Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 8.37.21 AMI used to think sensory deprivation was just a crazy torture method that no one in their right mind would opt-in for, until I stumbled upon some information recently about sensory deprivation floatation tanks.

These are water tanks big enough for one person, often set up at spas, where you can pay to float in salty water for hours, receiving almost no sensory information at all.

Sure, it seems crazy, but there are actually some alluring benefits, particularly when it’s done for short periods:

Short-term sessions of sensory deprivation are described as relaxing and conducive to meditation; however, extended or forced sensory deprivation can result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, and depression.

And as much as I’m really excited to try one of these tanks myself now, I’ve also found some interesting ways to use the same principles in an average day.

So what is sensory deprivation

Sensory deprivation means not giving your senses any input at all. So in total sensory deprivation (which seems to be pretty close to impossible), you wouldn’t be able to sense anything—no sounds, no sights, not even the touch of clothes on your skin.

Forced sensory deprivation has been used in torture situations, but there’s more to it than that. It’s been used for computer games, and has also been studied extensively, particularly in the 1950s and 60s. This is when floatation tanks first began to gain interest. In 1954 the first floatation method was created by John C. Lilly, a neuro-psychiatrist, as a way to create sensory-deprived control groups for his experiments, but he found that the floatation itself was a much more interesting area to study.

sensory deprivation floatation tanks can boost your creativity

Since then, floatation has become a popular recreational activity thanks to the clarity and relaxation it provides.

How sensory deprivation floatation tanks work

John C. Lilly’s original floatation experiments involved people wearing uncomfortably tight suits and breathing masks while being completely submerged. The tanks also made lots of noise, so complete sensory deprivation wasn’t possible.

The modern scenario sounds much more comfortable, and goes something like this:

You strip off, shower and step into a pod-like tank full of water and 850 pounds of Epsom salts. The salts make sure you float and prevent the risk of drowning by making it extremely difficult to roll over.

sensory deprivation floatation tanks can boost your creativity

Inside the tank, you close the door (it doesn’t lock, so you can get out anytime) and lay on your back in the water. The salts make you so buoyant that you feel weightless. You can keep your eyes open, but it’s so dark that you won’t notice any difference if you have them closed. Oh, and you’re wearing earplugs, so you can’t hear much of anything.

You lay here, alone and isolated from sensory input for 60 minutes or more.

Slate’s Seth Stevenson explained it like this:

On a weekday morning, I climbed the stairs to La Casa, took off all my clothes, and, after showering, stepped into a large tub inside an enclosed chamber. I slid the blackout door closed behind me, eased down into the water, and touched a button that switched off the lights. I was floating in total darkness and silence. The saturation of Epsom salts in the water made me unnaturally buoyant—my face, stomach, and knees an archipelago of islands amid the tub’s ocean.

What sensory deprivation does to your brain

We’re all different so results will obviously vary, but there are some patterns in what people experience from being in the floatation tanks.

Seth’s account of his first experience is fascinating:

For what must have been the first 15 minutes, I wondered what I was doing there. I thought about my plans for that evening, stories I was working on, whether there was any food in the fridge back at my apartment. I felt bored. I felt silly. … I even got jumpy. I had a brief urge to stand up, water dripping everywhere, and walk out.

Then a transformation began. If you’ve ever taken psychedelic mushrooms (and come on, who hasn’t?) you might recall a certain feeling that arises as the drugs take hold. “Something is happening, something is happening,” your body says to your brain, with mild urgency. I got a feeling akin to that while floating. My brain went a little haywire. When the storm passed, I found myself in a new and unfamiliar state of mind.

The long period of nothingness leaves you with only your mind, essentially. Once your body starts to get used to the lack of sensory input, the stress-centers of your brain relax and release less cortisol—the main brain chemical related to stress. Graham Talley, who owns a sensory-deprivation tank center in Portland, explained it like this:

Getting rid of all sensory input allows the ‘constantly-make-sure-you’re-not-dying’ part of your brain to chill out for a second, allowing the creative, relaxed part of your brain to come out and play.

Without the constant pressure of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress. “Your brain also releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins, the neurotransmitters of happiness,” Graham continues. “Not having to fight gravity lets your muscles, joints, and bones take a well-deserved break. Without the gravity pushing you down, your spine lengthens an inch, chronic pain is relieved, and your muscles get to fully rest.”

Being inside the floatation tank takes your brain from highly conscious alpha and beta waves to solid theta waves—the kind you would normally have right before falling asleep and just after waking up. Normally we only experience these theta waves for a few minutes, but having extended theta periods helps us to visualize better, often giving us vivid mental images.

We all experience theta, but most people fall asleep at the onset of it. You’re probably familiar with the telltale sign of theta—vivid mental imagery even though you’re awake. The float tank provides a reliable means to achieve and sustain this beneficial state without the years of practice that is normally required by advanced meditators to achieve theta at will.

The benefits of depriving your senses

Floatation has also been seen to improve a range of ailments and emotional states, such as:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • chronic pain
  • problem-solving skills

and even technical ability for musicians.

Some researchers conducted an experiment on musicians to see how their abilities would be affected by floating in these tanks. They had interesting results:

“a significant difference between the treatment and comparison groups on technical ability, but not on any other dimension,” the researchers write. Thanks to this enhanced skill level, those who had floated “had significantly higher grades in the jazz improvisation class than the comparison group.”

…the difference in their ability was very likely the result of the flotation sessions.

Wikipedia lists some more of the benefits:

In a float tank the theta state can last for several minutes without the subject losing consciousness. Some use the extended theta state as a tool for enhanced creativity and problem solving. Spas sometimes provide commercial float tanks for use in relaxation. Flotation therapy has been academically studied in the USA and in Sweden with published results showing reduction of both pain and stress. The relaxed state also involves lowered blood pressure and maximal blood flow.

How this affects creativity

In terms of creativity specifically, here are two of the common patterns that people generally notice from using the floatation tanks.

1. Creativity is heightened immediately

When tests were done on the increase of creativity and technical skill, the longer the period after being in the tank, the less pronounced the effects:

Previous research that found increased creativity in university students after floating sessions measured their abilities immediately after they left the tank and dried off.

Float H.Q. in Portland even set up an Artist Program to introduce artists to the for free:

One of the coolest advantages of floating is how much it boosts creativity and nurtures inspiration. After floating in complete isolation, your senses are heightened… colors are more vibrant, scents more aromatic, and food taste better.

2. Hallucinations are common

When part of your brain stops getting input—e.g. if one of your senses is deprived—other parts of your brain will pick up the slack. Many floaters experience hallucinations as their brains respond to not getting sensory input. This is part of the vivid mental imagery I mentioned earlier—your brain is relaxed enough to visualize strong images you wouldn’t see normally.

Interestingly, hallucinations were more common in study participants who expected them (or some kind of danger). In one experiment, participants who were greeted by researchers in white lab coats, given medical examinations first, and shown a panic button to press if they wanted to get out were more likely to hallucinate than those who were approached by casual-clothed researchers and told to break a window if they wanted to get out.

How to deprive your senses

Are you curious enough to try it now? I certainly am. But, if you’re not quite ready to give it a go, or you’re not lucky enough to have a tank nearby, you can actually try some mild forms of sensory deprivation at home (If you’re really serious, you can buy your own tank for a few thousand dollars, but let’s start small, shall we?).

boost your creativity by shutting down your senses

1. Reduce visual input

Try laying down in a dark room—maybe your bedroom or living room—with the curtains drawn. If it’s easier, you could try using a blindfold or eye mask rather than closing your eyes, but try to block out as much light and visual stimulation as you can. Try not to move and see how your other senses respond to the lack of sensory input. You’ll probably notice some sounds you would normally miss!

You might want to try this first thing in the morning, as well. When you first wake up, rather than grabbing your phone or jumping in the shower, keep your eyes shut and lie still. See how strong your other senses seem (like hearing or touch) in the absence of visual input.

2. Shut out the noise

Auditory input, like visual stimulation, is one that we don’t realize the prevalence of. Sounds are everywhere. Unless you live far out in the countryside, you probably don’t ever get even a short period of time without any noise. If it’s not music or people talking around you, you can probably hear your neighbors, cars on the street outside or a dog barking down the street.

Imagine removing all of that input—just the sounds you hear—and what a huge impact that could make.

Try this: grab some ear plugs and headphones, and sit in a comfy spot by a window—really pay attention to what you see. And what you don’t hear. Even if you can’t block out all sound, you’ll notice the difference of muffling a lot of it.

In particular, when you remove the headphones, you’ll probably notice the intensity and variety of noises you’re hearing.

3. Isolate yourself

Cutting off your senses isn’t easy when you’re around other people—we’re just a noisy species by nature.

Setting up some regular isolation time can help you get that coveted just-you-and-your-thoughts time that comes from spending an hour locked in a floatation tank. You could try a regular bath time ritual—maybe adding some earplugs and an eye mask as well. Your bedroom could work as well, or even an isolated outdoor space.

Wherever and whenever you can get away from other people to be alone with your thoughts, give it a go.

There are probably some other great ways to mildly deprive your senses and heighten your creativity. What are your favorites?

Image credits: Aegis Training, The Brain Bank, Strategy Lab, i-sopod, Espressione Arte

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • This is why creatives are better at night with less stimuli

    • Belle

      Great point! It definitely gets darker and quieter as you work into the night, so that makes sense.

  • I love this post. I am an actor and notice that when I am creating characters, I must have complete isolation from the world for a while to find and unlock the emotional architecture and motives of the character. I find laying in total darkness with noise canceling headphones on, while listening to ambient music helps me a lot as well. I want one of those tanks!

    • Belle

      Great comment, Stephen! I’m an actor as well, so I can definitely see how that would help you with the process of developing your character!

      I’m pretty keen to try one of the tanks myself, now!

  • Amazing Product… I want one of those tanks if i can afford it 🙂

    • Belle

      They’re pretty awesome, huh!

  • Again! Great job, Belle. You are rocking it.

    • Belle

      Wow, thanks so much Lisa! Glad you liked it 🙂

      If you ever have suggestions of topics you’d like to read about, I’m open to ideas!

  • Basith Abdul

    Excellent one! Sensory Deprivation is a sort like meditation, where you are shutting out/blocking thoughts, visuals and the sound. Is the reason we get creative during SD is because the brain is experiencing something new and works in a different manner? If this is the case can we can assume- To increase creativity we just need to find ways to shock the brain from its routine or feed something new. Need to find more articles on providing such shock treatment to the brain, so that ideas flow out!

    • Belle

      Hi Basith! Thanks for reading 🙂

      Funny you should mention feeding the brain something new—I recently wrote this post about how novelty affects our brain:

      I think sensory deprivation is more about stripping things away. Like you said—it’s similar to meditation in that respect. It lets out the creativity that’s always there, but gets covered up by all the incoming information.

  • Guest
  • bve

    Thanks for the inspiration from the float community. West Coast Float will be opening the fall of 2013 in Whistler BC. We are excited and can’t wait to do nothing.

  • dave arnup if you’re interested in the tanks build for commercial applications

  • Daniel Burge

    That beautiful floatation tank in your photos is the i-Sopod ( I’ve floated for nearly 30 years and it is the most amazing tank I have ever been in.

  • Sarah Barnes

    where could i go in England that lets you use these sensory deprivation pods ?

    • Belle

      I didn’t actually come across any UK-based places in my research Sarah, but hopefully Google can help you out there.

  • My ears ring in silence, sooooo, does this mean that it’s a no-go for me?

  • Prajjval

    so much technology is not at all needed….
    sit in sukhasana , close your eyes, breath in and breath out…
    this is the most ancient meditation technique in the world coming from thee land called bharata – India

  • Jeff Moser

    I had the chance to sit in an anechoic chamber, as shown in your first picture. It’s hard to understand how much ambient sound we actually sense. Inside one of those chambers, the silence is almost unsettling at first. I’d love to take a complete sensory plunge in one of those tanks.

  • Nitiin A. Khandkar

    Transcendental meditation would probably achieve the same or similar results. I have practiced it in the past, and found it quite soothing and calming.

  • I love the activities you’re suggesting, but I don’t see them (or even all out sensory deprivation) as an exercise in “shutting down” the senses. To the contrary, this process clears out much of the sensory “noise”, allowing the senses to open up and start working freely. Clearing the cache so to speak. This is really turning the senses back on.

    Many people (although certainly not a majority) put significant time and effort into cleansing their bodies through exercise and proper nutrition, but very few spend much time doing the same with their sensory/nervous system. With the onslaught of information our senses receive, very little down time, and usually not enough sleep, too many people live in a sensory fog.

    Disclaimer: I am an advocate of sensory care and development.