Altered States
october 21, 1981
vol 75 no 42


buster o’connor

By Bob Block
Alligator Staff Writer

The float tank itself was nothing more than a bathtub inside rectangular plywood crate. The rub held 10 inches of water and a half ton of epsom salts to give the water bouyancy.

Naked. I climbed into the tank and pulled the hinged lid shut. There were only darkness and the faint sound of my breathing.

i was tanking

– floating in total isolation

and about to be a traveler of my own inner being.

Since the late 1960s, thousands of people seeking inner truth and awareness like myself have used a float tank to achieve the insight.

Others, mostly psychologists, have spurned its use, viewing the float tank as only another fad – a relatively harmless one, but a fad nonetheless.

A few minutes before I had been standing naked before the tank and wondering what awaited me.

The novel and subsequent movie I

in which a scientist is driven to find his true self and his origins using a float tank, told me to expect a chamber of living nightmares. John Lilly, one of the tank’s original developers, fold me I would find peace and tranquility.

Paul, the bearded owner of the tank and my guide for my first tour of my inner space, explained to me about the tank.

“Some people use it after work,” he said, gathering his long, brown hair behind his neck. “Some use it regularly about once a week.

Others can go months without


“The benefits are numerous and in. dividual,” said Paul, who rents out time in his tank, which he keeps in a spare bedroom of his Gainesville apartment.

Still, what experiences awaited me?

Would I go schizo? Hallucinate or become a babbling blob of protoplasm? Would it be a heavy experience and achieve heaviocity?

See ‘Tanking’ page eleven


continued from page one

Once inside the tank, my first reactions were physical. The humid air in the tank smelled salty. The salt-ladden fluid, heated to just below body temperature so I would feel neither heat nor cold, supported my weight and I floated with my hands at my sides.

The fluid itself felt soft. and slippery against my skin. But the salts in the water also made me aware of cuts and scrapes that I hardly noticed before. Nicks on my neck from shaving earlier that day stung at first, but the sensations subsided after a few moments in the tank.

These were the last of my tactile senses as my body melted into the tank and became nothing more than a mere presence.

I was overwhelmed by blackness and silence.

Even in the darkest rooms you

automatically expect your eyes to adjust. But try as they did, my eyes could see nothing but black.

With my senses deprived of external stimulation, my brain, that marvelous gray machine, started to examine itself.

Dreams and ideas came flying out of the corners of my mind. As I tried to hang on to one thought, another already was taking its place.

It was like watching a surrealistic movie inside my head.

Lying in the tank, I could understand why the Dallas Cowboys football team has a float tank in its training room. If anything could relieve the mental stress of thinking about 250-pound linemen playing hot potato with your body, a float tank could.

Dr. Jay Shurly, a psychiatrist who has worked with float tanks for 25 years and is a co-developer of the tanks, said he believes the time may not be too far off when every house will have a tank.

“It should be a part of growing up. It would be beneficial for almost everyone. In a world where future shock’ is a growing pro-blem, it could be very helpful to withdraw into a situation of sensory isolation and understimulation to keep us on an even keel,” Shurly said from his home in Norman, Okla., during a telephone interview.

But it still’ took Shurly and co-developer Lilly 25 years to convince other scientists that the float tank wouldn’t drive people mad.

The float, of sensory deprivation tank, grew out of a series of experiments that originated at McGill University in Montreal.

Interested in the effects of brainwashing and sensory deprivation, scientists at the university put subjects in everything but rubber rooms in order to deprive them of all extrenal stimulation.

In one set of experiments, performed by Dr. Donald Hebb in 1953 at the University of

‘Toronto, student volunteers were placed on a bed inside an air conditioned box. Their arms and hands were bound in cardboard sleeves and their eyes were covered by translucent ski goggles.

After several hours the subjects experienced difficulty thinking and began to thrash about seeking stimulation.

In one set of experiments, performed by Dr. Donald Hebb in 1953 at the University of

‘Toronto, student volunteers were placed on a bed inside an air conditioned box. Their arms and hands were bound in cardboard sleeves and their eyes were covered by translucent ski goggles.

After several hours the subjects experienced difficulty thinking and began to thrash about seeking stimulation.

The subjects’ mental trauma would slowly worsen after about

24 hours in the cardboard hell, hallucinations, and powerful delusions resulted.

Sometimes the results continued long after the volunteers left the box.

Meanwhile, Lilly, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md..

was conducting his own research into the effects of isolation. His research was much less alarming.

Lilly used a large container filled with slowly flowing fresh water kept at body temperature and had his subjects float so that only the tops of their heads broke the surface. He supplied them with air through a lightproof scuba-type mask.

The results Lilly found were quite different from those encountered earlier by his col-leagues.

In 1965, Lilly wrote a paper about tank isolation and revealed that of those people who endured long periods of isolation, many found “a newer inner security and a new in tegration of themselves on a deep and basic level.

By the mid-60s, Lilly developed the prototype of the closed-system tanks in use to-day. It contained a saline solution dense enough to float a human body face-up. According to Lilly, in the decade that followed more than 500 people used his tanks.

Today, thousands of people have experienced tanking. Since Altered States hit the big screen, Samadi Tank Works, the major float tank manufacturer, has reported a sizable increase in tank sales.

Lilly wrote that the tank, like a saw or a hammer, is a tool with a very simple func-


*It allows us to expand our awareness of our internal state of being, of our internal flow,” he wrote.

But sensory deprivation was and still is a topic of speculation and not evervone agrees with Lilly’s findings.

Wilse Webb, a UF graduate research professor in psychology and the director of UF’s Sleep Research Center, doesn’t believe tanking is all that it is cracked up to be.

Webb said sensory deprivation increases a person’s susceptibility to suggestions and all sensory deprivation work should be carried out with caution.

*There is no magic or invstery to a tanking experience,” Webb said. “If you are looking to have a mystical experience, then you are. more likely to have it, because that is what you are expecting when vou go into the tank.

You are more open to outside and self suggestion when you are isolated.

“By the same token, if you are highly anxious you are more likely to get even more anxious in the tank because you will be left along with nothing to divert your attention.” Thinking about what Webb told me as I floated, I realized he was right. The tank was filled with nothingness – only blackness and my trance-like thoughts.

I was dreaming of a jeep ride on the beach with a beautiful brunette when all of a sud-den, with my usual luck, the jeep began to overturn.

Inside the tank my body wrenched as if to prepare for impact. The body movement brought me out of my trance and I became aware of the tank.

I had a strange need to get back to my body and to reality. It was easy, like coming home again: I sat up in the tank and fumbled in the dark for the lid handle.

Finding it, I pushed the lid open. Light came pouring over my body. I squinted and

stood in the doorway of the tank, letting the water run off my body. The drip. drip was the first sound I heard in.. in how long, I wondered.

I glanced over to my watch – – 5:30. I had been in for an hour and a half.

“Not bad.” I thought as I got into the shower to rinse the salt off my verv relaxed bod.

Drying off, I left the tank room and greeted my illustrious guide, busy at work slaving over his typewriter. He glanced up and smil ed at me.

“Well?* he asked. “What do vou think?”

1 paused and thought for a moment. carefully reviewing the experience.

**I feel great!’

I made an appointment for another session for later in the week.



A Florida Journalist, Photographer, and Art Director with an eclectic client list of individuals and organizations with musical, visual, educational, and editorial interests.

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