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Love as the Absence of Pain: My Time in the Sensory Deprivation Chamber

Wet and sweaty, dark and silent, I sat in an oversized tub filled with supersaturated medicinal salt water for 60 minutes.

The goal of the Sensory Deprivation Tank (SDT) is to deprive the body of all senses.

In order to achieve this, the tanks must be completely dark and soundproof, which adds SDTs to the incredibly long list of enjoyable things that claustrophobic people will never be able to enjoy.

The water is then supersaturated with salt for two reasons. First, because the salt increases the buoyancy of the water, which allows the body to float effortlessly; and second, to maintain a constant temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit, the heat of a normal human, so that the water itself doesn’t provide any sensory stimulation. Hot water burns and cold water chills, but skin-temperature water makes you lose all sense of your body!

Love as the Absence of Pain: My Time in the Sensory Deprivation Chamber
Photography by Grace Gilker, University of Texas at Austin

The concept of the SDT was first realized by an odd character named John Lilly in 1953. At the time, Lilly was working with the US Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps on a way to isolate the human mind from external stimulation. While his career can be summarized as researching consciousness through psychedelic drugs and dolphin communication, the details are far more engaging.

Lilly worked with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project with a group of scientists who called themselves The Order of the Dolphin. He theorized that human-engineered electronics could, or already have, created autonomous creatures able to thrive in low-temperature vacuums that would later engage in intellectual and physical warfare with humans.

The true magnum opus of Lilly’s work, however, is the Earth Coincidence Control Office theory that claims there is a hierarchy of cosmic beings, and that the ECCO is the guiding intelligence in our universe. The galactic Beatrice to humanity’s Dante.

Lilly’s portfolio is a scientific Mona Lisa. His contributions range from practical approaches to electrical stimulation in neuroprosthetics, to outlandish theories of invisible, war-faring intelligence.

But it wasn’t until Lilly opened the first consumer-friendly flotation tank in Beverly Hills that he struck gold with new-age capitalists. What started as experiments on consciousness by a chronic psychedelic drug user turned into a fad among the well-to-do. Brilliant.

I had to find the cheapest floatation center in Austin. Apparently there is enough demand to financially support over five floatation centers in the city, all of them located in the suburbs. Can you imagine how many lonely, loaded housewives that amounts to? By my estimates—1,800. And for one special hour I got to be number 1,801, floating in a tank situated deep in one of the most hallmarked bastions of Americana: the strip mall.

Walking in, it smelled with all the chemicals of an indoor pool, reminiscent of the year I dove in high school. Fittingly, a short high-schooler wearing designer athletic apparel sat at the reception desk. When we failed to ask about how he was doing, he initiated that he had been working out since the sixth grade and the people at LA Fitness freak him out. I didn’t expect the receptionist of a new-age therapy clinic to be a self-conscious teenage gym rat.

“My mom told me to try out floating. It may take a few minutes to get into it. I was skeptical too, trust me.”

Admittedly, I held no skepticism. I already bought into the methodology of SDTs and hyped it up for myself for weeks prior.

I have the perfect mix of gullibility and willingness to try new things that new age healing methods prey on.

Grace, my photographer, takes a mint from the large goblet on the receptionist desk. “I feel like I need clean breath before going into this.”

The receptionist invites us to choose the sound that will signal when our individual sessions and shower time begin and end. “7 and 10 are the most popular,” he advised. Native American Flute and Ocean Wave, respectively. I select number 15, Sea of Whales, because of my spirit animal, the blue whale. It seems fitting.

The pod is white and sterile, hooked up to its own water filtration system that runs after each session. The door hinges lightly thanks to its hydraulics, so release is easily accessible. The water is about a foot and a half deep. There is a panic button. “Not that anyone has ever needed it,” the receptionist remarked. Most confuse it for the identical button on the other side that changes the light settings. The light show is cool, but antithetical to sense deprivation.

“I see you brought a swimsuit,” the receptionist said. “Floating is intended to be done in the nude. The swimsuit can mess you up. Sensorially.”

Love as the Absence of Pain: My Time in the Sensory Deprivation Chamber
Photography by Grace Gilker, University of Texas at Austin

I do not want my dick to have its initial publication in a Study Breaks magazine, so I waited until post-photo shoot to get in the nude. Nude felt better. Nakedness pleases the senses, or lack thereof.

It is dark and I try to trace the grooves in the dome above me in my mind. My memory is not only not photographic, but bad. I make no headway in reimagining my surroundings. I feel the reassurance of the panic button. My ears sink into the water, although I remember the receptionist saying something about earplugs something something.

Every stressor slips away bit by bit. The levels of body-awareness come gradually. First I become aware of how much my body expands during inhalation. I feel like I could inhale limitlessly, getting more and more self-important in size if it weren’t for the physical limitation of my lungs.

Next, I feel my heartbeat and the vibration of the water resulting from aortic contractions. Then I hear the clicking noise of my eyes opening. Being that aware of myself and realizing that I had never known the tiny noises I make every second alarms me. I am a stranger to myself.

I lose my body. I can not tell where my fingers begin and the water starts. I know my fingers are there, and if I wiggle them enough they become definite again. I hallucinate and see the same patterns that I do as when I close my eyes for a long time, projected onto the back of my eyelids.

At this point I can not tell whether my eyes are opened or closed. The hallucinations run for five to ten minutes, then back to black.

A quick aside about consciousness: For ages the stuff of philosophical puzzles, the idea of consciousness is slowly crossing into the arena of biological science. All research points to consciousness being a sliding scale in animals.

Generally, the more evolutionarily advanced the brain, the more conscious the being is. In this way, the SDT is Descartes’ wet dream. It drives home the division between the physical and the mental, the heart of dualism.

Consciousness is horrifying, existing generally is. Divorcing the futility of physicality from the relatively limitless power of the human mind makes it that much easier.

Death does not seem so impending. In the tank, I am only with myself.

How do I convey that singularity? How do I describe the feeling of shedding mortality? Good? Great.

I do not have a recollection of my time in the womb, but this experience triggered something for me. If our brains are all that matter, and by removing sensory information we can be that much more in tune with our body, I do not think it would be such a bad life, perpetually in an SDT.

I understand why babies are so pissed to get born. I understand why no one asks to be born. “The Matrix” unfairly vilified the goo-filled pod lifestyle. If “The Matrix”’s stack of red-gelled pods and warehouse style arrangement of human bodies were traded in for something similar to a Beverly Hills spa, isolating the thinking thing from the physical thing could catch on.

My experience in the SDT felt natal, but not like rebirth. The tank did not rebirth me. I expected something more, but nothing came. I experienced every sensation that the online forums touted.

I opened my lid and adjusted my eyes to the light as whale song played, signaling the end of my session. Timely.

I showered, desalinating my body and getting ready for the sinners’ world outside. I left my room, had a cup of tea, used an assortment of the provided skincare products and waited for Grace to come out of her session.

We leave and I go back to writing essays and cramming for tests. Salt cakes my eardrums. “It doesn’t do any harm, but it is a little uncomfortable,” one advice website reads. It is annoying. I am conscious of every burp and every time my ears readjust to the pressure. Every yawn and gulp give a crystalline cracking sound. I am irritated, overly sensitive to my own biology.

I toss my swimsuit aside in my room, a personal windowless, concrete-walled, SDT of sorts. The suit holds its shape for the next eternity because of chemistry. The water had evaporated, leaving my swimsuit to be the host for the salt crystals. I take a lick; the suit is salty.

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Andrew Wilson

University of Texas at Austin

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