Sensory Deprivation and Strange Visions in a Flotation Tank

Where would your mind wander if left alone in a dark, silent compartment filled with 10 inches of water and 800 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts?

Unless you’ve found your way into a flotation tank lately, there’s really no good way to answer that question. I recently visited Space Time Tanks in Chicago to find out for myself.


The unassuming Space Time Tanks center in an obscure medical strip mall.

What the Heck is a Flotation Tank?

Floatation tanks, also known as isolation tanks and sensory deprivation tanks, are designed to bring about a state of physical and mental relaxation and rejuvenation. They’re supposed to intensify your level of inner consciousness and boots personal powers of concentration and creativity.

According to the Space Time Tank folks, these are the benefits of floating:

  • Reduction of tension caused by stress and anxiety
  • An increased ability to visualize, create, imagine and problem-solve
  • Spontaneous reduction in or the elimination of habits, i.e. smoking
  • “Super-learning” by increasing the minds powers of retention, comprehension and original thinking
  • Peak-performance enhancement, i.e. athletic, creative, mental
  • Recovery from stress of peak output and virtual elimination of fatigue and “post-race letdown”

How Did It Actually Work?

Now keep in mind that I had no idea I was headed to the inside of a flotation tank until I actually stepped foot in the door. My boyfriend had planned the experience as a surprise for my birthday, thinking that I would be open-minded and utterly fascinated by the whole thing. He was right.

The flotation tank waiting room

The flotation tank waiting room

Believe it or not, Space Time Tanks has been in Chicago since 1982, making it the longest running flotation center in America. After removing our shoes at the door, one of the owners led us back to a small spa-like room with a shower to explain how the tanks worked. The concept was simple: get naked, shower, get in the tank, lie down, relax, and see what happens.

Because of the incredible concentration of Epsom salts in the tanks floating on top of the water is essentially effortless. The water is about 93.5-degrees Fahrenheit and completely still inside. We were told to put in earplugs so that water didn’t get in our ears and avoid touching faces because the salt would burn pretty badly.

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

The tanks don’t allow for any light or sound to enter, and after one hour, the owner would come knock on the side of the tank to advise that time was up. We were also assured that the tanks were fully ventilated, that tanks were sterilized after each use, and that it was impossible to drown even if you fell asleep.

My Experience in the Flotation Tank

I must admit that I was a little nervous as I shut the door of my spa room and stared at the coffin-like structure before me. What if it was uncomfortable? What if I got restless? What if I became panicky?

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

I pushed those questions aside, hopped inside, and pulled the door shut. I spent some time trying different positions for my arms and legs while lying down as my thoughts about work assignments and the upcoming weekend flowed through my brain.

It was so dark that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed after a while. It was so quiet that I my breathing sounded like a piece of heavy machinery. And floating was strangely effortless, just like I was promised.

Vision #1

The first odd sensation that happened inside that tank was the feeling that I was floating sideways for long distances. I began having a vision that I was floating in the ocean following a dramatic shipwreck. There was steady ringing in my ears that reminded me that chaos was all around. I envisioned people jumping from the ship and struggling to stay afloat. Meanwhile, I floated effortlessly, without a care in the world.

After aimlessly floating for a while, I was tempted to try to control the direction of my float. I wondered:

If I think about floating to the left, could I start floating left?

Turns out, I could! I practiced controlled floating for a while but really had no ideal direction or destination in mind. As I came to that realization, my mind shifted to vision #2.

Vision #2

My initial thought of the flotation tank was that it sort of looked like a coffin. That imagery must have stuck with my subconscious, because I began to envision that this is what death feels like.


C’mon, it does kind of look like a coffin…

Completely morbid, I know, but it’s the truth. My mind took me to a place where I started to believe I was dead – a place where my mind was active but my body couldn’t move a muscle. It was a peaceful place where worries had no relevance and my physical self had no purpose. I couldn’t DO anything, but I felt uncharacteristically okay with that.

Disclaimer: I’m conflicted and undecided about the concept of an afterlife and the notion that spirits live on after bodies becomes useless. But something inside that flotation tank was telling me that it might not all be gobbledygook. This vision was a little unsettling on several levels, and I’m still trying to figure out what it means to me.

Would I Do It Again?

In a word? Definitely.

I can’t compare my experience in the flotation tank to anything else I’ve ever encountered. After I dressed and returned to the waiting room, I tried to describe my first float experience in one of the public journals.

Flotation journals in the waiting room

Flotation journals in the waiting room

Although I went in with no expectations, perhaps my subconscious was desperate to get something out of it. I often find it difficult to slow down my crowded and clouded mind, and perhaps my limited surroundings provoked a layer of mindfulness pushed below the surface.

I plan to take a second float in the near future to see what happens when I better understand what I’m getting into. My boyfriend had an entirely different experience than I did, so I’m interested to see whether a second experience would inspire something similar, something entirely different, or nothing at all. What else is going on in my head that I have no clue about?

I’m also curious to try the center’s light/sound machines and NexNeuro multi-sensory relaxation system. Space Time Tanks is located at 2526 North Lincoln in Chicago and a float costs $50 per adult or $40 per student.

Perhaps it’s just my recent mood or state of mind, but I’m finding myself increasingly curious about new agey wellness treatments like energy healing, Reiki, hypnosis, and walking meditation. I’ve downloaded some apps, checked out some books, and Yelped a few highly-rated practitioners in the area. If you’ve ever tried out flotation tanks or any of these treatments, I’d love to hear about your experience and suggestions in the comments below!

My first flotation journal entry

My first flotation journal entry

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