Flotation tanks and blindfold concerts – how sensory deprivation went mainstream

Repackaged, immersive experiences can be more than just a kooky therapy for hipsters. 

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Australian pyschedelic rock band Tame Impala's Currents received universal acclaim when it came out in 2015, with a Rolling Stone review describing it as a “a set of diary entries from an astronaut floating off into oblivion”. That's exactly what it sounds like when you're listening to it in pitch darkness. 

On certain Tuesdays at the Institute of Light in east London, visitors are handed an embroidered blindfold and ushered into a cinema with no screen, as part of an event known as Pitchback Playback. All the lights are turned off, and at 10 on the hour, an album starts to play over the immersive sound system. The quality of the sound system, designed with film in mind, as well as the depth and clarity of the audio itself, makes this an mesmerising experience. It is easy to completely lose yourself. 

I had never listened to Currents before (much to the horror of everyone I admitted this to), the soundtrack the Tuesday I visited. In the dark room, surrounded by strangers, it felt as though the bass was coming from the earth. Experiences like this - immersive events designed to give the participant a heightened sense of presence - have been cropping up with far more frequency over the last few years. The Institute of Light nights sell out weeks in advance, despite double streamings on the same day. At London’s Southbank Festival in 2016, jazz trio Phronesis performed in complete darkness. One Swiss company offers a variety of experiences in the dark, even suggesting their services for an “unusual corporate presentation”.

One manifestation of this trend is the flotation tank, a dark, soundproof pod filled with saltwater. You climb in, close the lid, and float for an hour at a time. Such tanks have popped up in many major, urban areas, offering the participants a way to detach from the stresses of modern life. A map from FloatationLocations.com pinpoints where exactly tanks are located, with 136 concentrated in the north east of the United States, and about 762 worldwide, with many of them clustered around cities, with at least one on every continent.

As far back as the sixties, John Lilly, an American researcher, took hallucinogenic drugs before entering a flotation tank, and documented that his experiences of doing so were eye-opening and meditative.

At the time, however, sensory deprivation was commonly associated with the military, as a torture method to elicit information from prisoners and informants. Understandably, the average person might not have been initially convinced that these treatments could be therapeutic, and his conclusions were panned at the time.

Nevertheless, the fifties and sixties saw a resurgence of interest in concepts like alternative medicine and therapies. John Lennon was said to have overcome his heroin addiction wtih the help of a flotation tank. The AIDS and HIV crisis, however, seemed to scare people away once again. In the fearful climate of the time, communal spaces were associated with the risk of catching a disease (although flotation tanks are often cleaned regularly).

The next surge of interest in sensory deprivation came in the early 2000s, as hordes of comedians, celebrities and sportspeople, such as Joe Rogan and Steph Curry, hit the flotation tanks. Now, sensory deprivation experiences - from events like Pitchback Playback to spa packages that include flotation tanks after a massage – are far more mainstream. Sensory deprivation means a way to disengage from the demands of modern life, not a kooky “transcendental” therapy with mystical connotations. 

The last few decades have also seen a growing body of research carried out into sensory deprivation phenomena. Flotation tanks, referred to in scientific studies as restricted environmental stimulation techniques, or REST, have increasingly become a topic of study for psychiatrists dealing with mental illnesses such as anxiety.

A paper in 2015 by Annette Kjellgren and Jessica Westman demonstrated that a group of subjects who underwent flotation-REST therapy reported higher levels of “optimism” and “sleep quality”, and stress, anxiety, as well as physical pain seemed to decrease.  This is promising, and could potentially lead to better understandings of some of the environmental factors – such as living in urban environments, stress - that cause these problems to be exacerbated in the first place. 

Moreover, there is something undoubtedly appealing about a kind of activity where you just have be there physically. Sensory-deprivation experiences tend to occur in major urban areas, suggesting they could be a response to the over-stimulated, unnatural experiences of navigating life in a big city. Of course, the experience of being in one of these flotation tanks fades away once you enter the real world, but there's some evidence to suggest that frequent sessions could have long-term impacts on people's health.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that people who take part in sensory deprivation experiences feel as though they’ve managed to switch off from those pressures even for a little bit. However, sessions can be expensive and the reasons that they've popped up in the first place - as a respite from the overstimulated, hectic environments of the world - won't necessarily disappear once people leave the room.

Personally, I’ve been curious since a friend tried an upscale version in Brooklyn and raved about it. But, being claustrophobic, the idea of paying money to float naked in a futuristic cocoon in the dark was less than appealing. Mike Ferry, at the Huffington Post, found that the experience induced a panic attack, while evidence from some studies about the altered consciousness this kind of experience could produce have found people will struggle with out-of-body experiences, such as feeling like they experienced their own birth. Neither of these possibilities (as remote as they may be) sounded even a little appealing. Nevertheless, the idea of immersing myself fully in one experience at a time appealed. Listening to good music on a high quality soundsystem with a blindfold on seemed like a manageable halfway point.

Some music die-hards will say that there's something particularly special about listening to music without other stimuli, particularly visual, as it can give you a better experience. Some scientific research appears to back this up. The amygdala, a part of the brain’s limbic system, is widely thought to be responsible for processing information, primarily through visual cues. However, if you’re blind, or a sighted individual who closes your eyes, the amygdala forms an auditory allegiance. Research from Lerner et al in 2009 determined that there is greater amygdala activation in response to emotional music when the individual cannot see. Shut your eyes, and you are more likely to experience an intense happiness, nostalgia or sadness while listening to music.  

While the Pitchback Playback event wasn’t necessarily calming (if you’ve ever listened to “Love/Paranoia” from Currents, you may be inclined to agree), it was easy to just let go and be washed away by the sweet, smooth tones of Kevin Parker emanating from every direction. Every single psychedelic tracks filled the room, making you feel like you were in a velvet blanket of sound. 

While I was initially sceptical, I would repeat the experience – the next albums playing are Bjork’s Debut, and Nick Cave and Childish Gambino are on the roster too, offering something for every audiophile. But if work has really gotten you down this week, or someone's bumped into you on the tube one time too many, a flotation tank might be more up your alley. Just don't expect all those stresses to melt away forever. 

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology. 

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