Floating in a Sea of Thought
Had I just woken up?
Or had I been awake?
I was sure I was awake — although I couldn’t actually see anything.
I also couldn’t feel anything. That is, I literally couldn’t feel anything. (And here I mean literally from back when literally meant “literally,” before literally started meaning “not literally, but figuratively.”)
I wasn’t scared. Because I knew if I wanted to feel something, I could do so. I just had to move.
But I hadn’t twitched a muscle in…well, I wasn’t sure how long.
What time was it, anyway?
Senselessness and Sensibility
Have you ever woken up in bed, and before you open your eyes, before you move, you don’t know where your limbs are? You’re sure they’re still there, but whether your arm is down at your side or splayed over your head, you really have no idea.
Those motor neurons haven’t fired in a long time. The part of your mind that monitors your body is like an air traffic controller who comes back from a coffee break to find no blips on the screen.
Then, with the faintest internal whisper of “wiggle my pinky finger,” the position of your finger, your elbow, arm, shoulder — it all flashes back to life. You’ve refreshed the buffers and your input streams are back online.
But if you don’t send an outbound signal to your body, you can maintain a sort of proprioceptive silence. It’s a state that’s easily broken. If a fly lands on you, or a breeze blows across your skin, or a kid tickles you… your bodily sensations fire up, the same as if you sent a move impulse.
But if you wait, you can sometimes feel a strange sense of spacelessness. It’s as if you’ve entered a large, empty room that may or may not have borders.
Unfortunately, you can’t explore this space the way you normally would — by moving around inside it. Because the moment you move, the illusion shatters. Physical sensations implode the imagined environment, putting you firmly back in the driver’s seat of your own body.
The only way to search the boundaries of this space is with thought. Pure, inwardly-directed thought. Rumination. Decision. Amazing capabilities of our brains — but apparently secondary ones, given the persuasive argument made by neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert that the brain’s raison d’etre is to direct physical movements.
When we accidentally find ourselves in this “hey, my physical senses are offline” state, we’re operating on a tight time frame. We’re like a secret agent in the movies who has snuck into the highly guarded enemy stronghold, racing against time to get what we’re after before our cover is blown and we’re swarmed by guards.
In this case, the “guards” are just the dumb-luck odds of physical reality interrupting our reverie. A bug will land on you. A breeze will blow. The person in bed next to you will roll over. The real world just doesn’t stay still for very long — and unless you’ve been mainlining novocaine, you’re going to notice.
This is one of the prime advantages of a sensory deprivation tank.
Alone With Yourself
Alone in a tank is just where I found myself (or rather, where I couldn’t find myself) when I realized I wasn’t sure if I’d been asleep or not.
Inside a sensory deprivation tank there are no bugs, no breezes, no bed-mates.
There’s also no light, no sound, and no temperature differential.
There’s not a lot of anything — except for water and dissolved epsom salts (about 140 pounds of salt from what I hear). And also time.
Time is really the commodity you’re buying when you buy a “float.” It’s time when you can’t be bothered. The forces that can’t bother you range from your boss to your kids to CNN to gravity.
The forces that still can bother you include your own mind.
In fact, that’s about the only thing on the list.
Stripping away the distractions of the physical world and laying in a pool of skin-temperature salt water, you’re naked, alone, buoyant, safe, and temporarily devoid of both obligations and opportunities.
Of course, you can stand up and walk out — there aren’t locks on the doors, just a suction-seal to keep out sound — but if you choose to stay in the pool, you’re choosing to be with yourself in a way that’s almost impossible to match in terms of experiential purity.
There is nothing to distract you from you.
The ancient Greeks’ Temple of Apollo at Delphi said many things through its human oracles, but the one they chose to carve into the rock was: “Know Thyself.”
If getting to know yourself is normally like a game of “Where’s Waldo,” getting to know yourself in a floatation tank is more like a blank white page with Waldo just standing there with no crowd to fade into.
If you hate being in a float tank — and some people do hate it — the inescapable conclusion (for those who choose to confront it) is that whatever is bothering you is you. There’s a lack of plausible suspects when you’re in a dark, silent room with imperceptible temperature and neutral buoyancy.
I Love Nothing (With a Capital “N”)
Some of us love float tanks. We love them for the opportunity they provide to grope around in our inner perception, reaching for the walls like a blind person (literally, in this case, as well as figuratively).
Where can our minds go when all distraction is removed?
What bothers us when there is nothing there to bother us?
What are we capable of when the cognitive crutch of physical reality is removed?
Can I remember things when I can’t jot on a Post-It or save to my Google Calendar?
Can I stick to a decision when the only accountability is to my own mind?
The simplest questions — things like “Am I awake?” — become legitimately confusing. Questions that we would never, ever ask in the normal hubbub of perceptual reality.
What time is it, anyway? How can you measure the passage of time with no clock? Has it been 30 minutes since the last time you wondered, or 90? Maybe your session has ended already, but they forgot to tell you? What if you’ve been here for 17 hours? (These are the sorts of quackish speculations that bubble up when your brain has gone without input for a while.)
“Ganzfeld Effects” are the name for hallucinatory sensations that the brain produces when, deprived of sensory input, it strains to find signals in the “noise” of a silent stream.
Think about your ability to follow a spoken conversation in a loud room. Lots of people might be talking, glasses clinking, dogs barking… But once you lock onto a speaker’s voice, you ignore the extra sounds and follow the conversation effortlessly. The human brain has been described as a “pattern recognition machine” — but a big part of pattern recognition is pattern amplification. The brain splits a promising subset of the total stimuli off from the perceptual firehose and amplifies it as if to say “How about this? Is there something here worth focusing on?”
In familiar environments, we quickly latch onto the correct data-slice and proceed with our lives.
But in the blackness of a floatation tank — or the undifferentiated white-out of a blizzard, for example — the brain over-amplifies meaningless sensory information, straining to find a something in the nothing. Sane, sober people wind up hallucinating without madness, without drugs. It’s just the brain doing its best in unfamiliar conditions.
Whispers and Reminders
I find that my hallucinations in the tank are mostly auditory. Sometimes I “see” blooms or ripples of color — especially in the peripheral areas of my visual field. But nothing that ever coalesces into an image of anything in particular. Never an armadillo, or a tractor-trailer, or a muppet. This happens for some people, but apparently not for me.
Many times, however, I will “hear” voices. Something that was just said — words in English, the right rhythms of speech — but too quiet to hear clearly. Like hearing words through a wall with only the vowels coming through, the consonants muffled and lost.
Other times I can hear the words — or actually, recall them — because the voices stop talking as soon as I shift my attention to listen, like criminals caught discussing a plan. But still, even in cases where I can “overhear,” the words make no sense. They’re sham sentences, with syntax but no meaning. Like a self-licking ice cream cone.
All this is very, very strange. And it’s even stranger because the induction process of a floatation tank is so mundane. Boring, even.
Maybe in today’s hyper-stimulated world, boring-ness is the greatest novelty we can find?
Ultimately though, I think the magic of a tank is its ability to disassemble our normal view of ourselves, allowing us to see in isolation the inner workings that — when combined with our normal physical surroundings — add up to what we think of as “us.”
It’s like the face of an old mechanical clock, which reliably tells the time and which we barely think of otherwise…
But open the face and inside is a mysterious cosmos of interlocking gears and springs and who-knows-whats. Each one is fascinating, complex, delicate, and the obvious product of intense refinement and craftsmanship. Considering that the finished clock is the combinatorial result of all these microcosms, suddenly the familiar becomes awesome again.
Now… what time do you think it is?