Sensory Deprivation Tank Science: How ‘Floating’ Works & Proven Benefits

September 20, 2021

Sensory deprivation tank float centers are popping up all over the United States and Europe, especially in urban areas where the demand for holistic healing surges. According to annual official Float Tank Industry reports, the U.S. was home to more than 300 float centers in 2015, up from about 85 in 2011, and the trend continues to grow.

Whether referred to as sensory deprivation tanks, float tanks or simply as “floating,” deprivation therapy treatments have earned a reputation for naturally easing many ailments.

Floaters report sensory deprivation tank benefits that include reduced insomnia, anxiety and depression, plus relief from chronic pain and even addictions. The beauty in all of this: These reported benefits are possible without a doctor’s visit, breaking a sweat or filling any prescriptions.

What Is a Sensory Deprivation Tank?

Sensory deprivation is achieved through floating in a type of isolation tank that cuts off all sources of sensory experience: sound, sight, smell and touch.

Another way that floating is referred to in research studies is “restricted environmental stimulation technique,” or floating-REST.

What does floating in a deprivation tank do — or feel like? Proponents of floating told the the New York Times that a session can make you practically feel like an astronaut, saying “it’s something you can never experience otherwise.”

Float tanks (or sensory deprivation chambers) that are used for inducing sensory deprivation are filled with water that is almost the exact same temperature as the floater’s body, along with high amounts of Epsom salt (made from magnesium sulphate). The salts allow you to remain restfully floating at the water’s surface in complete silence and stillness.

During the entire session, floaters generally feel light and peaceful, without needing to exert any effort to stay afloat.

What are sensory deprivation tanks used for? As you’ll learn below, the main purpose of flotation-REST is eliciting a positive effect on physiology, including lowering levels of cortisol, reducing blood pressure and promoting positive feelings of well-being.

Studies show that increased mindfulness and decreased stress during float session reduce markers of bodily distress syndrome (BDS), aka symptoms caused by chronic stress. Researchers often use the term “BDS” to describe negative physiological changes that take place when someone is under a lot of stress. These BDS signs are now tied to things like fibromyalgia symptoms, chronic fatigue syndrome and somatization disorder.

History of Floating:

Although the benefits of float tanks only recently garnered lots of buzz, they’ve actually been around since the 1950s and used in Europe on and off since the ’70s.

At the time of sensory deprivation tank creation, psychoanalytic researchers and neuroscientists used the tanks mainly to test effects on things like creativity, connection to others and concentration.

Some report that float tanks can actually bring about a “psychedelic experience.” Over the last few decades, esoteric communities promote floating as a way to promote “spiritual awakeness,” emotional breakthroughs and enhanced clarity of mind.

While these benefits are difficult to prove, research published in the Journal of Complementary & Behavioral Medicine now suggests that sensory deprivation may actually work by reducing the body’s stress response, inducing deep relaxation and quieting mental chatter.

A slew of research now shows that “floatation therapy” is an effective, noninvasive method for treating stress-related illnesses and pain, more so than a placebo or even many other methods currently used in complementary medicine.

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