Sensory deprivation gets a new name, new popularity
– By Jared Fiel –
When life gets overwhelming, Jay Bowers of Fort Collins retreats into a world of silence.
“I’m a social person, but sometimes I need to go into the cave,” he says. Bowers has been floating regularly for about eight years, which he says helps him with work and home life that includes two daughters and his wife.
“I was really pulled to the idea of nothingness…. And when I come out of the float, I feel I am a better father and husband,” he says.
Floating, which used to be called “sensory deprivation” in the 1970s and ‘80s, is a growing practice for many people, according to Dr. Justin Feinstein who has been doing research on floating for about a decade now.
Feinstein doesn’t like the term “sensory deprivation” because, while floating atop extremely salty water in a dark room with no sound does limit the senses, he says the attention to internal processes, such as your heartbeat or breathing, are heightened. “The inward focus is what calms people,” he says. “It is naturally conducive to mindful meditation.”
Most of Feinstein’s research is from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla., and has focused on how floating can positively impact people with anxiety and stress and help with pain reduction. He recently started up the Float Research Collective with the goal of providing the medical research needed to make floating an accepted treatment and keep patients off drugs like opioids that can be addictive and are short-lived. You can find the peer-reviewed research at ClinicalFloat.org.
“We looked at brain imaging changes, brain waves, heart rate,” he says. “All the things that couldn’t be measured back when research was being done in this area because we now have wireless monitoring.”
All of that doesn’t mean much to Bowers, who says he often visits float centers in other cities when he is travelling. “I felt like the jet lag wasn’t as bad,” he says. “And if I have a big presentation, it helps me gather my thoughts and focus. I find that I either give in to the total nothingness or my brain goes deep down a rabbit hole to really fine tune an idea.”
All of that sounds about right to Heather Clift who, with her husband, Paul, opened the Samana Float Center in Fort Collins in 2019 after a successful launch of their first center in River North in Denver in 2016.
“More people are coming in for sports recovery. They come in before and after events. They come in before for mental clarity and after for their pain relief and recovery,” she says.
The River North location has drawn many big names, especially since it was the first float center in Denver, and it is close to Coors Field.
“The first summer we were open, a bunch of the Dodgers came in…Chase Utley, Corey Seager, Justin Turner,” she says. “They came in and floated before every Rockies game that series, and they annihilated the Rockies. Their general manager got in touch with Superior Float tanks, which are the same ones we use, and they got two tanks in their training facility in LA.”
Feinstein says the research into using floating for focusing is not as well studied, but he adds that in the Reagan era, there were many studies on how floating helps with creativity.
Clift says many of her clients are between the ages of 33-47 and the popularity is growing. She says the trend for sensory deprivation in the 1980s was killed for a time (along with other industries like rented hot tubs, spas and massages) because of the AIDS epidemic and people not understanding how AIDS was spread.
“The floating concept is the same as it was back then, but the technology has improved 1,000%” she says. That technology includes a filtration system that flushes the water through a one-micron filter three times. The water is also doused in hydrogen peroxide, UV light and an ozone filter in between each float.
Feinstein says the biggest difference between floating today and back then is the size of the float cabin. “Back then, the tanks looked like coffins. They made people very claustrophobic,” he says. “Today the cabins are much bigger and are much more welcoming to people.”
At Samana, there are four float rooms, each with their own shower for before and after the float. Two of the tanks have a ceiling height of 8 feet and measure at least 7½ feet long. The tanks are filled with 10 inches of water and heated to 93-95 degrees. Clift says that is the temperature of the outside of your skin so you can’t tell where the water ends and your body begins. The tanks also feature buttons to turn off the lights in the tank and adjust or turn off the music.
Clift says another thing she has discovered in her years of research that helps people with claustrophobia is the fact that cortisol–your basic stress hormone–drops 20-35 percent in the first moments of a float and it is replaced with dopamine, the chemical released by your brain to make you feel good. “That really cuts down on people’s ‘flight or fight’ mode,” she says.
Feinstein says his research has shown that the effects of a float can last 24 to 48 hours after a session, which is much longer than many of the addictive drugs prescribed to help alleviate anxiety. He hopes larger scale studies can now be conducted to prove this to insurance companies to start covering this technique. “I want to make floating available to all people who suffer from anxiety,” he says. “Currently, it is out of the price range for most people to do on a regular basis.” Pricing varies, but at Samana a 90-minute float is $75 and members can get a reduced rate.
For Bowers, the price is worth it. “It’s one of my go-to tools for being the best person I can be,” he says. “It’s my calm in the chaos.”