The journey out of chronic stress, anxiety and addiction can seem like an arduous one requiring continuous effort, but emerging research is showing that sometimes doing absolutely nothing at all- not even fighting gravity- can have long term benefits that bear many similarities to the effects of psychedelic treatments. Sensory deprivation or “flotation” tanks have grown in popularity over recent years, and allow people to float effortlessly in a dark, soundproof chamber in saline water that is kept the same temperature as the human body. This meditative experience allows one to relax and tune out the outside world more completely than ever before, resulting in stress reduction, changes in brain patterns, and the emergence of non-ordinary states of consciousness. This method of mind alteration through sensory deprivation seems to share many of the same therapeutic qualities, clinical applications, and even historical moments as psychedelics like LSD.
From Mind Control to Mind Expansion
As with LSD, some of the first experiments with sensory deprivation were related to interrogation and mind control. In the early 1950’s, the CIA developed “perceptual isolation” tests to see if reducing stimuli could be used to enhance interrogation of prisoners of war or prepare agents to resist enemy interrogation. While the CIA was exploring the more nefarious applications of sensory deprivation, in the mid 1950’s neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly began to develop the first flotation tanks as part of his research into the nature of consciousness. Lilly was a respected researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health but had highly unorthodox interests, and would go on to use psychedelics such as LSD and ketamine (which were legal at the time) in conjunction with floating to explore consciousness and attempt communication with dolphins. Lilly would become somewhat of a scientific outsider as he pursued these eclectic goals, but his innovation laid the groundwork for the float industry as we know it today.
In recent years, commercial flotation tank centers have appeared in nearly every major city and research into floating has focused on its therapeutic applications. Flotation tanks are considered a form of Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (or REST), a term coined in the 1970’s by Dr. Peter Suedfeld who studied Lilly’s flotation tanks and also developed ‘dry’ forms using a bed in an enclosed room. Suedfeld and other researchers would go on to publish dozens of papers that explored the different therapeutic benefits that REST can provide, and it turns out these clinical applications are very similar to many forms of psychedelic therapy.
While research into floating is still in its early stages, studies have shown that REST is a useful tool in overcoming chronic stress, smoking addiction, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Additionally, floating can make measurable changes to brain activity, enhance creativity and problem solving, and even be a helpful treatment for children with autism. This list of therapeutic benefits is not only impressive, but strikingly similar to the effects of different forms of psychedelic therapy. Substances like ayahuasca, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and cannabis have been shown in various studies to help treat the exact same conditions, begging the question of how these two types of therapy are related.
The Value of Shifting Consciousness
Both flotation tanks and psychedelics are technologies that provide a reliable way to induce a shift in consciousness to allow novel, non-ordinary subjective experiences. When performed with care and intention, these exercises in consciousness alteration seem to provide a litany of benefits. Many psychological disorders can be traced to a person being stuck in a pattern of destructive thoughts and behaviors that build up over time as a coping mechanism for trauma, stressful situations, and disconnection with the true self. The daily routine and demands of modern living can often deprive people of opportunities to ‘reset’ themselves and look at their choices and behaviors in a larger context, empowering them to choose differently. Psychedelic therapy and flotation offer an opportunity to break these harmful patterns and seed new healthy habits. We may eventually come to see psychedelic therapy, REST, and other techniques like meditation and breathwork as part of a single continuum of consciousness-based healing practices.