I think it’s time we addressed the giant metaphorical elephant in the salty metaphorical room:
There are lots of exaggerated and untrue claims about the benefits of floating being spread around the industry.
Some are anecdotal, some are only half true, and some are just patently false. Floating has historically had a strong oral tradition tied to it — the practice has survived through word-of-mouth, one passionate floater teaching another everything they know. The unfortunate thing about this is that the information disseminated can’t be reliably tested or shared with others on a broader scale. You can’t use “my buddy Chris” as a source for a health benefit in a newspaper article, much less for a research paper.
Now that we’re becoming a bit more mainstream, we thought it would be nice to add some clarity to what we should and shouldn’t be telling people about these difficult-to-understand, saliferous containers.
You needn’t look any further than the flat earthers to know that you can’t trust everything you read. Let’s start with addressing some of the claims I’ve seen personally that need to be called out as false.
CLAIM: Floating offers you 8 hours worth of sleep in 2 hours (or 90 minutes or 60 minutes depending on how their float schedule works).
REALITY: While a float session is immensely restful, and early data shows that it’s an ideal recovery environment for the body and mind, this claim is pulled out of thin air and has no scientific backing.
CLAIM: Floating will remove “toxins” from your cells. Sometimes this is specifically referenced as “heavy metals” to sound more official. Often this will be tied to the benefits of magnesium absorption.
REALITY: Make no mistake, there isn’t any empirical evidence to back up a claim like this. Even the assertion that floating improves magnesium absorption isn’t currently backed by any real scientific evidence (although there are studies being done now through the Mayo Clinic).
CLAIM: Improved mental abilities. Sometimes this is stated as “super learning” or better critical thinking skills or what have you.
REALITY: While there have been studies on improved creativity and memory retention, the most common claims don’t line up with the science. The improvements in learning capabilities shown so far are marginal and aren’t likely to turn you into a super genius just from floating in the tank.
CLAIM: Floating is an addiction treatment.
REALITY: This one is confusing because there actually is a wealth of information on Chamber REST (sensory isolation rooms) being helpful for smoking cessation and addiction. The same benefit hasn’t been replicated in scientific studies for floating, especially not given the durations of the floats most centers usually offer. To further confound this, there is tons of anecdotal evidence to suggest it can help with addiction management and withdrawal symptoms, but there aren’t any peer-reviewed studies on the subject. When in doubt, leave it out.
CLAIM: You’ll experience increased Theta brain wave activity while floating.
REALITY: This isn’t so much inaccurate as much as it is simply misunderstood. There are many tank users who talk about the “theta state” like it’s some higher plane of existence. While floaters do enter a sort of “theta state” in the tank where that particular wave function in the brain is more active, the brain is poorly understood and broad categorizations of brainwave frequencies are simplistic and difficult to decipher. Until 2016, there weren’t any serious studies done on brain activity inside a float tank (even that hasn’t been replicated yet, so it’s not conclusive). Even if we are able to see that there are increases in Theta wave in the float tank, we’re not entirely sure what ultimate impact that has on ones brain or mental health.
CLAIM: Floating induces hallucinations.
REALITY: They happen… sometimes, for some people. No one is sure exactly why being in a sensory reduced environment can lead to visual and auditory hallucinations, but sometimes it does. I think this is a double edged sword — some people come to float centers expecting this and can end up disappointed and never come back when they don’t appear. Others are turned off by the idea, and so never come in to begin with. The best way to combat this is simply to acknowledge that it doesn’t happen for everybody and shouldn’t be the sole reason people get in the tank.
Denial of Authority
Unfortunately, even reliable information can seem bogus to the most skeptical of skeptics. In the field of alternative wellness, anything an expert says is automatically suspect. It’s not a stretch to think of a float tank as “that scientific meditation box filled with salt that was invented by a psychonaut that spoke to dolphins,” or as “those sensory deprivation things endorsed by Joe Rogan and John Lennon.” However, with more and more endorsements coming from credible sources (like the Navy, Olympians, and NBA superstars), it’s becoming easier to refute critics that want to see it as a “fringe” health modality.
So how do we, as stewards of this fantastic technology, combat this?
With accurate information.
I’ve seen float advocates who, nervous about sounding like they’re peddling snake oil, only talk about the relaxation and stress reduction benefits to floating. While the science on floating and stress is solid, and it absolutely is worth advocating, there’s so much more that we should be comfortable talking about.
Some of the known benefits that are backed up with research are:
Beyond just the endorsements from athletes, there are numerous studies about float REST being an effective tool to reduce physical recovery times and improve the benefits of training in areas like archery, rifle marksmanship, and basketball. Athletes that float regularly get back into peak physical shape in a shorter amount of time vs. those that don’t. Athletes that don’t see a benefit from additional training, or have otherwise plateaued, have shown incremental improvement from floating. Bigger, Stronger, Faster, and much cheaper than $6 million, to boot.
This is the counterpoint to the “superlearning” claim from earlier. The mental benefits of floating do show improvements in creative and abstract thinking and problem solving. In a test with five researchers over a 6 month period, they found that after floating, the researchers were able to come up with more creative ideas. In a test with 40 subjects, a standardized test used to measure creativity showed consistent large improvements in the group that floated vs. the control.
This is the benefit that most seems like you’re trying to sell a miracle drug, but fortunately there’s enough evidence to comfortably support it, especially if you take a look at the effects floating has on fibromyalgia. As a poorly understood condition, it’s effects (even in controlled research) are entirely reliant on self-reporting. Those self-reported pain levels drop after floating, and they stay reduced for several days or even weeks in some cases.Other chronic pain, like muscle tension and the pain associated with it is drastically reduced in self-reporting after using the float tank, with effects that last for weeks or months after even a single treatment.
There have been numerous studies on using float REST as a treatment for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, showing a marked improvement in pain management when using floating, comparable or even exceeding prescription medications in managing it. The float tank has even been used as a recovery tool for things like chronic whiplash and has proven remarkably effective.
Stress reduction/improved mental health
Again, this is probably the most well established benefit. Be wary of mentioning specifics of things that haven’t been replicated like “blood cortisol levels being reduced,” but there is definitely a recordable stress-reduction component to floating. What we do know is that regardless of age, gender, or life quality, people who float experience a drastic decrease in self-reported stress, with an effect that lasts weeks or even months after a single session. The tangible benefits that are consistently reported are lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and more restful sleep. Most “stress related ailments” have shown improvement by using a float tank.
If you want a broader summary of everything we know about floating, check out our About Float Tanks Guide. It has concise explanations on all the benefits we know of with float research, a timeline on the history of the float industry, and an answer to just about every question someone would have about floating. It has been reviewed by members of the float industry, including researchers and scientists from around the world.
You also can find every resource we linked to in this post and more in our Scientific Research List. It is the most comprehensive and up to date list of research in the industry, spanning everything in the last 60 years.