There comes a moment, halfway through your session in the isolation tank, when you almost lose your mind. Like a marathon runner hitting the wall of exhaustion, you hit a wall of oblivion. You're floating weightless in a sea of sensory deprivation, feeling nada, seeing nada, and suddenly you can't take it anymore -- the nothingness, the vastness of the void. You want to claw the insides of the tank, beg them to let you out.
Then a funny thing happens. You pass through it -- the wall. You float through to the other side, and just as suddenly you're OK again. And now you don't mind the utter lack of sensation, the zero gravity, the darkness. You experience a feeling of submission, a surrender to the neutralizing forces of the Big Nada. You begin to love the tank.
The isolation tank -- aka sensory deprivation tank, aka flotation tank -- was created back in the 1950s as a government research tool to study the physical origins of consciousness. Scientists hoping to solve the ancient mind-
During the '60s and '70s, the sensory deprivation experience became popular with the counterculture crowd, due in part to the writings of Dr. John Lilly, the neuroscientist, author and acid-
Isolation tanks fell out of favor during Reagan's '80s, but lately they're gaining new respectability and popularity, as tank-
Tank promoters say that flotation releases muscular tension, reduces stress, bolsters circulation, jacks up your immune system, heightens your powers of concentration and imagination and makes you generally happier and ennui-
So is sensory deprivation the ultimate cure for millennial malaise? Or a throwaway relic of misguided hippiedom? I went to the void to find out.
The H&H Flotation Spa is located in Tenleytown, a trendy shop-
Wanda, my friendly H&H attendant, escorts me through the spa's maze of corridors to a dimly lit room in the back, where I get my first glimpse of the tank. Lilly's original creation was basically a big upright fish tank outfitted for human use, but today's tanks, as advertised on flotation Web sites, are sleek horizontal affairs made of heavy molded plastic or fiberglass. Some high-
My tank, however, is the stripped-
The tank room is white-
And now I begin to experience the first rumblings of pre-
And, too, there's the issue of those hallucinogens I ingested back in college, the residue of which now sits congealed like leftover gravy in my neural network. So, of course, I'm concerned that, once sealed inside the tank, my much-
It's these stressful issues I'm dealing with when Wanda comes back and says it's tank time. She stands on the tank's far side to raise the hatch as I drop my towel and climb in from the near side. As she's about to lower the door, I toss out a final question: "What should I expect?"
"Are you on acid?" she asks, and when I respond in the negative she says, "Then you probably won't feel much. You'll get really relaxed. You'll feel more relaxed than you ever have before. You might go out of your body."
"Out of my body?"
"You know: out-
You lie supine in the tank, exactly as you would in a coffin. The water is 10 inches deep and heated to skin temperature -- 93.5 degrees. A half-
For the first few minutes I can't see anything at all. Then my vision begins to adjust to the tank's darkness and, by rolling my eyeballs around in their sockets, I can vaguely make out some features of the interior -- the molded walls, the air vents in the ceiling, the razor-
My face is above water but my ears are submerged, so the sound of my own breathing is amplified to a thunderous level -- it sounds like the loud, labored breathing in scream movies when you're seeing things from the murderer's P.O.V. I can hear my heart thumping out a steady beat, too, and there's a constant thrumming noise that might be a filter running somewhere nearby -- either that or my own blood slurping around in my head, it's hard to tell. Every time I blink, I hear the sinewy hydraulics of my eyelids crank shut and open again. Shut, open. Shut, open.
Getting settled in the tank takes a while. At first I let my arms float out to the sides in a sort of crucifix position, but then I'm startled out of oblivion when my hand drifts into a wall. I push off from the wall, gently, trying to center myself, but I overcompensate and end up sailing all the way across the tank into the opposite wall. For a while I experiment with crossing my hands over my chest, but in that position I'm robbing myself of total sensory deprivation, letting skin touch skin. Finally I settle into the traditional dead man's float -- arms close at my sides, legs straight down. Still, it's hard to stay centered. Little tides and cross-
The water in isolation tanks is periodically filtered and sterilized with a mixture of chlorine and hydrogen peroxide, a process that leaves the water cleaner, they say, than your drinking water. The water in my tank, though, is sort of oily-
Once you get acclimated, though, you really start to relax. Flotation Web sites quote scientists as saying that 90 percent of the brain's workload is generated by routine environmental stimulation -- the collective shock of gravity, temperature, touch, light and sound on the body's muscles, organs and nervous system. As a resident of modern America, you're bombarded by ten zillion sensory stimuli: daytime's bewildering blur of color and light, the night's neon commotion, the endless parade of advertisers' eye-
According to Richard Wurman's book "Information Anxiety," a single weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person absorbed in an entire lifetime in 17th century England. Modern cars have as many as 100 different pieces of information displayed on the dashboard -- no wonder drivers are wrecking into each other all the time.
All that sensory information is bad for you. It wears down your body, lowers your resistance to illness and injury, upsets your delicate emotional balance, reduces your ability to think clearly and makes you more accident-
In the tank, sealed off from stimulation, good things happen to your body. Stress-
Weightlessness is cool. When you close your eyes, the feeling of buoyancy transmutes into an enveloping sensation of floating up, up, up. It's as if you've been cut loose from all earthly moorings and set adrift in some amorphous abyss. You could be anywhere -- the womb, the afterworld, the far side of the moon.
But my sensory-
But mostly its just total nothingness. One truism of the tank experience is that the effect of sensory deprivation on the floater fluctuates in direct proportion to the level of stimulation the floater normally undergoes. That is, if you're accustomed to receiving a heavy load of sensory data, the sudden and total lack of it may drive you absolutely ape-shit.
In the movie "Altered States," William Hurt portrays Dr. Lilly as a renegade genius who undergoes some sort of genetic regression in the tank, emerging as a furry Neanderthal with a taste for the Boston Zoo's gazelles. As you drift deeper and deeper into sensory deficit, you begin to expect some similarly radical transmogrification. You lose the sense of yourself as a corporeal being, a tangible body with organs and appendages. You're just a neural hub, a bodiless thought processor afloat in a borderless vacuum, and when they open the hatch, you fear, they'll find nothing but a swirl of water where your body disappeared. (It's about now that you want to bang on the tank door and scream for Wanda to let you out.)
Then, more toward the end of your session, once you've floated past the freak-
So, if I believe Lilly's rhetoric is full of shit, then my belief is true within limits that I must then transcend to get at the greater truth of his rhetoric? I'm plumbing the depths of this Zen riddle when Wanda hauls open the hatch.
"How was it?" she says, proffering a dry towel.
"That's an hour? No way!" I'm guessing that something like 15 minutes has passed, but when Wanda displays her watch I see that indeed a full hour has whizzed by. That's the single most remarkable aspect of the tank experience -- your sense of time just positively collapses. Every minute is an hour, every hour a minute. You've got no clue.
Out of the tank and down the hall I'm hustled, first for a 10-
And now I feel -- what? -- relaxed, rejuvenated, a little loose in the knees, mildly spaced-
But when I stop by the supermarket on my way home, I notice a strange after-
For a moment I just stand there, a tourist in a strange land, and look around at everything -- the green grapes over here, the red radishes over there, mountains of golden potatoes and sunny lemons, all on fire with color and emitting their distinctive fragrances, sour and sweet and earthy and tangy. Such abundance of color and shape, such variety of aroma. After an hour of sensory deprivation, my neural receptors have clicked into some sort of infantile overdrive. I can't stop paying attention.
I pick up a Braeburn apple, but instead of bagging it right away I feel the need to hold onto it, turning it around and around in my hand, observing the gently sloping contours, the skin's waxy texture, the microscopic nicks and abrasions accrued in transit from tree to produce bin. There's so much to notice -- the tiny crater that gives rise to the stem, the withered blossom at the butt end, the skin's vertical bands of red and green and the yellow dots clustered in among them like starry constellations.
An apple is a universe. And if you can't see that now, pay a visit to the void.