Flotation therapy—or just “floating” to the initiated—is the practice of lying in the dark, naked, in a pool of water that’s so saturated with Epsom Salt you float on its surface, with the intention of reducing as much sensory input as possible to the body and mind. Sessions usually last between an hour and 90 minutes. Depending on your deepest and darkest fears, this either sounds like total bliss or your worst nightmare. But that’s pretty much the long and short of it.
The “Um, why?” question is where it gets fascinating.
Flotation therapy is said to have transformational effects on both the body and mind. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Relief from physical pain and muscle soreness
- Decreased blood pressure
- Relief from jetlag
- Management of anxiety and depression symptoms
- Enabling a state of deep relaxation and meditation
- Processing emotional trauma
- Spiritual growth
During a float, the buoyancy of the salt water counteracts gravity’s effects on your body, so your muscles are able to relax to their totally natural state. With minimal sensory input, your mind drifts off to somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, and because of this, it provides an optimal environment for all forms of meditation. Many "floaters"*—this writer included—use the float tank as a tool to reach a deep meditative state. The float tank offers a near-perfect environment to quieten the mind and subdue your individual sense of self. In these conditions, the boundary between you and not-you can dissolve pretty damn quickly.
(Rule No. 1 when working in a float center: Don’t call your clients “floaters,” for what we hope are obvious reasons.)
But that’s just one application. It’s also a popular tool among elite athletes to help them improve their skills through visualization, while chronic pain communities champion the effects of floating for the relief it offers patients of fibromyalgia.
At this point, you're probably asking yourself some version of, "Isn't this all just hippie nonsense?"
Floating has battled for credibility for much of its existence thanks to its controversial beginnings, association with counterculture figures and appearances in cult media. The reality is there’s a 40-year-strong body of research into its benefits, and with dedicated float research centers now an actual thing in the U.S. and Europe, it’s becoming more widely accepted as a therapeutic tool for the body and the mind.
We’re going to be talking a whole lot more about flotation therapy on Trends w/ Benefits in the coming months, but for now, here’s a look back at the history of the practice, and how it’s become the sleeping giant it is today.
John C. Lilly: Floating’s (Problematic) Founding Father
John C. Lilly developed the first sensory isolation chamber in 1954, and that is precisely when the problem started.
In his time, Lilly was a controversial neuroscientist, psychoanalyst and psychonaut who aggravated mainstream scientists as much as he attracted iconoclastic followers. His work focused on two main areas: exploration of the human consciousness via sensory deprivation … and understanding how to communicate with dolphins. He did other stuff, too—alien stuff— but that’s not important here.
Lilly’s work with flotation tanks—at the time called isolation chambers, which understandably fell out of fashion—began while he was working with the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. The initial goal was to devise an environment in which the subject’s brain would be devoid of sensory input. Common thinking at the time was that if the brain’s sensory input was reduced to zero or close to it, the subject would shut down and, well, die. Early on, Lilly’s work showed that quite the opposite was the case. Over time, his methods became known as R.E.S.T. (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique, later rebranded as Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy), which you’ve got to admit, sounds a whole lot more appealing than “isolation therapy.”
As the ’60s rolled into view, Lilly began experimenting with psychedelics and combining them with his floating research (thanks in part to his association and friendships with Ram Dass, Timothy Leary and other key figures from the psychedelic movement of the time). His 1968 book Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer and The Center of the Cyclone, published in 1972, documents these first experiments into altered states of consciousness in the float tank.
Separately, Lilly was developing a body of work that aimed to examine the relationship between humans and dolphins and, ultimately, forge a way of communicating with them.
This work would become his poisoned chalice. In 1965, Lilly and Margaret Howe, an inexperienced volunteer who had replied to a newspaper ad of Lilly’s, began a six-month long experiment to teach a dolphin, named Peter, how to speak English. Lilly built a half-submerged house for Howe and Peter to cohabit, where Howe assumed the role of English teacher for the aquatic student. During the experiment, Lilly would float, on ketamine, in a tank upstairs from the English class and attempt to telepathically communicate with Peter.
The outcomes of the experiment were questionable. There is recorded evidence of the dolphin making noises that kind of sound like English words, but, ultimately, they never quite reached the goal of total two-way communication Lilly had hoped for. What made matters worse, was as Peter the dolphin began to mature, he began to show a sexual interest in Howe. To deal with this, she would masturbate Peter to relieve his sexual tension, before continuing with his English lessons. Weird day at school, that.
When newspapers around the world got hold of the story, there was moral outrage. Meanwhile, Lilly’s interest in the experiment was dwindling, and his psychedelic use skyrocketed. The experiment became less of a priority to him, and eventually the funding dried up. The story has a sad footnote, too: Once Peter was rehomed in Lilly’s other lab, a disused facility in Miami, he swam to the bottom of his pool and drowned himself, apparently unable to cope with the separation from his long-term human companion.
This story was documented in The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins and later, The Dolphin House, which is available to watch for free on YouTube.
(Sidenote: we strongly advise sliding down a John C. Lilly rabbit hole when time allows. This cat was wild.)
Floating’s Golden Age
As the ’70s rolled into view, Lilly began working with Glenn Perry—a floating enthusiast he met at a speaking engagement in California—on turning flotation therapy into a business. The pair took Lilly’s early designs, made a few tweaks like adding more salt for improved buoyancy and with their new prototype, formed the world’s first flotation therapy company: The Samadhi Tank Co. The tank hit the market in 1973, and in 1979, Samadhi opened the world’s first float center in Beverly Hills. Today, the Samadhi name is revered in float circles, and its tanks are used in float centers throughout the world.
In 1984, The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea, was published. Serving as a science-backed resource that lays out the why, what and how of floating in absorbent detail, nearly 40 years later, it effectively remains the bible of the practice. Visit any float center in North America or Europe in 2022, and you’ll find at least one well-thumbed copy available for your perusal. Its author, Michael Hutchinson, has his own enigmatic story: In his later life, he became a quadriplegic after sustaining a spinal injury. Before his death, Hutchinson proclaimed the experience had led him to true enlightenment.
With the science-fiction boom of the 1980s, the movie Altered States captured the imagination of the American public and almost single-handedly turned the subject of floating into a household discussion. The film, an artistic adaptation of John C. Lilly’s story, sees its protagonist experience weirder and weirder effects from floating—at one point, emerging from the tank having regressed completely to a caveman. The film is alright. What it did for floating, though, can’t be ignored.
However, toward the end of the 1980s, floating’s popularity waned considerably. As the AIDS epidemic gripped much of the Western world in moral panic, the pool and spa industry in the U.S. suffered, with questions around the transmission of the virus in shared, wet areas, generating fear, misinformation and confusion.
The Floating Renaissance
As the ’90s unfolded, flotation therapy’s reputation recovered somewhat when the global alarm around the AIDS crisis began to wane. Coupled with the rise of wellness fads replacing the aerobics boom of the ’80s, floating once again became an attractive mental and physical therapy option.
As many float center owners will attest, when the practice appears in popular culture or media, real-world interest climbs, too. There is something to floating that, for better or worse, captures the imagination.
In February 1999, floating made its way to Springfield in The Simpsons episode “Make Room for Lisa.” Looking for a way to bond with his daughter, Homer agrees to float beside her in a separate tank, with hilarious results. Coinciding with the floating boom of the ’90s, The Simpsons made the practice a topic of mainstream conversation once more, but, just like with Altered States in the ’80s and Stranger Things that followed in the late 2010s, the practice was associated with a ludicrous, cartoonish experience of altered consciousness.
Counterculture Goes Mainstream
In 2015, there were over 300 float centers in North America, an increase of over 250 percent from the year before. Today’s numbers are difficult to confirm, but new centers regularly pop up across the U.S. and further afield every year. Meanwhile, home float experiences have become more commonplace, thanks to low-budget innovations like The Zen Float Tent, and global supply systems for more professional tanks like the i-sopod.
Flotation therapy’s current renaissance owes much of its popularity to one man with a microphone—Joe Rogan. Since the early days of The Joe Rogan Experience—before Spotify, before the $200 million—the comedian and podcaster has championed flotation therapy whenever the opportunity has presented itself. “The sensory deprivation chamber is the most important tool I've ever used for developing my mind, for thinking, for evolving,” he says in one episode, which you’ll see on T-shirts and posters in float centers around the globe.
Rogan can’t take all the credit, though.
Basketball’s G.O.A.T. point guard, Steph Curry, has been a vocal supporter of the practice for much of his career. Curry primarily uses the float tank for visualization: He literally practices hitting shots over and over in the float tank, training his mind to create muscle memory before he hits the court. There is specific evidence to back up that visualizing a task in the tank can be even more beneficial than actually practicing it.
Other prominent supporters of flotation therapy include the world’s No. 1 tennis star, Novak Djokovic, John Lennon (who used the tank to kick his heroin habit back in the ’70s), supermodel Elle Macpherson and podcaster Tim Ferriss.
Fighting for Credibility
Floating has fought to be taken seriously among health practitioners, the science community at large and the general public throughout its history. But it’s a practice that was founded in research (however questionable), and it has been studied in some capacity ever since.
A 2004 meta-analysis of 27 scientific studies into flotation therapy showed that the practice can reduce cortisol levels and lower blood pressure, increase overall well-being, boost cognitive performance, lessen symptoms of chronic fatigue and improve sleep.
The Human Performance Laboratory at Sweden’s Karlstad University has been studying the effects of floating for over three decades. Through their studies, they have shown that floating can diminish pain from chronic muscle tension, reduce anxiety, depression and stress, and increase energy. They also found that after flotation, people are happier, sleep better and consume less alcohol and medicine.
In 2013, floating’s most prominent researcher, Justin Feinstein, set up the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute of Brain Research (LIBR) in Tusla, Oklahoma. Since its inception, the center has conducted a range of studies into the effects floating can have on anxiety, depression, pain management and more. Feinstein’s research is groundbreaking in that his team is the first to incorporate fMRI scans into float studies, and the first peer-reviewed study to use a circular floating pool, which prevents the subject from bumping into the sides of the tank, and allows for a deeper float with fewer distractions.
More recently, the LIBR team conducted a clinical study on 50 people suffering from anxiety, which in itself presents a barrier to the practice. Incredibly, every single participant in the study found a significant improvement in their anxiety symptoms post-float.
Since 2012, Portland, Oregon has hosted a global float conference, where the industry comes together to discuss new developments, new scientific evidence and new opportunities. It has become something of an annual pilgrimage for those in the field, as well as casual fans of the practice.
So while the portrayal of flotation therapy has been sensationalized in the media over the last three decades, the science behind what it actually does to you has quietly continued, leveraging new technologies when they arrive to dive deeper into the measurable effects. It’s hardly the most well-funded area of scientific research and its studies have at times been criticized for their small sample sizes, bias from participants and methods. Now that sounds familiar.
We’ll All Float On, OK
Flotation therapy almost shouldn’t be a thing. From its weird beginning as a tool to help John C. Lilly communicate with dolphins while on ketamine, through its vilification during the AIDS crisis to the clinical research being carried out today, in 2022, it still remains something of an enigma: lauded by its adopters and ignored by the rest.
The growth of the practice has been driven by a cast of wildcards and polarizing figures, who some could argue have held it back as much as driven it forward. But, as work continues at places like LIBR in Oklahoma and The Human Performance Laboratory in Sweden, the applications of flotation therapy may become more widespread than even the most fervent supporters of the practice could imagine.
Andy Ritchie is MUD\WTR’s assistant editor and a former float guide at Floatworks in London, England. He’s racked up over 200 hours inside a float tank since 2016 and credits it as one of two tools that transformed his life from absolute chaos to mindfulness, awareness and responsibility—the other being psilocybin.
Header image by Galen Crout via Unsplash.
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