The Hype Over Sensory Deprivation Tanks Is Real. Here’s Why.

Dave Asprey in sensory deprivation tank
Dave Asprey in sensory deprivation tank José Mandojana

I am suspended in absolute darkness—one so complete that when I raise my arm, I see absolutely nothing, not even a suggestion of an outline where my arm might be. I let my hand drop back to my side. It makes a splash, which is the only noise within the eight-by-six-foot tank I am floating in.

Completely void of external stimuli, here I am forced to rely only on what my body is telling me. Each inhale that expands my lungs sends shallow ripples in the 96-degree water. Each exhale echoes throughout the chamber. I literally feel my heart thudding inside my chest. My mind feels like it is moving in slow motion. They may call this sensory deprivation, but in the absence of outside chatter, all I experience is sensory enhancement. And it turns out this absolutely still state has unique health benefits.

Sensory-deprivation tanks—aka floatation therapy, aka REST (restricted environmental stimulus therapy)—promise relaxation, stress relief, and muscle recovery. They rose in public awareness in the late ’60s as a prime location for LSD trips and other psychedelic experiences. But the fact that these enclosed, lightless, soundproof pools of saline water are enjoying a resurgence in 2018 says less about a return to tripping and more about just chilling.

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“We are a fast-moving city with very few options to truly disconnect,” says Alex Charles, manager of Chill Space in New York City.

The floatation center, which opened in 2016 with two tanks, has a steady, diverse clientele: type A Wall Streeters, serious athletes, yogis. Regulars come in as frequently as twice a week. Sessions are an hour; you know your time’s up when the lights inside the chamber gradually illuminate.

The isolation is what draws a lot of the clients.

“Many of my CEO patients will go to one of these spots just to disappear for a while,” says Los Angeles–based psychiatrist Judith Orloff, M.D., author of The Empath’s Survival Guide. “No one can reach them. It’s one of the only places you can go and truly be alone with your thoughts.”

Clinicians like Orloff recommend sensory-deprivation therapy for some of their anxiety-prone clients—and research is backing them up.

“The positive results are astonishing,” says Anette Kjellgren, of the psychology department at Karlstads University in Sweden.

In her research involving people suffering from general anxiety disorder, Kjellgren found that after 12 sessions of 45-minute floats, people said they’d become better at processing emotions and felt more in control of their daily life. Kjellgren speculates that the secluded environment induced feelings of relaxation, which increased self-awareness and self-insight. It may even help spark creativity.

“Some of my clients say their biggest innovations have happened while floating,” says Orloff. “The absence of distractions allows your mind to expand and create.”

Filling the vacuous darkness for an hour is easier than you think. As with meditation, Orloff advises focusing on your breathing and to simply “be” in the moment. Some find floating more appealing than traditional meditation because it has a sensual component.

“It’s erotic,” says Orloff. “You are cocooned in warm water like a baby in the womb. There is something very pleasant about the feeling.”

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For me, it took, I’m guessing, at least 15 minutes just to convince my body to relax. The basic idea of even releasing your neck muscles while in water runs counter to instinct. (“If I don’t lift my head, I’ll drown!”)

By the time I’d mastered this step, I was so fascinated by my echoing breath that I soon forgot I was in water altogether. I was truly floating, as if it was air, not liquid, holding up my weightless body. Bliss isn’t cheap: An hour is $105 at Chill Space, but the company offers packages for frequent floaters.

For some, the mere idea of being trapped without a cell phone or even a clock on the wall to watch the minutes count down is enough to trigger panic, not bliss. Claustrophobes may have a tough time, too. Charles, of Chill Space, recommends that newbies go in with a positive, calm attitude.

“Even during the first session, the vast majority find it relaxing,” she says.

While many floaters come for the stress relief, a fair number of others come for the athletic-performance benefits the salt soak offers. It’s even become a favorite recovery method for some pro athletes.

“This is one of the best things you can do after a hard workout for sore muscles,” says Charles.

It was the physical perks that inspired my visit to Chill Space after a Sunday-morning 22-mile run. Sore calves, screaming quads, a tight back—sure, there’s Advil (and alcohol). But an hour soaking in the mother lode of Epsom salt baths? Sign me up.

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It’s more than just hype: Researchers from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at Northern Illinois University wanted to see whether they could quantify the benefits of flotation for athletes. Twenty-four male students were asked to do 50 deep knee bends, then either go in a tank for an hour or sit for the same amount of time. Those who did sensory deprivation had a lower blood lactate level (an indication of recovery from exercise), as well as lower perceived muscle pain.

And while my own evidence is purely anecdotal, I can say it’s legit. Not pain-all-gone legit, but I did wake up the next morning as if I was three days out from that tough workout, not just one day.

Charles was right when she said that the first time is just to get your bearings: It takes two or three sessions before you really understand what it’s all about. Which is why I’m headed back next weekend for another float.