Have you ever considered eliminating external sensory stimulations entirely? Living in a busy city can take its toll on your mental and physical health, causing you to seek vices and remedies to reduce the effects of the stimuli from your surroundings. If you’re a fan of the TV series Stranger Things you probably remember an episode where the boys created a DYI sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to enable her to develop her psychic capacities. Sensory deprivation isn’t just science fiction. Here we unpack the technique and its benefits to the body and mind.
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of HelloGiggles/Netflix
With constant stimuli in urban surroundings and excessive online connectivity, moments of disconnection are vital. There has been a rise in interest in sensory deprivation tanks, as a form of ‘floating therapy’, especially due to being popularized by the hit series ‘Stranger Things’. More and more people are trying this new phenomenon, with costs ranging from $50 - $90 and they were not disappointed. Responses were similar, with many reportedly feeling rested, focused and a lasting calmness - "To have that nothingness and be forced to just decompress... there's something revitalizing about it" one man proclaimed. Some reported having a psychedelic experience (without the drugs).
What exactly is sensory deprivation and what does it entail?
How Does It Work?
Also referred to as “Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique” (REST), sensory deprivation tanks were developed by neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly in the 1950s - as researchers used them to test creativity, connection to others and as well as concentration. They are now used to promote to combat stress, enhance emotional breakthroughs and clarity of mind.
Dead SeaImagine a sound proof and light proof room with a tank the size of a queen-size bed (sometimes smaller), filled with about a 1,000 pounds of epsom salts to enable the patron to float and feel weightless, like in the . The water is set to match the temperature of human skin (approx. 35 degrees celsius/95 degrees Fahrenheit) to reduce the sense of touch. All other senses are severely reduced.
In the show ‘Stranger Things’, the character Eleven is said to have Extrasensory Perception (ESP) and it is believed that immersing her in a sensory deprivation tank will harness and strengthen her powers...This notion is not too far removed from reality as ‘floating therapy’ is said to quieten stimuli, and open up the mind...
Image: Courtesy of Adafruit
Floating Therapy? The Effect of Sensory Deprivation’s on the Body & Mental Health
How does being void of one’s senses positively affect your mental health? Sensory Deprivation or ‘Floating Therapy’ has been found to be an effective, noninvasive method for treating stress-related illnesses and pain. When first developed it was practiced with aid from psychedelics, however it is now a more pure, holistic practice and seen as an alternative to medication.
Impacts on The Body
In his book entitled “The Book of Floating” Michael Hutchinson, explains that “Floating promotes vasodilatation, facilitating blood flow to all the parts and systems of the body, including the brain. It creates a whole body healing effect.” This improves mental and physical function. The absence of stimuli enables the participant sto focus solely on their breath, encouraging deep breathing, improving lung function and lowering blood pressure.
Further physiological effects of sensory deprivation have caught the attention of professional athletes like Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, who has become the face of floating therapy in sports. Multiple studies and user feedback attest to the technique’s ability to serve as a natural painkiller. Floating evokes a relaxation response in the body, which releases tension in the muscles, therefore relieving pain, while helping improve rest and recovery.
Former director of sports performance at Stanford University Brandon Marcello explains that “Floating can create a cascade of physiological events which can help increase parasympathetic activity and down-regulate the nervous system." He further expresses that this causes a positive loop, as the quicker athletes recover, the better they perform.
Although the physical benefits of sensory deprivation are quite impressive, the psychological benefits are incredible for a non-invasive technique unaccompanied by any medication. How does being void of one’s senses positively affect your mental health?
Impacts on The Brain
With regards to the brain, in his book Michael Hutchinson describes how floatation therapy increases full body circulation and oxygen delivery to all the cells in the body directly, which aids the brain’s capacity for higher mental function.
Sensory deprivation helps regulate over activity in the amygdala, which calms down the sympathetic nervous system. This lowers the release of stress-inducing hormone cortisol into the body and regulates the "fight-or-flight" mode. A 90 minute session in utter silence with no sensory overload helps slow down breathing, inducing deep relaxation, which in turn quiets the brain - purging all negative mental activity. Stephen Curry praises the technique’s impact on mental focus, “It's the only place that I've found in this world that you can eliminate all the senses basically. To be able to try to master your thoughts." Inhibition of our normal sensory experience helps to master our thoughts, comparable to how Eleven is able to greatly enhance her inner psychic abilities.
The technique not only induces deep relaxation but has been connected with treatment of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression. A study published in the 2006 International Journal of Stress Management suggests that people with anxiety could gain therapeutic benefits from sensory deprivation. The study found that in a group of 70 people with stress-related pain, 12 sessions reduced stress, anxiety, depression and pain, while improving sleep and overall morale. These positive side-effects from the sessions reportedly lasted for a period of four months after treatment ended.
Neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research is currently studying the impact of floatation therapy on patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD. His research is still experimental. A groundbreaking discovery would be whether or not people who use sensory deprivation tanks become so familiar with the sensation of physical and mental silence that they are able to access it even outside the confines of the floatation tank.
Video: Courtesy of Tech Insider
Although there are reports of lasting effects of sensory deprivation, it is not a cure, as Feinstein says "I don't know if this is going to be the solution, ultimately, to all of the problems that technology may end up causing our nervous system, but it seems like a very simple way to at least give a respite."