The consensus is that floatation therapy really works. There is no doubt that floating not only has therapeutic effects but is also entertaining and educational at the same time. It’s effects are far reaching ranging from the physiological, intellectual, spiritual and emotional aspects. But, the real question is, why?
One has to consider that the float tank is basically passive in nature so what’s it all about. Fortunately, scientists have found this interesting so research is on going and many laboratories are participating. Current research is elucidating a number of effects that are apparently interrelated.
These interrelated explanations orient themselves around alpha/theta brain waves, buoyancy, right brain activation, increased vertical brain function (old and new brain communication), increase in endorphins, conscious control of every part of our body (biofeedback) and returning to homeostasis (balance). So, let’s take a look at each component and see how it contributes to the effectiveness of floatation therapy.
Calming Brain Waves
It is commonly known that during mental relaxation such as in meditation, alpha waves become prevalent and if continued one can achieve the slower theta waves. Theta waves are associated with NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep which tends to put individuals to sleep. This brain state is known for its ability to produce creative insights, vivid memories, sudden insights, free association, calmness and a sense of becoming one with everything. This state has been difficult to study because individuals tend to fall asleep. However, theta waves have been studied in Zen priests who have perfected the art of meditation and can remain awake and quite lucid. You need to consider that this type of meditation takes decades to learn how to do properly and most people are simply not going to go there. You’ll be pleased to know that theta wave research at Texas A&M has been able to demonstrate that floatation therapy has the ability to increase theta wave production quickly. Moreover, the individual remains awake as well and are fully aware of vivid imagery and thoughts they have during this theta brain state. Researchers also reported that these individuals continued to produce vivid imagery theta waves up to three weeks after their floatation session.
Epsom Salts and Buoyancy
The float tank contains water with 500 kg of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) added. This makes the water very dense and essentially makes you completely buoyant providing a weightless environment. It is believed that gravity takes up a lot of central nervous system processing to keep your body in balance and in fact it is reported to make use of 90 percent of your brain activity. Gravity pays its toll on the body with muscle tension/aches, joint pain, back, neck and shoulder pain. Your brain is constantly making adjustments to keep your body in the upright position and keep from falling over whether you are standing, sitting, running or walking. The idea is that floatation with Epsom salts frees your brain from having to process all this information because your body is self supportive at this time due to the buoyancy. Vast areas of the brain are now available to be self-reflective allowing you to perceive internal states. You not only have a lack of gravity input but you are in a soundless environment that is also dark. These external inputs have been eliminated as well. Floatation therapy removes all external input to the brain leaving your brain to concentrate on itself.
Right Brain Released (mental freedom)
Your brain is divided into left and right hemispheres. These two brains basically process the same information but they do it differently. Your left brain pays attention to detail and is analytical (sees objects). The right brain is good with general pattern recognition, very visual on a large scale, and intuitive about things (sees the surround). Our culture forces development of the left brain leaving the right brain under developed (technological society). So, the left brain tends to be dominate and interferes with right brain function. Research is finding that floatation increases right brain function. Essentially, the left brain, which is a critical brain, is inhibited and now the right brain can express itself in all of its glory. This allows for greater creativity and abstract reasoning. The right brain is less critical about things as well. The right brain is a kinder brain.
Evolution and Three Brain Development
It is believed that the brain has 3 separate functioning components that have developed through evolution. The oldest part of the brain is often referred to as the reptilian brain and it is responsible for basic control such as reproduction, feeding and resting. Then evolution added a second brain component referred to as the visceral brain (gut brain) which is supposed to be responsible for our emotions. The third brain component (newest part of brain) is often referred to as the thinking part of the brain or neocortex (means new outer part) and is responsible for cognition, abstraction, intelligence, language and consciousness. These three brain areas have different structure and chemistry. They do have some overlap in communication but it is far from sufficient. The two older components don’t exchange information well with the newest part (neocortex). This makes for conflict in various behaviors for example, unconscious versus conscious, lust versus love, animal versus civilized human, etc. At best, these 3 components are out of tune with each other and only rarely do they function properly together. Research has demonstrated that during floatation, increased internal awareness increases communications between these three brain components and allows for harmony providing for optimal brain function.
Endorphin Production is Increased
The brain makes and releases a number of neurochemicals such as neurotransmitters and hormones that influence our behaviours. These neurochemicals can cause us to feel depressed, anxious, happy and/or sleepy to mention a few. Each person makes different amounts of these neurochemicals creating different mixtures of behaviours. Some people naturally produce more dopamine, serotonin and endorphins (natural opiate) which generates a sense of well being. Individuals that produce less of these neurochemicals may experience depression and get less pleasure out of life. Research has found that floatation therapy enhances the production of endorphins while at the same time reducing the production of stress neurochemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol and other stress related chemicals generate anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease and high cholesterol.
Conscious Control Over the Body
Research tells us that we can learn how to consciously control every part of our body/brain. It was once thought that the so called involuntary functions such as amplitude and rhythm of brain waves, smooth muscle contraction, blood pressure and so called healing were out of our control. Biofeedback works everywhere (voluntary and involuntary) and if you concentrate (focus) on changing something that is involuntary, you will alter it and this effects other systems as well. Biofeedback simply means that biological pathways form loops that feed back on themselves. Now, imagine you’re in a float tank and your senses are being deprived of all external inputs (such as sound, light and gravity). This is when deep relaxation sets in and endorphins are released. This allows any internal physical/mental sensations to be magnified if you so desire. You have complete control throughout your entire system simply because there are no external distractions. You can alter biological function at will.
Biological Balance is Restored
Your system (body and brain) monitor and regulate internal functions and try to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis simply means maintaining a narrow range of function. For example, blood pH should be maintained around 7.35 but the system can operate between 7.3 and 7.4. Once blood pH drifts from 7.35, the buffering system in blood restores the proper pH and does so fairly quickly. This is the idea of maintaining balance. Because we eat a lot processed foods (fast foods) and eat meat, our blood pH often runs on the acidic side (7.3 or below) bringing us to acidosis. This is an unhealthy state. Unhealthy states can occur in the brain as well with an imbalance of neurotransmitters. Any imbalance can be thought of as a stress situation and needs to be brought back into balance (homeostasis). All kinds of balance (body and brain) can be restored with floatation therapy. Since your senses have been deprived of all external input, your body/brain can devote all of its efforts to bringing back proper balance throughout your system.
Floatation Therapy and Athletes
Floating is not just a new trend or fad but rather it is finding its way into mainstream. Doctors, chiropractors, athletes and private citizens are taking advantage of all the health benefits that floatation has to offer. Recently, the New England Patriots, Cubs, Dodgers, Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans have bought their own tanks and installed them in their training facilities. Floatation has become a big item for sports recovery and why not. Consider the incredible benefits of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) for relieving aches and pains in muscle tissue and joints along with its ability to reduce inflammation. The gravityless environment allows the whole body to completely relax with no pressure points which eliminates muscle tension. This allows for an accelerated whole body recovery from serious physical activity. This enables professional athletes to achieve peak performance quickly because the recovery rate has increased from a number of days to simply a few hours. Moreover, sports research has demonstrated that floatation therapy relaxation increases athletic coordination, speed, strength and stamina. Floatation also brings about a sense of calmness and mindfulness which leads to an increase in confidence and mental focus. Visualization has been a common practice with certain athletes for game preparation and to create a mental state for success. Floatation therapy accelerates this process by creating vivid visualizations in the theta state which occurs easily and rapidly.
Whether you are the average person, athlete or professional athlete, floatation therapy can greatly enhance the quality of your life both physically and mentally. If you are a person who has medical issues such as chronic pain, addictions, depression, anxiety and/or high blood pressure, floating can help restore healthy biological balance. The nice thing is that this therapy requires very little of the you and has no known side effects.