Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sensory deprivation

In 1987 I paid $50 to spend a hour in a sensory deprivation tank (aka "floatation tank," "isolation tank") at a tank spa in Chicago called "Space Time Tanks." The marketing pitch for tank floating was that you will experience a "reduction in tension," "an increased ability to visualize, create, imagine and problem solve," "super-learning by increasing the mind's powers of retention, comprehension and original thinking," and "peak performance enhancement."

The mood was set at "Space Time Tanks" as soon as you entered the tiny lobby, which floated with strawberry incense while the clerk was wearing tie dye, sporting flaxen hair and exuded a very hippy vibe. She was pleasant in that girly stoney way, handed you a couple of plush towels and led you to your tank room. The room was small with a coffin shaped metal box in its center and a shower in the corner. The rule was you had to take a shower before entering the tank. And you went into the tank nude.

The tank itself was white and had a portal-like door that you opened to crawl through a hole that led to brackish water that was filled with epsom salt to keep you afloat with your face above the water line. You also wore ear plugs to block out rushing water as well as all extraneous sound. Once you closed the portal, you were weightless in the pitch black without sound or vision. The idea was to emulate a womb-like experience and to put you into a state of complete mind/body relaxation.

I actually did three sessions over a month long period.

Noted neuro-psychiatrist John Lilly argued that elongated time in an isolation tank, with all stimuli cut off, would lead to discovering the origin of consciousness. However, it was eventually concluded that time spent in a sensory deprivation tank was more likely to help with some stress-related disorders, pain management or insomnia.

Unless, of course, you believe Ken Russell's 1980 film Altered States, in which a scientist, Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), primes himself with hallucinogenic plants and takes a dive into a tank...for hours...days...weeks...on end. So naturally he devolves into pure primordial being - a physical devolution as opposed to a psychological one, although his psyche nearly breaks in the process.

The production of Altered States was plagued with problems most notably attributed to screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky demanding that his name be removed from the final result. You see, Chayevsky also wrote the novel Altered States. So he was resolutely invested in this project. And he hated Russell's crazy, trippy interpretation.

But, fact is, Altered States is a trip and still looks great some 30 years later. Granted, its science is wonky - naturally - but its a fun lysergic ride. When I first saw it, it literally blew my mind. But I was of an age where innervision was a new realm of the senses and seeing this movie was like opening some previously unopened doors of perception.

Unfortunately, my real time spent in the actual tanks years after seeing the film weren't as mind-blowing. The sessions resulted in, essentially, hour-long naps. Although, in one of the sessions, I had a dream that I had found my lost car keys.

And, when I awoke, I was convinced this must have been some sort of Freudian breakthrough since I hadn't lost my keys at all.

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