In the Tank

In the Tank

Is sensory deprivation an escape from or toward the fatigue and distractions of the digital life?


”I do everything in the bathroom in the dark,” Teddem Yee told me while sinking into a sofa in the lobby of Float On, which is now the largest sensory deprivation center in the country. It was 10:45 in the evening in Portland, Oregon, and the room was humming with chatter; a casual conversation among a handful of customers had inadvertently become a mini-symposium on the subject of lying in a shallow pool of water in the dark. Yee stared into a mug of tea, elongating his vowels with a meaningful gravity, like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. At home, he explained, he often fills his bathtub with water and sleeps in it overnight.

Just before 11 pm, Yee left the lobby and walked into a soundproof room to shower. Once clean, he entered a floor-to-ceiling chamber containing a skin-temperature soup of Epsom salts and water, with a specific gravity greater than that of the Dead Sea. Then he closed the hatch. Pressing a button, he extinguished the isolation tank’s dim blue light and lay down on the surface of the liquid, in silence, in the dark, alone. A typical float lasts ninety minutes, but he had done that. He wanted to float for twenty-four hours.

Yee revels in long stretches of solitude. He earns a living pulling stumps from the ground and pruning trees in yards and estates all over Oregon. He had just returned from his vacation, a four-day walking trip from Portland to the Pacific coast, “taking old logging roads” by himself. Before heading into the tank, he gestured to his feet: swollen skin bulged around his sandal straps. Floating, he said, would heal this self-inflicted abuse.

“Solitude as well as society has its pleasures,” Edmund Burke wrote in the middle of the eighteenth century as he worked out his aesthetics of the sublime and the beautiful, but “an entire life of solitude contradicts the purposes of our being, since death itself is scarcely an idea of more terror.” Likewise, if you utter the words “isolation tank” or “sensory deprivation” to most people, they imagine Guantánamo Bay detainees wearing thick earmuffs and opaque goggles, their hands covered and bound, their heads bowed as if in prayer. This is one reason why float centers prefer the more casual term “floating” to “sensory deprivation,” and why scientists who study the benefits of floating favor the phrase “Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy,” or REST. Of course, there’s a deeper difference: prisoners at Guantánamo don’t get to choose when to make their world go dark.

Everyone who walked back into the lobby after a float glowed with a mixture of confidence and tranquility. It seemed they had absorbed it from the tanks. A young woman in a white dress emerged from one of the rooms, wet hair hanging against her back, a black purse in the crook of her arm. She strode by a shelf that held a column of color-therapy eyeglasses. (Each pair is a different hue, and each hue corresponds to a mood the wearer might want to inhabit.) She paid $50 at the register for her float and left. That afternoon, I had watched a customer slice into a chocolate-covered scone that a baker had delivered in exchange for free floats. As he held the pastry carefully over his white linen pants, a fellow floater sat beside him. He turned to her with an enviable calm and said, “I wish I could have my first time again.”

* * *

Quinn Zepeda, one of Float On’s owners, told me that his first time in the tank was “magical.” On an autumn day in Southern California, a week before he moved to Portland, he looked for a float facility near his home after having watched a YouTube video in which former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan rhapsodized about sensory deprivation. Zepeda remembers how “my senses were all heightened, things tasted better, my nose worked—which it never does. It was sunset over Venice Beach, and everything was just amplified.”

First times in the tank can be disappointing, too. During mine, I had an ache in my neck, Lana Del Rey warbled ceaselessly through my head, and I suddenly remembered my fear of the dark. Graham Talley, another Float On owner and Zepeda’s best friend from high school, commiserated: Zepeda had encouraged him to float, but it took him a dozen sessions before he finally got into it.

A few years after college, Zepeda and Talley headed north from California to Oregon. At a housewarming party in Portland’s Southeast neighborhood, where Float On would eventually appear, they sipped beer and discussed their idea for a sensory deprivation tank business. The two entrepreneurs surveyed the local floating scene and mostly found a few older people, veterans of sensory deprivation’s first wave of consumer popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, who were renting out time for floats in the single tanks they maintained in their homes. “It was mysterious to us,” Talley recalled: “why it wasn’t bigger, what was keeping it down, if there actually was a business there.” Zepeda and Talley heard that a float shop was closing in Ashland, a small city with a big Shakespeare festival, and they drove out to buy its two tanks. They asked the owner if business had dried up. No, he told them, plenty of people were still coming in. He just wanted to slip off the grid for a while.

Back in Portland, Zepeda and Talley had coffee with Christopher Messer, one of the sensory deprivation veterans they had met while surveying the local float scene, and asked if he wanted to join their enterprise. Messer said yes, and the three partners signed a lease for a space next to an old shoe repair shop on a quiet stretch of SE Hawthorne Boulevard, a street lined with the kind of establishments for which Portland is known: an artisanal pizza restaurant, a gourmet grocery, and several vintage and designer clothing stores. To their two Ashland tanks, they added the one Messer had been using in Portland and another he kept in Astoria. In 2010, Float On opened its doors as the largest flotation center on the West Coast. (My cousin Ashkahn came on as a fourth owner shortly thereafter and helped them build soundproof walls.)

When I spoke with Zepeda and Talley this year about their business, the rent increases on their up-and-coming section of SE Hawthorne—where the new neighbors include a fancy fresh juice stand and a second gourmet grocery—had forced the shoe repair shop to move. But floating was on the rise. Sensory deprivation shops were starting to appear everywhere along the West Coast, from the Bay Area to Seattle. Spa owners dragged tanks out of storage. Two centers, inspired by Float On, opened on either side of the Willamette River in Portland. Float On itself had doubled its hours—it’s open virtually twenty-four hours a day, with tank maintenance on Monday afternoons and evenings—and spots are often reserved a couple of weeks in advance. Zepeda and Talley turned the shoe repairman’s vacated shop into their own and were building two large chambers in which customers could stand and spread their arms and legs out completely, like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Once the two tanks were finished, Float On could say it had more tanks than any other center in the country. It could also claim to be a hub for the growing sensory deprivation movement. Last month, Float On held its second annual Float Conference. More than 200 float researchers, sensory deprivation technologists and industry representatives filed into the Portland Center for the Performing Arts to hear their experts and leaders speak.

The public had learned of Float On through The Portland Mercury and Channel 8 News, free float promotions or word of mouth. Car accident victims, relaxation evangelists, athletes, alcoholics and all-purpose spiritualists crept into the darkness to lie down; what they discovered, the owners say, is that floating relieves pain by easing the force of gravity on the skeleton, boosts the immune system by lulling you into a state of light sleep, and enhances performance in sports by helping your muscles repair more quickly from the trauma of training. (After decades, the scientific research into float tank REST, though voluminous, is still in its infancy.) As for the spiritualists, a skeptical customer who hangs around the shop talking to people after their sessions told me: “They truly believe in happy auras left behind in the tank from other floaters. I’ve heard all sorts of crazy stories. Usually, I just smile and nod.”

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

In 1952, three decades before IBM PCs became just another household appliance, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly brought the computer to national attention. The UNIVAC they had built accurately predicted that Dwight Eisenhower would defeat front-runner Adlai Stevenson in the presidential election. Two years on, when Dr. John C. Lilly, the inventor of the sensory deprivation tank, began his research at the National Institute of Mental Health, the development of information technology barely seemed to trouble him. Later, it inspired his thinking as he dropped LSD, slipped into his tank and carefully considered his consciousness. In the first major publication of Lilly’s findings, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (1968), the doctor imagines the brain as a piece of computer technology. “All human beings, all persons who reach adulthood in the world today are programmed biocomputers,” Lilly wrote.

To make it as easy as possible to reprogram himself and thereby observe the workings of his mind, Lilly considered every measure that might help solve the mechanical problem of isolating the brain. One section of his book The Deep Self (1977) painstakingly examines the ways to avoid types of sensory disturbance. While attempting to bring the temperature of the water and air in his tank in perfect accord with his skin, Lilly fell into a coma. “Various emergency mechanisms in the body took over,” he calmly noted, “including activation of the mesencephalic vocalization center [midbrain], which produces ‘moans.’” Elsewhere in the book, he laments that the only way to prevent the force of gravity from affecting the inner ear would be to relocate oneself to “a field free of gravity in far-out spaces beyond the solar system, or go into orbit around the planet.” He also takes account of bodily functions. During a float, “one can learn to control orgasm,” he writes, “so that one does not have an ejaculation.” In the book’s foreword, a colleague recalls Lilly’s five-tank floating facility in Malibu, California. “For obvious reasons we soon began referring to the ranch as the Lilly Pond,” he writes, “although the official mailing name is Human Software Inc.”

In the silence of the tank, I heard my eyelashes brush against each other with a gravelly crunch. Others are deafened by the sound of their heartbeat. Lilly admitted he could not eliminate all sensory stimulation from the float and noted that a “pure” mental state, especially the kind that reveals the reality of consciousness, requires more than sensory isolation. He has quoted the polymath thinker G. Spencer Brown, who wrote: “To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behavior of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know.” This demand to assume a Bartleby-like refusal to engage with the trifles of a busy world, what Lilly called “the consensus reality,” resonates not only with the second generation of floaters—who would, thirty-five years later, look to sensory deprivation as a shield against the “forever” of technological contact—but also with those original civil skeptics of the nineteenth century, the Transcendentalists.

* * *

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, during the Second Great Awakening, American Christian sects fractured even as Christianity swelled its ranks. The fervor to reveal the true word, like Lilly’s zeal to discover the true mind, burned to the point of self-destruction. As the theologian Charles Lippy points out in his book Pluralism Comes of Age, “the intoxicating freedom of endless space and the lack of a national religious establishment encouraged others to have a hand at starting their own religions.” Many Protestants sought out a purer form of their faith, he writes, and “unwittingly” created new denominations. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister, decided to cast off the yoke of his congregation and look inward for his particular purity. Standing before six graduating seniors at the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, he gave an address that would have him barred from the campus for some thirty years. “The doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man,” he said, “and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand.” Emerson went on, deriding the typical Puritan church service: “We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not.”

Henry David Thoreau read Emerson’s essays, heard his addresses and wanted to live by his philosophy. In the spring of 1845, in order to better investigate his own truth, Thoreau enlisted a few friends to help build a small cabin near Walden Pond on a tract of land that Emerson owned, a mile and a half from his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. Once alone, he removed stumps from the surrounding terrain and cultivated beans. When Thoreau penned his own thoughts about self-understanding and solitary living, he spoke less of the befuddling ceremonies of the church and more about the technological distractions of his day: the locomotive, the letter, the newspaper, the telegraph. He complained that the devices and the glut of information they delivered made people petty and banal. “We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor,” he told a crowd in Providence, Rhode Island. “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Thoreau was wary of what all this technology and urbanization had done to obscure the true workings of his mind. He hoped everyone could find a Walden Pond to settle by.

Unsurprisingly, many recent Internet-anxiety books invoke Thoreau. Turkle and Powers both discuss how the young iconoclast’s cranky wisdom might apply to cultural afflictions presumed to weaken twenty-first-century brains, especially texting or e-mailing too much, and Maushart predicates an experiment—to go for six months without screens of any type—on the experiences Thoreau details in Walden. Just as Thoreau had retreated to Walden Pond for a sabbatical from newspapers and letters, so too do many floaters descend into their sensory deprivation tanks to find relief from cellphones and the Internet. The desire to float alone in a dark and silent box may not, on the surface, resemble the impulse that sent a small-town intellectual to his bucolic home by the water, but Thoreau had not, in his experiment, sought the sensuality of nature; he had gone in search of minimalism. Sounding like a nineteenth-century Romantic version of Lilly, Thoreau intended to “live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

Anyone walking a path blazed by Thoreau should tread carefully. His observations about nineteenth-century American civilization are sometimes laced with provocation. “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter,—we never read of another,” he wrote in Walden. “One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?” Yet Thoreau lived during a period of tumultuous change. The nascent promise of scientific empiricism in the sixteenth century was finally achieved in the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth, the innovations of which helped spread the American empire and the mechanized urban sensibility that Thoreau’s musings on borrowed land were meant to stand against. The Transcendentalists could not help being swept up in the political movements delivered by newspapers and telegraph to their hamlets. Thoreau recognized the implicating force of world affairs during a break from his isolation when he traveled into town to retrieve his mended shoe from a cobbler. A meek tax collector approached him. Wanting no part in Southern slavery and the war in Mexico, Thoreau refused to pay and demanded the collector escort him to jail. Months after his release, he gave the speech that would become “Civil Disobedience.”

As Thoreau described it, civil disobedience involved nurturing one’s own sense of justice, no matter what anyone else thought or how obnoxious you became. (The civil rights movement added the revolutionary concept of community identity.) He founded the idea on a strong sense of self. Living by the pond after his arrest, he decided that people should treat themselves like landscapes. “Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought,” he wrote. Through those new channels, each person could shun the laws of society, because he would discover “the laws of his being.” But the nineteenth century progressed in a way that changed ideas about human nature. Machines were made, slaves were freed, and Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Even Emerson, after rowing down a river with Thoreau one night, wrote in his journal that nature was just “animated geometry.” In the wake of the republican revolutions in Europe and the US Civil War, the rarefied terminology of science had become common parlance. As the historian Jonathan Sperber has pointed out, Karl Marx, a devoted Hegelian, let Friedrich Engels sell their theories to the public in the language of positivism and empiricism that Darwinists helped to spread, though empiricism was the very ideology that Hegel had originally set out to criticize. Inspired by Darwin, people began to see their minds as evolving. Later, with the help of Freud, they could intervene directly and attempt to restructure their consciousness. Lilly often wrote that psychoanalysis worked well alongside the reprogramming methods he outlined in his books. “Know thyself” was no longer the motto of thoughtful people. Now, fully postindustrial, it had become “Engineer thyself.”

* * *

Just as the language of empiricism spilled across the United States in the nineteenth century, the language of information technology has seeped from government laboratories like Lilly’s into contemporary life. Floaters today talk about the pleasures of “unplugging,” “recharging,” “hitting the ‘reset’ button” or “shutting down.” A recent issue of Fast Company demanded that we “#Unplug,” and the web version of its cover story, which is about one man’s twenty-five-day disconnect, frames itself with illustrations of yellow flowers and grassy cliffs that overwhelm the screen as you scroll down. (There is an option to “Turn Off Nature.”) That the language of information technology pervades their understanding of freeing themselves from its perceived harms is not unique to them. Thoreau borrowed from the terminology of science, referring to his isolation as an “experiment.” But while Thoreau and the floaters have escaped in similar ways from the pressures of civilization, Thoreau wanted to “burst forth a more perfect creature, fitted for a higher society.” The kind of mind that dreams up “Civil Disobedience” believes in cultivating a psyche prepared to live in a society that does not yet exist, and to resist indignantly the one that does. Powers calls the Walden experiment a withdrawal “within the world,” but he overlooks the utopian aspirations of Thoreau’s experiment. There’s nothing transcendent about making yourself comfortable within the world’s limits.

Many floaters more readily align with Powers’s mistaken description of Thoreau. Rather than use the tanks to escape from society, they isolate themselves to escape toward society. Floaters are happy to have the anxious aspects of themselves reprogrammed into a sociable tranquility, especially those afflicted by serious mental wounds, like military veterans who hope sensory deprivation will help treat their PTSD. (One Float On employee told me she believes that if prisoners were given the opportunity to float, they would become much more “manageable” and prison violence would likely decrease.) When the solution serves too well, some floaters pragmatically impose limits on the relief they seek. Andrew, the “human firewall” consultant, told me he used to book sessions in the morning before work but had to stop. “I found myself being much more understanding and sympathetic and I let a lot more things slide,” he explained. “It was then that I realized I needed to stop floating in the morning or I’d start allowing people’s excuses—and projects would get delayed and pretty soon none of us would have a job.”

One wonders if, in a hundred years, the tacit philosophy of the floaters who accept the world as it is and change themselves instead could improve society. Robert and Edward Skidelsky, the father-and-son economic historians who wrote the book How Much Is Enough? (2012), believe that there is something worth reprogramming in us: not the parts of our brains shaped by digital technology, but the drive to work too much. If only more schools, against our avaricious natures, taught us to be leisurely, those who labor pointlessly for more and more capital would relax instead of working overtime, and more wealth would become available to those who need it. The income gap would shrink.

Turkle also worries about a type of overwork, one that especially affects adolescents in the digital age. She thinks kids need more space for leisure, but unlike the Skidelskys, she is not as much concerned with economic equality as she is with the freedom to self-develop. On National Public Radio, she argued that the transition from anonymity in early Internet chatrooms to the curated exhibitionism of Facebook has turned the “playful self-exploration” of growing up into “consequential work.” In social media, adolescents find their trivial activities recorded and made available for scrutiny by peers, potential employers and college admissions officers alike. Perhaps teenagers should retire from their bright, crowded screens for a while and learn to have fun with themselves in the dark.

One evening during a break from tank construction, Quinn Zepeda told me he studied Transcendentalism in a college ethics course. He agreed that sensory deprivation can be used as a balm against the caustic elements of civilization—although, he was quick to add, he would rather not sit by a pond: “Staying in my room with the door closed would be my version of going out into nature.” He prefers to lie beneath “the stars on the ceiling that take in the light from the day and then shine for you at night.” When I asked him whether he ponders transcendental ideas during his floats, he said, in a Thoreauvian tone, “I have my own kind of philosophies. A lot of time I want to escape the thought train as much as possible.” Talley, his colleague and friend, had told me his life in the dark ran just the opposite: he thinks a lot in the tank. He alluded to “intense experiences.” I pressed him to tell me where his mind went in that soundproof room and he paused, as though imagining his words broadcast across wires and satellites. “I think that might be a little personal for an interview,” he said. “Come on by later, if you want. We can sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.”

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