not bang into the sides of the tank was to lay completely still with my arms at my side.  The moment I moved a muscle my body would float just inches and I’d be knocking against the interior of the tank.

Alas, it was not the size of the tank that was most troubling.  Most troubling was the fact that the value brand, single-ply toilet paper I had been using days prior to my float had left my inner ass cheeks a bit chafed and raw.  I had not realized just how chafed and how raw my inner ass cheeks were until I entered the bath of Epsom salt water.  The instant my ass made contact with the tepid salt water, an intense stinging sensation radiated from my rear end.  I quickly clinched my ass cheeks together as tight as possible in an effort to minimize the amount of water making contact with my rubbed raw inner ass cheeks.  Suddenly, I was struck by just how disgusting this whole endeavor was.  Thoughts of germs, fungi, and human secretions entering my body via my rubbed raw inner ass cheeks flooded my mind.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I could contract an STD or any type of D from my raw ass being submerged in this public, communal bath water.  I’ve always considered myself to be a clean person with the utmost regard for hygiene but in this moment I was convinced that I was the dirty mother fucker I had feared most.  I was the scumbag with a chafed ass splashing around in the tepid salt water that filled the tank.  I wondered just how many other floaters before me had chafed, raw inner ass cheeks.  One, two- a hundred? The thought was too disturbing.  I almost walked out right then and there but the stinging pain from my ass subsided and once again, I committed myself to staying in the tank, for the duration.

Now, with the pain from my ass gone, I tried to relax- clinched ass cheeks and all.  I tried meditative breathing techniques.  Slow controlled breathing.  It took several minutes of controlled breathing to gain a calmness that allowed my body and mind to accept the confines of the tank.  Once calm, I found myself trying to see things- trying to hallucinate.  I wanted so desperately to see something, anything.  I bounced back and forth from eyes closed to eyes open, trying to make out a glimmer of a hallucination.  Several minutes after laying completely still in a dark, silent, murky bath of skin temperature Epsom salt water, and still no major hallucinations.  At one point I thought I saw some color; purples and reds dancing about, but I couldn’t tell if I was willing them to appear or I was truly beginning to hallucinate.  Then my neck and upper back started to get sore and my tranquility was gone.  I splashed about a bit and tried to shake off the discomfort in my neck and back but all that splashing did nothing more than cause my body to bang against the interior of the tank.  Again, I tried the meditative breathing technique and before too long my calm was restored.

Several minutes passed by without any real hallucinations.  I disregarded the attempts at hallucinating and I concentrated on simply relaxing.  I continued the meditative breathing- deep breath in, deep breath out.  Then I took one really deep breath which resulted in the sensation that my body was rising; floating above the water.  That sensation of my body rising above the water was unlike anything I had ever experience before.  I attempted to repeat the sensation of rising above the water by taking a really deep breath a second time but the sensation was marginal.  I returned to the concentrated breathing and again tried to relax and meditate.

After several more minutes passed, I suddenly had a sensation of sinking into a deep comfortable bed.  The moment my mind recognized the sensation of being in a deep comfortable bed the sensation was gone.  In an instant the sensation vanished.  It was kind of like being in a dream state of sorts; at that moment when the brain recognizes its dreaming and forces the dreamer awake.  For the next several minutes, I tried to recapture the sensation of sinking into the deep comfortable bed I had experienced moments earlier.  I realized this was the closest thing I had felt to hallucinating and I wanted to feel it again.  So, I breathed, I meditated, I relaxed.

After several more minutes passed, the sensation returned.  Again, for just a few blissful seconds I felt like my body was sinking into a deep, bottomless bed of pure comfort.  Then, just like before, the instant my brain was aware of the blissful bottomless bed, I was startled awake, back to reality.  It was indeed a hallucination.  A physical hallucination.  A physical hallucination that could not be recreated within the real world without the aid of drugs or a sensory deprivation tank- and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

At this point, I was exhausted.  I was sure that my time in the tank was near its end or maybe even had gone over.  I had no sense of how much time had elapsed since I entered the tank but I was tired of meditating and chasing the sensation of being in the bottomless bed of comfort.  So I emerged from the tank, soaking wet, back to reality and a sensory overloaded world.

There was a very brief, fleeting moment when I emerged from the tank, when all my senses turned back on that was truly remarkable.  It lasted just a split second but there was a certain sense of euphoria I felt once outside the tank as I felt all my senses activate again.  The clock that hung on the wall next to shower confirmed that I had not spent two hours in the tank, rather, just a mere one hour and ten minutes.  None-the-less, I was not about to get back inside the tank.  I was glad to be out.  Glad to be out of the filth, and grime, and germs, and unmentionable human secretions I had convinced myself lived inside that tank.  Glad to out of filth, grime, germs, and unmentionable human secretions that my chafed ass and I undoubtedly left inside that tank.  Quickly I showered off all that was on my body, dressed, and exited the building.

Upon exiting the building, I found Crash and his assistant, shirts off, reclining in lawn chairs, sun bathing.  Both men looked over at me but said nothing.  So, I declared, “Mission accomplished!” waved farewell, and headed back to the horde of misfits that occupy Ocean Front Walk, Venice Beach, California.  As I walked back to my car, through the throngs of drugged up oddballs that make Venice Beach, Venice Beach, my senses seemed heightened.  Colors brighter, sounds louder, and even my skin tingled a bit.

All in all, I was glad I watched “Tanks for the Memories,” I was glad to have met Crash, and I was glad to have experienced the sensory deprivation tank for myself.  Now, I can say with certainty that there are therapeutic benefits of the sensory deprivation tank for when I left the tank I felt rested and relaxed.  The feeling of being rested and relaxed stayed with me for the next day or so before it began to fade.  And, the physical hallucinations I experienced while in the tank were down right extraordinary.  I now understand why pyschonauts like Hamilton Morris spend hours in the tanks floating- tripping. And although I’m not in a hurry to seek out my next float, I will float again- someday.  In a private tank, that I watch being cleaned.  And of course, when my inner ass cheeks have not been rubbed raw by value brand, single-ply toilet paper.

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3 thoughts on “Sensory Deprivation Tanks: Therapy or Just Another Way to Cop a Buzz

  1. Sensory deprivation sounds like a combo or nice and scary at the same time…..especially like the regulated temperature thing…and the dark…

  2. Hey White Hippo, glad you got to try out the tank!

    Hey White Hippo, thank you for the highly detailed and hilarious version of the floatation experience. Your totally honest writing voice is very similar to that of one of my best friends, also a writer.

    I wanted to mention a few thoughts about floatation.

    Sensory Deprivation Tanks are essentially a meditation tool – used for the act of assisting a meditation practice. They happen to work so well, that one doesn’t even need to necessarily have any meditation training in order to experience deep relaxation. However, one can make full use of it only after having that training. There are books just on floating – some of them by the original creator of the tank himself. And meditation, as most people would guess, has many thousands of its own volumes of information – typically based on Eastern philosophies of the mind.

    Without giving any attention to the the basics of these topics, one can only superficially experience the meditative/theta/dream state. It can only be accepted and sustained if you first assemble some mental blueprints. This will certainly lead to a more comfortable and beneficial experience – which can then actually offer greater self-awareness and change lives.

    It’s too bad that the logistics and sanitation got in the way of your experience. Hopefully, as the industry progresses, these flaws will be addressed!

    Looking forward to reading more about your future adventures 🙂

    Joshua

  3. I go to Float On in Portland, Oregon. I actually won a year of unlimited floats. I had only gone once before -while devastatingly hungover- and hadn’t got any kind of effect from it. So, I basically was a virgin when I won up to 16 floats a MONTH. I went to FO to get my prize and had no idea why you’d want to float 16 times a month. Now I do. I absolutely love it. I have all sorts of the floating above the water moments, just spinning in space feeling, and always feel ‘floaty’ afterword.

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