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Turn off Your Mind, Relax, and Float. Sensory Deprivation and What It Can Do for You.

Turn off Your Mind, Relax, and Float. Sensory Deprivation and What It Can Do for You.
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You may have heard of a new kind of therapy from your more “new age” friends, “Sensory Deprivation Tanks”. While it sounds like a form of torture that might have been used at Guantanamo Bay, many people swear to its benefits. Boldly going into the void to gaze into the abyss for an hour or two.


But, what is it?

The idea is rather simple, an enclosed tank filled with water which is saturated with Epsom salt. The tank is generally placed in a room where light and sound can be filtered out. For a person inside the tank the effect is near total darkness, silence, and the sensation of floating effortlessly. The water in the tank is kept at or near body temperature, removing even the feeling of heat or cold on the skin. As we are bombarded with sensory information every other moment of our lives, entering a tank is a unique experience. If you want a report by Big Think author Derek Beres on being in a tank, you can read it here.

When did this start?

The tanks were invented by Dr. John C. Lilly in 1954 when he worked for NIMH as a neuropsychiatrist.  Lilly had a lifelong interest in the strange, including teaching dolphins to speak English, taking large doses of psychedelic drugs, and even the potential problems of rouge AI…. in the seventies. There was a method to his madness however, and the tanks are one of his several successful ideas. He termed the act of sitting in a sensory deprived area Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy, or REST.

Initially his tanks were used to test the effects on the brain and psyche of sensory deprivation for long periods of time. In the 1970’s floating centers opened for use by the general public, though many of these closed in the 1980’s due to sanitation concerns. Today, there is a resurgence in popularity for the act of “floating”. Centers can be found in dozens of countries, and tanks for home use are increasingly popular.  

What does it do?

While it is often promoted as an alternative medicine that can fix everything, or as a gateway to psychic and paranormal phenomena as seen on Stranger Things, the limited studies on the practice show that it is good for stress relief, and may be a tool for people looking to stop smoking and drinking if used alongside other methods. People who practice meditation also report that the tanks are excellent tools for practicing mindfulness. The high concentration of Epsom Salt in the water is also liable to make your skin a touch softer. While many athletes claim it helps them reduce muscle pain, the data on that is still lacking.


Claims that it can cause the development of psychic powers, communication with dolphins or the dead, devolution into simian form, or that fantastic visual hallucinations are a key feature of the use of such tanks are overstated to say the least. These ideas are prevalent in popular culture, an effect of the psychedelic and often pseudo-scientific origins of the practice.  While many spas that offer sensory deprivation pitch the session as a unique and relaxing soak, some still hint at the idea of the impossible trying to make a sale.

Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy has been around for more than fifty years. Only now are the potential benefits of sensory deprivation being made available to the general public. While the benefits can be overstated, the meta-studies show that it does reduce stress. Is it for everyone? No, the idea of being without a phone for forty-five minutes terrifies many, let alone being without anything external. 

But, if you want to escape a key factor of your existence, sensory input, for even a little while- sensory deprivation tanks can offer that escape.  

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Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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