It all started when an out-there visionary wanted to talk to dolphins. In 1954, Dr. John Lilly, a physicist-philosopher and Allen Ginsberg contemporary, developed the first isolation tank, a sound- and light-blocking enclosure containing a shallow pool of body temperature, salted water. He used the lack of external stimuli to explore the nature of human consciousness and sensory deprivation—not to mention copious amounts of LSD—in attempts to communicate with dolphins. Soon after, users began to note the therapeutic benefits of the isolation dips—floaters claim to experience improvements in mood, creativity, muscle repair and even quality of sleep.
Tom Wunk runs The Float Place, the Island’s first dedicated flotation center. Wunk, a Farmingville bartender, first heard about the isolation treatments from celebrity comedian Joe Rogan, who often enthuses about the tank experience on his podcast. Wunk, intrigued by the claims, tried it in New York City and was so relaxed afterwards that he bought a tank so others could have the same experience of drifting motionless in about a foot of salty water inside what looks like a tanning bed.
“When I first heard about it, it sounded like hippie mumbo jumbo,” he said. “But then, I had a bad enough day at work and I tried it and I was hooked.” Wunk said the bombardment of rapid stimuli from constantly checking phones and social media prevents humans from shutting off. “You give yourself a break. A lot of people call this a shortcut to meditation.” Because tank users rest on their backs in the heavily salted, 93.7-degree water, they don’t need to expend energy fi ghting to stay warm. And floating is of course effortless. Those who’ve tried the homeostasis describe it as something in between being awake and asleep.
Getting to this land of near-nirvana is relatively simple. Floaters use the in-room shower and soap to remove oil from their hair and body before stepping into a 10-inch deep pool of warm water saturated with Epsom salt and hydrogen peroxide. The water is so buoyant that the head is supported half in and out of the water.
Floaters close the hinged tank lid from inside where interior lights remain on for a few minutes before shutting off automatically. The claustrophobic can leave the top open because the lights in the room also shut off . Once inside, the body simply fl oats in the water and the mind settles into a novel state of nothingness.
After what felt like 10 minutes into the treatment it was hard to think. Ideas entered the brain but then drifted off on their own, almost like the sensation of falling asleep (though most people don’t actually fall asleep). Research shows that during the treatment the brain moves into a theta waves pattern—the same ones observed in early sleep and associated with deep relaxation, suggestibility and meditation. Eventually soft music comes on through the tank’s speakers, signaling the end of the hour-long session, but the passage of time isn’t immediately clear. An increased sense of clear-headedness, positivity and creativity filled the remainder of my day. This is probably why artists and musicians are fans of floating, along with athletes and the chronically stressed.
Wunk, who floats twice a week and plans to relocate the spa to Deer Park in the winter, said he feels random old pains and injuries throughout his body as he drifts and believes they are his brain and body addressing lingering issues. “You have to give it 45 minutes to an hour at least to get the benefit.” Wunk has a dedicated customer base of extreme exercisers and CrossFitters who tell him that after an hour of floating their muscles feel repaired and ready for another hard workout session.
Some floaters itch at first from the saltiness of the water (about 1,000 pounds of salt are used to treat 150 gallons of water) and others prefer to use earplugs to prevent infiltration. “What’s great about it is that you don’t need any special skill or training like in yoga to experience the benefits.” But regardless of the specific aims users have when they float, they all experience something almost impossible to find in modern life: 60 minutes of absolutely nothing. “It’s kind of like I’m forcing you, nicely of course, to lay there and have all input taken away.”