Isolation Tanks and the Potential For Lucid, Trippy, Self Transformative Experiences

20 Aug

I’ve been fascinated with the thought of floating around in an isolation tank ever since I first saw the film Altered States ten years ago.

Um – what is an isolation tank, you ask?

“An isolation tank is a lightless, soundproof tank in which subjects float in salty water at skin temperature. They were first used by John C. Lilly in 1954 in order to test the effects of sensory deprivation. Such tanks are now also used for meditation and relaxation and in alternative medicine. Isolation tanks were originally called sensory deprivation tanks. Other synonyms for isolation tank include float tank, floating tank, floater tank, flotation tank, REST tank, flotation baths, John Lilly tank and sensory attenuation tank.”

Wikipedia Entry on Isolation Tanks

floatation tankIronically, the film Altered States is even (loosely) based on the work of John Lilly, although I don’t think in real life he de-evolved into an ape and went on a rampage attacking people and eating raw animal flesh. 🙂

A few days ago I happened to find a nugget of gold at my local used bookstore. Sitting on the shelf, almost offensively in the new age section, I saw John Lilly’s definitive book on his research into isolation tanks, titled The Deep Self: Profound Relaxation and the Tank Isolation Technique.

Published all the way back in 1977, this book is a bit of mixture of 2 things – scholarly research into sensory deprivation via the isolation tank & how it effects the brain, and the philosophical underpinnings of the experiences and what it means as far as reality/mind.

About half the chapters convey a very scholarly approach on the topic at hand, covering everything from how to build a tank, to problems, obstacles, issues you might have in using the tank, to what to expect in the tank, to how they conducted their research, and so on. This is based on 20 years of research.

The other chapters are somewhat strange and occasionally hard to follow  – these are the chapters with Lilly espousing his ideas on reality, but (for me) too often draped in very scientific and mathematical terms.

It’s more than that though – he has this unique angle of how he writes & even a separate vocabulary of words and concepts that now, in 2008, sound quite odd to me. For instance, he regularly uses words such “biocomputer” , “metabelief”, “cybernetic” and “inperience”. External reality becomes e.r, and internal reality becomes i.r. Lilly constantly jumps his words together using a bracket or hyphen to connect similar concepts, resulting in very odd sentences such as “most other minds are not prepared to hear-understand-grasp what it means to explore-experiment-be-immersed-in such states.”

But don’t get me wrong here – it sounds like I’m putting down Lilly, and I’m not. He’s become a sort of personal hero to me, as I feel drawn to his passion for wanting to understand and his bravery and dedication towards using himself as a research subject, even at the cost of his own personal life and professional life.

I truly think he was tortured by his search for understanding, and this passion was the guiding principle of all his actions, no matter what the cost.

On page 72, he writes:

“Many of my former colleagues disavowed me…I understand their belief systems and the power such system have over our minds. I do not recriminate them, nor do I blame formers friends for not maintaining contact with me.

In my search (for “What is Reality?”), I have driven myself (and hence, close associates-relative-friends) to the brink of the loss of all communicational contacts for months at a time…. I have explored and have voluntarily entered into domains forbidden by a large fraction of those in our culture who are not curious, are not explorative and are not mentually equipped to enter these domains.”

These chapters on reality contain some of the most fascinating pieces in the book, with Lilly mapping out stages and ranges of consciousness/experience and exploring the old mind / brain / body problem (but in a way that I felt he was adding to the argument, and not just rehashing the same old ideas).

Finally, at the end of the book, we get to read logs of peoples experiences in the tank!

This is maybe the best part of the book.

Really, I had no idea just how far out you can go through sensory deprivation inside one of these tanks.

Some of the experience reports are so far out there, I have to wonder if they were conducting the experiment in combination with a psychedelic substance. (Lilly and friends were no stranger to LSD and other drugs, by the way!)

I want to quote at length from these logs, because I think the reports of the actual experience make for a more immediate understanding of what isolation tanks are all about.

Take a look at these excerpts:

“Gradually I seemed to make a head-on 180 degree roll so that I was facing down into an impenetrable night. Dawn broke from the eastern horizon, illuminating a vast desert of glittering sand a hundred feet below me. The sand became transparent and directly below me was a polished black granite monolith……in the center…was encased a sculptor of Jill. The effigy was of monumental size… when her eyes met mine, two lines of graphite streaked across the desert, straight to the source of sunrise beyond the distant mountains.”

“Immediately experienced floating out of body shell. Roamed and sauntered through a kind of cosmic park, full of density but infinite boundaries. People’s images occasionally came in and out of this…. Then as wondered on this, sudden enlightenment  – there is no such things as separate consciousness.”

“Although nothing happened in the first two sessions, hallucinations were experienced nearly every time thereafter…. They would continue for hours. I was always aware that I was hallucinating and part of my mind was nearly always making observations. There were the usual out of body…hallucinations…. When I moved my hands (actually in the water) I would see them move and sky appear between the fingers. I have later had imaginary flights over scenery. “

“I lost boundaries and time sense, immediately disappeared and I experience total peace and a feeling of unity…. What I experienced was a continuous void that was not boring, yet empty, not engaging, yet full.”

“Moving into an absolute void (experienced as consciousness of the interstellar space.) Timelessness. No difference between minutes and millions of years. Ending up the experience with feelings of regeneration, purification, refreshment, clarify.”

(This last quote is from Stan Grof. You may recognize his name. Interesting, I also saw Andrew Weil in the name of tank loggers, along with Richard Feynman (Yes, the Richard Feynman of quantum physicists fame. He spent something like 35 hours in the tank for Lilly’s research), and Ralph Metzner. )


I really cannot believe how “far out” these logs read though. Many times over, I get the impression that floating in the tank, consciousness becomes like that of a dream. Sometimes people can direct the hallucinations, creating a sort of waking life lucid dream hallucination. This just blows my mind!

Why don’t more people know about this?

Why isn’t the use of these tanks more common?

I am now on the hunt for a tank in my area, as I really want to try out the experience* for myself!

*or as John Lilly would say, inperience.

5 Responses to “Isolation Tanks and the Potential For Lucid, Trippy, Self Transformative Experiences”

  1. Mo November 7, 2010 at 2:02 am #

    I’ve floated twice. The experience was quite strange. However after a short period of adjustment (15 minutes) I was able to relax enough to feel like I was hanging upside down. When I would mistakenly bump into the side of the tank, pushing away lightly with my fingers made me feel like I was flying beyond the physical boundaries of the tank.

    I am now building my own tank. I hope to return with some more experiences to share.

    Many blessings,


  2. Ben November 7, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    Nice! Would love to hear how it goes building the tank. How far along are you?

  3. johnbodine November 26, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    i’ve logged well over 100 hours in a tank and have just finished setting up a new tank, looking forward to reconnecting with the experience. Yes to all of the above, visions, loss of time/space awareness, out of body transition. On a recent Ayahuasca journey i experienced many of the same things the tank had provided, not exactly in the same way, but quite similar.

  4. Matt December 2, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    Enjoyed your article, I’ve read a number of Lilly’s books, and yeah the terms he uses…one of the books is called Reprogramming the Human Biocomputer!

    I work for the Floatworks here in London we’re a large floatation centre and we manafacture and sell our own tank.

    Maybe you might like to check it out at our website.

    The greatest benefits are reducing people’s stress levels (studies have shown sustained reductions in stress hormones Cortisol and ACHT)both mental and physical (bad backs are regularly helped by the weightlessness of the floataion experience).

    But as well as a general sense of wellbeing I also find that my creativity is increased by floatation, I seem to be able to find the words more easily to produce marketing documents or reply to in depth emails quickly.

    I tend not to dream, or at least recall them, it’s been an ongoing thing for most of my adult life.Recently I started floating twice a week after not hvaing floated for a few months and I seem to dream every time after I float whether it is that night or the following night.The dreams are usually fairly complex and not always pleasant but I’ve been really gratified as I am of the opinion that not dreaming is a negative thing plus I was also interested in experiencing lucid dreaming….and the first step for that must be to dream normally….not going to jump from a to z in one go.

    I’ve never had any of the kind of experiences that Lilly talks about and you’re correct I think an ovetrwhelming number of his floatation sessions were under the influence of various substances.I think Ketamine was a favourite along with LSD of course.

    I’m not sure that one would naturally have these experiences otherwise.The tank is probably just an amplifier really.

  5. hypnic jerk February 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    trying a few sessions in one of these badboys is definitely on my bucket list. i recall joe rogan stating in an interview that you do in fact have such ‘out there’ experiences (close to what lilly describes) without the influence of any psychedelics. of course, he too, uses it as an amplifier- but he seemed to really want to get across that it can be the most psychedelic experience in your entire life (even stronger than being in nature tripping on lsd) and without the aid of anything else.

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