A sensory deprivation pod at Fremont's Urban Float. Photo: Urban Float
By Jane Hu
You’re going to die in here, I thought to myself. I had never felt claustrophobic before I lay down in this coffin-sized tank of warm, salty water, but I felt a panic attack coming on. My rational brain knew I was safe – I was just floating in a sensory deprivation tank, and could leave its dark, stuffy confines whenever I wanted – but it felt so wrong to be feeling nothing.
Floating tanks are designed to eliminate sensory input. The tanks block outside noise – and floaters are instructed to wear earplugs to minimize the sound of water sloshing around them. They are completely dark, save a faint blue light that floaters can choose to flip on, via a button on the side of the tank. The water is extremely salty, effortlessly supporting the floater’s weight, and is heated to skin temperature, so it’s hard to tell where you end and the water begins.
The technique was established in the ‘50s by John C. Lilly, who studied sensory deprivation at the National Institutes of Mental Health. (Lilly left the NIMH after determining the government agency stifled his creativity; he later undertook a project teaching dolphins to speak, and was convinced that the universe was governed by a council of cosmic beings.)
It’s no wonder that the concept has been embraced by urban dwellers. From rumbling trucks, smartphone screens, and crowded sidewalks, city living accosts the senses. Floating offers a refuge from noise and clutter. Float businesses advertise the health benefits of sensory deprivation, claiming that it improves creativity and mental clarity while eliminating stress. Some offer science-y explanations to back up these claims, citing studies about adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine. But are these claims scientific, or just advertising? I had to try floating to believe it.
By the time my Tuesday evening float appointment rolled around, I was ready for some peace and quiet. I had spent the day elbowing my way through Pike Place Market, texting with friends to make plans and riding jerky buses, but the chaos dissipated as I walked into Float Seattle.