The Science Behind Sensory Deprivation Tanks

Imagine stepping into a giant tub filled with water and 2,000 pounds of Epsom salt. You lie back and float without any effort at all. Suddenly, a switch is flipped and everything goes black while you’re left in that pool, still floating, motionless, and without a single sound to fill the air. This practice is known as floating and the device you’re in is called a sensory deprivation chamber. The pitch black and zero sound may make it all appear a bit spooky, but it’s actually becoming one of the fastest growing forms of natural mental, emotional, and physical therapy around. People are using it to relieve physical pain, lower stress, decrease anxiety and depression, and even former soldiers are using it to battle PTSD.

Are you interested now?

The truth is, the first isolation tank was created in 1954 and even now, almost 65 years later, there isn’t definitive science to back how and why they’re effective forms of “alternative medicine.” That doesn't necessarily diminish their popularity, though.

One particular recent study which was featured in TIME Magazine offered some interesting results out of a research facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein opened the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa. There, he operates a float tank in which he can monitor the brain activity of his subjects using waterproof sensors, an EEG device. He then sends floaters to an MRI machine down the hall to record more results following their session in the sensory deprivation tank.

Feinstein’s research is similar to that of neuroscience studies on meditating. What scientists have come to understand about meditation through fMRI studies is that meditation activates parts of the brain used for giving attention and decreases activation in our amygdala, a part of the brain that triggers our flight-or-fight responses when we encounter danger. The National Institute of Health now supports the belief that meditation effectively lowers blood pressure and eases anxiety and depression thanks to its impact on the amygdala. Feinstein essentially believes that floating is a shortcut to that same expert meditative state.

He tests subjects by placing them in either a 90-minute float session or a 90-minute session in a reclining chair. Everybody gets two sessions with their brain scanned after a third. All the scans and results are compiled to see how floating does (or doesn’t) decrease activation in the amygdala.

Other studies include one conducted in the 90s, putting subjects through a series of eight 40-minute floating sessions and drawing blood samples throughout. What they found in that study was that cortisol levels - the hormone that triggers stress — dropped by 22%. Another study, published in 2006  in the International Journal of Stress Management, examined 70 people with stress-related pain. 12 sessions were found to not only reduce stress, depression, pain, and anxiety, but it also improved sleep and optimism for its subjects over a period of four months after the treatment stopped.

If you need scientific research to back up your interest in trying floating therapy for any number of symptoms, you may be waiting for a while. But with sessions that run between $50 and $100 a go, it’s essentially become a popular substitute for full-on spa treatments.

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