In the Tank
One of the most common effects is a lingering and sometimes unintended sense of mental ease. Last year, an anxious Portland-area native named Traci Fuller entered a tank on the advice of a friend who works at Float On. Fuller, then six months pregnant, wanted a reprieve from the tension in her back and knees, but by the time the music started being piped in, signaling the end of her float, the psychological experience had eclipsed the physical one. “It was surreal, it was humbling, it was spiritual,” Fuller remembers. “I’m not religious, but you know how you can separate your emotional side from your, I guess, rational side? I’m an emotional person, and I definitely get easily affected by my environment.” After her first float, she said, this started to change; she could see how she “fit into the world,” and it was easier to be patient and calm in stressful situations—something that she especially appreciated after giving birth to her son, Felix.
Teddem Yee, in a similar fashion, went to his first float intent on imagining story lines for Flash animations he wanted to produce; instead, on his drive home, he found himself pondering the way the car traffic didn’t bother him as much as usual. Other floaters that I spoke with described similar experiences of unexpected calm, as well as a novel sense of focus. Many told me that before they’d started floating, they’d been afflicted by an overactive inner monologue, but for days after they left the shop on SE Hawthorne, they felt they could control the chatter in their minds.
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Some of sensory deprivation’s sublime attraction seems to lie in the way it fortifies the floater against the perceived harm of twenty-first-century culture. Geoff Kleinman, a Portland blogger, notes on his website that Float On offers relief from the din of information streaming through the displays of smartphones and computers. “It’s like watching a loud action film on a big screen TV and having the power go out,” he writes. “There’s a moment where you can feel the lingering impact of the stimulation as it begins to fade from your system.” When I asked Fuller about this aspect of floating, she said, “I do remember getting out of my first float and thinking, ‘Do I have to look at my phone now?’ You almost don’t want to leave Float On. When you’re outside, you feel like you have to plug in, because that’s what everybody does and that’s how the world operates now. After I got done floating, I just didn’t want to enter that world yet. I wasn’t ready—I wanted to stay in my nice floaty feeling.”
Fuller’s reluctance concerning virtual connectivity and overstimulation resolved into an ethic after she watched a YouTube video of a TED Talk. In it, the MIT social psychologist and media theorist Sherry Turkle stands on a red stage with a microphone wrapped around her cheek, warning, “Those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.” After guiding the audience through a slide show and decrying the practice of texting during boardroom meetings and funerals, she says, “People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are, because the thing that matters most to them is control”—she pauses—“over where they put their attention.”
Turkle has studied the psychological effects of information technology since the 1980s, publishing a book on digital life in each decade, and her opinion has evolved in the usual manner from evangelical fascination to baleful prophecy. “If we’re not able to be alone, we’re only going to be more lonely—and if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely,” she says in the TED Talk promoting Alone Together, her most recent book. It appeared in 2011, a year after Float On opened, and was one of a raft of books about navigating a fragile ego through the digital world. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr worries that clicking quickly through links has made us depthless thinkers; William Powers complains in Hamlet’s BlackBerry that pop-ups and text messages have left us woefully distracted; in The Winter of Our Disconnect, Susan Maushart agonizes that personal devices undermine the intimacy of the family unit; and in Alone Together, Turkle tells us that social media have made us so deeply self-conscious about how we self-fashion for others that casual conversation is more than the mind can bear.
The floaters I spoke with echoed the concerns of these authors. A man I corresponded with online, a “human firewall” consultant (he advises companies on how to fortify themselves against Internet data thieves), asked me to refer to him only as Andrew, because “the Internet is ‘forever’ and I like to stay somewhat private.” Andrew is “on the Internet almost every waking hour” for his job and floats every Thursday late at night so that he doesn’t miss any calls or e-mails. He looks forward to each session as a mini-vacation from the stresses of work. Heather Lloyd-Martin, another Float On customer, owns a copywriting business for search-engine optimization and flies all over the country giving presentations. “I’ll have ten browser tabs open, plus e-mail, plus radio, plus television, plus the phone is ringing,” she told me. Before she started going to Float On every other Sunday, psychic pressure from the unrelenting stream of information at work cut short leisurely activities like hiking in the woods or meditating and sent her running back to her computer to check her messages. Floating cured her, she says. Now, when she lands in a new city, she looks for a place to float. “Floating has trained my brain to slow down,” Lloyd-Martin explained. “It’s like my brain is saying, ‘I can shut off now and not do anything. Awesome. Let me know when you need me again!’ There’s something really calming in being somewhere where there’s no input—and my life is filled with input.”
Onstage, Turkle seemed to want what Lloyd-Martin and the other floaters had found in the isolation chamber. “Start seeing solitude as a good thing, make room for it,” she recommends. Powers, in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, offers similar advice. “In the midst of a frenetic world, one can create a zone where simplicity and inwardness reign—a sanctuary from the crowd,” he writes, “a room where no screens of any kind are allowed.” If the psychic strain of being always connected and filled with input is our age’s neurasthenia (a Victorian catch-all term for the anxiety and lassitude caused by modern life), then the float may be its rest cure.
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