”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.”