A Brief History of the Floatation Tank.

Dr. John C. Lilly, His Wife and a Floatation Tank

Dr. John C. Lilly, His Wife and a Floatation Tank

The value of Sensory Deprivation has been known and thus sought out by many cultures and traditions for ions, but the first floatation tanks were developed in 1954 by Dr. John C. Lilly.

Lilly was a psychoanalyst and neurophysiologist who set out to create an environment in which he could conduct scientific research on the brain and explore its electrical activity. He was seeking to answer questions which had evaded him thus far in the several decades of his prior research.

After concluding that he could go no further in his research of the correspondence between brain (physical) and mind (mental) without harming or changing the brain, Lilly began seeking answers in a a different realm: the brain’s consciousness. In particular, he was curious about what was required for the brain to remain in a conscious state.

At the time, science had two contrasting theories on this matter. The first was that the brain required external stimulus to remain conscious. If the brain was not stimulated, sleep would occur. 

The second theory maintained that the brain’s cells contained their own automatic rhythms, meaning that consciousness was governed from within the brain and did not require outside stimulus to be sustained.

To study this conundrum Lilly decided to conduct an experiment in which he would restrict the brain from external stimuli. 

Beginning at the National Institutes of Health, Lilly conducted his first experiment in a tank-like device originally built for World War II to test the metabolism of members of the navy who spent time underwater.

With his associate, Jay Shurley, MD, Lilly created a rubber mask and breathing contraption as their first attempt at sensory restriction. This mask and tank combination proved to be very effective but quite different from the floating experience of today; the floater was suspended dangling in an upright position, submerged underwater.

With the mask, Lilly and Shurley were able to block out many of the biggest contributors to sensory stimulation, including: light, sound, much gravity, temperature fluctuations, and the risk of encountering another person.

The two tested their invention on themselves and quickly concluded that the brain did not need external stimuli to stay conscious, and instead relied on its own internal systems.

Finding their sensory deprivation experience to be extremely relaxing and restorative, rather than what many had assumed would be stressful, they had great motivation to continue exploring the therapy.

The scientific community of the time did not embrace his discoveries, but Lilly continued his floatation experiments.

Dr. John C. Lilly

Dr. John C. Lilly

Realizing that with the use of enough salt (later discovering Epsom salt as the best) in the water he could float while lying flat, Lilly created his next tank to suit this approach.

Once his design was perfected, he installed tanks into his home and invited many influential characters to experience their first taste of floatation therapy. These included gurus, artists and other members of what was coined the “human potential” movement.



As word spread and more and more demographics discovered floatation therapy’s benefits, floating gained momentum and grew in popularity—as it continues to today.

Floaters such as Glen Perry—an engineer who was able to construct an affordable tank which Lilly whole-heartedly embraced—began to develop and produce their own float tanks, allowing floatation to spread farther and wider. Today’s modern tanks, including the Float Pod® still reflect the basic design and upgrades that Lilly had made over time for his tanks (including filters and heating devices for the water).



In the 60 years since Lilly began exploring sensory deprivation, floatation therapy has grown across the globe; tanks are now found all over the world in a tremendous variety of settings.

As realization of the benefits also expands, the industry shows no signs of slowing down. Floating is here to stay, and will inevitably continue to evolve—as always, you can count on the Float Pod to be at the forefront of upgrades and advances to make each float the best it can be. 

Sources:

Hutchinson, Michael D. The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea: Gateways Books and Tapes P, 1984, 2003

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