There’s no doubt that floating works – as a therapeutic, educational and entertainment tool it has powerful effects on a number of levels including the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Why is it so effective? What can be so actively beneficial in an essentially passive device? This is a question responsible for an explosion of research taking place throughout the world today. The accumulated evidence from this seems to fall into one of the following seven distinct, yet interrelated categories. These are referred to as the Seven Theories of Floating.
1. The Antigravity Explanation
The buoyancy afforded by the dense Epsom salt solution eliminates the body’s specific gravity, bringing the floater close to an experience of total weightlessness. Gravity, which has been estimated to occupy 90% of all central nervous system activity, is probably the largest cause of human health problems – the bad backs, sagging abdomens, aching feet, painful joints and muscular tension that result from our unique but unnatural upright posture. This theory asserts that by freeing our brain and musculoskeletal system from gravity, floating liberates vast amounts of energy and large areas of the brain to deal with matter of mind, and spirit and enhanced awareness of internal states.
2. The Brain Wave Explanation
More interesting than the well-known alpha waves generated by the brain in moments of relaxation, are the slower theta waves. Theta waves are accompanied by vivid memories, free association, sudden insights, creative inspiration and feelings of serenity and oneness with the universe. It is a mysterious, elusive state, potentially highly productive and enlightening. Researchers have a difficult time studying it though, as it is a very hard state to maintain – people tend to fall asleep once they begin generating theta waves.
One way of learning to produce theta waves is to perfect the art of meditation. A study of Zen monks conducted by Akira Kazamatsu and Tomio Hirai, in which monks’ brain waves were charted as they entered the meditative states, indicated that the four meditative plateaus (from alpha to the more sublime theta) “were parallel to the disciples’ mental states and their years spent in Zen training.” Those monks with over twenty years of meditative experience generated the greatest amount of theta. The monks were not asleep but were mentally alert.
Since many of us are unwilling to spend twenty years perfecting the art of meditation in order to learn to generate theta waves, it is helpful to know that several studies have shown that floating increases the production of theta waves. Floaters quickly enter the theta state whilst remaining awake, consciously aware of the vivid imagery and creative thoughts that pass through their minds. After getting out of the floatation environment, floaters continue to generate larger amounts of creativity-promoting theta waves for up to three weeks.
3. The Left Brain, Right Brain Explanation
The two hemispheres of the neo-cortex operate in fundamentally different modes. The left hemisphere excels at detail, processing information that is small scale, requiring fine resolution. It operates analytically, by splitting and dissection. The right hemisphere on the other hand is good at putting all the pieces together. It operates by pattern recognition – visually, intuitively and rapidly absorbing large-scale information.
Just as in the sunshine of a bright day, it is impossible to see the stars – so are the subtle contents of the right hemisphere, usually drowned out by the noisy chattering of the dominant verbal/analytical left brain. Research indicates that floating increases right brain (or minor hemisphere) function. Floating turns off the external stimuli and plunges us into literal and figurative darkness. From here, that entire universe of stars and galaxies suddenly spreads out before our eyes!
4. The Three Brain Explanation
In a series of seminal studies produced over twenty-five years, Paul MacLean (then chief brain researcher at the National Institute for Mental Health USA) produced convincing evidence that the human brain has three separate physiological layers, each corresponding to a stage in our evolutionary history. In this “Triune Brain Theory”, the most ancient layer is called the reptile brain. It controls basic self-preservative, reproductive and life-sustaining functions. Sitting atop the reptile brain is the limbic system, which MacLean dubbed the visceral brain because it generates all of our emotions. The most recent part of the brain to develop is the ‘thinking cap’ of convoluted grey matter called the neo-cortex, the seat of our abstract, cognitive functions; memory, intellect, language and consciousness.
While many of these three separate brains have overlapping functions, they are all quite different in chemistry, structure, action and style. Three brains should technically be better than one, but unfortunately, there is insufficient communication and coordination between the neo-cortex and the two older levels. This lack of communication results in a chronic dissociation between the higher and lower brains, which MacLean calls schizaphysiology. We experience this in the form of conflicting drives – conscious and unconscious, savage and civilised, lusty and loving, ritualistic and symbolic, rational and verbal.
There are times when the levels do act in harmony, as in ‘peak experiences’ when body and mind unite in exhilarating moments of vitality when our actions come effortlessly and spontaneously. These moments are, however, hard to predict. Evidence now suggests that due to heightened awareness and decreased physical arousal, floating increases the vertical organisation of the brain, enhancing communication and harmony between the separate levels. Floating, it has been hypothesised, can provide us with peak experiences at will.
5. The Neurochemical Explanation
The brain is an endocrine organ that secretes numerous neurochemicals which influence our behaviour. Our brains secrete hormones that make us happy, anxious, depressed, shy, sleepy, sexy, etc. Each of us secretes different amounts of these various neurochemicals. Those who create, for example, more endorphins, or ‘natural opiates’, experience more pleasure as a result of a given experience than those who create fewer endorphins.
Tests indicate that floating increases the secretion of endorphins whilst at the same time reducing levels of many stress-related neurochemicals including adrenalin, norepinephrine, ACTH and cortisol. These neurochemicals can cause tension, anxiety, and irritability.
One other neurochemical theory is the ‘return to the womb’ explanation. Since pregnant women produce up to eight times the normal endorphin levels, the foetus experiences true prenatal bliss. When a floater is suspended in the dense, warm solution of a float, enclosed in darkness, body pulsating rhythmically and brain pumping out endorphins, it’s possible that subconscious memories are stirred and profoundly deep associations are called up.
It is no coincidence that one commercial float centre is called “The Womb Room.”
6. The Biofeedback Explanation
Biofeedback research has shown that humans can learn to exercise conscious control over virtually every cell in our bodies. Processes long thought to be involuntary, such as rhythm and amplitude of our brain waves; healing; blood pressure; the rate and force of heart contractions; respiratory rate; smooth muscle tension; and the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters are now thought to be controllable.
Biofeedback machines work by enhancing our concentration. Focusing on a single, subtle change in the body, which is being amplified by the machine, we are able to shut off our awareness of the external environment. This shutting off of external stimuli is exactly what the floatation environment does best – almost as if an ‘organic’ biofeedback machine. In the float, every physical sensation is magnified and because there is no possibility of outside distraction, we are able to relax deeply and focus at will upon any part of the body.
7. The Homeostasis Explanation
The human body has an exquisitely sensitive self-monitoring and self-regulating system that is constantly working to maintain the body is homeostasis – an optimal state of balance, harmony, equilibrium and stability. Considering in these terms, we can define stress as a disruption of our internal equilibrium, a disturbance of our natural homeostasis. Research indicates that many of floating’s most powerful effects come from its tendency to return the body to a state of homeostasis. When we view the mind and body as a single system, it becomes clear that external stimuli are constantly militating against the system equilibrium; every noise, every degree of temperature above or below the body’s optimal level, every encounter with other people, everything we see and feel can disrupt our homeostasis. By entering the float, we abruptly stop this constant adjustment to outer stimuli. Since there are no external threats, and no pressures to adapt to outside events, the system can devote all its energies to restoring itself.
The normal state is, of course, health, vigour, enthusiasm and immense pleasure in being alive.
Thank you to Michael Hutchinson for “The Book of Floating”, as this is where these are taken from.