A journey into Madison’s new sensory-deprivation industry.
It wasn’t until I decided to try a sensory deprivation tank for myself that I discovered that a number of weird misconceptions surround the act of “floating.” Most misinformation seems to stem from issues relating to sanitation—one person pointedly asked me recently if the accumulation of pubic hair in the tank was an issue (very thankfully, maybe even obviously, I can confirm that it is *not*). Since there seems to be a national boom of these tanks of late, with two separate locations popping up in Madison in the past few months, I decided to take one for a spin at the recently opened Float Madison, downtown at 312 E. Wilson St.
First, though, let’s take a big step back and bring everyone up to speed on this concept. Sensory deprivation pods (most places seem to prefer the considerably friendlier term “Float Tanks”) are designed to remove as much pesky stimulus as possible, to various ends, but mostly as a means of accommodating meditation, relieving muscle soreness, and just generally offering a chance to functionally space out. Size-wise, the tank you get into is somewhere between a Volkswagen Beetle and a fat rowboat. Inside, there’s 10 inches of water lit by some calmingly colored shade of light or other. The water has been warmed to skin temperature and salinated to Dead Sea levels of buoyancy. You sort of flop yourself in, pull down the lid, turn off the lights, and plunge into a perfectly quiet dark puddle of nothingness.
I first started hearing about this whole sensory deprivation craze on from psychedelic comedy podcasts like The Duncan Trussell Family Hour (“Where comedian Duncan Trussell explores the outer reaches of the multiverse!”). Gaze into Trussel’s libsyn archives with yout third eye open and you’ll find everyone from Ram Dass to Pete Holmes to Lucien Greaves (the Leader of the Satanic Temple), happily rubbing elbows. The episode last summer with Shane Stott, the founder of Zen Float Company, piqued my interest, and I told myself I’d give this ridiculousness a shot if it ever landed in town. Thankfully, it wouldn’t be long until Madison would be home to not one but two companies (The Float Factor and Float Madison) looking to capitalize on this new way to assist the exploration of your inner mind.
Greg Griffin, the founder of Float Madison, also got turned on to floating by a podcast, but for him it was comedian/mixed martial arts spokesmodel/#WokeBro Joe Rogan, who’s been a proponent of sensory deprivation for quite some time. A few years back, Griffin and his girlfriend headed down to see Rogan in Chicago and both took in their first float experience while they were there. At that time there were only a couple dozen places nationwide that offered the service, so it really was the kind of thing you had to go out of your way for. Both Griffin and his girlfriend came out reporting excellent results and became obsessed.
“After that hour float I’m walking down the hallway and I see my girlfriend coming down the hallway,” Griffin told me last week. “She has this big grin on her face and so do I, and as soon as I start talking to her I start giggling. Why do I feel so good right now? I don’t know what happened in there. I don’t know if I fell asleep or if I was just in that deep meditative state they talk about, but I feel so incredibly good right now! I want everyone to know about this. How is this not insanely popular?” Before long, Griffin was attending float tank conferences in order to look into going into the float biz himself. Float Factor, out on Junction Road, might have beat him to opening first, but Griffin claims that there’s no competition between the two companies and that he was sending folks over there while he dealt with his own personal hurdles in opening Float Madison.
There are a lot of small steps to preparing for your first sensory deprivation session. Each of the two soundproofed rooms at Float Madison has a full shower installed so you can wash yourself down and minimize the amount of challenges you’re gonna end up tossing at their elaborate filtration systems, as well as wash up afterwards before facing the harsh realities of life outside the pod. Before the shower, you put in earplugs. They block out some sound, sure, but their main purpose is to keep the salinated water from getting into your ears. The sheer square footage required for the tank and a shower makes the space feel big, but the warm room temperature and slightly humid air adds a comforting and downright cozy contrast to the setting.
After you wash yourself down, you step into the pod, which is bathed in a cool blue light. There was soothing music playing during my session, but it wasn’t until the moment I stepped into the pod that I realized what I was listening to was possibly some kind of chilled-out version of the theme song from Twin Peaks. It’s possible I’m wrong, since it was a loosely interpreted cover if it was anything, but I swear to god “...wait, is this the... Twin Peaks theme??” was the thought that was running through my mind while I pulled the lid down over myself.
There are two buttons on the inside of the tank, one for the lights, and another that controls the music. I switched off the music immediately since the last thing I wanted to think about was the inner workings of a saw mill, however steadily rhythmic they might be, and then I settled in and spread out before switching off the lights. Outside of the pod, the lights in the room were on a motion sensor and they shut themselves off after two minutes, leaving me in perfect blackness. For anyone who’s getting uncomfortably claustrophobic just thinking about this, the lid was incredibly light and had a spring mechanism, so that opening it took next to no force and opening the lid even a crack would set off the motion sensors, illuminating everything.
The fluid in the tank, which has been balanced with the addition of epsom salt, is the most uniquely slippery substance I have ever encountered. It doesn’t stick or glide, and it’s not as thin as water, so its “dripping” action is notably different. You really just float about half submerged, bumping gently against the curved walls for the first minute or two, but then settle into a spot and only end up touching something (the walls, the lid, the bottom, yourself) if you deliberately reach to touch it. With the soundproofed rooms, and the earplugs in, the experience is almost totally silent, leaving just the beating of your heart and the sound of your breathing as sounds to focus on. Once everything had become nice and still in there, I was really surprised at how easy it was to not necessarily let my head empty, but to just allow for the random thoughts to cycle through unchecked (Griffin called this “head chatter”). I wasn’t trying to apply any meditation techniques to this time in the float pod, but it really was relaxing and whatever chilled-out headspace I might’ve ended up in found me, rather than me having to work for it. Time kinda felt like it was slowing down at times and then speeding up at others, since there wasn’t anything in there to get my temporal bearings with. There were moments when it felt like I had been in there too long, which would soon turn into wondering if I had even used up half of my hour-long session. Sure enough though, the blue lights eventually came back on to alert me that it was time to shower off the thick and slippery saltwater.
I’m a knee-jerk skeptic and smelled the possible stink of snake-oil all over this (anything that claims to ease the oh-so-upper-class problem of jet lag gets an immediate red flag), but as long as I went in with low expectations and wasn’t needing it be some kind of self-fulfilling miracle cure, at the end of the day I would have this weird experience under my belt and who knows, maybe some of these crazy claims are true. Did I end up feeling rejuvenated? Actually, yes. I felt loose and endorphin-giddy during my walk home. I wouldn’t call myself a “true believer” or anything, but the thought of floating once a month or so really does sound good. Compared to the dozen or so professional “therapeutic” massages I’ve gotten, I’ll take the float tank for sure.
The most immediate improvement was that much of the muscle soreness I had been experiencing, thanks to waiting until my early 30s to take up “exercising," was remarkably gone the second I stepped out of the pod. The lunges, squats, and cycling I’ve been messing around these past couple of weeks had totally wrecked my thighs (in a positive way) and turned me into a limp-y mess, but honestly after an hour in the tank, so much of my discomfort had perceptibly been reduced, even if it was only for a day or so. It makes perfect sense that a bunch of sports teams are installing float tanks to help recuperate their prize athletes. (I mean, if its good enough for Steph Curry...) Sure enough, when I’m on my way out I ask the woman waiting for her turn in the pod how she heard about Float Madison and she said it was recommended to her by her crossfit gym.
For a skeptic like me, it was reassuring that Griffin didn’t try to oversell the benefits of his service, but there’s a distinctly hippy vibe about sensory deprivation that puts it in the realm of “the healing power of crystals” sort of mumbo jumbo that white people with dreadlocks might toss at you. This isn’t exactly helped by the display of “color therapy glasses” (inspired by the colors of the chakras!) that were sitting next to the register at Float. A sucker’s born every minute, though, so of course I plopped down a few sawbucks for a pair in blue. Griffin wrote them off to me as a sort of silly thing that other float places were selling, but the “reported benefits” on the laminated sheet he had handy cited benefits like clear communication, confidence in speaking, and mental relaxation. Griffin told me a number of studies are in progress that will hopefully quantify the benefits of sensory deprivation in a more scientific fashion, but for now I’m going to just enjoy it for what is.