VENICE BEACH, Calif. _ From the outside, my sensory deprivation tank did not look like a New Age haven of relaxation. It looked like a small walk-in freezer. When the tank’s owner Crash (possibly not his legal name) opened the door, I expected to see shelves stacked with meats and frozen entrees, and maybe a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints. Instead the air was salty and warm and the inside was pitch-black. The eight-foot long chamber appeared to extend infinitely, which, in a totally-not-physical way, is exactly what it is supposed to do.
I first learned of Float Lab’s sensory deprivation tanks from Rory Scovel, who was a guest on my podcast, The Second Column. Scovel is a New York-based stand-up comedian who goes to Float Lab’s Venice Beach facility when he visits Los Angeles. Scovel said the tank – or chamber, as it is often called – helps him relax and think about his problems. Another comedian, Joe Rogan, enjoys sensory deprivation so much he had a tank installed in his home. Sensory deprivation, which first gained widespread fame in the movie “Altered States,” is said to have the following benefits: relaxation, stress-reduction, meditation, sleep aid, vivid imagery, increased creativity and a boost in endorphins. Users might also experience non-drug-induced hallucinations. On the podcast Scovel said one memorable dip made him go all Millennium Falcon.
“I’ll get to a point, after about an hour or an hour-and-fifteen minutes, where I get so relaxed, I’m not thinking anymore,” Scovel said. “The brain is doing this on its own, and the weirdest thoughts are popping into my head. I get super-super laid back and I kind of let go. The water and your body and the air in there kind of become the same temperature. You kind of can’t feel the water anymore. Then you kind of can’t feel your body. It happened to me one time, for about three seconds. I really couldn’t feel anything. It was almost like going into hyper-speed on ‘Star Wars.’ I started to see this and said, ‘Oh-my-God-it’s-happening.’ And then it stopped.”
It stopped because Scovel consciously acknowledged it was happening.
Still, this was all I needed to hear. The chance to make my own personal Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? I was in.
Float Labs is tucked in the back courtyard of a building on Venice’s Ocean Front Walk, a freewheeling pedestrian thoroughfare that is home to street performers, artists and young women who give their fathers nightmares. A sign on the door told me to call for the attendant. When I pulled out my phone, I heard a voice behind me say, “Hi … hey … honey … hi … hello.” When I entered the courtyard, I saw a beach bum in shorts tanning on the ground. I considered turning around, but when I heard the word “honey,” I knew he could not be talking to me, because I am a stout, bald guy, not a honey. I turned around when the man said, “You trying to call that number?” Then he picked up the phone that was next to him and said, “Hello. It’s me. Hi.” We both laughed. “Instead of the phone number, you should put up a sign that says, ‘Turn around’” I responded, laughing. Crash looked at me like I had just tuna-netted the world’s last dolphin.
Crash, Float Lab’s director, is a fast-talking, environmentally aware individual who favors beach attire and frosted sunglasses and only drinks water that has been purified via reverse osmosis. He described the coming advances in sensory deprivation chamber technology thusly: “It’s going to be like taking the biggest base hit of your life.” (Base hits are crack/cocaine hits. I know this because I watched “The Wire” and “The Shield” like it was my job.) When one of my friends arrived later with a Diet Coke in hand, Crash spent the better part of five minutes telling her how aspartame, an ingredient in Diet Coke, is rotting her brain and was brought to market by super villain Donald Rumsfeld. He then launched into an unprompted screed on the evils of fluoride. When I asked Crash how long my session would be, he said, “You’ll be in there as long as you need to be in there.”
For $40, that sounded about right.
Crash gave me the rundown. Inside a private room, behind a door that locks, are the tank and a shower. Towels and organic soaps are provided. The water in the sensory deprivation tank has been filtered, so both you and the tank are clean. The tank is about a foot deep and is loaded with Epson salt so that no effort is required to float. The water is heated to the body’s external temperature. Ear plugs are optional, not so much for blocking out sound as for keeping dry salt out of your ear canal later.
Naked, I stepped into the tank. The water was warm. I closed the door behind me and was enveloped in darkness. I laid down on my back and floated to the surface. I reached my hands and feet out to the sides of the tank, to steady myself, and to make sure the tank was still there. There was a small part of my brain that was pretty sure I was in a body of water the size of an ocean until the moment I felt those walls. I was no longer dealing with a familiar reality. I put my hand in front of my face and saw nothing. I closed my eyes and opened them and saw no difference. Complete darkness and quiet. I was alone with my thoughts.
My first thought was, “What should I think about?” I spent 10 to 15 minutes trying to think about the future and my goals, but nothing took. The more I tried, the more aware I was of being in the tank. Thoughts like, “Someone could totally be stealing my wallet” kept popping in my head. As did thoughts like, “What if there was an earthquake right now and the door jammed and rescue teams had to come and rescue me and when they pulled me out of the chamber one of the firefighters who had been flown in from another state looked at me and was like, ‘Frickin’ California.’ And I would want to say, ‘No, I’m like you. I’m from a square state where people eat meat without guilt and listen to Bob Seger.’ But I know that fireman would be right, and in that moment I would look like a damn hippie, and I would just have to take it.”
I enjoyed the tank more when I let go and stopped thinking. I placed my hands over my head, baby-style, and let my mind wander. I saw shapes and colors, dull green circles, jagged black shapes carved into purple backgrounds, a small red dot and clouds of blue and purple. The shapes and colors would come for a minute or two and then disappear for five or ten, and then return. I told myself, “Don’t freak out. This is OK. This is really happening.” (Not unlike when my Cleveland Browns have a lead in the fourth quarter.) You know how right before you fall asleep, sometimes you have quick visions or dreams? That is what it felt like. Deprived of stimuli, the brain enters a pre-sleep state. Scientists call what I experienced in the tank “faulty source monitoring,” because the brain misidentifies the source of what it is monitoring, which is something Cleveland Browns quarterbacks often do as well.
After about an hour, the visions stopped and I seemed to have lost whatever momentum had been built. I left the tank, showered, dressed and thanked Crash, who told me about the coming advances in sensory deprivation tank technology. With audio-visual systems hooked into chambers, people will be able to use sensory deprivation tanks to learn quickly and make full use of their minds. This is awesome because I believe, as Crash does, that learning pre-algebra should be as fun as smoking crack.