December 02, 2018

I've Sensory-Deprived Myself In a Tank

I struggle every day trying not to be one step ahead. Living everywhere else but the present and leaping through time have become part of how my brain is wired, so I often find myself not experiencing much anymore.

A while ago, a friend told me about his sensory-deprivation experience in some kind of pool, the so-called Isolation Tank. No sight, no hearing, no touch, no taste, no smell – the idea of getting absolutely no input from anywhere struck me as a way to get my perception back on track. I decided to try it out.

On a sunny Saturday of November, I, along with my endless stream of thoughts, floated for 1 hour straight in a soundproof egg-shaped tub shallowly filled up with salt water. This is my report.

Getting In

With my bathing suit on and no expectations of anything, I showered, got into the tub and sealed down its cover. My body floated easily on that water that thermically felt like my own skin, and a relaxing sound was playing in the background up to the moment my surroundings got all pitch-black.

The first 15 minutes were all about withstanding how restlessly my mind wanted to get out of there. I’ve had done meditation before, but 1 hour was something else. I recalled I worked 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and therefore I should be making the most out of my Saturday instead. Leisure time! In modern life, that usually means stimulation by means of binge-drinking with friends, uplifting music, delicious food, watching heart-breaking movies…. Quite the opposite of soul-crushingly doing nothing.

The mind just plays a lot of games on you all the time. It tricked me into being physically irritated by the water, its salt, that bogus zero-gravity environment, and that I’d be better off giving up for my own survival  – at least, that was how my body anxiously (over-)reacted to it. But there was actually no physiological danger or whatsoever; truth be told, I was way safer than I had ever been throughout that week. I quit panicking.

I came upon different phases of denial, approval and mind-numbness from that onwards. Saw myself bringing up problems and drifting them away. Tried to work out situations I had no control over. Missed music, so made my own by tapping on the water. Went hyper-focused on how I had performed socially last week to what was going to happen in the next few weeks when I eventually hand over my old apartment’s keys to that spiteful Hausmeister who hates my German.

My thoughts just went on super randomly. After a while, I could draw the exact line where each one ended, and got mindful about my weary physical overreactions to them.

Towards the end, I sank into something else: weightlessness, timelessness, solitude were emerging from that isolation. Things started losing shape. Didn’t perceive water. I was either a floating head or a floating body. I had to touch my thighs, boobs, neck just to relieve myself from the uncertainty that being so relaxed made me feel about where I was.

I wanted to come back down to Earth from wherever I was, and, surprisingly, to be myself – the way I was. Then time was up.

Getting Out

I showered again to wash the salt off. The spa provided a relaxation lounge that was essential to ease the transition, since I had neither desire nor need (important!) to rush anywhere. Hung out there for 1 hour.

The readjusting was an interesting and unexpected phase to me. Had an apple and felt how crispy in sound and taste it was. Drank a glass of water and sensed it going right down through. Read a book and couldn’t make sense of why we humans have ever brought up speed reading techniques in the first place.

Stepping out of the spa, I got savagely welcomed by a gloomy afternoon1 undergoing that life I was used to every day. A lot was happening out there: lights of apartments being turned on and out, cars groaning, people running around, traffic noise, the cozy energy of having my friend by my side, sharper textures of the sidewalks’ cobblestones, and the joy of a having a sky whose amount of stars doesn’t depend on the many times we screw up as human beings, thankfully.

Berlin-Schöneberg is quite chill so that’s helped to readjust. I was sensible and my thoughts were vivid and receptive – pretty much the actual poetic mood I strive for, where I settle and listen to what’s being said in order to write it down. A mood that is “highly disturbed by Philosophy”, as Goethe brilliantly summed up to Schiller once:

“I am still hoping for poetic hours, and philosophy, in my case, disturbs the poetic mood, probably because it drives me into the object, for I am never able to keep myself in a purely speculative mood, but have immediately to try and form a distinct conception, and on this account at once fly out into nature. […]2

I had finally my mind drifted towards just as much of the world as it was going on.

Lessons Learned

My poetic mood didn’t last much – it wore off the day after.

I’ve realized how much we are externally stimulated and easily adapt to it as if it were natural. On top of that, we are internally stimulated by our worries and whatnot: have I paid my taxes? Am I persuading a career? Does my family still love even though I am thousands of kilometers from them? Have I been eating healthy enough?

It turns out it’s clear why we don’t feel much anymore. Our brain gets wired to parallelising stimuli, and we have less and less coming from our body to the head than the other way around. Apart from that, our experience of the world is barely passive: we actively generate it with our biases, mental models, what and how much we consume. Mind shortcuts are crucial, but might restrain us from genuinely experiencing life, getting us to either ignore ou hyper-focus unconsciously.

I, now, have a better grasp of what Erling Kagge meant in Silence: In the Age of Noise, written after he had spent fifty days walking solo in Antarctica: “Everything seemed completely flat and white. […] Eventually, in complete isolation, I began to notice that nothing was completely flat after all. The ice and snow formed small and large abstract shapes. The uniform whiteness was transformed into countless shades of white. […]”

Meditation is the absolute protagonist here, but floating got me into a different flow, and faster. The topic of sensory deprivation is definitely worth-exploring. Think like: If you ditch sugar for a while, it tastes sweeter afterwards. ;-)

This is pretty much what floating offers: sensory starvation and you on your own. You may waste your time and never get to anything, or make even most out of that 1 hour than me.

Personally, I can’t wait to do nothing again.


Just another Autumn day in Berlin.


Goethe (and Friedrich Schiller). Correspondence Between Schiller and Goethe from 1794 to 1805. Translated by George H. Calvert.