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The Altered States of Sensory Deprivation

Float tanks are increasing in popularity due to their role in stress reduction and even altered states of consciousness. 

Chatting with dolphins in order to communicate with extraterrestrials might seem a red flag when considering a researcher. Indeed, John C Lilly was a polarizing figure in the sixties and beyond. One infamous project included his assistant living with a dolphin in a floating living room where dialogue became rather intimate. For all his radical ideas, however, the man was onto something.


Lilly developed a fascination with psychedelics after reading Brave New World, devoting his career to neurophysiology, among other pursuits. He had a passion for the origins and expansion of consciousness. After volunteering as a guinea pig for a protein-free diet in hopes of learning more about bodily production of glycocyamine, he pushed his physical and mental boundaries whenever possible. In his mind the medical and the mystical collided.

While today his dolphin experiment has become legendary in a ‘can you believe that happened’ sort of Internet meme way, Lilly contributed much to biophysics, computer science, and nueroanatomy. Arguably his greatest invention is the sensory deprivation tank, today more commonly known as a float tank.

Emboldened by self-research with LSD, Lilly strove to isolate the human brain from external stimulation. His first tank was clunky—it involved wearing a wet suit and breathing apparatus as you were submerged underwater. A few tweaks led to the creation of an enclosed pool filled with Epsom salt in which you carelessly float naked in total darkness and silence.

Last Friday I ventured to Just Float in Pasadena to see how care-less I could become. One of floating’s researched benefits is anxiety reduction, as well as helping with chronic stress-related diseases. Having listened to Joe Rogan’s anecdotal experiences with float tanks and psychedelics for years, I weighed the benefit of five milligrams of cannabis, something Lilly would have condoned. I decided on sobriety, focusing instead on my meditation and breathing practices.

The space itself is beautiful. I’ve read horror stories about tank smell and size. While I’m not personally claustrophobic, Just Float’s tanks are enormous; total darkness might be an issue, however. Given that I’ve lived in cities for twenty-two years, I crave the dark as much as silence. From the first minute the tank felt like home.

We have an odd relationships with relaxation in our culture. Alcohol, scrolling social media feeds, and channel surfing on the couch might appear calming, but in the long run our nervous systems take the brunt of such habits. The first five minutes of my float simply involved letting my body soften into the water. My neck took at least that long to unwind, my spine offering a series of thoracic pops along the way.

Once my body surrendered I turned to my breath. Arms outstretched, legs heavy, the only other time I’ve ever floated was out of an airplane—also a much different experience. This was not creating adrenaline and cortisol, but reducing them. As the music faded a deep silence kicked in, my breathing as large as the tank, as large I could imagine my body stretching into all directions to be.

While there’s no way to keep actual time, I’d guess the first half was spent in meditation: breath in, breath out, nothing more, nothing more necessary. It’s a luxury to not have to be anywhere with nothing to do. Odd as it sounds, this mindset requires diligence and patience—tuning in and dropping out—which is why float tanks are quickly increasing in popularity.

I spent the second half asleep. Muscle spasms are common on my road to unconsciousness, my girlfriend’s roadmap to my sleeping patterns. Usually I don’t feel them. When I do, a slightly awake dream of falling invades my consciousness. In the tank I had already succumbed when my left arm jumped, creating a ripple of awareness in water and body. Fortunately I was so relaxed heartbeat increase was negligible. One leg spasm more and I was out for good.

Like a thought rising from an unfathomable depth, the music slowly kicks in when the hour is up. Then the light. Shower off, a wonderful tea lounge to meander in, back on the 110 to the Westside.

Eight years ago I traveled an hour outside of Fes to a sulfur pool in the Moroccan desert. While the experience itself was sublime, that night I felt an effervescent lightness as I wandered the medina in a sober daze. Relaxation is an altered state of consciousness for urban dwellers and uptight workers. The rest of my post-float evening featured a similar calm, sleep that night untroubled and easeful.

Research continues to emerge on floating’s benefits. I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t had a comparably chill session. Complete absorption into the present moment is one acclaimed goal of meditation. Isolated, it becomes impossible to ignore. I enjoy sitting when I can to catch a few moments of stillness, to let my breath become louder than my thoughts. And now, when I can escape a little further than my living room, floating will be an exceptional addendum to my regeneration practices. 

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Image: agsandrew / Shutterstock

Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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