Suedfeld’s studies have, over the years, shown that tank sessions can be used to treat autonomic nervous system problems like chronic pain, high blood pressure, and motion disorders. They can improve perceptual and motor skills in athletes, and creativity in artists. Suedfeld also claims that the tank shifts our brain’s focus from its dominant to its nondominant hemisphere, which has various benefits. “But God only knows why hemisphere balance is affected,” says Suedfeld. “We can’t yet fit a brain scanner in a tank, or get the scanner wet for that matter.”
For a tank newbie like me, not looking to cure physical disorders or win an Olympic medal, the more intriguing aspects of floating include 1) its possibly imagined, Lilly-esque potential to reveal hidden layers of consciousness within, and 2) its proven capacity to chill people out. Suedfeld happily acknowledges point two. “Anything related to psychological stress,” says Suedfeld, “whether it’s chronic tension headaches, insomnia, things with no known physical cause … after several floats, they really seem to improve.”
It’s the meditative, relaxing qualities of floating—even non-hallucinogen-enhanced floating—that eventually moved the practice beyond academia and into retail. Glenn Perry is perhaps the forefather of recreational tank use. Perry was a computer programmer in 1972 when he read Lilly’s book The Center of the Cyclone and, soon after, saw an ad for a Lilly-backed floating workshop. “The first time I floated,” says Perry, “I got out and I found that time had changed and my senses were totally different. I instantly knew I had to build my own tank. By the end of the week, I decided to build tanks not just for myself but for other people. John gave me the name Samadhi—which is a Sanskrit word meaning the state in which a meditator becomes one with the object of meditation.”
After trying out several models, Perry settled on a tank that used 10-inch-deep water saturated with Epsom salts. He and his wife Lee opened a float center in Beverly Hills in 1979, renting out their five tanks largely to entertainment industry types. Michael Crichton came in to float when he had writer’s block. Eventually, Crichton bought a tank of his own.
Between the Perrys’ float center, John Lilly’s 1977 book on the joys of floating titled The Deep Self, and the 1980 release of Altered States, flotation entered the popular consciousness. A November 1981 New York Times trend story was titled “Relaxation Tanks: A Market Develops.” It quoted representatives from Samadhi and other tank companies, noting that the industry was raking in $4 million a year on sales and rentals. It reported that new float centers were opening across the country. It also listed a few notable private tank owners: Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, and the training staffs of the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. One happy “tanker” the Times spoke to described the practice as “a self-development kind of thing that allows you to get in tune with yourself.”
In the mid-1980s, the AIDS scare changed everything. People were frightened of contracting HIV from infected water in float tank centers. The business dried up. New Agers switched to yoga. Even the academic work fell out of favor. “Radical students began to equate isolation studies with torture and brainwashing,” says Suedfeld. “People got hassled out of the field.” By the time John Lilly died in 2001, it seemed that floating was over and done.
Turns out it was unsinkable. The February story in the Journal that caught my eye—titled “Float Centers Gaining Steam”—is pretty much a wormhole straight back to that Times trend piece from 30 years before. It notes a new wave of tank enthusiasm, crediting comedian Joe Rogan (a float tank evangelist) and stressed out, chillaxation-hungry Bay Area techies for spreading the word. Further evidence of floating’s resurgence: a float center in Portland, Ore., has inaugurated an annual float conference. Peter Suedfeld—who, after receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton, headed the psychology departments at Rutgers and the University of British Columbia and ran tank studies for years in his own labs—was a featured speaker.
And now I’m part of the movement. Once I’d settled into my first tank session at La Casa, I understood why all these people get jazzed about floating. For the first time in my waking life, I had zero thoughts. It was a mental quietude I’d never known existed.
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“We had a Zen master who visited my lab once,” says Suedfeld, “and he asked to go in the tank for an hour. Most of his life he had meditated every day for four or five hours or more. And he thought the depth of meditation he reached in the tank was on par with a level he reached maybe once a year in his normal meditation environment—which was not exactly the middle of Times Square. He was amazed.”