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Devils’ Advocate: Sensory Deprivation

WITH EARLY ADOPTERS ABANDONING PLAIN OLD MEDITATION FOR SENSORY DEPRIVATION PODS, OUR JOURNALIST KATELYN SWALLOW PUTS THEIR CLAIMS OF IMPROVING MEMORY, PROBLEM SOLVING, STRESS AND PAIN TO THE FLOAT TEST.sensory deprivation

 

THE SCIENCE
Try to explain to someone that you are voluntarily spending the afternoon ‘floating’ in a contraption that basically hits pause on your senses and see what reaction you get. Silent retreats are one thing (as indeed are surround sound headphones), but surrendering the faculties with which you perceive the external world is, well, a bit weird.

 

Sensory deprivation tanks – or dream pods, as the owners of Elevation Flotation and Yoga call them – are shaped like a giant egg that hinges open from the middle. ‘Floating’ is the practice of spending time in such a tank that is enclosed, soundproof and lightproof, with 40 centimeters of water mixed with 600 kilograms of Epsom salts.

 

“The density of the water creates an experience that separates you from the outside world,” explains studio manager Aiden Kramer.

 

“The pods aim to remove all audible, visible and physical stimulation to create an environment of absolute peacefulness. It’s a very new experience but very safe.”

 

The idea is that without distraction comes an increased ability to concentrate on the workings of your mind and achieve a deeper state of relaxation.

 

“By removing stimuli, the pods create a calm, safe environment that allow people to feel they can let their guard down,” says psychologist Sally-Anne Connell (thetalkshop.com.au).

 

“Research shows that floating allows a person to reduce activation in the amygdala – the part of the brain that kicks off the ‘fight or flight’ response – in the same way as extensive meditation can.”

 

Being relaxed has shown to improve sleep, memory, motivation and mood, even helping to improve chronic pain. While Connell advocates women spending at least a few minutes every day to manage stress, floats can facilitate deep relaxation in a relatively short amount of time.

 

“In our busy world, it is much more achievable for most people to do a 50-minute float session than to meditate for hours on end,”says Connell.

 

The high-grade magnesium salt that is dissolved in the water also aids in muscle recovery and performance, making the pods popular among athletes.

 

“We have clients that are CEOs or young parents; athletes like the players from Melbourne Storm and Collingwood Football Club; Ms Universe Australia contestants and everyone in between,” says Kramer.

 

“Most find the float leaves them feeling clear and calm, ready to take on the day or start the weekend as relaxed as possible.”

 

Kramer says that most people choose to float once a fortnight for relaxation purposes. Those experiencing fatigue or pain may opt for once a week, while athletes using the tanks for recovery and performance float up to three times per week.

 

There was nothing left to do but give it a go.

 

MY FIRST FLOAT

 

After rushing through sheets of Melbourne rain to the studio’s hidden locale in a little side street, I arrived for my appointment in a bit of a frazzle. For someone who was sceptical about spending a precious hour ‘floating’ (I have stories to write, dammit), I was surprised to find myself warming to the notion of escaping the cold – and people – for 60 minutes.

 

I was greeted by one of three male co-owners, studio manager Aiden Kramer. The facility was simple and fresh, with relaxing beige and white tones. After a short introduction to the workings of the studio and what would be involved in the float (I had to sign a disclaimer), I was escorted to one of three pod rooms.

 

Organised much like a day spa, the room was fairly large with shower facilities in one corner, a mirror on the side wall and the pod in the centre, imbuing the otherwise tranquil space with a Jetsons feel. After explaining the process, Kramer left me to my own devices.

 

Music plays in both the first and last 10 minutes of the session. First, you shower (soap, shampoo and condition) to make sure the dream pods are kept clean, remove all make-up using wipes provided and insert ear-plugs before climbing into the pod.

 

The biggest shock was the pod’s size. Slightly claustrophobic, I was happy to see the pod would easily accommodate two people. Half-filled with salty water heated to skin temperature, it had two switches inside: one for the lights within the pod and one to call for assistance in the unlikely event that you’d need it.

 

I spent my first few minutes in the pod checking that I could easily get out if I needed to. It was a neurotic start. I left the lights on, let my body adjust to the temperature of the water, and opened and closed the pod a few times to put my mind at ease. Once satisfied, I toyed with ways of lying down; magnesium water is super buoyant, so even if you fall asleep, you float. It’s strange to feel completely weightless (told you it was Jetsons). I floated on my stomach and back and even did a couple of spins simply because, well, I could. After a while, I was comfortable enough to turn the lights off and just lie on my back and stare into the dark.

 

THE VERDICT
At first I was tense and restless, waiting for my body to sink, but after some time I felt myself relax and my body uncoil from a busy day. Once the lights are off, you really have nothing to distract you from your own thoughts: you feel nothing but water against skin, see nothing but blackness and hear nothing except the ringing in your own ears. The newfound calm meant my brain raced through my mental to-do list for at least 20 minutes: things to do at work, that birthday coming up on Saturday, why that guy hadn’t called me back yet. But the beautiful thing about the float is that – eventually – you do run out of things to check off the mental list; and with nothing to stimulate your senses, even the most neurotic journalist can slowly find peace.

 

It may have taken a while to get there – at first I did feel awkward and unsure of what I should be ‘doing’ – but at about the half-way point I realised that was the exact point: what I should be doing is nothing. It was okay to take time out of my day for myself, and leave work and personal issues to the side. When the music signalled my final 10 minutes in the pod and the time to re-shower and change, I felt almost sleepy but also extremely relaxed. The tension in my muscles had released considerably and I felt like I was still floating as I walked out of the pod room to debrief with Kramer.

 

The drawbacks? Perhaps the price tag: averaging

 

$65 for a 60-minute session, it’s a far cry from the zero dollars spent sitting in your own home in a meditative state. Then again, for those of us (I put my hand up) that can’t meditate for quids, this is just what the doctor ordered. Additionally, don’t plan a gym session postfloat: the only thing I was prepped for the night after my bathe was a glass of wine and a nap.

 

But the sleep following all the floating? Incredible.

 

“RESEARCH SHOWS THAT FLOATING ALLOWS A PERSON TO REDUCE ACTIVATION IN THE AMYGDALA – THE PART OF THE BRAIN THAT KICKS OFF THE ‘FIGHT OR FLIGHT’ RESPONSE”

 

You can download the PDF  here.