You’ve just come home after a hectic day. There were assignments to be completed, meetings to be scheduled, errands to be run, bills to be paid, food to be cooked, emails to be answered…the list never ends.
Apart from work and family stress, our body is regularly bombarded with all sorts of physical stress. The sound of cars honking assaults your ears, while the smoke from cars and cigarettes leaves you gasping. Telephones ring incessantly, which competes with the constant hum of chattering people.
The stress and strain from our daily lives take no time off. On some days, it can all feel like a bit too much. You practically want to yank out your hair and scream! Stress, however, is an inescapable part of life. As long as one is alive, it’s something that must be expected. What we can do, however, is find ways to deal with and better manage it.
You could meditate, which is a recently popularized stress buster, though it has quite ancient origins. If not meditation, perhaps exercise, an old-time favorite that has made its way into medical books, is the way to go. You could also talk it out, a practice that has caught traction in the last half-century. Or…you could float in a dark tub in absolute, deafening silence.
What is a sensory deprivation tank?
A sensory deprivation tank is an 8 x 5 ft. insulated metal container, filled halfway with lukewarm (~35°C) water. This sound and lightproof bath has Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) mixed in the water. The purpose of this salt is to increase the density of the water, so one can float effortlessly on their back.
The saltiness of water is directly proportional to the buoyancy (upward pressure) it exerts on objects floating in it. The Dead Sea is proof of this concept. Due to the incredibly high salt content, people and objects tend to remain on the surface on this water body.
The idea is to immerse yourself inside this tank for 45 minutes to an hour, in order to cut out all sensory inputs for a period of time. The salt content of sensory deprivation tanks is enough to make anyone float without effort. The tank is dark and silent, and you’re advised to keep your arms to the side, so you feel no sensation of touch. Even the temperature of the water is similar to our body temperature so that it does not noticeably feel either hot or cold.
This sudden lack of sensations might sound slightly scary to some, but science tells us that it’s relaxing. A sensory deprivation tank is similar to a warm, cozy and nurturing womb, albeit an artificial one. The warmth of the water is evocative of the warm liquid in which we spend our prenatal life. It is essential that this tank keeps out all sound and light, which represents the majority of the sensory information flooding into our psyche.
It is important to mention that extending this sensory deprivation to days or weeks is the very definition of torture. Sensory deprivation was actually a technique forced onto prisoners as a punishment, making it easy to subdue them. In some ways, the practice of solitary confinement in modern jails has a similar effect, denying any sort of human contact or mobility for more than 23 hours per day.
The effects of sensory deprivation
The best way to deal with sensory overload from a taxing lifestyle is to immerse yourself in the exact opposite—sensory deprivation. Such a tank makes for the perfect little cocoon of darkness and silence, hence the name.
The soothing effect of these tanks even offers relief from insomnia and irritability and may help some people tackle addiction. This is probably because the lack of sensory stimuli in these tanks gives the central nervous system a breather, to rest and refresh, leading to a state of deep relaxation.
Reports detail that being in a sensory-deprived state decreases stress hormone levels, adrenaline levels, blood pressure and pulse rate.
In many European countries, sensory deprivation is an alternative therapy called floatation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (floatation-REST). This method was first described in the 1960s by John Lilly as a treatment for behavioral and health disorders.
This method is also quite popular among athletes who undergo tremendous amounts of muscle soreness and pain. The physical and psychological relaxation that comes from regular floatation-REST treatments can improve performance. Visualization techniques (imagining the results you aim for) used in conjunction with floatation-REST is a popular technique to boost athletic performance.
Want to improve your basketball free-throw shots? Try soaking in a sensory deprivation tank.
Want to improve the quality of your serves in tennis? Again, deprive your senses! You get the picture.
Beware, one rare side effect of using sensory deprivation is psychosis-like experiences, such as hallucinations.
VR gaming in sensory deprivation tanks
We spoke about all the health- and performance-improving applications of submerging oneself in a sensory deprivation tank. Now, let’s look at something a lot more fun! One study presented a novel gaming method that combines virtual reality (VR) gaming with sensory deprivation.
In this game, participants placed in a sensory deprivation tank play a throat singing game, either alone or with other players. One player (or the computer) initiates a note and others try to follow. The scores are based on how well the players follow the notes.
Each player can keep track of their pitch and frequency from their VR headset. According to the study mentioned above, this game allegedly has meditative effects.
As a result of research into floatation-REST, a lot of commercial sensory deprivation centers have opened up in recent years. Customers can spend about an hour inside a sensory deprivation tank for around $50-100.
These commercial centers greatly exaggerate the benefits of their services for advertising purposes. While I suggest taking their marketing with a pinch of salt, it is certainly an experience worth trying. It’s already on my post-lockdown to-do list.
Sensory deprivation tanks are quite safe to use, and if you ever do feel uncomfortable, you can always cut short the experience. Just be sure to consult your doctor before getting inside one, especially if you suffer from any health conditions or are on medications of any kind.
In the future, perhaps there could be non-therapeutic uses for these floatation tanks. Can you imagine how much fun it would be to play an action-packed game like Call of Duty or Battlefield with your friends in such a distraction-free atmosphere?