Sensory Deprivation Tanks (Vice Documentary Trailer)
Fear Factor host, Joe Rogan, guides journalist and psychonaut, Hamilton Morris, on an exploration of his mind via America’s best sensory deprivation tanks.
Sensory Deprivation Tanks 101
A sensory deprivation tank is a sound- and light-proof chamber, partially filled with salt water where the temperature of both water and air are ideally equal to skin temperature (typically 98.6F, but may vary). The unit is designed to disconnect the occupant from the main forms of sensory input in order to isolate the mind from environmental interferences. The goal is to sequester cognition in it’s purest form.
Devotees describe an overall transformative and therapeutic effect, each dip being an introspective and hallucinatory experience of varying degrees occasionally culminating in a complete out-of-body expedition.
Originally intended as a scientific instrument, the first isolation tank was designed by John C. Lilly, a pioneer in the field of electronic brain stimulation. He was also the first to map pain and pleasure pathways in the brain. A revolutionary and innovator in the fields of medicine and science, he was also known for his unconventional ways. When it came to self-experimentation, Lilly did not hold back.
While working at the NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health) he constructed the first isolation tank. Staff tried to persuade him to take LSD in the tank but he refrained for ten years until he was able to do so legally, in 1964. Although he was known to have experimented with psychotropic substances, his belief was that these drugs constricted his consciousness, be it in or out of the tank. (This was in direct contradiction to the views of contemporaries like Timothy Leary, who believed LSD was a mind-expanding substance.) Lilly’s views on this subject can be read, here.
“At the National Institute for Mental Health, I devised the isolation tank. I made so many discoveries that I didn’t dare tell the psychiatric group about it at all because they would’ve said I was psychotic. I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe. I gradually began to see through to another reaility. It scared me. I didn’t know about alternate realities at that time, but I was experiencing them right and left without any LSD.” – John C. Lilly
He is the inspiration for the character of Walter Bishop on the TV Show, Fringe, whose sensory deprivation tanks serve as a link between alternate dimensions. Indeed, Lilly claims to have conferenced with inter-dimensional beings. He detailed his correspondences in isolation tanks, which can be found at his personal website, here. Peruse at your peril, tinfoil hat is optional.
Doing it for Science
Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner, was fascinated by images created in the mind’s eye that did not have a direct sensory source, such as dreams. He wanted to experience hallucinations but with a chemically unadulterated mind. He met Lilly at a lecture and Feynman jumped at the opportunity to take the plunge, a full account of which can be read in the “Altered States” chapter of Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman! (Feynman & Leighton, 1985). Realising Lilly’s tank science was jiggery-pokery and believing the session preparations to be wack, he nevertheless complied with all of the instructions in the hopes the hallucinations might come easier. They didn’t. At first.
Feynman had a dozen sessions of roughly two hours duration. For his second session, he was administered a medically-supervised, miniscule amount of an anaesthetic called ketamine (one tenth of a normal dose). Though he experienced an altered state outside of the tank, he didn’t hallucinate when inside.
He began to enjoy spending time with the Lilly’s. Over time, their discussions progressed and he came into contact with many interesting people through them. On his third visit, he met a man who introduced him to meditative breathing techniques. Employing these techniques, Feynman began to hallucinate and was able to extend and refine his out-of-body sensations in subsequent sessions. For the remainder of the chapter, Feynman cogitates on the nature of out-of-body experiences, the location of the ego and draws comparisons between the brain and computers in relation to how information is stored, in particular, memories.
Flotation Therapy Today
Through discussion with Lilly, Feynman discovered that many visitors had found the complete isolation of the tank to be frightening. For this reason, he had installed coloured lights and unnecessary air pumps to create a hum of noise. Feynman requested that they be deactivated for his sessions.
Nowadays, these tanks are designed to block all sensory input and are used as a form of therapy, though most will play soothing music upon request. During floatation, a state of relaxation is induced. Towards the end of an 1.5 hour long session, brainwaves transition to an extended theta state and this is used as a tool by many to enhance creativity and learning. Published studies in the USA and Sweden have shown that flotation therapy is effective in treating pain and stress.
Tanks for the Memories : Full Vice Documentary
“With comedian Joe Rogan as his guide, Hamilton Morris travels across the United States seeking new heights of sensory deprivation. In part one, he investigates what happens to the mind, body, and spirit while inside the tank.”