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Float On: How Salty Water and Silence Are Changing Some St. Louisans' Lives 

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click to enlarge Movies like Altered States have given floating a bad rap, says Dr. Peter Suedfeld. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Movies like Altered States have given floating a bad rap, says Dr. Peter Suedfeld.

The first float tank was developed in 1954 by John C. Lilly, who was interested in the effects of stimulus on human brain capacity. The technique of removing external stimuli via the tank came to be known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique, or REST.

Now, things got weird for Lilly — he used psychedelic drugs in the tanks, and devoted a large part of his professional life to attempting to develop communication with dolphins. He was also keenly interested in extraterrestrials and malevolent systems of control over humans by greater beings. The 1980 film Altered States, fictional but based on his research, depicted a Lilly-esque doctor becoming a primitive apelike man after using drugs and floating. And this summer's synthy Netflix darling Stranger Things featured an adorable psychic who used floating to bring on visions of inter-dimensional monsters — deeply unpleasant for our heroine, but how else could she fight them and save the world?

So it's not too surprising that some folks think floating belongs in the same pop psychology bargain bin as primal scream therapy. Or they assume it's in the realm of trippy drug stuff.

Not so, says Dr. Peter Suedfeld. A professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Colombia, the good doctor earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is one of the planet's leading researchers in REST.

"Among psychologists and medical professionals, there's a sense that it's New Age. People are concerned they'll have episodes of quasi insanity," he says. "That's a non-starter. Many people have seen the movie Altered States. They're afraid they'll emerge as a pre-human ape. As far as I know, no one has. Did you emerge and start hunting gazelles at the zoo?"

(For the record: Nope.)

Instead, removing stimulation is a pretty straightforward path to accessing deeper concentration and relaxation. And no matter what you've heard, though, don't call them "sensory deprivation" tanks. "That's inaccurate—you cannot deprive sensory input unless you cut the nerves. Most people would not volunteer for that."

Being in a tank, he says, induces deep relaxation and physiological change. Blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension are appreciably lower, he says.

"In the normal environment, we are always monitoring what's happening around us," he says. "That's a kind of evolutionary given. Animals—including humans—tend not to live very long if they ignore what's going on around them."

In the tank, though, there's nothing to monitor, Suedfeld says.

"You can concentrate on whatever you need to concentrate on: problem solving, decision making, recalling events from your past. There are fewer distractions."

His research has shown that floating can improve perception and motor coordination. He found that subjects improved in basketball overall and specifically in free throw accuracy, as well as in darts, ski racing, target shooting and tennis serving.

Those results can linger for a few days or more. Regular floaters can see lasting improvements from learning how to shut up some of life's noise.

"For the first major part of the human species' evolution, we were dealing with much lower levels of stimulation than we have now," he says. "Our system isn't evolved for that. Any time you can reduce the bombardment of stimuli, that's a good thing."

That's certainly been true for Jon Neuman. For him it's become critical.

If you didn't know him you might not realize that Neuman, an unassumingly handsome and quietly affable guy in his mid-fifties, is in the grips of a mental decline neither he nor his doctors can entirely understand. (Jon Neuman is a pseudonym, as many members of his family and circle of friends aren't yet aware of his condition.)

Neuman spent 25 years in commercial kitchens — fast-paced hothouses of perfectionism, complete with screaming, egos and ceaseless demands. He was the executive chef at a popular area hotspot when his wife and business partner noticed something was very wrong. He just couldn't handle all the action at once any more.

Doctors have been trying to figure out what is wrong with Neuman's brain for about three years now. He's seen psychiatrists and neurologists. Depression and sleep apnea were considered, but proved not responsible for his cognitive decline. He has trouble remembering things, and gets quickly overstimulated. A morning chat in a busy coffee shop becomes obviously taxing after a while.

"The worst thing I'm sensitive to is sound," he says. "Unless you are that sensitive you probably don't realize how noisy the world is. Trader Joe's is terrible; I have a hard time going to movies. I carry earplugs with me."

Medication helps him sleep and wake up, and he carries notebooks everywhere. Family and close friends are patient and understand his need for isolation and quiet.

His weekly sessions at FLOAT STL are the definition of isolation and quiet, and he says they are profoundly helpful.

"My brain has got so much information, and because of what's happened to me, it gets full awfully quickly. It gets full," he says. "I'm really very sensitive to stimulus. So I can only take so much, and it's like — I'm emptying the bag, and then it fills up again. Floating empties it for quite a bit. I go once a week, but it helps me all the time."

click to enlarge After experiencing post-float shock in Chicago, the founders aimed for a soothing experience. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • After experiencing post-float shock in Chicago, the founders aimed for a soothing experience.

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