Saturday, August 23, 2014

First-time float tank experience

I first heard about isolation tanks (aka float tanks or sensory-deprivation tanks) on the Joe Rogan podcast. I'll try nearly all non-injurious things once so when an offer showed up in my e-mail for Float House Vancouver, I was pretty excited to give it a try.

I'll skip the generic trip report that you can read about on every site: you watch a video, you get undressed, shower off, and get into the chamber which is filled with water heated to skin temperature and with so much salt in it that the density matches that of the human body. The chamber is completely black on the inside, there is minimal sound, a fairly neutral smell, and the only sensation you feel is the water on your body which again is very minimal and very comfortable. You can get out at any time, you can prop the door open, and they give you a foam pillow to support your neck if you want it.

The allure of float tanks, as I understood it before my experience, is a tremendously deep meditative state. I've heard many people say they experience very deep thoughts, perceive the world in a different way, achieve some form of creative enlightenment, and so on. Perhaps comments like those overly raised my expectations. I would say the most adequate description of what occurred in my 90 minutes in the float tank was that it was just like the feeling that you have just before you fall asleep. One does think very thoughtfully about things in your life, in a way very different from what one's typical conscious mind thinks about them. But the thoughts are not absurd or dissonant with reality the way they are in a dream. Thus it seems to be in an "in-between state" where your consciousness is very aware of the rules of reality, but is perhaps willing to bend them. I'm not confident that's a great assessment, but it's about as close as I can elucidate.

So what did I actually think about?

For the first 15 (10? 25? 40? It's truly hard to say) minutes, I was simply getting used to the sensation and decreased sensory input. Unless you live near the Dead Sea, it is a very foreign feeling to be completely suspended in the water without any external resistance, and with minimal feeling on your skin. The complete darkness means that you get the sensation of movement, often rotating or drifting from side to side, and the tank was large enough that I wasn't constantly bumping into the walls, although it did happen. But for the most part, I thought about the same things I think about during my conscious day: martial arts, friends, work I want to do, and so on. I did not ponder the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, the key to enlightenment, or such thing.

At some point I'm pretty sure I did fall asleep, though I wouldn't be able to guess the duration. It could have been anywhere from 2-30 minutes. I do know that a few minutes after waking up, I started to become slightly antsy for the session to be done. I have a slightly pathological tendency to always want new experiences to be "as intended" so even though the intro video said specifically that it was fine to crack the door open or take a break, or do any of a number of comfort-increasing things, I didn't do any of them. But somewhere around probably the 70th minute, I started to become a bit anxious to quit or at least take a break. I stuck it out and waited, considering it a mental challenge and telling my brain to calm down, and it did not feel too long before the 90 minutes expired. I do suspect that being very awake, well-rested, or caffeinated would probably be a bad idea for the float tank. As one person on Yelp says:
don't go when you're super well-rested. I find that you need to be right in that Goldilocks zone of being not too sleepy, but not too awake either. If you're too well-rested, you tend to get a bit shifty and therefore unable to get comfortable in the experience.
I think that is a very accurate description.

Afterwards, I still felt slightly disoriented. It wasn't as bad as a typical "nap hangover", but I certainly did not feel in any hurry to move too quickly or use my brain too aggressively. I chatted with some girls in the waiting/recovery area and they seemed to feel the same way.

So, the obvious questions.

Do I recommend that other people do this? Absolutely yes. This is the kind of thing that I suspect has dramatically different results for different people. It's unique, reasonably priced, and available in most big cities. Some people will love it and think it's the greatest thing ever, others will absolutely hate it and quit in 10 minutes, others will likely be indifferent. But you don't know if you don't try. So you should do it.

Many people have expressed the idea that they would feel uncomfortable in complete blackness, or without any sound, or lying in an enclosed area that vaguely resembles a coffin. Sure, I'm sure this would cause some anxiety. I don't much like closed spaces myself, and my brain is super active all the time. But I would argue that this is more a reason in favour of doing it as opposed to against. People with fear of heights skydive. So suck it up.

Would I do it again? The answer to this is harder. I think I will probably do it again. I think it's unlikely that it needs to be a highly regular part of my life, or that it will be dramatically life-changing for me. And if it were the case that I never did this again, do I think that I would be tremendously disappointed? Probably not. But overall, I would say it was positive, and I think that doing it occasionally will provide value.

Happy floating!


  1. The more you do it the better it gets. It's like a practice, the first time you have sex is not the best, not should you base the entire act upon the first try. Just IMO.

  2. Thanks for the review. I became interested in sensory deprivation after seeing the film Altered States but have not had the chance to try it. Maybe one day I'll visit a city where the service is offered.

  3. Just don't get some of that saltwater in your eye! Buzzkill.