John Lilly’s mind boils with a question: Will sensory deprivation stimulate or damage the psyche? It’s the early 1950s. Manic psychologists are just begging to examine the complex instrument that is the human mind. Lilly is among them–but it doesn’t take him long to step outside academia into world of psychedelic psychonauts. His insatiable curiosity drives him to explore somewhat systematically the nature of human consciousness.
He decides to explore sensory deprivation by creating an environment that blocks external stimuli, including the pull of gravity. After months of thinking and designing, he ends up building a huge isolation pool into which he submerges his test subjects. The subjects enter the skin-temperature pool barefoot wearing a diving suit with a face-mask which is painted black and a respirator. To Lilly’s delight, none of them falls into a coma. On the contrary, once Lilly’s subjects emerge from the isolation pool, they report feelings of deep calm, some describe profound epiphanies, others tell of mystical hallucinations. The reports of the psychogenic visions stoke Lily’s outlandish temperament. He decides to dose himself with ungodly cocktails of mushrooms, LSD, mescaline and the like before stepping into his isolation pools. His antics are later dramatized in the Ken Russell film Altered States. Lilly’s drug experiences somehow make him curious about interspecies communication between humans and dolphins.
Even without the psychedelics and dolphin telepathy, Lilly has a problem. His isolation apparatus is cumbersome and impractical for serious research. Participants must breath with SCUBA gear and that means special training, it also alters their breathing patterns. It isn’t until the 1970s that Lilly gets his breakthrough. It shrinks his gym sized isolation pools into the much smaller tanks of today. What is Lily’s quantum leap? Epsom salt. Lilly fills the tanks with salt creating an ultra buoyant environment, thus eliminating the need for SCUBA gear. His improvement makes the act of floating entirely automatic and it allows for even deeper body relaxation. His specific ratio of Epsom salt to water is still used as a guide in float tanks today.
Flotation tanks have been used therapeutically to treat insomnia, depression, and other mood disorders. Floating has many beneficial physiological effects: it dilates the blood vessels, reducing the blood pressure and maximizing blood flow. It increases the release of endorphin, reducing pain. It also accelerates the removal of lactic acid and increases the flow in the lymphatic system, improving athletic recovery. The concentration of salt and direct skin contact can even cure a magnesium deficiency.
A few weeks ago I entered the void at Float On in Southeast Portland. It was an amazing and life-changing experience. If there’s a float center nearby, check it out. It’s one the pleasures in life that can only be experienced in your bare-feet.