To Float or Not to Float: The Research on Sensory Deprivation

Michaela Gianotti, Arivale Staff Writer
Michaela Gianotti
Arivale Staff Writer

Not long ago, my knowledge of floating was based on a terrifying, if not hilarious, NPR story about being accidentally locked in a home sensory deprivation tank and that one scene in Stranger Things. 

However, when I mentioned the subject to my friends, I was surprised how many had tried it. These days, sensory deprivation floating isn’t a fringe practice—it’s a well-established wellness trend.

You might feel like the floating phenomenon came out of nowhere, and you’d be half right. Though flotation therapy started in 1954, invented by controversial neuroscientist John C. Lilly, it wasn’t widely practiced until half a century later.

In recent years, sensory deprivation tanks and spas have popped up seemingly everywhere. In fact, a survey of 170 float spas found that 87.6 percent of them opened in the last five years.

What is it?

Known by many names, sensory deprivation is formally known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique, or R.E.S.T.

Though there are varying ways to experience R.E.S.T., generally practitioners will spend anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours floating in a small, water-filled tank or room that blocks out light and sound.

The water is typically quite shallow and filled with several hundred pounds of Epsom salt. The water and air temperature should be about the same temperature as your body, making it difficult to feel the difference.

Float Tank (Hope Floats USA)

Float Pod (Jon Roig/Flickr)

Float Room (Matthias Tunger/ Seattlerefined)

What the research says.

So, why exactly do people float alone in the dark?

There are several interesting studies on R.E.S.T. that show some health benefits. While claims of dramatic reductions in inflammation and the changing of brain wavelengths at this time lack scientific substantiation, some studies indicate R.E.S.T. reduces pain, anxiety, and stress, as well as improves one’s ability to fall asleep.

One study showed that R.E.S.T. can help temporarily reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone secreted by our adrenal glands that fluctuates throughout the day, peaking in the morning, just after waking and reaching its lowest level just before the onset of sleep. Cortisol is involved in many important functions of the body, including metabolism, your body’s response to physiological or psychological stress, inflammation, and blood sugar levels.

Anecdotally, many floaters report an increased ability to creative problem solve, as well as improvements in mindfulness, tension pain, and muscle soreness—though there is no significant research yet to support these claims.

Because of sensory deprivation’s newfound popularity, it’s likely there will be more research into its wellness benefits in the coming years.

My floating experience.

I work on the marketing team at Arivale, and I’m also in the program. As a Pioneer, stress management is one of my main wellness focuses. (The COMT gene has been called the “worry” gene. I have it.) With my Arivale Coach, I’ve been working on mindfulness practices as well as regular yoga to help effectively manage my stress and anxiety. After learning more about R.E.S.T., I was curious to see if I could squeeze out any benefits.

So, putting my qualms about being alone in the dark for 60 minutes aside, I signed up for my first float last week. I opted for a place with “float rooms” rather than a fully enclosed tank.

Upon arrival, I faced my first big decision: music or silence.

“Which is better?” I asked the woman at the front desk.

“Silence. Definitely. It’s more intense.”

Silence it is.

The float room was warm and the door locked behind me, so no one could interrupt (though I could leave at any time). Following instructions, I took a quick cool shower before entering the pool.

Once in the water, I did a ten-second test float to make sure I could, you know, float. Turns out 1,500 pounds of Epsom salt makes floating super easy. I felt pretty weightless.

I then pressed a button next to the pool and boom. Lights out. Complete darkness. Total silence. Here we go.

After a few minutes of fidgeting and contemplating just how long 60 minutes could possibly last, I was finally able to relax. I’m historically not a great meditator, so I tried not to be too harsh on my mind’s tendency to race. I let my thoughts come and go and reminded myself to focus on my breathing.

All in all, 60 minutes went by in what felt like 60 minutes. I wasn’t one of those floaters who felt like it was over in a few minutes, but I also didn’t feel like it was agonizingly long. Right about when I decided I was ready to be done, the lights and music came up, signaling my time was up.

I was struck by how low-key the experience was. It is what you make it, and I absolutely reached my goal of taking 60 minutes out of an otherwise busy day to relax in a pretty profound setting. I’m definitely going to try it again to see if my experience is any different.

What I’ll make sure to do for my next float.

1. Bring a hair brush.

The place I floated had a room with a hair dryer and mirrors where you can clean up and get ready to meet the world. Understandably, they do not have hair brushes. If you’re someone, like me, who emerges from a shower with a mess of tangled hair, bring a hairbrush or comb.

2. Wash my hair super thoroughly.

Speaking of hair, definitely give it a more thorough wash than you’d typically do at home. I thought I got all the salt out of my hair, but had to take another shower a few hours later when I realized I was rocking substantial beach hair on a rainy Seattle day.

3. Don’t go on an empty stomach, but maybe don’t eat right beforehand.

I floated after a morning yoga class and ate a snack on the way because I was nervous about being hungry. Well, I wasn’t hungry while floating but my stomach was definitely digesting loudly. (When you’re alone in a dark, silent room, your body can become very distracting.)

4. Use the earplugs.

I did do this, and I’m really glad I did. Keep the salt out of your ears and keep things super quiet. The spa I visited offered them, but maybe bring your own just in case.

5. Don’t worry that you’re doing it wrong.

You’re not. It’s your time and your experience, so don’t waste time worrying about whether or not you’re doing it properly. Be kind to yourself and enjoy this opportunity to relax.

While the jury is still out on how substantial the wellness benefits of R.E.S.T. could be, there are some promising pros and little risks with trying it out for yourself. It’s a fascinating new trend, and we look forward to reading more studies on its potential wellness benefits.

Have you ever floated? What did you think?