Sensory Deprivation for Relaxation


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I am always amazed how things that first became popular in the 60’s and 70’s as counterculture or “new age” beliefs and practices like organic food, vegetarianism, sustainable agriculture, meditation, and even the use of psychedelic drugs like ketamine (now evaluated as a miracle drug for refractory depression) have returned, this time as mainstream businesses. One such modality is the sensory deprivation tank, initially popularized by eccentric, NIH-funded behavioral scientist John Lilly in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As described in this article, the technique of “restricted environmental stimulation therapy” has been resurrected as an effective way to fully relax body and mind, deep meditation and even treatment for substance abuse.

I have been fortunate to meet John Lilly in the early 80’s at a workshop in Ojai and stay in touch with him over a year. I spent prolonged periods of time in one of these tanks at Lilly’s house in Decker Canyon, Malibu, and often went to a commercial place in Beverly Hills to relax after work in one of these devices which at the time were just coffin-like box filled with saltwater kept at body temperature. I remember one episode where I was in such a deep state of relaxation that I wasn’t able to drive home.

To my great surprise, I revisited the experience 2 years ago, when I was invited to speak at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The investigators under the leadership of Dr. Martin Paulus, are performing fascinating experiments to test the effects of removing all sensory input from the body to the brain except the signals coming from the internal organs, including the gut, so-called interoceptive information. In the deep relaxed state that sets in after as little as 10 min, the brain starts listening almost exclusively to its gut feelings! If you are interested in this experience, try it out at a “floatation center” near you!