When Trey Hearn’s brother, Chris, told him about floating, it sounded like a great way to offset back pain. But the brothers, both Air Force veterans, soon discovered there were many other benefits.
“I had never been in a place where I had no outside stimuli to distract me,” Trey says. “Floating isn’t just about what it does to your body, it’s what it does to your brain.
“I walked out of there completely different than when I went in.” Using a darkened tank filled with skin-temperature water and hundreds of pounds of salt, floating creates a complete sensory deprivation environment—and it’s getting a fresh look from both brain researchers and the medical community these days.
The salt creates buoyancy to simulate a zero-gravity environment, and free of light, sound and other distractions, supporters claim it provides physical, mental and emotional rejuvenation. Studies show it lowers cortisol levels, decreases blood pressure and is successful in treating chronic pain. “I call it the ultimate ‘reset’ button,” says Justin Feinstein, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “All the technology and this 24/7 connection we have today actually increases our levels of stress and anxiety. Floating is a great way to disconnect.”
Justin, who specializes in treating anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, has seen such positive results from floating that he spearheaded the creation of the Float Clinic and Research Center at the brain research institute. The float center, which opened last year, is the first in the world to use fMRI technology to study how the brain reacts to floating (an fMRI detects metabolic changes in the brain, whereas the MRI basically detects anatomical changes).
Currently, Sweden leads the world in floating research, where it is studied not only for anxiety and addiction but for depression and long-term, stress-related pain. One recent Swedish research project showed that patients who floated enjoyed better sleep, felt more optimistic and showed increases in the hormone prolactin, which bolsters the immune system and helps regulate metabolism. Other studies show it can reduce phobias, and there are reams of both scientific and anecdotal evidence about its relaxation benefits.
Right now, we’re seeing a resurgence in float centers, but I’m one of the only (U.S.) scientists actively researching it,” Justin says. “What we need is a lot more science to show what it’s doing for the brain, because the outcomes are there. I hope in five years it has its own medical journal.”
A new look at old science
The idea of floating actually goes back to the mid-1950s, when a neuroscientist and psychoanalyst named John C. Lilly created isolation tanks to study the effects of sensory deprivation. His experimentation often overlapped his personal drug use, which Justin says compromised his validity to the scientific community.
Scientists picked up the research again in the 1970s, with Peter Suedfeld and Roderick Borrie of the University of British Columbia conducting experiments on the therapeutic benefits of flotation tanks. They introduced the term Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy or REST, and today Peter continues researching and speaking on the positive effects of REST.
Around the same time, Thomas Fine of the department of psychiatry at the Medical College of Ohio (now University of Toledo) began his research into floating, and in 1978 he co-created a Floatation REST research program at the college. He has since published numerous research papers on the benefits of flotation therapy, focusing primarily on the psychophysiological and endocrine changes related to floating and its effects on stress-related disorders.
Thanks to the influx of new research, floating enjoyed moderate popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, then faded. Justin says a changed public consciousness, backed by renewed scientific awareness, is responsible for the current resurgence.
“It’s only been in the last couple of years that public interest came back,” he says. “If I had to speculate, I would say that is because we are in the midst of a mindful revolution. This is part of the wave of present moment awareness and the desire for mindfulness. This is an extreme form of mindfulness.”
An end to anxiety?
Floating sessions are typically 60 to 90 minutes long, and during that time, the lack of sound, light and even tactile sensations allows the brain to completely relax. In that relaxed state, it moves from the busy Beta state to Alpha and, finally, begins producing low-frequency Theta waves, which are the brainwaves produced during REM sleep. Typically, it takes years of meditation practice to reach this state while awake; in floating, it normally occurs after about 30 minutes.
“There are interoceptive paths that give our brain a quick readout of the state of our body,” Justin explains, adding that individuals with PTSD or anxiety show disruptions in the normal pathways of the brain. Essentially the amygdala, that part of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” response, makes a habit of remaining hypervigilant and producing feelings of fear and anxiety. To correct those disturbances, Justin found, “we had to remove the distractions of the external world.”
For many years, Justin tried teaching meditation to PTSD patients as a way to calm the mind and begin correcting disrupted brain paths, but he found it unsuccessful because patients were easily distracted. When he discovered floating, he realized he had found the perfect environment. The dark, quiet tank allows patients to reach the deep state of meditation required to begin correcting disrupted brain processes.
Floating’s calming effect substantially diminishes anxiety, and repeated studies have shown that the effect remains even after the session has ended. One recent study indicates that four months after concluding a series of 12 float sessions, patients maintained a significant reduction in stress and anxiety.
“Anxiety is nearly twice as common as depression, and 40 million Americans suffer from some form of it,” Justin says. “This is an incredible way to bring the brain back to normal function.”
Giving back to veterans
Trey and Chris Hearn became such firm believers in the benefits of floating that they opened Float Brothers Float Spa in Florida in January. Two of the four float pods are geared specifically to military clients, and those who present a documented medical diagnosis of PTSD are allowed to float free of charge.
“Being part of that community, and knowing so many people who are affected by PTSD, we wanted to see what we could do to give back to them,” Trey explains. “Our hope is that, considering all the research that’s being done on it, it will become a certified therapy that psychiatrists and doctors can write a prescription for. Based on the amount of medical research that is being done, I truly believe that’s where we’re headed.”
Floating for wellness
Not everyone who floats does it to treat anxiety or other disorders, of course. Floating is emerging as a spa experience that allows clients to disconnect, decompress and recharge, as well as a clinical experience for those who have specific physical or emotional challenges they want to address. It has gained favor with celebrities including Susan Sarandon and former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan, the latter of whom claims that floating has made him a “totally different human being” and now airs podcasts touting its benefits.
The Australian Institute of Sport, a sports training institution for high performance athletes, uses a flotation tank to aid in recovery as well as promote relaxation and sleep for its clients. The Epsom salt alone has many medical benefits; the National Academy of Sciences reports that most of us are magnesium-deficient, and soaking in the salt lets your body absorb magnesium. Improved levels of magnesium boost the body’s ability to use insulin and regulate electrolytes—and also help relieve stress, improve circulation and ease muscle pain.
Many centers around the globe now promote floating as part of corporate wellness programs, citing such benefits as greater relaxation, increased productivity and enhanced creativity.
While it has proved helpful for the busy business mind, musicians, writers and artists also find that floating helps get their creative juices flowing. Many experience vivid imagery during their float sessions, and Eric Camper, a computer animator who opened Float Source in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2014, compares it to “dreaming in high definition.” He is presently organizing a project with other animators to see how floating affects their work. Good Floatations, a float center in Boise, Idaho, even started the Floating Artist Project to study how floating affects artists’ creativity, not only in the tank but afterward.
A study by the research team of Deborah Forgays and the late Donald G. Forgays of the University of Vermont used three different measurement tools to study the effect of floating on creativity. Their work showed a dramatic increase in creativity scores among a group that floated, while a control group of non-floaters who were left in a dark, quiet environment showed no change.
The complete solitude of the tank, combined with the weightlessness created by the high salt content and the silent darkness, allows the brain to temporarily disengage from everyday thoughts and stimuli and deeply relax. With no signals from the brain to be active and “on call,” the body quickly follows suit.
Referencing other studies that “provide positive evidence for the enhancement of the creativity process,” Deborah and Donald also observed that floating not only increased the subjects’ creativity scores, but lowered their levels of anxiety, tension, depression and fatigue—all of which are known creativity zappers.
“It puts you in a brainwave state that enhances creativity,” explains Alex Ziegler, co-owner of the Northwest Float Center in Tacoma, Washington. “The great thing about floating is, across the board, it just has so many benefits. Once people try it, they tend to fall in love with it.”
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy.