I sit down and pull the tank door shut.
"Your brain always wants to process something," explains Lynette Anderson over her desk in the homey welcoming room of the Floatation Center, "and there's nothing happening in there. You might find that your mind plays tricks on you. Your heartbeat might sound unbearably loud, or your breathing. It might sound like there's a lion inside the tank with you. Or your face might start to itch. It's just your brain trying to get you to do something. Some people suddenly get worried about running out of air, which can't happen. (The tank is not air-tight, and there's a fan inside that carries in fresh air.) Then there's the chatter, your mind detailing every single thing you did today, or just random thoughts. But, finally, your brain decides to give you a break and quiet down."
Which is why most people don't take keenly to the idea of sensory deprivation.
"Why the hell would you pay someone to put you in a dark room for two hours with nothing to see or do?" exclaimed an incredulous friend. "Isn't that like torture? Shit, you read books and listen to music even when you're in the bathtub, and most of the time you just take showers." True. Fact is, most people I know spend most of their time making sure their time is spent doing something -- work, sleep, music, TV, work, alcohol, sex, sports, art, laundry, whatever. The idea of total silence is just begging for trouble or, at best, sleep.
Twelve years ago, Lynwood Anderson, Lynette's husband and high school sweetheart, may have thought similarly. Lynwood was, as Lynette describes, a quadruple type-A personality who ran eight businesses simultaneously and bore all the predictable consequences: high blood pressure, stress, anxiety, weak heart, irritability. Still, Lynette convinced him to accompany her to an isle in the Virgin Islands without phones. While there, boredom led Lynwood to read a book left by previous guests, Michael Hutchinson's now-out-of-print The Book of Floating. The idea became something of an obsession, and, upon returning to the mainland, Lynwood floated once and bought a tank for the house. When the Andersons relocated from New Jersey to the Bay Area, they brought their tank with them and were shocked to find that their neighbors had no idea what the big box was.
Invented in Santa Barbara by Dr. John C. Lilly, who was conducting research for the National Institute of Mental Health on the physical origins of consciousness in the 1950s, floatation tanks reached their height in popular culture after the release of the 1980 movie Altered States, which was based on Lilly's more incendiary private work floating on LSD and ketamine. (Lilly had already been brought to public attention for his interspecies communication research between dolphins and humans, popularized by the 1973 movie Day of the Dolphin.) While Lilly continued to challenge the line between science and mysticism, befriending folks like Timothy Leary and writing books like Simulations of God: The Science of Belief, universities around the country studied the effects of floating in regard to psychotherapy, while physical therapists swore to the benefits for patients with chronic pain. Privately run floatation centers appeared all over the country. The Dallas Cowboys even trained inside tanks, watching plays while floating in a cloud of Epsom salts. But by the time the Andersons arrived in the Bay Area, all the float centers were regarded as a past fad.
"Floating had really changed Lyn's life," says Lynette, "so he started thinking."
When Lynwood died in 1997, over 150 of his clients came to the memorial. They were architects, artists, nurses, lawyers, stockbrokers, software engineers, psychics, shamans, and writers, who all believed their lives had been changed by their hour-and-half-long floats.
"I was training someone at work," says 35-year-old David Clark, who describes himself as a classic type-A personality, "and they made a comment about how calm and even-keeled I am. It just took me completely back. No one has ever described me that way before. "
Most floaters will agree that after they are deprived of all sensory input for a time, the world is a more interesting place to live -- smells are stronger, colors are brighter, flavors are more defined, small sounds are conspicuous -- and the effect can last as long as two weeks after a session. Some floaters find that the state that floating induces, and that each of us experience right before we wake in the morning, aids in creativity and problem-solving. Some, like 37-year-old Sheldon Norberg, author of the autobiographical account Confessions of a Dope Dealer, talk about vivid memories and astral projection. Others, like Linda Perricone, who suffers from the muscle disease fibromylagia, say their discomfort, both mental and physical, is relieved for hours after a session. All floaters seem to agree that being inside the tank is the most relaxing period of their lives.
According to Michael Hutchinson, gravity occupies nearly 90 percent of all central nervous system activity; take it away and your muscles, even your organs, begin to relax, allowing for easier blood flow and increased brain activity. Countless university studies have shown that sensory deprivation increases the secretions of endorphins in the body, while decreasing stress-related neurochemicals such as adrenalin, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which contribute to heart disease and hypertension.
"If you're in a bad mood," says Jack Trainor, a 48-year-old software engineer who tried to build a tank in 1972 after reading Lilly's books, "it's like a reset switch."
"After I floated for the first time," says 28-year-old Jeremy Krane, "I came home and painted my whole apartment really stupid colors, but every float is different. I don't go in with expectations. I just go in to relax."
But what about the overactive mind?
"I wouldn't suggest floating for coke addicts," laughs Clark, who has been floating for five years. "But anyone can get a little wound up. My first float was very, very peaceful -- time just flew by -- but my second float was in a way hell. Time just stood still. I became convinced I had been forgotten. My eyes began itching. For some reason, my subconscious was trying to get me out of the salt water. My mind has settled into it now."
"There's a guy who comes in here every week who hates it," says Lynette, who now puts in 14-hour days helping people recover from their 14-hour days. "He hates the water. He hates the darkness. He hates the box. He hates the time. But he knows it makes a difference. People notice it at work."
I push into the center of the tank, buoyed by skin-temperature water. My body finds its natural position, my left arm bent toward my rib cage, my fingertips a light reminder of physicality, while my other limbs splay and vanish into nothingness. I pay close attention to the tiny air bubbles, created by the ozone filtration, that roll over my legs every 10 minutes, 40 minutes, who knows. I listen for my thunderous heartbeat ... nothing. Nothing. I listen for my lion's breath. Nothing, only the vague physical awareness of my rib cage rising and falling, displacing the fluid on my stomach. I slow my breath, making it shallow. Nothing. My eyes search the total darkness, looking for a reference point. Without it, the tank seems endlessly expansive, like deep space. I notice a dull glow behind me like cracks of light in the perimeter of the tank, but when I look there's nothing. The door seems to glow faintly, but I'm not really certain where the door is, and I'm fairly certain it's not really glowing. My hand brushes the side of the tank and I am suddenly aware that I cannot feel any other part of my body, just my hand. I let my breath float me back to the center of the tank, and I feel nothing. I am a brain in a vat, just a brain in a vat. I begin to notice tiny pinpoint flashes of light and gray shapes swirling above me (light stored in my eye, explains Lynette later). I hear a tinkling noise beneath me, like the sound crushed ice makes when you swallow it (saliva traveling through my throat, suggests Lynette). But my body is gone. I hear a single footstep outside the tank. Impossible, but I sit up anyway, and the tank looks like a black tunnel, unfathomably long, alarming. I lie back down and close my eyes. I am warmer with my eyes closed. I open my eyes and notice the very light stream of air from the vent, and I feel noticeably cooler. I play with my eyes for a while, the only sense left me. Then I stop, watching the darkness swirl, waiting for thoughts to come, and I feel myself slipping somewhere else, as if I'm standing on the brink of sleep, weightless, agile, ready for dreams. Lynette knocks on the wall.
The iced tea left on the table for me is cold and sweet, though Lynette assures me it is unsweetened. I definitely feel different than when I went in, but for me, it is as if my senses have been calmed rather than sharpened. I feel hazy, well-padded, protected. Lynette says she may have pulled me out of the "theta" state just as I was falling into it.
I want to go back there, I think, staring at the three monkeys that sit on Lynette's desk without seeing, speaking, or hearing evil. I wear a similar set around my neck.
"I would like to try it again," I say.
"The second session is longer," assures Lynette.
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