Float Tanks: A Brief Introduction to a Very Salty Practice
Although they were invented over 60 years ago, they existed in relative obscurity throughout much of their existence. If you weren’t paying attention to the right articles or news stories back in the 80's, you probably had no idea what float tanks were until about six or seven years ago. In fact, you may still not know exactly what they are, or how they’re finding their place as the decades-old newcomer in the world of recreational aquatics.
To start simply, float tanks are kind of like a perfect bathtub. They vary in size, but the typical tank is 8 feet long and 5 feet wide, roughly the dimensions of a queen-size mattress. Air is allowed to freely flow in and out, and the door never locks or latches.
Float tanks hold about a foot of water, which is saturated with roughly 1000 pounds of Epsom salt. This creates a solution with a density comparable to the Dead Sea, allowing a person to float on the surface about half-in and half-out of the solution. The temperature of the solution is kept at approximately 93–95°F, the average external temperature of the human body. This is a temperature known as skin-receptor neutral, meaning the user loses track of where their skin ends and the solution begins.
The tanks (and the rooms around them) are insulated against sound and, when you turn off the light, completely dark. The inside of a float tank is an environment unlike any other found on Earth. In its purest form, it is divorced from light, sound, temperature, and the perception of gravity.
Devices like these were initially built in the 1950’s to help scientists understand the nature of consciousness. The favorable effects caused by “sensory deprivation tanks” are well documented and backed by hundreds of scientific studies from the 80's onward, some published and many others that were simply “pilot studies” into floatation. Most users experience a deep-state relaxation, often losing complete track of time and space, with physical and mental benefits that continue well beyond the flotation experience.
As with many wellness practices, however, misinformation abounds, and claims of the myriad benefits that float tanks can provide sometimes extend beyond what anyone has the right to scientifically claim (for the moment). Dr. Peter Suedfeld, one of the early sensory deprivation researchers, gave a great talk from 2015 on what benefits can and can’t be attributed to floating.
Fortunately, extensive research is being conducted right now in modern laboratories to uncover more details on how floating affects both our brains and our bodies. Most notably, Dr. Justin Feinstein is working at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), performing controlled studies with pre-float and post-float MRI scans, as well as EEG readings during the floats themselves.
What researchers have been finding is that a practice of floating, and sometimes just a single session, can contribute to pain reduction and improved mental health. It can help with enhancing aspects of creativity as well as with physical training and recovery. Perhaps most notably for both normal and clinical subjects is a large aspect of stress relief, both physical (in decreased cortisol and lowered frequencies of brainwaves) and mental (in increased mood and reduced insomnia).
For more information about the benefits of floating, download this About Float Tanks Primer, which has a cited research section that dives into much more depth about the benefits, and which has been reviewed by Dr. Feinstein and several other float researchers for accuracy. You can also watch Dr. Feinstein’s talk from the 2016 Float Conference for a summary of his most recent research and findings from LIBR. It’s very exciting to see this old practice be re-discovered by a new generation, and to see more research emerging on the benefits of doing nothing (for even short stretches of time).
If you have any questions about this salty, burgeoning field, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Co Founder, Float On
About the Author
Graham Talley is a serial entrepreneur who found a strange and peaceful home in the world of floatation. His interests range from water chemistry to alternative business structures to systems science to juggling. He has a degree in Experimental Psychology and a graduate certificate in Theater. He has served on the board of the Float Tank Association, worked closely with Health Departments throughout the US, and is no stranger to international facial hair competitions. He has been writing and presenting on mental health, happiness, and small business for over a decade. Want to learn more about Float Tanks? Join our Float Conference this August in Portland, Oregon!