My Out-of-Body Experience

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Lead image: Vlue / Shutterstock

In a sensory deprivation tank, I lost my body and found myself.

BY JOEL FROHLICH

Two years ago, I decided to do nothing. Not for the rest of my life, of course—for two hours. As a neuroscientist, I was already familiar with the evidence that mindfulness meditation, or attending to the present moment, is beneficial for stress and anxiety. So I had been meditating regularly for about a half a year, looking to enhance my practice. And although I didn’t know it yet, there were already scientific studies showing that the more extreme form of “doing nothing” that I was now interested in—floating in a sensory reduction tank—could significantly reduce stress, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.

And so it was my plan, in the first week of March 2020, on what would become the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, to enter a commercial float studio in West Los Angeles, called Float Lab. It’s down the road from UCLA, where I worked studying consciousness in a neuroscience lab. Naturally, I was curious: Some neuroscientists use float setups with their clinical populations to investigate how a stimulus-free environment might affect experiences of negative emotions, like anxiety, and positive emotions, like serenity. My wife was skeptical: Would I really be able to last that long? Wouldn’t the utter nothingness freak me out, or bore me to death? Didn’t I want to try “sort of nothing” first—an easier experience, such as dining in the dark?

No, I wanted to truly do nothing. Or at least as little as possible. At Float Lab, on the first of many visits, I was led to one of several private cabins, carefully designed for doing nothing. Each cabin is a rectangular tank filled with highly saline water. I showered in a private room and entered the float unclothed to minimize tactile sensations. Saturated with Epsom salt, the high density of the water allowed me to float effortlessly without muscle tension. The water was as warm as my skin. It was pitch dark and silent. Nothing.

Except that there was something.

My mind, filled with the sensations of breathing, heartbeat, and, of course, thoughts. The float tank is like the cave on Dagobah that Luke Skywalker explores in The Empire Strikes Back. “What’s in there?” Luke asks Yoda. “Only what you take with you,” Yoda answers.

I felt I could fly out of my head.

But surrounded by nothingness, my relationship to these sensations changed. Without any cues to determine my bodily position, small inhalations that increased my buoyancy generated an incredible feeling of ascending upward, as though I were being beamed up into a UFO mothership. Similarly, small exhalations that reduced my buoyancy generated an equally incredible sensation of descending downward into an abyss. In later sessions, I had even stranger experiences. Without a sense of any external world around me, the boundary between self and surroundings seemed to blur—my body filled in that void and became the external world, and I was now turned inside out. During my second session I—or “I”—felt all but dissolved in the water, with no body to speak of. In another session, I felt I could fly out of my head. Floating in the tank also changed my perception of my thoughts. On a few occasions, my thoughts lost something like credibility or legitimacy. I observed them as mere illusions—not descriptions of the way things are but, rather, vocalizations in my mind’s ear.

In the past several years, researchers led by Justin Feinstein at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have investigated the effects of experiences like these using both behavioral and neuroimaging approaches. Researchers generally refer to floating as Floatation-REST, an acronym for reduced environmental stimulation therapy. Feinstein’s team uses a float tank custom-built for clinical populations prone to anxiety. To accommodate these patients, the tank lacks an enclosure—instead, it’s an open fiberglass pool housed in a light- and sound-proof room. This setup not only reduces the risk of claustrophobia, but also uses hand wave-activated lighting, allowing any participant to immediately stop the experience for any reason.

In one experiment from 2018, Feinstein and his colleagues studied patients with anxiety and compared their self-reported ratings of internal sensations during a 90-minute float session to a control condition where the same patients instead watched a nature documentary from the BBC Planet Earth series…

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F. Kaskais Web Guru

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