Online journal of my experiences in a float tank or sensory deprivation tank. With adjacent observations that come with managing a flotation business.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Snake Oil and The Seven Theories of Floating

My copy of “The Book of Floating” by Michael Hutchison is beginning to look very worn and used.

The Book of Floating

I’ve probably read it three times by now and it’s filled with notations, highlights and has plenty of dog eared pages. I’m continually astonished at the amount of information regarding the benefits of floating. This posed a bit of a challenge for me when I was beginning to put the website together. Thinking that most people were like me and would appreciate all the research I was making available to them. Luckily after a back and forth conversation with my web guys they finally convinced me that my website needed to have just enough information to create interest and not lose people or overwhelm them with tons of extra text, how ever well intentioned. So instead I’ll use this blog as a way to share more of the many documented benefits. Sometimes I can get on a roll explaining how many ways the float tanks can be used to improve one’s well being and I often think I must sound like a snake oil salesman! But nothing could be further from the truth as there is plenty of research material that is sourced. I’m very grateful for Michael’s book as it’s been the best organized source of that research that I’ve found so far. If you are really interested in becoming a float tank aficionado I highly recommend you pick up a copy. Make sure and get the second edition as it has an extra chapter detailing the authors own struggle with a spinal cord injury and how his float experiences were related to his recovery and his realization of the spiritual component of floating as well.

In the meantime I thought I would share excerpts from the book on the seven theories of various researchers and their approach on how and why the tanks work so well. So here they are with a brief description after the title.

1. The Anti-Gravity Explanation

The buoyancy afforded by the dense Epsom salt solution eliminates the body's specific gravity, bringing the floater close to an experience of total weightlessness. Gravity, which has been estimated to occupy 90 percent of all central nervous system activity, is probably the single largest cause of human health problems - the bad backs, sagging abdomens, aching feet, painful joints, and muscular tension that result from our unique but unnatural upright posture. This theory asserts that, by freeing our brain and skeletal system from gravity, floating liberates vast amounts of energies which accelerates healing and frees large areas of the brain to deal with introspective matters of mind, spirit and enhanced awareness of internal states.

2. The Brain Wave Explanation

More interesting than well known alpha waves generated by the brain in moments of relaxation, are the slower theta waves, which are accompanied by vivid memories, free association, sudden insights, creative inspiration, feelings of serenity and oneness with the universe. It is a mysterious, elusive state, potentially highly productive and enlightening; but experimenters have had a difficult time studying it, and it is hard to maintain, since people tend to fall asleep once they begin to generate theta waves. One way of learning to produce theta waves is to perfect the art of meditation.  A study of Zen monks conducted by Akira Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai, in which the monk's brain waves were charted as they entered meditative plateaus from alpha to the more sublime theta. Those monks with over 20 years of meditative experience generated the greatest amount of theta; the monks were not asleep but mentally alert. However, since many of us are unwilling to spend 20 years of meditation to learn to generate theta waves, it's helpful to know that several recent studies (at Texas A & M and the University of Colorado) have shown that floating increases production of theta waves.  Floaters quickly enter the theta state while remaining awake, consciously aware of all the vivid imagery and creative thoughts that pass through their minds; and after getting out of the flotation environment, floaters continue to generate larger amounts of creativity-promoting theta waves for up to three weeks.

3. The Left-Brain Right-Brain Explanation. 

The two hemispheres of the neo-cortex operate in fundamentally different modes.  The left hemisphere excels at detail, processing information that is small-scale, requiring fine resolution: it operates analytically, by splitting or dissection.  The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is good at putting all the pieces together: it operates by pattern recognition – visually, intuitively, rapidly absorbing large-scale information.
Just as in the sunshine of a bright day it is impossible to see the stars so are the subtle contents of the right hemisphere usually drowned out by the noisy chattering of the dominant verbal/analytical left brain, whose qualities are the more cultivated and valued in our culture.  But recent research indicates that floating increases right-brain (or minor hemisphere) function.  Floating turns off the external stimuli, plunges us into literal and figurative darkness – then suddenly the entire universe of stars and galaxies is spread out before our eyes.  Or, as brain researcher Dr. Thomas Budzynski of the University of Colorado puts it, "In a flotation environment, the right hemisphere comes out and says, Whoopee!"

4. The Three-Brain Explanation. 

In a series of seminal studies produced over the last twenty-five years, Paul MacLean, chief brain researcher at the National Institutes of Mental Health, has produced convincing evidence that the human brain has three separate physiological layers, each corresponding to a stage in our evolutionary history.  In this "Triune Brain Theory," the most ancient layer is called the reptile brain, and it controls basic self-preservative, reproductive and life sustaining functions.  Sitting atop the reptile brain is the limbic system, which MacLean has dubbed the visceral brain, because it generates all our emotions.  The most recent part of the brain to develop is the "thinking cap" of convoluted gray matter called the neo-cortex, seat of our abstract, cognitive functions: memory, intellect, language, and consciousness.
While these three separate brains have many overlapping functions they are all quite different in chemistry, structure, action, and style.  Three brains should be better than one, but unfortunately, due to a ruinous "design error," there is insufficient communication and coordination between the neo-cortex and the two older levels.  This lack of communication results in a chronic dissociation between the higher and lower brains, which MacLean calls schizophysiology, and which we experience in the form of conflicting drives – unconscious and conscious, savage and civilized, lusty and loving, ritualistic and symbolic, rational and verbal.  There are times when the levels do act in harmony, as in peak experiences when body and mind unite in exhilarating moments of vitality, when our actions come effortlessly, spontaneously.  But it's hard to predict when these perfect moments will occur. Now there is evidence that suggests that, due to heightened internal awareness and decreased physical arousal, floating increases the vertical organization of the brain, enhancing communication and harmony between the separate levels.  Floating, it has been hypothesized, can provide us with peak experiences almost at will.

5. The Neurochemical Explanation. 

Neuroscientists have recently discovered that the brain is an endocrine organ that secretes numerous neuro-chemicals which influence our behavior.  Our brains secrete hormones that make us happy, anxious, depressed, shy, sleepy, sexy.  Each of us creates different amounts of these various neurochemicals, and those who create, for example more endorphins – natural opiates – experience more pleasure as a result of a given experience than those who create fewer endorphins. Tests indicate that floating increases the secretion of endorphins at the same time as it reduces the levels of a number of stress-related neurochemicals, such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, ACTH, and cortisol – substances that can cause tension, anxiety, irritability, and are related to ailments such as heart disease, hypertension, and high levels of cholesterol. One other neurochemical theory is the "return to the womb" explanation.  Since pregnant women produce up to eight times the normal endorphin level, the fetus experiences true prenatal bliss.  When a floater is suspended in the dense, warm solution, enclosed in darkness, body pulsing rhythmically and brain pumping out endorphins, it's possible that subconscious memories are stirred and profoundly deep associations called up.  It is no coincidence that at least one commercial float center is named "The Womb Room."

6. The Biofeedback Explanation. 

Because of biofeedback research (including Johns Hopkins researcher John Basmajian's conclusive study of subjects consciously firing off single motor-unit neurons), we now know that humans can learn to exercise conscious control over virtually every cell in their bodies.  Processes long thought to be involuntary, such as the rhythm and amplitude of our brain waves, healing, blood pressure, the rate and force of heart contractions, respiratory rate, smooth-muscle tension, and the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters are now thought to be controllable.
The way biofeedback machines work is by enhancing concentration: by focusing on a single, subtle change in the body, which is being amplified by the machine, we are able to shut off our awareness of the external environment.  This shutting-off  of external stimuli is exactly what the flotation environment does best – almost as if in an "organic" biofeedback machine, in the tank every physical sensation is magnified, and because there is no possibility of outside distraction, we are able to relax deeply and focus at will upon any part or system of the body.

7. The Homeostasis Explanation. 

The human body has an exquisitely sensitive self-monitoring and self-regulating system that is constantly working to maintain the body in homeostasis – an optimal state of balance, harmony, equilibrium, stability.  Considered in these terms, we can define stress as a disruption of our internal equilibrium, a disturbance of our natural homeostasis.  Research now indicates that many of fthe float tanks most powerful effects come from its tendency to return the body to a state of homeostasis. When we view the mind and body as a single system, it becomes clear that external stimuli are constantly militating against the system's equilibrium: every noise, every degree of temperature above or below the body's optimal level, every encounter with other people, everything we see and feel can disrupt our homeostasis.  But when we enter the tank, we abruptly stop this constant adjustment to outer stimuli.  Since there are no external threats, no pressures to adapt to outside events, the system can devote all its energies to restoring itself.  The normal state, of course, is health, vigor, enthusiasm, and immense pleasure in being alive.  The way the body gets there, and stays there, is homeostasis.