Float on ’em: Sensory deprivation is anything but
I read a lot of harangues about how the internet has fractured our collective attention span. So I was surprised when a friend told me that every couple of weeks, he forks over $75 to be alone in a dark, wet room with his thoughts.
By “room,” I mean a sensory deprivation tank—also known as an isolation tank or “float therapy.” The process is straightforward: you climb into a soundproof, lightproof box filled with salt water and lie there until nothing happens.
The technology isn’t new—the first tank was deployed in 1954—but I’d never given sensory deprivation much thought until recently. I had dismissed it as the exclusive domain of Californians and Michael Phelps. But over the last few years, sensory deprivation tanks have been sloshing their way across the KC metro—to Overland Park, Waldo, even the Northland.
“You should try it,” my friend said, and I demurred. I consider myself a sensory maximalist—I spend most days chasing the kind of stimulation that could take out a power plant. But there were other benefits, he assured me. “Some people experience ego death.”
I thought about that for a moment. It would be a mercy killing—I was sure of this—but it sounded demoralizing for everyone involved.
The most compelling argument turned out to be the simplest: I wanted to float.
Sensory deprivation tanks are generally divided into “float cabins” (essentially, flooded walk-in coolers) and much shallower “float pods” (an attractive option for anyone who has longed to swim in a coffin). Both varieties feature gently heated water gorged with Epsom salt for maximum buoyancy. The goal is for your body to float effortlessly upon the water’s surface, like a fleshy Fun Noodle.
This latter quality was especially appealing to me, a person who never learned to swim. On the contrary, I have long suspected that I harbor a subconscious urge to drown. Whenever I stick my head under water, I instinctively breathe in. I longed to know what it would be like to float without fearing The Urge.
I took the plunge. For my first experience, I booked a float pod at a River Market spa called aNu Aesthetics & Optimal Wellness. (This already seemed to be setting the bar too high. I harbor no illusions that I will ever feel Optimally Well.)
The pod bay was a gray-tiled private room with a small shower and a clinical aesthetic. The centerpiece was a white fiberglass pod the size of a double-wide tanning bed. I climbed in, pulled the pod door shut over me, and sank into the water. I’d been worried about feeling claustrophobic, but there was at least a foot of space between my head and the pod roof. If I closed my eyes—the pod was not, in fact, lightproof—I could pretend that I was floating in a room-temperature sea.
I’ve read that float therapy can be helpful for people with PTSD and body dysmorphia, in part because the lack of physical sensation allows you to forget that your body exists. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more conscious of my body than I was those first few minutes in the tank. Absent any other input, my brain seized on the feel of the Epsom salt softening my skin, the heaviness of my head, the faraway sound of my breathing when my ears bobbed beneath the surface. I felt like I had to work to keep my head above water, and I began to feel a prickle of The Urge. “They should give you a neck pillow for this,” I remember thinking crossly—and then I fell asleep.
I woke an hour later with a relaxed body and a stiff neck. I did not feel optimally well. But I did feel soft and slippery, like a slowly braised eel. It was only as I was dressing that I noticed the Grover-blue neck cushion lolling defiantly from a hook in the shower. White block letters on one side informed me that it was called a Nekdõõdle. I studied the International Phonetic Alphabet in college and have no idea how to pronounce this.
On my way out the door, an associate handed me some paperwork to sign attesting that I understood that the therapy I had just undertaken could be dangerous.
“How was it?” she asked. “I’ve been dying to try it, but this is actually our last day. We’re removing the pods tomorrow.”
“Fine,” I muttered darkly. I was still seething about the Nekdõõdle. “Wait. Why are you tearing the pods out?”
“They’re just a lot of maintenance,” she said. I suppose I could relate.
I thought I might have better luck with the roomier float cabins, so I booked a second appointment at Floating KC—a three-cabin float spa that’s operated in Waldo since 2013. From the beginning, the experience was less sterile and much more spa-like, right down to the sensually lit changing room and plush robe.
I signed a paper promising that I had not anointed my body with forbidden creams, and a front desk associate whisked me to a room with a Himalayan salt lamp and the sort of hulking, overengineered massage chair you can only find at an airport Brookstone. Each float is preceded by a 30-minute chair massage, the associate explained. I nodded knowingly, though this had not been disclosed on the website.
I climbed into the chair and watched the room slip away as the chair tilted back with a hydraulic hiss. Blue-green LED lights swirled on the ceiling; the chair palpated each part of my berobed body in turn. I wasn’t sure how this experience squared with sensory deprivation—it felt like going to an IMAX on mushrooms—but I was willing to trust the process.
That massage was Phase One of my transition into deprivation. Phase Two was more restrained: an associate guided me to the float cabin and instructed me to shower in the (near) dark. The room was suffused with a soft green light and faint strains of music—the tinkly, New Age sort, where the tracks have titles like “Soul Dreams” or “Whale Orgasm.” The music and lights would play for five minutes, the associate informed me, before slowly fading away.
I nodded and locked the door behind him. I spent the next five minutes ransacking the room for a Nekdõõdle. I never found it, but I knew it was there.
When I climbed into the cabin and closed the door, the darkness was total. I’d put in earplugs, so the silence was, too. This time, my sensation-starved brain didn’t focus on my body. Instead, it spent the first five minutes trying to calculate how many other Kansas Citians had visited the spa before me.
At first, I tried not to fixate on the fact that I was steeping in the salted bathwater of a hundred other people. Then, I just gave in. In the right light—specifically, no light—it was almost romantic. To float is to add your seasoning to an endless human stew. It reminded me of the chef Enrique Olvera and his famous Mole Madre, simmering away for 2,500 days straight. I smiled at the thought. And then—once again—I fell asleep.
After the float, I called up Scott McCorkill, Floating KC’s manager of marketing and operations, to ask how the tanks were cleaned. He punctured my stew dreams immediately. Each tank has over 1,200 pounds of Epsom salt, he assured me—not a hospitable environment for bacteria—and the water is cycled through a “three-stage filtration process” (UV, particle, chemical) after each customer.
That’s good news, because the customer base is growing. McCorkill attributed some of that growth to a bounce-back from the pandemic. But he’s noted a spike in interest in sensory deprivation therapy over the last eight months.
“I see a lot of people who say they saw it on ‘Stranger Things’ or ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” McCorkill said. “And we have a lot more recidivism.”
He also (gently) corrected my terminology. The industry is moving away from “sensory deprivation” and toward “sensory reduction,” he told me. “It’s a better device to understand that we’re not depriving you of anything, we’re just reducing the stimulus.”
That sounded like marketing to me, but I liked the spin. “Deprivation” is an addict’s term, with some implicit assumptions—that we’re hopelessly wedded to stress and stimulation and need someone to take the punch bowl away. I suppose there’s something radical about “reduction”—about consciously deciding to experience less.
I’m back on my bullshit (hedonism) now, but don’t regret giving sensory austerity a try. Floating wasn’t a transcendent experience for me the way it seems to be for others. It didn’t make me experience ego death or disassociation or a dopamine rush. It did make me feel soft—in more ways than one.
I suppose there’s something radical about that, too.
Floating KC is located at 7235 Central St., Kansas City, MO 64114.