Isolation Is the Gift

by Mitch Gilliam

01/29/2016

This story was made possible in part by our friends at City of Guthrie. Thank you, City of Guthrie, for supporting progressive storytelling and narrative journalism from the middle of America. 


A blue-green aurora shone in the distance. I felt my body rotating upright and facing a deep invisible hallway. My heart beat at a calm and healthy clip, steadily increasing in its intensity. I could feel the oxygen and blood pumping to my extremities, and my heartbeat grew louder until I became little more than its massive reverberation. I couldn’t differentiate between my skin, the water, and the room: all the same temperature. Suddenly, the sound of warm synthesizer swells filled the room, signaling the session’s end. I thought I had been in the float tank for maybe 20 minutes. Certainly less than an hour. In actuality, 90 minutes had passed.

“People think of these as sensory deprivation tanks, and that’s kind of wrong,” said Dr. Justin Feinstien. “They’re more like sensory enhancement tanks.”

Feinstein is the director of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research’s Float Clinic and Research Center in Tulsa. Our world, he says, is experiencing an anxiety epidemic. He suspects that the constant barrage of tweets, emails, voicemails, notifications, and our ever quickening pace of life is to blame. “Giving the brain a chance to disconnect and take a respite from reality can be so beneficial,” he said. Removing these outside stimuli, some as small as the hum of a ceiling fan, can shine a light on our brains’ relation to our bodies. Feinstein hopes to document this relation with scientific rigor.

LIBR’s float clinic is just beginning to explore the furthest reaches of anxiety research. Feinstein and his team are using the tanks along with biofeedback techniques to treat anxiety disorders. Waterproof and wireless sensors monitor participants’ heart rates, breathing, movement, and brain activity. An intercom system, in conjunction with these physiological measures, helps Feinstein’s team study the effects of guided meditation. Functional MRI [fMRI] scans, before and after floating, reveal changes in the brain brought about by the isolation, with or without the meditation. In some studies, patients will be able to see their brain activity in real time, and attempt to control it with the heightened awareness that comes with isolation (this type of real-time fMRI and neurofeedback, in addition to others, is being explored by LIBR’s Jerzy Bodurka as possible treatments for depression). Float clinics are springing up all over the world, but to Feinstein’s knowledge, LIBR’s research is revolutionary. This isn’t the first time Oklahoma’s led the way in isolation.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Jay Shurley, a colleague of infamous isolationist John C. Lilly, was experimenting in the darkness beneath the Oklahoma City VA Hospital. Shurley was using a sensory deprivation tank to challenge the findings of NASA’s Project Mercury isolation tests. He posited that 15 minutes in his tank (the second one ever built, and made in Oklahoma) would equal “two to three days” in the Mercury dark room at Wright-Patterson Airforce Base. Their dark room was merely that: a dark room. The results of his tests proved the Mercury tests were indeed insufficient.

A journalist who tested Shurley’s tank for only four and a half hours fell into fits of weeping, singing, vocal ponderings on life’s grand purpose, and a prolonged argument with himself, whom he ordered to stay quiet. Far surpassing the journalist, astronaut hopeful Jerrie Cobb spent nearly 10 hours in the tank to prove her ability to handle isolation. Inspired by her story, other women arrived on Shurley’s doorstep, forming the “Mercury 13” and paving the way for women in space.

For many people, Shurley’s enclosed pools spring to mind when they think of “floatation tanks.” People cite claustrophobia, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety as reasons they’d never get in one. LIBR’s tanks were designed specifically with these anxiety-sufferers in mind.

Feinstein showed me a float room, in which there are no cameras of any kind. There’s a private bathroom, and curtains to cover the mirror for patients with image anxieties. The float room is lit by a UV light with a motion sensor. If a person feels anxious mid-float, they simply raise their hand to turn on the light. The pools themselves are hardly tanks. Although there is one enclosed tank on the premises, LIBR’s unique model is unenclosed to eliminate fears of claustrophobia.  At eight and a half feet in diameter (“So you can really stretch out,” according to Feinstein), they resemble short hot tubs, with eleven and a half inches of high-density magnesium-sulfated water. Apart from the team’s studies on isolation, Feinstein hopes to research long-standing claims on magnesium sulfate’s calming properties, and how they can be absorbed through the skin.

President and Scientific Director Martin Paulus personally oversees LIBR’s Tulsa-1000 study. The project is studying biofeedback and interoception (internal sensations) to build a science-based approach to mental health diagnosis and treatment. An example of these relations could be the effect poor digestion has on stress, and vice versa. In other words, classic “how does this make you feel” interpretations may be replaced by a physiological catalogue of brain activity, symptoms, and biological markers. Providers could use this information to personalize treatments for their patients’ unique needs and better pinpoint their patients’ maladies. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the psychology industry’s longtime bible (who’s current fifth edition received notable criticisms, including accusations of heavy influence from psych-med companies) could soon become antiquated in the face of such research.

Following my first two sessions, Feinstein invited me to participate in a “marathon float,” with five hours as the goal. It was also after my first two floats that Feinstein told me data had been collected on my experiences. The studies are in their early phases, they’re still looking for subjects, and every stitch of feedback counts. Feinstein viewed the small feedback from my experiences as a control for what “normal” patients would experience. Actually, I would tell him later, I suffer from anxiety myself.

The week of my marathon was marked by anxious intrusions. Hurricane-brained panic attacks woke me from sleep each night at 2am. No matter how many pages I read or paces I took, I couldn’t drift off again until 7am. With less than four hours of consecutive sleep in as many days, the morning of my float was a streak of shallow breath and self-accusation. I was frantically looking up breathing techniques on my way to LIBR, unable to fill my lungs or slow my thoughts. The fear of spoiling such an opportunity (“just how you’ve spoiled plenty of others!” my mind told me) fueled my neuroses, and had me thinking peace was impossible. After showering in the glow of the UV light, plugging my ears, and stepping into the pool, however, my panic melted from the salt water like so many slugs.

The majority of my first float, and half of my second, was spent adjusting to weightless awkwardness. On this third float, however, I slipped right away. I had been counting my breaths at first, but as I began breathing with my breath instead of forcing it, all the counting went adrift in sweet oxygen. I could feel the rapid thump of my heart, and as I inhaled, I could feel its rhythm slow.

“I’m doing it,” I told myself. “I’m actually relaxing.”

Awash in the absence of time, I felt myself slip in and out of a dream state. My breath and heartbeat achieved a fluid harmony and quieted the torrent of thoughts. I felt myself go over the edge of a cliff and I opened my eyes to an endless void with a deep gasp.

After showering off the salt, I exited to the lounge where I saw Feinstein’s lab technician. My endless five-hour journey had barely broken two hours, she told me. Still, I had achieved a level of calm I’d always thought unreachable, and the serenity hung around for hours.


Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016