Floatation Nation: Sensory Deprivation Tanks Are Back and Just as Weird as Ever



The blue light turns off–or back on again, in case of bad trips. Photo: Tom Mylan

Back in a magical time known as the 1990’s my friend Stacey and I would routinely skip school and head back to her dad’s house to smoke tiny joints of Mexican dirtweed and watch the classic 1980 movie Altered States. It stars William Hurt as a professor who explores exotic psychedelics while floating in a sensory deprivation tank and ends up tripping so hard that at points he regresses into a proto-hominid and an amoeba man. Those lost afternoons spent eating microwaved fish sticks while watching William Hurt turn to dust and blow away into the sands of time left an impression on me, which is why I nearly wet myself with excitement when offered the chance to spend an hour in one of the float tanks at Lift Next Level Floats in Carol Gardens, which opened earlier this month.

Lift is a business collaboration by former attorney David Leventhal and ex-caterer Gina Antioco. Leventhal got hooked on sensory deprivation chambers in college while Antioco got her first taste of floating inside the legendary “tank at some guy’s apartment in Chelsea.” The duo met at a floatation therapy conference in Portland, Ore. and within a few days decided to open the first professional float tank service in Brooklyn. The result is a five-floatation chamber mini-complex located on the second floor of an unassuming Court Street building above a German-style beer bar. Lift has the feel of a luxury spa crossed with the coolest doctors office ever. Clean and modern without going full-on Bauhaus minimalist, the space is welcoming and well designed with an air of a waiting room for nothing in particular where you are invited to get your molecules back together after your time in the tank.

What is a Float aka a Sensory Deprivation Chamber?
Glad you asked. The first sensory deprivation chamber was designed by John C. Lilly, a neuroscientist, rumored MKULTRA participant, and real life Dr. Walter Bishop, to study the question of whether or not the brain would would fall asleep after being deprived of external stimuli. To accomplish this task he devised a soundproof tank filled with body-temperature water that was supersaturated with magnesium sulphate (that’s Epsom salts to you and me) to produce effortless floatation, and shortly thereafter filled it with grad students stuffed to the gills with LSD. Eventually this technology, like most of the drugs from these types of projects, escaped into the wild and gave rise to the golden age of sensory deprivation. In case you didn’t know, during the 1980’s New York City was bristling with these tanks and a post-New-Age clientele that was eager to use them for relaxation, meditation, therapy and tripping balls. Ultimately, as with so many things in New York, trends moved on and the once numerous deprivation tanks dwindled down to only the previously mentioned “tank at some guy’s apartment in Chelsea.”

Leventhal told me that the majority of Lift’s customers–and the place was busy when I visited on a Wednesday afternoon–come for relaxation and the meditation-like effects. Basically, they float to deal with the stress of city living. Other regulars float to relieve chronic pain. Floating has also been used as a therapy for autism spectrum disorders. And of course, some folks just want to trip balls. The trippy component is for real, but I can also attest to the combined relaxation powers of epsom salts and being completely alone and stimulus-free for an hour.

What Should I Expect the First Time?

First off, you don’t need to bring anything like a bathing suit because you’re going to be butt naked in the tank as you rush to become one with the creator. After checking in and being escorted to your tank suite of choice (Lift has three clamshell “pods” and two larger float pools, each of which is ominously called “the room”), the staff will give you a brief rundown of suggestions and tips that will make your first time more successful. After that you’re left to your own devices to take a fancy shower complete with organic body washes and such (think the best gym you’ve ever been to) then climb into the tank.

The first 15 or so minutes are going to be occupied by things like trying to force yourself relax, bouncing lightly off the walls of the chamber and freaking out about the humidity of the air, how weird your breathing sounds and whether or not your heart is beating correctly.

The next 15 minutes are going to be really boring. This is likely when you will get saltwater in your eye so at least you’ll have that to keep you occupied. Ignore the urge to rub your eyes as your hands will be coated in the same eye-stabbing brine. Right around the 30-minute mark you’re going to on the raggedy edge of shouting “Fuck THIS!” getting dressed and sprinting out the door to get a slice of pizza. Resist this urge and give it another five minutes because that’s when it all becomes worth it.

Yep, now you’re mellower than Donovan sitting on a Persian rug wearing a dashiki listening to the Shumann resonance of his own mind. There are a couple of reasons for this. Reason one is that after 30-40 minutes without exterior stimuli your brain slows down to the theta state which is that kind of daydreamy state just before you fall asleep, so you’re actually mellow, scientifically. The other aspect has to do with all that magnesium sulphate dissolved in the water. How much? 1000 pounds of Epsom salts for every 250 gallons of water. It’s a lot. As it turns out, most Americans are magnesium-deficient because it’s found in foods like full-fat dairy, leafy greens and nuts–not so much in Bud Light and chicken wings.  And, as anyone who has soaked in a bath of MgSO4 knows, lavender scented or no, correcting that lack of magnesium is pretty relaxing.

The final 25-30 minutes I’ll admit are really weird, in a good way. Mostly. At moments you may feel like you are slow-motion sliding off the edge of space into the great waterslide in the sky or falling up at a factor of warp. Your mind may become free to associate ideas previously unthought of and imagine things with clarity and creativity you scarcely knew you possessed…or you could be attacked by terrifying bat-demon made of shadows, in my case. Luckily the chambers have a sort of lovely nightlight feature that you can turn on at moments when the bat-demons come and succeed in keeping the bad vibes at bay.

After your brain floats around the universe for a time and you start to feel really loose, you’ll start hearing music. Are you making this music up in your head? Nope. That’s the subtle hint that your jouney has ended. Time to ease out of the tub, shower off and greet the world in a whole new way.

What does the future of Lift Floats, and the float tank industry in general, look like? Co-owner David Leventhal thinks things are looking bright for a pastime where you sit in the dark. “When I first started going to the conferences in 2011 there would be 45 people attending, last year was over 500,” he told me. “The industry is expanding rapidly, especially on the West Coast and in Europe.” And when asked about why it took so long for deprivation tanks to make a comeback here he smiled slightly and said, “New York isn’t always ahead of the curve on everything.”

Lift Next Level Floats
320 Court st. 2nd floor
Floats range in price from $65 to $99 for a 60 minute session depending on package or plan.

Pro-tips for your first float…

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