Floatation therapy is a safe and powerful tool that can have profound effects on the mind and body. Floating has been associated with a wide variety of physical and mental benefits from relaxation, meditation and pain relief to enhancing learning, improving performance and combating stress and its associated conditions, and these effects are supported by 90+ scientific studies.
Although there are limitations to some of the research in this area (small studies and difficulty in creating an ideal control environment, for example), there has been a definite resurgence of research since the early 2000s, which will help to broaden our understanding of the effects of this unique practice. While our understanding of the physical, mental and biophysical changes that occur during floating increases, there are several theories that exist as to HOW the practice of floating can cause these remarkable changes. These are known as The 7 Theories of Floating, and are explored below.
The super-saturated Epsom Salt solution in the pods creates a hyper buoyant environment where users float effortlessly. A huge proportion of our actions, perceptions and senses are affected on a constant basis by gravity. Our brains are making countless calculations in order to balance or move our body against or with the forces acting upon it.
Eliminating the effects of gravity, as well as eliminating other external stimulation through light and sound, free the brain of the constant demands of orienting the body in space and of processing external stimuli. The theory asserts that the mind is then able to enter a state of rejuvenating relaxation and expend vast amounts of energy on matters of the mind and body.
In recent years scientists have been teaming up with modern contemplatives and Buddhist monks to study the brain activity and neurology of healthy, happy and optimally functioning humans. One of the prominent early findings from this body of research has come from work conducted by studying brain wave patterns and their relationship to stress and general wellbeing.
In brief, beta brain waves are the brains ‘waking rhythm’ found when the brain is focusing on the world outside and dealing with concrete problems. Alpha waves are slower and are usually seen during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. They are typically created when you are daydreaming or consciously practicing mindfulness or meditation, and it is suggested that they may boost creativity and reduce depression.
As relaxation deepens into drowsiness and sleep, the brain shifts to the slower theta brain waves, which are associated with hypnogogic imagery – the unpredictable, dreamlike vivid mental imagery often seen in the state between sleeping and waking. These brain waves are also found to be dominant during the tranquil experiences of deep meditation.
Similar research studying the effects of floatation therapy on the brain conclusively show that it is able to rapidly induce the same alpha and theta brain wave patterns that normally are only achieved after many years of meditation practice. It has also been shown that floaters continue to generate large amounts of creativity-promoting theta waves for several weeks.
The human brain is made up of two distinct hemispheres connected by a bundle of nerves, the corpus callosum. While each hemisphere appears symmetrical in structure, they are not symmetrical in function. Each hemisphere is specialised for certain physical processes and some theorise that each hemisphere may support different emotional states.
It has been said that the Left Brain thinks analytically, sequentially and logically with orientation in time. The Right Brain processes information in a mostly non-verbal, intuitive, non-linear manner and is described as being more ‘creative’.
Research into the brain waves of the two hemispheres of floaters indicates that floating increases right-brain function. Thomas Budzynski, who was engaged in EEG measurement of the hemispheres under varying conditions, made it clear that, “In a float condition, left-hemisphere faculties are somewhat suspended and the right hemisphere ascends in dominance.”
The tank does not block or inhibit the left hemisphere, but simply changes its role from one of dominance to one of partnership with the other hemisphere, enabling floaters to use all their mental faculties. Synchronization of brain waves, hemispheric harmony, is one explanation for the great increase of productivity, performance, and efficiency, and the generalized feelings of competence, confidence, and wholeness experienced by floaters.
The ‘Triune Brain” is a model of the evolution of the vertebrate forebrain and behaviour, proposed by the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. MacLean originally formulated his model in the 1960s and propounded it at length in his 1990 book The Triune Brain in Evolution.
In his model, the most ancient part of the brain, which he termed the Reptilian brain, is a combination of the spinal cord, the brain stem, and the midbrain. This system controls basic self-preservative, reproductive and life-sustaining functions, such as respiration, heart regulation, and blood circulation. It is the location of the reticular activating system (RAS), which regulates our sleep-wake transitions and helps mediate transitions from relaxed wakefulness to periods of high attention.
Floating in an isolation tank has a powerful effect on the RAS, causing it to put the floater into a deeply relaxed yet highly alert state of calm reverie. The next part of the brain MacLean said was to develop is known as the limbic system. Because it was thought to arise early in mammalian evolution he termed it the Paleomammalian brain.
The structures of the limbic system are involved in motivation, emotion, memory and learning and it operates, mainly under the control of the hypothalamus, by influencing the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system and drives those innate biological drives and processes most fundamental to survival, such as hunger, thirst, sex and maintaining body temperature.
Recent studies by endocrinologists and other scientists show that floating has a direct and very substantial influence on the hypothalamus. Because of its powerful, rapid, and long-lasting influence on the limbic system, floating has an enormous effect on mood, emotions, control over autonomic functions, and all aspects of the mind-body interrelationship.
Sitting above these structures is the Neocortex, the largest part of the cerebral cortex, and the seat of those higher functions such as sensory perception, the generation of motor commands, language, conscious thought and spatial perception found only in higher mammals. There is evidence that suggests that, due to heightened internal awareness and decreased physical arousal, floating increases the vertical organization of the brain, enhancing communication and harmony between these three separate levels.
The brain is also an endocrine organ and secretes several neurochemicals that influence our behaviour and how we feel. They can make us feel happy, depressed, shy, frightened or anxious. Therefore, by altering or regulating the amounts of these neurochemicals, we can alter and regulate our behaviours, processes and mental states.
Neuroendocrinologist John Turner and colleague, Thomas Fine, showed that floatation lowers the levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, and ACTH, among others. Elevated levels of these chemicals are directly linked to high levels of stress and stress-related illnesses.
Scientists are now discovering that there is an intimate relationship between consciousness and brain chemistry; your attitudes and thoughts change, and can determine your brain chemistry, and this in turn determines how your body functions. All current evidence indicates that through effective use of floatation, the chemical secretions of the brain can be altered, and therefore every aspect of our behaviour, including moods, emotions and immune response can be affected.
Modern science has conclusively shown that health exists when balance is maintained within the various systems of the body. In the ideal state of homeostasis, we have a tremendous capacity to maintain health and function at optimum levels both physically and mentally. We now know that the mind and body are not separate but are an inter-connected system, each influencing and regulating the other in a united relationship of self-monitoring and self-regulation to maintain the body in an optimal state of balance and equilibrium.
Every external process that we encounter in our daily lives interrupts this balance within the system and causes it to expend energy to maintain homeostasis. Within the float pod, external stimuli are eliminated and the mind-body system is able to rest in a state of equilibrium, with energy now being devoted to restoration and balance and a return to the ideal state of health.
Biofeedback is a technique that was designed to allow you to learn to control certain functions of the body through the use of electrical sensors attached to different parts of your body. These sensors monitor functions such as your heart rate, brain waves, skin temperature or muscle tension and their aim is to enhance concentration by focusing on a single, subtle change in the body which is then amplified by the machine.
This singular focus in turn shuts off our awareness of the external environment. The goal of biofeedback is to gain greater awareness of these physiological functions and then to be able to control and manipulate them at will and, eventually, without the use of equipment. Within the environment of the float pod, every physical sensation is magnified and, without outside distraction, you are able to focus on any particular area or system of the body.
Areas that are normally ignored outside the pod are felt as powerful presences inside. This intense awareness of internal signals combined with the deep state of relaxation makes floatation pods natural biofeedback machines.
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