In which your host disappears.
In order, the floatation facilities featured in this episode are iFloat (Westport, CT), Blue Light Floatation (New York, NY), La Casa (New York, NY), Lift/Next Level Floats (Brooklyn, NY), and AquaFloat (Charlottesville, VA).
Music featured in this episode:
Around 1970, as a grad student at Princeton, Dr. Peter Suedfeld signed up for a strange psychological study. The study required that he spend twenty-four hours alone in a pitch-black room. Suedfeld signed up because the study paid twenty dollars. That was a good chunk of change back then, he told me. The study seemed worth it.
The day of the study, he had to sign a waiver saying he wouldn’t sue the school if anything bad happened. He signed it, anxiously. Then a researcher took his hand and led him into the dark. The researcher’s instructions began,
Peter Suedfeld: Stay in the bed except when you're using the toilet.
The researcher then showed him the panic button and said, if you have a panic attack, just push this button: an alarm will sound all over the building and we’ll come running right away to let you out. Suedfeld found this distressing.
PS: My reaction to that was, "what in God's name can happen to me that they would have to come running from all over the building to let me out?" It sounds like more than a little anxiety. It sounds like some full-blown panic.
The researcher shut the door and left Suedfeld in the dark. At first he was okay, but then he started to get scared. Then, he panicked. He hit the button. The alarm sounded. The researchers let him out. He’d been in the dark for three hours out of the intended twenty-four.
Suedfeld learned that his experience was typical of the experiment. At that time, roughly half of all subjects quit early, to the frustration of the researchers.
PS: And I thought to myself, you know I spend probably five or six hours every night in a dark, silent room lying in a bed. Now why the heck was it so scary in that room, in that bed? When it's not at all scary when I'm in my bedroom on my bed?
This nagged at him. Surely, he thought, it’s the principle of priming. If you scare the subjects beforehand—if you suggest that a panic button is necessary—they’ll be more likely to panic. He asked to join the research project and instead received the whole study: the lead researcher had decided to switch projects. Upon taking over the study, the first thing Suedfeld did was get rid of the scary release form.
PS: I threw out the panic button.
And he made sure to tell his subjects the door wasn’t locked.
PS: All they had to do was push down on the door handle and out they came.
He relaunched the study with great results.
PS: The rate of people quitting early went from someplace around half to less than 5%. So I was right.
Those initial impressions really can color the experience of darkness.
Suedfeld’s study is part of a little-known scientific field: the investigation of Reduced Environmental Stimulation, also known by the acronym R-E-S-T, or REST.
REST is about deliberatly inhibiting the senses. It’s about the experience of darkness and silence. It’s about the material qualities of nothing. It’s commonly known as sensory deprivation, though some take issue with that term.
PS: The word "deprivation" means the complete removal of whatever it is you're being deprived of. You can't do that with sensory mechanisms unless you sever the nerves, and nowadays ethics boards will not allow you to do that. Also it's hard to get volunteers.
So, strictly speaking, REST is not nothing, but it’s close.
More or less at the same time as Suedfeld, two other scientists developed a similar process called floatation. These scientists’ names were Jay Shirley and John C. Lilly. Floatation is a more commonly known form of R-E-S-T REST where a subject floats in a high-buoyancy salt solution. Like Dr. Suedfeld’s REST, floatation is dark and silent, but additionally, floatation removes much of one’s tactile input, as well as the burden of gravity.
You may have heard of floatation. It’s widely known and only getting more popular. In the past few years, float centers have opened in almost every state. Celebrities and athletes tout the benefits of floating. This reprieve from the perceptible world is supposed to relax you, and might do other stuff, from increasing creativity to bringing on vivid hallucinations. From the layperson’s standpoint it’s hard to know what floating is about. Articles written about the experience range from rhapsodic to pleasantly bemused. Even if you haven’t tried it, we live in a cultural moment where it’s easy to know just enough to be curious.
I’ve been curious about it for a while. What’s it like, I wondered, to visit a world without people, a world without objects? And that was enough: last March I tried floatation at a facility in Westport, Connecticut called iFloat.
iFloat’s owner David Conneely greeted me in the lobby and played me a short video demonstrating proper floating procedure. It’s simple stuff, but important. First, undress. Then cover any abrasions with vaseline and fit earplugs into your ears. Only then should you shower. Wash your hair but don’t use conditioner, please, and then dry yourself, taking care to dry your face, lest salt water wick into your eyes. Once inside the tank, lie on your back. Let the water carry your weight. Let your arms float at your sides. When you’re ready, close the door and push the button on the wall, extinguishing the light.
After the video David showed me to my room. Alone, I executed the pre-float preparations. To enter the tank, I had to slide open a little port-hole in the wall. I opened the door and climbed in. It looked like a big bathtub.
PG: I’m sitting down. And this is where we part ways.
I kept my eyes open. After moving around and finding a comfortable position, I saw several small hallucinations. A few twisting pieces of light, like those videos of ink dropped into water. Twice I saw light cresting a hill, like a tiny sunrise, but if I looked at it, it vanished. Then one texture of darkness began crawling across another. Then I saw little spots. Then new age music began piping into the chamber. The hour had disappeared with astonishing speed.
Time inside the tank had passed with such uniformity—I think—that I had few events on which to hang memories. There was, say, the time I bumped the wall. I had only the glassy, undifferentiated passage of time, like the digital black that appears when I leave space between clips in my audio editor timeline.
David Conneely: Hey Piers, welcome back.
DC: Would you like some tea?
PG: I’d love some. That would be great.
I filled my cup with water. At first the sounds of the world possessed a strange vividness. I joined David in the decompression room.
S: I get a lot of visual. I get a lot of—I mean, to the point where I can see faces. It sounds crazy.
DC: No, it’s not crazy.
S: No? Okay.
David sat talking with Suzanne and Stephanie, sisters, both of Westchester, New York. Suzanne and Stephanie float often and spoke of craving a float if they hadn’t been back for a while. They identified people in their lives, laughingly, who could really, really use a float, if you know what I mean. They drive an hour from Westchester to Westport even though there’s a float place near them. It’d be more convenient, they told me, but that place doesn’t have David. For David, floating is an occasion for metaphor. For instance, today, both Suzanne and Stephanie felt claustrophobic, both for the first time. David asked what that might have been about.
DC: That notion of being trapped is always a reflection of something. So it’s like, where, where am I—
DC: Where am I stressed about something? When you’re in that environment where you’re not experiencing stimulation, it strips away and reveals things that are going on within a person. A person can see, like, oh, like, something’s bothering me, or there’s something going on, that in their day-to-day they would just kind of push to the side. You know, by, like, let me go to Starbucks, let me take the kids here, let me turn on the television, so as not to, like, let that thing through.
I wasn’t sure I’d got any of that. I decided to compare specifics.
PG: Do you guys float with your eyes open or closed?
DC: I think that’s what most people do.
I had floated with my eyes open. Did I do wrong, I wondered. Very little had happened for me. Listening to Suzanne and Stephanie describe their experiences, I wondered why I hadn’t felt anything, disappointed that the float had not changed me. It wasn’t even that different from my workday, which I spend mostly alone. I supposed I hadn’t expected anything in particular.
Then again, there’s no scientific consensus before which to fail, because the scientific parameters of REST remain tantalizingly vague.
Back in the seventies, Suedfeld’s work showed promising results, verified by reviews from outside scientists. REST might improve memory and creativity while reducing blood pressure, muscle tension, and pain. Suedfeld’s the first to observe that the science needs following-up, test of its boundaries, repeat studies. Maybe REST is a placebo, Suedfeld says. Placebos work on everything. In short, there’s work to be done. But around the time Suedfeld left the field to focus on other research, the roof fell in.
PS: It was very frustrating.
Funding began drying up. Labs closed. Researchers left the field. The science changed in the public eye from science to something else. This, too, had to do with context, with people’s framing expectations. In particular, it had to do with John C. Lilly, one of floatation’s founders, who routinely took psychedelic drugs while floating.
PS: Part of the problem, with all due respect to John Lilly, who I think was a martyr to science: he came out with what most people would consider really bizarre reports of what he experienced while he was in there.
Among other experiences, Lilly reported communications with extraterrestrial intelligences.
PS: That made for some really bad publicity for the whole scientific program.
Most notoriously, the 1980 film Altered States, which stars John Hurt.
PG: Yeah, so let's talk about that. Can we talk about Altered States?
PS: Ah, God. Okay. Altered States was a very good movie that totally misinformed the public about what goes on in REST, particularly flotation.
In Altered States, a scientist based on John C. Lilly combines sensory deprivation with a mysterious psychedelic soup from South America. Float by float, the tank starts changing him.
PS: The final, almost final episode, was that he regressed to a pre-hominid state. Not only psychologically, but physically. So he came out of the tank covered with fur, and, you know, like a small pre-hominid ape, and he went into the local zoo, climbed over the fence and started hunting the antelopes. Then the final episode was he regressed to a totally bodiless pure energy state of being. But nobody paid attention to that. Everybody focused on the, on this ape hunting in the zoo. And that scared people. You know. It kind of created an atmosphere of weirdness and scariness and, “I’m not gonna turn into an ape, but what is going to happen?” So a lot of people were scared off by it.
It’s the principle of priming, of framing the experience. There’s nothing scary about a foot of water unless you think there is.
PS: It also happened at the same time that the AIDS scare was mounting, and people were afraid that if somebody who had the HIV virus, went into the tank, and they would go in after that, they might catch it.
We know now that that’s not how HIV is transmitted, but at the time, it really scared people.
PS: That was before the drugs were developed that enable you to live with it.
As laboratories closed down, public float facilities lost business, and before long, as Peter says, the roof had fallen in.
PS: Watching the field crumble was, yeah, it was sad.
In the eighties New York hosted many float centers, but today only one remains from that era: Blue Light Floatation in Chelsea, which Sam Zeiger has run from his apartment for thirty-one years. His float tank has its own room beside his kitchen.
Since the eighties, floating’s had a popular resurgence. Yet even today Sam observes the clear expectation on the part of writers and readers that the story of floatation will unfold like an alien technology, of motives at least a little suspicious.
Sam Zeiger: So many of the articles about my place have begun with, “I’m floating naked in a strange man’s apartment.”
PG: That’s the, sort of, cold open?
SZ: Yeah, that’s usually the way the articles start. I’m the strange man. But, think of it. I mean, I’ve had strange people coming into my apartment for thirty-one years. And I don’t know who the hell’s coming here.
Sam’s home floatation center is the product of thirty-one years of loving calibration. This tank is his third: a seven-foot-tall float room. He works hard to keep it silent. Even an apartment far above the street is subject to noise, from the honks of horns and the rumble of passing trucks down to lesser, closer intrusions: as he and I sat down to talk, we heard his upstairs neighbor through the ceiling, practicing piano. But he told me that absent someone hammering on the tank’s wall, that room stays silent.
Sam sent me to the bathroom—
SZ: Just straight down to the right.
—and I was on my way.
Sam had recommended floating without earplugs because they muffle the sounds of the body. Without them, he told me, I’d hear my heart beat, my joints and ligaments click, my eyes blink.
PG: I’m sitting in the tank. And this is where I leave you.
Without the earplugs, as he’d suggested, I did hear my heartbeat, which was thunderously loud, and fast. This speed made me anxious and I wondered if my anxiety made my heart speed up more. This anxious vortex is familiar to me. Everyone has probably experienced something like it. How do you stop worrying that you’re worrying too much? It’s impossible. My thoughts built to a kind of shriek. I decided I had to think about something else.
So I thought about Sam’s quest for progressively quieter float tanks, which reminded me composer John Cage’s pursuit of total silence, which led Cage to Harvard University’s anechoic chamber, a completely echoless room that’s thus capable of pure silence.
John Cage: In that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, “Describe them.” I did. He said, “The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.”
In fact, the high sound was probably Cage’s tinnitus, a subtle ringing brought on by hearing loss. But this doesn’t invalidate Cage’s oft-repeated revelation that there’s no such thing as silence. This realization led Cage to his most famous and most derided piece of music, 4’33”, which comprises just that length of silence, or rather, of listening. For Cage, that time typified the job of music, which he called “a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”
So my thoughts meandered. Things bobbed into mind with less and less frequency, until I encountered a nothingness of uncertain duration. Once again the end of the hour sprang upon me.
Once again, I wondered, am I doing it wrong when I just—disappear?
I floated again a week later at La Casa Spa and Wellness Center, where Dr. Jane Goldberg and her partner Greg have operated a float chamber for twenty-two years. In a waiting area flanked by wooden Buddhas I sat with a woman receiving a crimson footbath and a young man waiting for a massage.
Jane is a psychoanalyst. For Jane, the most valuable feature of floatation is that it approximates dreaming, letting the mind wander while allowing the floater to observe the course of those wanderings with more clarity than during sleep. In that particular train of thought, Jane sees the murky contours of the subconscious. In this way, floating’s not unlike psychoanalysis.
Jane Goldberg: Which, by the way, is also a mild form of sensory deprivation, because when patients lie on the couch, they don’t look at me, so the only sense that’s really being activated is the auditory sense. We’re talking; that’s all we’re doing. You say something, I say something. And my patients, from the couch, will say things to me that I know they would not say if they were looking at me. There’s no other event that happens in the world like that.
Except radio, or podcasts, maybe. I hadn’t considered the analogies between floatation, talk therapy, and radio until I spoke with Jane. Radio’s sightlessness, which is its most distinct sensory deprivation, requires that we use our imaginations. I would think about this in the tank, as my mind raced away, as I floated and fretted in the salt water, unable to write anything down.
Greg Goldberg: You can open your eyes, close your eyes—no visual perception at all.
As Jane’s partner Greg showed me into their float room, I shared my recurrent worry that my floats have mainly involved, well, nothing.
PG: All of a sudden it was over. You know what I mean? Like, there’s no way of gauging how time passes?
GG: Exactly! I don’t meditate and so what I hope to do in here is fall asleep, and my experience has been—at least mine—is that if and when I fall asleep, and when I wake up, there’s nothing in between. I’m sleeping, I wake up, and that’s it. I could be sleeping for two, three hours, or I could be sleeping for five minutes. I have no sense of time.
Greg’s words reassured me. As an experiment I decided to record my entire float, insurance against my probable slipping out of time.
I’m not sure what I thought I would get, but I ended up with an hour of room tone, with the faint sound of myself breathing at the slow pace of sleep. It’s kind of an interesting lesson: relinquish control. It’s a John Cage lesson.
In that tank I thought of something Dr. Suedfeld told me. He described his own floating experiences as a mild sort of pleasantness, nothing profound. That sounded right to me. He told me that he enjoys the feeling that he’s flying.
PS: That I’m floating in outer space.
He does research on astronauts now, on space flight, but can’t actually experience that world for himself.
PS: I do research with the astronauts and cosmonauts—
But he can’t actually experience that world for himself.
PS: and so, this is the closest I'd ever get to being one. That part is pleasant.
It’s a nice thought. It takes some of the pressure off the float.
In the weeks before and during the time of reporting, for no particular reason I could determine, I had begun waking in the morning with a deep sense of dread. I had begun to hope—badly, at times—that after floating, I would emerge somehow different. How exactly, I’m not sure. Better. Less worried. But maybe it was wrong to expect anything in particular.
I admired the sense of adventure and experimentation with which Gina Antioco and David Leventhal apply themselves to floating. They’re the cofounders of Lift/Next Level Floats in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
David Leventhal: I jokingly call myself “Chief Floatation Officer.”
Gina: That’s cute. I didn’t know that.
Gina told me she floated every day of June 2015, the first month of their new business.
GA: It would help me to, just, organize my thoughts. And prioritize my responsibilities, so that when I came out, I didn’t feel overwhelmed and I didn’t feel stressed. Everything just kind of slowed down, so I was able to sleep at night, rather than saying, oh my god, my contractors have messed this up. I was sleeping.
DL: I’ve never done a thirty-day. I have tried an eight-hour, though.
PG: What’s that like?
DL: It was, for me, a little grueling, honestly. I’m a side-sleeper, so being on my back for eight hours was an endurance contest, I would say. My intention was to just use it as another place to sleep. And bed is a tried and true place to get sleep.
David showed me to an Evolution float pod. Unlike the previous tanks I’d tried, this one looked like a giant clam, or a mouth.
I was to step inside and close the lid over myself. As I undressed it played me some music.
PG: Alright, I’m showered and I’m about to get into the float chamber. Goodbye for now.
I tried pushing thoughts from my head, letting anything enter my mind, turning it, and dismissing it. I found this easier than before, as if I was watching the train of my thought from a distance, with greater clarity than during terrestrial life, almost as if I could take each in my hand and hold it up to the light.
I had thought that one knows one’s reading a good book because time just slips away.
I thought of the travel writer Nicolas Bouvier, whose account of visiting Belgrade in the book The Way of the World ends as follows: “If I didn’t manage to write anything substantial there,” Bouvier writes, “it was because being happy took up all my time. Besides, we cannot judge as to whether time is lost.”
I thought about how your dog supposedly doesn’t know if you’ve been gone two minutes or two weeks.
I thought about Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, who requested to be buried with a working telephone, which she will use to call us once she’s conquered death.
My thoughts decreased in frequency until suddenly the hour had ended. I probably dozed off. I was done.
PG: I’ve exited the tank after the float and now it seems to be cleaning itself.
For now, in the float world, momentum is building. David, Gina, and the other floaters I interviewed confirmed that floating gets lots of press, and good press. Few people my age have seen Altered States.
There is, of course, the recent fantastical portrayal of floating in the Netflix show Stranger Things.
But at least according to Jordan, who works at AquaFloat, a facility in Charlottesville, Virginia, Stranger Things hasn’t seemed to make a difference.
Jordan: I would almost argue that people don’t even recognize it as floating. And the ones who do are kind of already interested in floating. Now, in the future I could really see it having a negative impact.
That is, if and when floating’s popularity grows, people might begin seeing floating through that frightening portrayal. But for now the press is mostly good press. In an inversion of floating’s onetime problem of perception, research has resumed as press picks up. There’s a laboratory in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that does neural imaging studies of floatation. As Dr. Suedfeld believed so many years ago, new studies have found a 22% drop in the stress-signaling hormone cortisol, improvements in blood pressure, mood, pain, and muscle tension, though again, the science remains in the thicket of small study sizes and potential placebos. Floating does seem to temporarily shut off the amygdala, home of the fight-or-flight stress response. Suedfeld speculates that these imaging studies might finally put some criticisms of REST to rest.
PS: Here are all of these effects and nobody really knows how to explain them. If you can show changes in the brain, that are associated with those changes, then people will stop saying that.
It’s funny, he told me, because REST is by no means a new phenomenon. It’s an old idea, and a simple one. It’s about being really alone. REST has an interesting prehistory. During Suedfeld’s research it occurred to him that God spoke to Moses when Moses was alone in the desert. When Jesus met the devil in the desert, Jesus, too, was otherwise alone. What is it about the desert, Suedfeld started to wonder.
PS: It’s a low-stimulation environment. Monotonous, not much in the way of vivid colors, or music, or anything like that. So I thought it'd be interesting to look at other religious leaders, and I found that Buddha, who meditated in a forest under a tree, and Mohammed, who encountered the Archangel while he was in a cave, and I thought yeah, that's what they have in common, these are all low-stimulation environments.
I think of Descartes, whose argument for God begins in the dark. He asks that we close our eyes and imagine nothing. It’s a fertile and terrifying thing, the dark. It makes spaces larger inside than out. As a kid I felt a horror of the slanted darkness beneath staircases, the void beneath the bed. As my parents shut down the house each night the dark stole from one room to the next, filling the ground floor, climbing the stairs to our bedrooms, stopping at the door, of course, where the light bricked up the space like a retaining wall. Of course, it always had to go out.
I used to listen to the radio in the dark. My parents still don’t know this, I think. I had earbuds and a boombox, and often I’d lie in the dark and listen to what music I could find, tuning between stations until I fell asleep.
November 22, 2016