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Floating Away: The Science of Sensory Deprivation Therapy

Shelly Fan, a first time floater carefully describes her experience of “North America’s avant garde drug” sensory deprivation. She explains how shortly after entering the tank she can no longer feel any external stimuli except for the sound of her breath and the internal beating of her heart.

Shelly takes a calculated approach when describing floating, explaining that the opportunity to be in a unique state of mind has seen a steady increase in popularity and subsequently the opening of additional float centres. She shrewdly asks the question “Are these proclaimed benefits backed up by science or are they simply new aged hogwash?”

The History

Shelly likens sensory deprivation to torture that the Chinese used during the Korean War and solitary confinement. She then proceeds to mention a research study conducted at McGill University in the 1950’s claiming sensory deprivation correlated with “slower cognitive process, hallucinations and mood swings”.

Dr. Peter Suedfeld, a pioneering psychologist is then referenced as saying that sensory deprivation was nothing like toture prisoners underwent and that the McGill University studies used constant noise and white light to overload the senses rather than deprive them. An analysis was undertaken in 1997 having over 1000 participants describe their floating experience and more than 90% found it deeply relaxing.

The Brain Without Input

Shelly attending Vancouver’s “Float House” which uses Oasis floatation tanks which she describes as an “industrial looking behemoth” however, larger than she expected. The co-founder of the Float House takes her through a short pre-float brief prior to her climbing in and being “engulfed in darkness”, she is left without senses shortly afterwards. Without any external cues her spatial orientation and proprioception leave her feeling as though her “body is spinning like arms on a clock face”.

Bereft of any external stimuli Shelly’s mind starts creating its own visual inputs. She illustrates that after the discovery of brain imagining techniques scientists have been able to capture what the brain experiences during sensory deprivation, explaining that in 2000 a study found the volunteers visual cortexes became more active after less than an hour of visual deprivation.

Shelly describes the different types of auditory inputs her brain was ‘spontaneously generating’ going from music from a ‘faraway phonograph’ to a full symphony before settling into a ‘simple, tribal beat’.

Creative Juices

Shelly interprets some of Suedfeld’s explaining how he suggests floatation facilities creativity. A study of five university professors found that six 90 minute sessions sessions facilitated the generation of ‘creative’ ideas associated with a self reported increase in free imagery and remote association. Comparably, a study with 40 university students showed a single hour of floating standardised test scores used to measure creativity increased.

After Suedfeld research he postulates that floating may enhance creativity and performance the same way sleep or meditation do. Research shows during rest the brain repeatedly rehearses newly learned skills and consolidates newly acquired knowledge into long-term storage. Some studies have shown that as the brain rests information is combined from different areas of the brain to help solve complex problems.


In Shelly’s experience the physical effects are more noticeable than the cognitive. She explains how her muscles relax in minutes, the water supports every inch of her body and how submerging her head under water was “plainly impossible”.

In the 80’s a group of psychologists at the Medical College of Ohio initiated a series of experiments. They concluded that blood pressure and stress-related hormones dropped, these effects lasted long after the float session has ceased. In 2005 a meta-analysis confirmed floating was more effective at reducing stress than many other popular methods i.e. relaxation exercises and biofeedback.

The above prompted further research, studies showed positive effects in a wide range of disorder including: hypertension, headaches, insomnia and rheumatoid arthritis. Those with intractable chronic pain benefited from weekly sessions reporting; their level of perceived pain dropped, sleep improved, and said they felt considerably happier and less anxious.

Floatation Resurgence

Shelly explains “there’s no doubt that scientific research backs some benefits of floatation”. She also mentions the small sample sizes, the mysticism and recreational drug use which “surround floatation”.

Her ending remarks describe as she is leaving the Float House, she notices street noises, footsteps of the busy streets, noises she had left behind in that hour. She didn’t feel transformed however, “I felt calm and relaxed for the first time in weeks. To me, that’s good enough therapy”.