the seven theories of flotation therapy
Modern science has conclusively shown that health exists when balance is maintained within the various systems of the body. In the ideal state of homeostasis, we have a tremendous capacity to maintain health and function at optimum levels both physically and mentally. However, stress powerfully disrupts the systems that modulate the psycho-neuro-immunological responses of the body. When stress becomes chronic, it creates imbalances that lead to many serious diseases like cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, mental illnesses, etc.
Flotation Therapy is a unique and powerful tool that is highly effective at combating chronic stress and its associated conditions. Floating is also highly enjoyable and creates profound experiences of relaxation and well-being. Floating combines the sensation of weightlessness with an experience known technically as Restricted Environment Stimulation Therapy (REST). Over 1,000 pounds of Epsom Salts (Magnesium Sulfate) are dissolved into a pool with water that is maintained at human skin temperature (93.5F). This super-saturated Epsom Salt solution creates a hyper buoyant environment where users naturally float on the surface without any effort.
The effortless flotation frees the user from the effects of gravity, facilitating a deep relaxation of the body and a state of meditative calm within the mind. From a health perspective, meditation has been shown to reduce blood pressure, calm the nervous system and increase alpha wave patterns in the brain. Recent studies suggest that it dramatically improves the immune system by reducing anxiety, worry and stress. Regular meditation produces an increased number of antibodies and improves brain function as well.
During flotation the brain is freed from the constant demands of orienting the body in space (proprioception) and processing external stimuli. Freed from these two major cerebral demands the brain can slip into profoundly deep and rejuvenating states of relaxation which eventually leads to slower alpha or theta brainwave patterns. The experience of floating also aids the body in reaching a state of homeostasis where various bodily systems are able to reset themselves and re-calibrate for optimum function. Two such systems are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, responsible for the fight-or-flight response and the relaxation response. Modern research has thoroughly documented how chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system by routine daily stressors is the hallmark of the modern stress epidemic.
Our stress response system was evolutionary designed to keep us alive in the face of infrequent and transient physical threats, not persistent abstract worries. Over-activation of the stress response and the resulting flood of stress hormones creates the cascade of negative physical and mental effects commonly associated with stress disorders. When these negative factors persist over prolonged periods of time we end up with a whole host of chronic and degenerative disease conditions. Various studies have shown flotation sessions to be an immediately effective and practical tool to reduce elevated levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, as well as immediately lower blood pressure without any drug intervention, special techniques or training.
The intentional activation of the relaxation response through floating not only eliminates the negative effects of stress by reducing elevated levels of stress hormones and relaxing the nervous system. It also positively effects our biochemistry by naturally increasing pleasing and beneficial dopamine and endorphin levels, the combined effects of which contribute to a whole host of benefits including: increased performance, longevity, intelligence, memory and well-being.
“There are a number of quite different approaches to floating. While each successfully “explains” some of the remarkable effects of floating, none of them purports to offer an overriding theory, a super-ordinate explanation of exactly how and why floating works. None of these explanations, that is, is the explanation. However, when we see them not as competing theories but rather as integral parts of a single system- parts that interact synergistically, dynamically, to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts- we begin to perceive the real nature of the unified-field theory of floating.”
-Michael Hutchison, The Book of Floating
During flotation the brain is freed from the constant demands of orienting the body in space (proprioception) and processing external stimuli. Freed from these two major cerebral demands the brain can slip into profoundly deep and rejuvenating states of relaxation which eventually leads to slower alpha or theta brainwave patterns.
It’s been estimated that some 90% of all the activity affecting our central nervous system is related to gravity. Every time we move our brain has to engage in countless calculations to balance and propel the body with just the right amount of force and speed. We learned this as babies so we take for granted the monumental task our nervous system has of dealing with gravity. Moshe Feldenkrais concluded that, “the bulk of stimuli arriving at the nervous system is from muscular activity constantly affected by gravity.” All our perceptions and sensations take place against this background of muscular activity, and that gravity therefore decreases our sensitivity to and awareness of the external and internal reality. If gravity-related tension reduces our sensitivity and awareness then it seems obvious that reduction of that tension should be beneficial. The flotation tank has this effect: Because of the Epsom salts-saturated water, the human body is completely supported, bobbing on the surface. Feet, legs, hands, arms, spine, head are all supported independently, rather than resting on top of or in a tension relation with one another. Floating in water distributes counter-gravity pressure over the maximum possible area and hence attenuates this source of stimulation to the minimum possible value while still on this planet. By lowering the gravitational muscular tension, then, we enable ourselves to perceive or detect much smaller sensations, that is, to intensify our sensations. Because our bone-muscle system is not constantly straining against gravity, and every muscle can relax more totally than is possible under any other circumstances, we can become intensely aware of knots and hot spots of chronic muscular tension and skeletal strain.
The release from gravity also allows the blood to circulate more freely and completely, reaching parts of the body that may be unhealthy because of cardiovascular constriction, and in the process allowing the heart to operate more efficiently with less effort. Another result is a drop in blood pressure. The pulse rate slows. By relieving gravitational pressure on joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, and muscles, the tank alleviates temporarily the chronic pain of such ailments as bursitis, arthritis, tendinitis, and traumatic or structural pains from bruises, sprains, broken bones, and muscle strain.
In recent years scientists have been teaming up with modern contemplatives and Buddhist monks to study the brain activity and neurology of healthy, happy and optimally functioning humans. Some of this research work has been conducted under the umbrella of the Mind & Life Institute, a collaboration between H.H. Dalai Lama and western research universities and organizations.
One of the prominent early findings from this body of research has come from work done studying brain wave patterns and their relationship to stress and general well-being. In brief, these researchers were able to identify the dominant brain wave frequencies that are induced in the brain during the tranquil experiences of deep meditation. Similar research studying the effects of flotation therapy on the brain conclusively show that it is able to rapidly induce the same alpha and theta brain wave patterns that are achieved by experienced monks after years of meditation practice.
In essence, flotation is a shortcut to a deep meditative state of consciousness that would otherwise only be attainable after prolonged periods of intentional practice and study. If there ever was a literal shortcut to enlightenment then surely flotation is it. It automatically induces the causes and conditions that lead to a deep inward experience of the mind. If this experience is coupled with intentional activity that directs the mind into productive utilization of the experience then the results can be profound and life changing.
The human brain, removed from its protective shell(the skull) looks something like a large walnut half, deeply fissured and split into two parts by a deep central crevasse(corpus callosum). These two parts of the brain, known as hemispheres or lobes, are connected only by thick bundles of nerves. Historic studies caused excitement and astonishment by demonstrating that not only does each hemisphere of the cortex have its own train of conscious thoughts and its own memories, but that the two sides think or operate in fundamentally different modes. The brain is “cross-wired” to the body- with the right hemisphere controlling the left half of the body and the left hemisphere controlling the right half. Neurologist Marcel Kinsbourne points out that the different hemispheres are not only specialized for mental processes but also that “it is now becoming increasingly clear that each hemisphere also supports a different emotional state.
The Left Brain- Thinks analytically, sequentially, logically with orientation in time.
The Right Brain- Processes information in a mostly nonverbal, simultaneous, intuitive, nonlinear, timeless, imagistic manner. It seems to be the seat of those flashes of insight that have been called the Eureka event.
Research into the brain waves of the two hemispheres of floaters indicates that floating increases right-brain function. Thomas Budzynski, who was engaged in EEG measurement of the hemispheres under varying conditions, made it clear that, “In a float condition, left-hemisphere faculties are somewhat suspended and the right hemisphere ascends in dominance.” The tank does not block or inhibit the left hemisphere, but simply changes its role from one of dominance to one of partnership with the other hemisphere, enabling floaters to use all their mental powers. Synchronization of brain waves, hemispheric harmony, is one explanation for the great increase of productivity, performance, and efficiency, and the generalized feelings of competence, confidence, and wholeness experienced by floaters.
Paul D. Maclean, chief of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health, identifies three separate physiological levels of the human brain, each corresponding with a stage in our evolutionary history. According to MacLean’s triune brain theory, these three separate brains are superimposed on one another, so that while many of their functions overlap, they are all quite different in chemistry, in structure, in action, and in style. Each of the three brains has its own drives, its own memory, its own problem solving ability; each functions as a fairly autonomous brain on its own level. As MacLean points out, the human brain is hindered by a ruinous “design error”; there is insufficient communication and coordination between the “rational” neocortex and the two older levels of the brain.
Reptile Brain- The most ancient part of the brain is a combination of the spinal cord, the brain stem, and the midbrain. This system controls basic self-preservative, reproductive and life-sustaining functions; such as respiration, heart regulation, and blood circulation. It is the location of the reticular activating system (RAS), the “alarm bell of the brain,” which determines our arousal level and our state of awareness and attention. The RAS distinguishes between events that are normal and those that are out of the ordinary, and makes sure we pay attention to the new while allowing us to ignore the familiar. The RAS not only arouses us and focuses our attention, it can also inhibit brain function, causing us to fall asleep or lapse into coma.
Floating in an isolation tank has a powerful effect on the reticular activating system, causing it to put the floater into a deeply relaxed yet highly alert state of calm reverie.
Paleomammalian Brain- The next part of the brain to develop is known as the limbic system, which is situated atop the reptile brain in somewhat the manner of a hand clutching the knob of a cane. Because we share this area of the brain with other mammals(such as the rabbit, rat and horse), it has been called the paleomammalian brain. Ruling the limbic system is the hypothalamus. Known as “the brain’s brain,” this structure is the main regulator of all bodily functions, the most powerful of the brain’s emotion-causing centers, controlling those innate biological drives and processes most fundamental of survival(such as hunger, thirst, sex, maintaining body temperature) and exercising a pervasive influence over all our emotions and drives.
Recent studies by endocrinologists and other scientists show that floating has a direct and very substantial influence on the hypothalamus. Because of its powerful, rapid, and long-lasting influence on the limbic system, floating has an enormous effect on mood, emotions, control over autonomic functions, and all aspects of the mind-body interrelationship.
Neocortex- This “roof-brain” is the seat of our high-order abstract, cognitive functions: memory, judgment and intellect. It is in charge of our voluntary movements and actions. As a number of recent studies demonstrate, the float tank experience seems to operate directly, rapidly, and dramatically to bring about increased communication and harmony between the vertical levels of the brain, and it does so without prerequisite training, instruction, practice, or arduous self-discipline.
What we think can change our bodies. There is a quantifiable chemical link between mind and matter, spirit and body, imagination and reality. Neurochemicals cause us to be sexually aroused, determine the strength of our all-important immune system, cause us to have youthful vitality or feel old and sluggish, help our bodies repair themselves, and determine whether we fall in love. By altering or regulating the amounts of these brain chemicals, we can alter and regulate all those behaviors, processes, and mental states.
Neuroendocrinologist John Turner and colleague, Thomas Fine, showed that flotation lowers the levels of norepinephrine, epinephrine(also known as adrenaline), cortisol, and ACTH, among others. Elevated levels of these chemicals are directly linked to high levels of stress and stress-related illnesses. Tests on the effects of flotation on neurochemicals demonstrate both that floating does have a significant effect on the release of these natural substances, and that the effects have been uniformly beneficial. Scientists are now discovering that there is an intimate relationship between consciousness and brain chemistry; your attitudes and thoughts change, and can determine, your brain chemistry and your brain chemistry determines what happens in your body. All current evidence indicates that through effective use of the tank, floaters will be able to alter and influence the chemical secretions of the brain, and thereby affect every aspect of their behavior, including moods, emotions, immune response, and more. Psychologist Thomas Fine believes the most exciting possible use for floating is in developing the strength of the immune system.
The first scientist to develop a convincing model of the interaction between psyche and soma was Walter B. Cannon, in his influential book The Wisdom of the Body, published in 1932. One of Cannon’s central ideas was that the body has an inherent “wisdom,” which consists of an exquisitely sensitive self-monitoring and self-regulating system centered in the hypothalamus that is constantly working to maintain the body in an optimal state of balance, harmony, equilibrium, stability. This optimal state, in which all parts and systems are interacting properly, is call homeostasis. Since the body is always changing and having to deal with changing conditions, any mechanism to keep the body in equilibrium must be able to maintain stability in the midst of flux, must respond with infinite adaptability to a constantly changing environment. In other words, homeostasis is relative: a process rather than a predetermined state.
Singular experience of floating in an enclosed tank does certain measurable things to your body, which in turn influences your state of mind; likewise, the tank experience has noticeable effects on your state of mind, which can produce numerous changes in your body. Neither exists without the other; they are not separate systems at all, but one system, united in a relationship of balance and interaction.
Why is the tank so effective in fostering homeostasis? If we see the mind/body as a single system, then it becomes clear that external stimuli are constantly militating against the system’s equilibrium: Every noise, every degree of temperature above or below the body’s optimal level, every encounter with other people, every feeling of responsibility, guilt, desire- everything we see and feel is incessantly interrupting, impinging on our self-contained system, causing it to expand energy to maintain its homeostatic balance. But when we enter the tank, our environment abruptly stops its constant alteration. The system is for once able to experience itself as a single, integral, unified entity. Since there are no external threats, no need to adapt to outside events, no deviations from the expected, the system can devote all its energies to restoring itself. It is as if we said Time out to the game of life, allowing our bodies to take a breather and restore themselves to normal. The normal state, of course, is health, vigor, enthusiasm, and immense pleasure in being alive.
In the 1960’s, with the development of sophisticated instruments to measure minute changes in the physical functions of laboratory animals, some scientists wondered what would happen to humans who were hooked up to these measuring devices, so that they could observe the activity of their own bodies. The early experiments consisted of measuring subjects’ brain waves, and the scientists discovered that within a few minutes most subjects could exercise control over their supposedly involuntary brain waves and could generate large quantities of alpha waves. As research progressed they found that they could “feed back” a signal monitoring not only brain waves but also galvanic skin response (which measures level of arousal), muscular tension, heart rhythms, the activity of internal organs, the temperature of various specific areas of skin- virtually any physical process that could be measured. More tantalizing, they discovered that whatever physical process could be measured, and fed back, could be brought under control. Researcher, John Basmajian, demonstrated that the control we have over our bodies is so sophisticated we can learn to manipulate a single specific neuron.
All floaters know the feeling of closing the door of the tank, sinking into the black void, and suddenly being able to hear every heartbeat pounding like a pile driver, blood pulsing through veins that cover the body like an exquisite lacework- every physical sensation is magnified, and because there is no possibility of outside distraction, we are able to focus at will upon any part or system of the body. Clearly the flotation tank is, as numerous floaters have discovered, a natural biofeedback machine. The faint body signals that we would ordinarily ignore, or which are drowned out, become powerful presences when we are in the flotation tank. In fact, evidence now indicates that conscious control over physical processes is gained more easily in flotation because intense awareness of internal signals is combined with the extraordinarily deep state of relaxation provided by the tank. Researchers have consistently noted that the most important prerequisite for attaining control over any body function through biofeedback is relaxation. In the tank, deep relaxation and its accompanying intensified awareness of internal states come rapidly, easily, and reliably.