At first, it seems sort of strange that there would be so many terms to describe the experience of floating in salt water in the dark: sensory deprivation, isolation tank therapy, REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy)—or even just “floating.”
The reason, I recently learned, for the many monikers, is that while some describe either the method or the result, almost none capture the totality of the experience. It’s a therapy full of apparent contradictions—to be enclosed in total darkness and silence that feels completely secure, supported by liquid that does not feel wet, emerging energized by 60-plus minutes of total stillness. But somehow, it works.
I had my first experience with floating at Float Boston in Magoun Square. I booked my session after hearing several friends and colleagues swear by it, saying that it inspired artistic creativity, helped with everything from stiff joints to fatigue and is a better wake-up than a hot cup of coffee. The first time it was suggested, I replied with a quick Altered States quip about how a little genetic regression sounded nice, and we laughed. The second time, the reference seemed inappropriate given the sincerity of the recommendation. I realized I had to take the idea seriously the third time, when my normal wake-up and self-maintenance routines had become just another part of a noisy, stressful life. Coffee is fine, and exercise is important, but what do you do when the things that are supposed to make you feel better just end up being part of the problem? The answer, as it turns out, is to take a break from literally everything—even your own physiology.
Modern floating was pioneered by John C. Lilly, a neuroscientist and philosopher who carried out his research on himself and others. This was the cutting edge of science in the 1950s and ’60s, conducted with little idea what the brain would do when key senses were restricted. Interestingly, many found the process soothing, and it wasn’t long before the view of floating as an effective therapy technique took hold.
There was a boom of float centers in the 1970s and ’80s, though its popularity took a nosedive during the HIV-AIDS scare and ignorance of how the virus spread. Still, it’s remained popular in areas like California, Canada and Europe. Recently, various spas and treatment centers have been adding float tanks as annexes, though Float Boston is the only complex dedicated exclusively to floatation tanks in New England.
There’s been a great deal of research into the benefits of floating, often with the same conclusion: it works, we just don’t know exactly why or how. And the spectrum of possible physical and psychological outcomes people report from floating are incredibly divergent. While the most immediate benefit is muscle relaxation, some users reach a meditative state. Others achieve the most relaxing sleep of their life. Author and screenwriter Michael Crichton—you know him as the guy who penned Jurassic Park—famously owned his own personal tank to fight writer’s block, and professional athletes (the Patriots have two float tanks at Gillette) have become public devotees.
While certain aspects and effects of the treatment are still not wholly understood, there’s no doubting that it works for many people in many different ways, and Float Boston is prepared to accommodate every possible reaction. The facility is immediately welcoming and spacious, with an array of amenities—towels, earplugs, shampoo and body wash. Every conceivable question is answered, both by the staff and the friendly, informative poster forms in the rooms themselves. The exhaustive FAQ on the Float website leaves no stone unturned, no potential insecurity unaddressed.
I booked my session for 9 in the morning after a long night. Going in, I was expecting some version of the world’s greatest waterbed, and my plan was to just fall asleep and wake up feeling refreshed. Almost immediately after closing the hatch, I was hyperaware of every inch of myself, inside and out. All I could hear was the sound of my own heartbeat and breathing, their rhythmic interplay. Unburdened by outside stimulation, I was able to trace the air’s pathway through my skull and into my lungs. Phosphenes—the sensation of stars and colors when you close your eyes—were all around while my eyes were still open. Free from distraction, it was just me and the background radiation of my own existence.
After a few minutes, I felt myself rotating clockwise, a sensation I found more fascinating than unsettling. I later asked Float Boston co-founder and co-owner Sara Garvin about this.
“Proprioception is your brain’s perception of where you are in space,” Garvin says. “Proprioception takes a lot of input—from your eyes, from your sight, your inner ear, everything.”
“In the float tank, that’s one of the first things that goes away,” she adds, “because, all of a sudden … the water’s at your skin temperature, there’s no light, you can’t see a horizon line.”
She recommends reaching out to the sides of the tank to find your bearings until the feeling passes.
Once I found my equilibrium, I opened my eyes and found that whether they were open or closed, I would see those phosphenes. As I breathed, I found a sync between my breath and my heartbeat, and entered a state as close to meditating I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t until about 40 minutes later—I think—that I remembered I was inside of a physical tank with actual dimensions as I reentered reality.
I tell you, I’m the furthest possible thing from a morning person. Left to my own circadian rhythm, I would wake up at 11 every day. But one morning in that flotation tank, and I was unstoppable for the rest of the weekend.
Every person is different, every brain and body unique, so your results may vary. A follow-up session at 9 at night did not have the same effect on me, I imagine because of my aforementioned nocturnalism, though when I emerged there were still rooms occupied by clients in the midst of a full 90-minute session. My advice is to try it at least twice, and make the effort to endure past any initial discomfort (though do not endanger yourself).
Garvin, a massage therapist by training, believes very strongly in the power of floating as recreation, as well as therapy. Though she cautions against making or believing scientifically unverified claims or taking medical advice without first consulting your doctor, she describes the benefit to people with conditions including fibromyalgia, chronic pain and others, and is optimistic about the future of float treatment.
“There’s a lot of exciting research going on right now about how the brain actually responds to the float experience … I think it might open up some real possibilities for being able to guide people in certain ways, people who might be really suffering from things like PTSD, intrusive thoughts, and anxiety, things like that. I think what we’ll see is an ability to help people just improve their quality of life, through floating, in a very targeted way.”
As for the findings of Dr. Edward Jessup of Altered States, who was partially based on Dr. Lilly, she quips: “Only a very small percentage of our customers turn into proto-humans.”
This story appears in the September/October print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.