Flyer InteractiveFeature

The Womb Room

Flotation tanks offer an unconventional route to relaxation.

by Lauren Mutter

returned to the womb last week.

This womb in this case is a sensory deprivation tank, an 8-foot-long, 4-foot-wide, 4-and-one-half-foot-tall capsule designed to reduce the influence of external stimuli and provide an environment conducive to introspection and both mental and physical relaxation. Each tank holds 10 inches of a water solution containing 800 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts. The density of the solution is so heavy that the body, including the head, floats. The water is kept at 93.5 degrees, the average temperature of the surface of the skin, and the air above the water is kept near saturation so that it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between being in water and out. The tank has a door the floater can close to eliminate light, and though sound doesn’t travel well through water, floaters who want absolute silence can use ear plugs.

The tank creates an environment that stops the world’s bombardment of the senses.
The result? An environment that stops, if only for an hour, the world’s bombardment of the senses. It becomes your job to entertain your brain.

The 1980 movie Altered States, which features psychedelic drug users using the tanks to play along the frontiers of (in)sanity, was the most recent pop-culture reference to the tanks. The movie is based loosely on the life of John C. Lilly, who developed the tank at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1954 to investigate the idea of inner and outer realities. Conventional wisdom held that external stimuli were the only things keeping the brain active; depriving the brain of this stimuli, the theory went, would cause the brain to “go to sleep.” Lilly thought there was an inner reality, a way our minds and bodies naturally function when not overpowered by a societally programmed outer reality. The tanks, eliminating this “program,” provided him the perfect way to test his idea.

People think of the tanks as “weird,” says Gene Elliot, manager of Massage Professionals, located in Dillard Square at Poplar and Highland. The tanks’ popularity grew during the “psychedelic period,” he says, and people “still group it in there with that ‘weird’ stuff.” Lilly himself did little to relieve the public’s skepticism and apprehension in his 1995 Memories from the Tanks, in which he writes, “The tanks got a reputation in the early years because the director of the National Institute of Mental Health needed to increase his budget, so he told the Senate that we were working in brainwashing.” Moreover, the government used sensory deprivation tanks as observational environments in their LSD testing in the 1960s.

Kevin Finegan, the co-owner of SpaceTime Flotation Tanks in Chicago, says there’s more to people’s resistance to the tanks than the oddball factor. “If you look at the population in general, I think they have a very hard time doing anything healthy for themselves. Of course, people have no problem blowing hours and dollars on drugs or on alcohol, but going to the gym? Relaxing? Sometimes I think people don’t want to become too aware of themselves. It can be scary. Not really knowing what to do, no clear goal ahead of them.

“Time and money are the most common excuses,” Finegan continues, shaking his head in disgust. “But if people can blow $30 at the bar in four hours, they can afford $30 here for one hour of true healthiness.”

The arguments for its worth are almost infinite, but Elliott says people still have problems understanding how something so simple can be so beneficial. Researchers at Texas A&M University studied how the tanks help improve students’ concentration, and doctors at the Medical College of Ohio have taken the lead in tank research. Researchers assert that floating affects the levels of various neurochemicals. They hypothesize that floating increases the secretion of endorphins (hormones secreted by the brain that have a pain-killing and tranquilizing effect on the body) at the same time it reduces the levels of neurochemicals such as cortisol, which can cause tension, anxiety, and irritability. Other researchers believe in the “return to the womb” theory, which suggests that subconscious memories are stirred by the increased production of endorphins – pregnant women produce up to eight times the normal endorphin level – and the dense, warm solution enclosed in darkness.

Lilly thought the tank works like a biofeedback machine, in which a person enhances concentration on a single change in the body, shutting off awareness of the external environment.

“Take the idea of an aggressive driver,” Finegan says. “When someone cuts him off, he will whine and moan, flipping his middle finger to the offending driver. After floating in the tank consistently, he can become aware of his aggression and control it. He’ll eventually feel that if somebody wants in front of him that badly, he can let him go.”

The anti-gravity factor is also important. Gravity is estimated to occupy nearly 90 percent of all central nervous system activity and is probably the single largest cause of health problems – bad backs, aching feet, muscular tensions that result from our unnatural upright posture. Floating frees the musculoskeletal system from gravity and in turn frees the brain to deal with matters of mind and spirit and enhances awareness of our internal states. This freedom from strain on the body is the first step to relaxing the person as a whole.

The Massage Professionals have the only commercial floating center in Memphis. Shangri-La had two tanks from March 1989 to February 1992, but in the cold weather, the salt solution coagulated in the filtration systems and wouldn’t start up again in the morning. By the time Shangri-La got rid of the tanks, they had only five or six floaters a week, not enough to counter the expense of keeping up the tanks. Midnight Sun Tanning Salon also had a tank years ago. Since then, there had been no floating in Memphis until about eight months ago.

I found the tank while glancing through the Flyer classifieds. Elliott says use of their tank “hasn’t gone gangbusters, yet,” but their regular clients have begun to use it in conjunction with a massage. Floating helps people become aware of what parts of their body need massage. Others choose to loosen themselves up with the massage so they can get the maximum benefit from the float, bypassing the usual unwinding stage.

I get to the center a half hour before my appointment, thinking I can unwind a bit before my float. But Elliott is ready for me. I sign away my life (essentially, “You’re not a nutcase going in, you’re not taking any drugs that would make you a nutcase, and in all cases, we are not responsible for anything you do in or out of the tanks”) and shower off the day’s dirt (they don’t change the water after each float; rather, they use a filtration system to keep it clean). Wrapped in the cotton robe provided me, I meet Elliott in the tank room.

The room is sparsely decorated with one painting on the wall. The rest of the room is fairly bare, except for a small stereo (for those who prefer to float to music), a jar of cotton balls (Elliott says he hasn’t found any ear plugs that are comfortable and don’t feel like wooden “corks”), a steam chair, a baby monitor (Elliott lets you choose if you want the monitor on or off), and the tank, a shiny red version of the coffin about which I’d had nightmarish ideas. This one has a side door that works sort of like an airplane shade: I have to wrestle a bit with it to get it down and decide I can’t freak out in the tank because the time it will take to wrestle the door open will only add to my fears. Elliott tells me he’ll play some music to alert me when my hour is up.

He leaves me alone in the room, and I strip to my birthday suit, stuff bits of cotton into my ears, and slide quickly into the coffin.

I am greeted by the silky feel and strong, though not pungent, smell of salt-water. I lay back and am immediately pushed to the surface. For the first time since second grade, my fat complex disappears – I feel lighter than air!

I don’t know when it starts or how long it lasts, but for what seems most of the hour, I feel like I am flying in circles, spinning on an axis that feels located in my bellybutton. Every time I bump into the walls, this illusion of being suspended in space is broken, but it quickly starts up again as I float back to the center of the tank.

While I immerse myself in this twirling feeling, I play with my hair, which seems detached from me, as though it is a separate entity. Even my limbs feel separate from me, though the salt nibbles away at a scratch on my elbow; it isn’t irritating, but it does keep me aware that my limbs are mine.

I may have fallen asleep; I can’t say for sure. I keep thinking I hear the music Elliott said he will play, wondering if I am overstaying my welcome. But I hear the chimes and what sounds like a flute, and I know for sure. I swear it has only been 10 minutes, but apparently my hour is over.

As I wash the thick salt solution from my body and hair, I reflect on my experience. I assumed my hour in the tank was the end of my experience, but I notice that I am much calmer and much more attuned to my body’s aches and pains over the next few days. No, I hadn’t had any visions of “strange, hideous, grotesque gargoyle creatures throwing dirt on me,” as a friend of mine has had; nor did I talk to any dead relatives, as other floaters have. But I do feel strangely relaxed, even like I’m still floating. I decide it was well worth my $40.

“It can be a real eye-opening experience,” SpaceTime’s Finegan says, “but don’t be misled. You don’t need the tanks to relax, but what you do need is to realize that just sitting that quietly, taking time to reflect on what’s happening inside you can be relaxing. Lie there, close your eyes, and focus on you.”

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