Greg Bruce enters the utter darkness of a sensory deprivation float tank to see if it will change his life
There's no point dwelling on the first session. An infinitude of articles about it have been written for a multitude of major international media outlets and they're all roughly the same.
Nevertheless: You're naked; it's completely black and silent; it's weird to float on top of the water, buoyed up by the hundreds of kilograms of dissolved epsom salts; you notice how busy your mind is; at some point you think you might be asleep but can't be sure; you think about sex and you think about death; you frequently bump into the sides.
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The following questions arise: Are you doing this right? Are you in the most comfortable position? Why aren't you having a transcendental experience yet? Why can't you stop thinking about sex? Should you be focusing on your breathing? Why can't you breathe properly through your nose? Is the fact you can't breathe properly through your nose a sign of your imminent death? Why is your heart beating so aggressively? Will you ever wrest your attention back from your obviously malfunctioning heart? Why did you not previously realise you were dying?
Afterwards, my wife texted: "How was float?"
I replied: "Interesting!"
"Did you fart?" she asked.
"No," I replied, "but I certainly thought about it."
"Were you naked?" she asked.
"Yes," I wrote. "That's why I had trouble with erotic thoughts."
The journalistic literature on sensory deprivation float tanks is vast and shallow and produced mainly by writers who are professionally obligated to pretend their single float session was more significant than it really was.
Articles, typically with variations on the headline, "I tried a float tank and this is what happened" have appeared in: The New Zealand Herald, The New York Times, The Times of London, Cosmopolitan, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, Time, The Sydney Morning Herald, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Vice, Buzzfeed, Men's Health, Vogue, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Slate, Esquire, GQ, The Japan Times, New York Magazine, ESPN and BBC, to name a small but prestigious sample.
The reason for this extraordinary media omnipresence is because the float tank experience is almost perfectly suited to the needs of the modern lifestyle journalist. It's attractive to readers, being a potentially life-changing therapy requiring zero effort, existing at the intersection of the popular wellness and spirituality genres, offering a lurid and mystical history, delivering extravagant beneficial claims bordering on the miraculous, many of which are backed by a growing body of research. It is normally expensive but is generally free for journalists bearing publicity, requires limited reporting time, is conducive to multiple presentation formats and offers the opportunity for stock photographs of hot people wearing limited or no clothing.
I wasn't interested in all that. I was only interested in about half to three-quarters of it.
The first time I read about float tanks was in an article by then-student, now-Spinoff journalist Don Rowe. The way he described his experience sounded to me like an acid trip, which is something I've never tried because I'm both a goody-good and a scaredy-cat. I warmed to the idea that floating might offer acid's transcendental benefits without its potential negative health outcomes and legal jeopardy but what finally pushed me over the edge was my immersion in the academic literature on floating's benefits. I went through dozens of studies dating back to 1983 and here's what they said:
After floating, subjects have been shown to be more creative and better at learning; they sleep better and drink less; their physiological and psychological functioning improves; their denial and defensiveness decreases; they learn more and better; they're better at sport, more curious, vigorous and relaxed; less anxious, less depressed, less hostile and less fatigued; they're easier to treat; they experience fewer headaches; they have less pain, lower blood pressure and less muscle tension.
They're more optimistic, have more pleasant memories, are more original, more relaxed, more serene, more happy, less stressed, have lower cortisol, lower blood pressure and better overall wellbeing. They're better at jazz improv.
Few, if any, of these benefits have accrued to the journalists writing articles for the aforementioned international media outlets, though. The reason for that, I'm pretty sure is frequency. One float probably won't change your day, let alone your long-term ability to wing it on upright bass. A 2007 study assessing the importance of frequency found that 12 sessions was enough for subjects to see improvements in subjective pain, stress, anxiety, depression, negative affectivity, dispositional optimism and sleep quality. But, with extremely few exceptions, the journalists based their articles on a single float. I could find no case in which the journalist had done it more than thrice.
So it was that I - with high hopes and no initial interest in jazz improv - took 12 hour-long floats at Grafton's Float Culture over the space of a month, then asked myself and some experts whether that had changed my life for the better.
My first float was on a Friday. The following Sunday was Father's Day. It was the first Father's Day since my dad died last year. I visited his grave for the first time since his birthday, also last year. I felt guilty and ashamed and maybe because those things are difficult to face alone I made my family come with me. My 6-year-old and 4-year-old ran off to play together among the headstones but my 2-year-old stayed close by.
I stood by Dad's grave for a long time, feeling the slow build-up of all that stored guilt, shame, fear, self-loathing, disappointment and sadness - the familiar fanning-out of grief I have felt so many times over the past year. There in the cemetery, though, it began to generate more energy and momentum, until a train went past loudly and it broke over me. My wife held me up and I cried into her hair until that no longer felt useful. Then, not knowing what else to do, I turned and walked away. At that point my 2-year-old also broke down. He ran after me, wailing, screaming, "Daddy! Daddy!" I picked him up, hugged him, told him it was all right, and cried into his hair. I felt guilty for whatever long-term emotional damage all this was presumably doing to him.
We walked back to the grave. He asked: "Where Granddad Gavin?"
"Under there," I said, pointing to the soft covering of grass.
He said: "We cut it open and see him?"
At my desk on Monday morning, I found myself unable to remember what I'd done on Saturday. It was a complete failure of memory - so complete I couldn't even remember my usual method for accessing memories. It was strange and unsettling. Decades of imbibing the American optimism of Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Oprah and Deepak Chopra have given me the belief I'm the pilot in charge of my own life, but this experience suggested I'm little more than a well-informed passenger. Combined with the fact I had latterly been developing semi-regular headaches, I gave myself tentative preliminary self-diagnoses of early onset dementia and brain cancer.
That I took these thoughts with me into the float tank later that morning was no great surprise because I'm a long-term anxiety sufferer and because, if the symptoms of death have not been intentionally designed into the float experience, there's been an astonishing run of coincidences: You're removed from the world, completely isolated, in a confined space, in utter darkness, without sound, slowly losing the sense of both your physical body and your consciousness. Basically, you're in limbo.
In my mid-teens, I had briefly been a born-again Christian. At the revival meeting where I'd been rebirthed, somebody spoke about how the day after their own rebirth, everything looked so much brighter and sharper. On my way to school the next day, I looked hopefully at the trees and clouds but they just looked like trees and clouds.
So it was a surprise that Monday morning at Float Culture, 25 or so years later, when I walked out of my second float and saw the world anew. Everything was so light and alive! It was a beautiful spring day - maybe the first real spring day of the year. The world was so nice!
A few minutes later, in the back of an Uber, I looked out at the loveliness of Upper Symonds St and wondered how long this feeling would last. With that thought, it was over. Oh well. Nothing lasts forever.
During my third session, I became convinced the float tank's timing system had failed. It felt like I had been in there for hours. I began to imagine being left until my skin puckered and my grip on reality loosened. At least as much time passed again and there I lay still, naked and quasi-conscious, wondering if the pan flute-based music would ever arrive to signal it was time to get out and condition my hair.
So much happened in my head during that interval. I came to suspect I was breathing irregularly. I started interrogating myself about the nature of - and the causal factors underpinning - claustrophobia and panic attacks. I have never experienced either, but I thought it possible I could think my way into both. If I did, would I be able to think my way out? No, I thought, I wouldn't. At one point, I had the pleasant feeling I might be dissociating from my body and becoming a cloud just above my physical form but that lasted only a few seconds before being replaced by general anxiety.
The evolutionary reason for worry, I presume, is to motivate us to take action but, in the extreme isolation of the float tank, the opportunity for action is nil and that justification therefore collapses. I tried to find that thought liberating but I couldn't. When my float ended, I discovered the timing system had not failed.
My fourth float was unpleasant. My body kept jerking involuntarily as I drifted in and out of what may or may not have been sleep. The thought I had eight sessions left filled me with dread and disappointment.
I spent a long portion of my fifth float dwelling on the career of former England soccer international Wayne Rooney.
For a period in 2001 and 2002, when I lived in Singapore, English Premier League football was my social life and only hobby. On weekend nights, I would sit alone on the couch in my apartment, watching up to three consecutive games, until way past my bedtime.
I loved football and I particularly loved Everton, the team I had followed since playing for an under-6 side named after it in 1983. By 2001/2002, Everton had not been good for a long time. The best you could say about the team's chances in the league is they were in it. Television executives, rightly, rarely thought its international journeymen and mediocre youngsters worthy of live telecast.
It was already a special night, then, when I sat down in front of my television one Saturday in October 2002 to watch Everton play Arsenal, a team unbeaten in a then-league record 30 games. Even a narrow loss would have been a small miracle for Everton but, as the game approached its end, with the scores at 1-1 and Everton defending with all the average talent at its disposal, the bigger miracle of a draw started to look possible.
I had never heard of Wayne Rooney before that night - he was 16, still basically a child. He came on as a substitute with 10 minutes left and saw little of the ball until, in the final minute, he took a long pass with exquisite control, shaped up 30 metres from goal and hit a shot that was a masterwork of timing, instinct, power, skill and arrogance that would effectively reshape English soccer in his own image for the next decade. It flew over then-England international goalkeeper David Seaman, smashed off the underside of the crossbar and into the goal. Everton won, Arsenal's record run ended, a star was born and he would be sold, less than two years later, to Manchester United, for £25.6 million.
I cried, pathetically I guess, at the power of sport to, I guess, make me cry. Our relationships with many things wax and wane, though and it's now at least 10 years since I watched an Everton game. Had I been asked in 2002 to imagine a future in which I had little to no interest in English soccer or Everton, I couldn't have.
My sixth float was okay but I found my seventh frustrating. I was fixated on a work deadline I was struggling to make, I was conscious of water bubbling into my ears through my inadequately inserted earplugs and I was getting tickly bubbles on the back of my neck. Afterwards, when I brought these minor unpleasantries up with one of the staff, she said: "When everything is perfect, your mind will find something."
During float eight I was sleepy and aware of my hands, which I tentatively diagnosed as pre-arthritic. Float nine was the first time I consciously tried to do something other than relaxing. I thought about writing. That was quite pleasant, but is "pleasant" what we should be looking for from floating? From life?
I entered my last week of floats optimistic. On the Monday morning, I found myself on a train in a rare state of complete equanimity, in which I felt fully integrated with the world and its people, in which I felt right about my existence and in which my mind was not attempting to let me know about bad or stupid things I have done, might do, might be doing. That didn't last long.
After my penultimate float on Wednesday, the owner of Float Culture, Anton Kuznetzov, asked whether I thought the tone of this article would be basically positive. I told him the experience had been up and down and he seemed to be neither surprised nor displeased by that.
Before my last float, I drank some kava. I felt my lips numbing. The session went quickly and smoothly. It was relaxing. I neither left my body nor had any other experience I would describe as life-changing. That was it. One month after my first float I'd finished my 12th and if you'd asked me to say anything meaningful about any of it, I couldn't have.
Before my first float, I had contacted one of the world leaders in research into the effects of floating, associate professor Justin Feinstein - clinical neuropsychologist, principal investigator at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research and director of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research Float Clinic & Research Center.
Had I been near him in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Feinstein said, he would have had me wear an EEG in-float and undergo fMRI scans pre- and post-float. But here in New Zealand fMRIs and EEGs aren't exactly lying around, so the best I could do was sleep monitoring, blood tests and some wellbeing questionnaires.
Feinstein put me in touch with another researcher, Matthew Driller, of the University of Waikato and Driller sent me a sleep monitoring device, which I wore for several weeks prior to and during the floating period. He also advised me on potential medical impacts and tests I should seek from my doctor and had me complete standardised wellbeing surveys.
After I'd finished floating, Driller's sleep monitoring equipment showed that I improved on every measure of sleep quality except one (length of time before first wake-up - a measure controlled anyway by my 4-year-old). During the floating period I fell asleep faster, woke less, for shorter periods and had more minutes asleep in spite of fewer minutes in bed. My overall sleep quality according to Driller's metrics was 6.5 during the float period vs 5.1 before.
He wrote to me: "I was somewhat surprised by the sleep results, although this is also in line with our latest research looking at floating after exercise and subsequent sleep and recovery. There is so little research on this, so it is an area that needs to be researched more, given the promising early signs."
There was no change in my results on the wellbeing surveys, although Driller said he wouldn't have expected any, given the relatively short time period.
My post-float blood tests showed low cortisol, a hormone that is known to rise in relation to stress. That result might have been related to floating, although there's no way to tell for sure, particularly since my pre-float blood test didn't register my cortisol levels, for reasons unknown. However, I went back for a follow-up blood test two weeks later and it was back to normal.
Before I'd seen these results, if you had asked whether floating had changed me, I would have said no. If you'd asked specifically whether it had made me more relaxed and/or likely to sleep better, I would also have said no. The question I'm getting at here is: are we the best judges of our own wellbeing?
Before my first float, I looked at all the potential beneficial outcomes - better sleep, less anxiety, more creativity - and I saw a brighter future but now I'm in that future, it feels just like the past, only slightly closer to death. Maybe I would have been better off going into the float tank with no expectations. Then again, if I'd had no expectations, why would I have bothered?
This remorseless wanting of life!
An Australian study published last year in the American Psychological Association journal, Emotion, suggested our ever-increasing focus on achieving happiness and avoiding its opposite might be messing with our heads. One of the study's authors, Brock Bastian, told Time magazine: "When people place a great deal of pressure on themselves to feel happy, or think that others around them do, they are more likely to see their negative emotions and experiences as signals of failure. This will only drive more unhappiness."
This sort of thinking goes against everything airport bookstore non-fiction best-sellers have told us for generations. The self-improvement industrial complex exerts such a powerful hold on us once we're in it. We are never fixed.
What I'm still not sure about, weeks after the end of my month-long investigation and all the tests and introspection that have followed, is whether floating is part of the self-improvement industrial complex or the perfect antidote to it?