Sensory Deprivation for Dummies


by Jake Block

I was recently corresponding with a friend who has two of the old fiberglass deprivation neutral buoyancy tanks that he rents out to those who wish to experience the phenomenon of sensory deprivation.  The concept of sensory deprivation is, on its face, quite simple.  One takes each of the five senses and eliminates them as much as possible, so that one can find themselves free to simply “be,” in contact only with their thoughts.  He told me that he was surprised at just how many people just didn’t get it.  They claimed they wanted to experience sensory deprivation, but they almost immediately tried to design the process to include sensations and stimulations.
In a true sensory deprivation session, great pains are taken to negate sight, sound, touch, smell and even the feeling of gravity acting upon one’s body through flotation in water containing enough salinity to make the body float effortlessly as if lying on a bed, but that bed is a pool of water deep enough for suspension above the base, and at the individual’s natural body temperature, so there would be no sensation of floating at all, and the body’s senses would be tricked into feeling nothing.  The subject is naked, so that there is no intruding sensation from the fabric of a swim suit or other clothing, and before entering the waters of the chamber, a shower is taken and the body is scrubbed to eliminate body odors or chemical smells from cosmetics.  The flotation chamber is soundproofed and blocks the light to a perfect velvet blackness that does not allow the mind to fix on location or on time.
In short, you are, for all intent and purpose, a mind free of distractions that would normally take up 90% of functioning.  The idea is to see what can happen when that extra capacity is available for the mind to use, and what the mind will do with it… what sights one will conjure, what will take the place of the senses not in use?  The idea is simple… like the blind man whose sense of smell may become more acute… or hearing…etc.  But there are no other senses that are flooding the mind to fill the void of sight, so what happens?  What does the mind do?
My friend related that those who don’t get it will immediately begin to add requests.  “How about playing Pink Floyd?”… Comfortably Numb is a common request.  “Can you make the water a little cooler?”  “I need to wear something.  I’m modest.”  “I really don’t like the darkness… can you turn on a light in the chamber?”  Now, my friend is a businessman and, while the customer may not always know what in the hell they are talking about, the customer IS always right, and he’s never one to stand between a fool and his money being spent.  He gives his customers the experience they want, instead of the one that their mind could provide without additional costs.  Sensory deprivation… it’s hard to reach when the imagination is stunted by preconceived and scripted sensations.
Those who can handle being in that kind of isolation seem to be much less common than they were back in the late 1950s to 70s and into the 80s, after physician and neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly, built and began using the devices in his practice.  Notables who have used the sensory deprivation tanks to reach states of extreme relaxation and visions and projections of special interests came from all walks of life, i.e., Olympian Carl Lewis, Physicist Richard Feynman, Musician John Lennon and Chef Anthony Bourdain, Comedian Joe Rogan, Actor Jeff Bridges, Actress Kristen Wiig, Author Tim Ferriss, Soccer Player Wayne Rooney, Model Elle McPherson, Comedian and Actor Robin Williams, George Carlin and many, many others.  All tout the benefits of deprivation and talked of renewed creativity and productivity after experiencing the nothingness that allowed them to cleanse their minds of toxicity from the overstimulation of the mind that is a natural byproduct of the modern world.
Stimulation during sensory deprivation would seem to be oxymoronic at best, but I’m pretty much on the same page as my entrepreneur friend.  You can only offer your service and, if the client misuses it, you are not responsible for less than optimal results.  They’ll tell themselves they had a wonderful and perfect experience… it will help them justify the costs, and maybe even generate some additional income when they tell all their friends.  The only drawback is that those who actually “get it” might have to wait a bit for an appointment until the faddists move on to the next trendy thing.
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