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Thinking Inside the Box

A little sensory deprivation helps the overstimulation go down.

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It's a strange experience to see the exact same thing whether your eyes are open or closed. You can turn out all the lights in a room and your eyes will eventually adjust, at least a little. But last Thursday I was in a place so pitch-black mine never did.

SpaceTime Tanks, located below street level on Lincoln near Fullerton, has four sensory deprivation tanks and claims, at 24, to be the oldest center of its kind in the world. I arrived in the early evening and was greeted by Eric Polcyn, the bright-eyed, cheery owner. He showed me where to stash my shoes, under a bench by the door, next to four or five other pairs, then handed me a clipboard with a release form.

I was pretty nervous about getting in the tank. I can become overwhelmed to the point of panic by the vastness of a night sky in the middle of nowhere, and I was afraid being confined in the nothingness of the tank might have the same effect. I also have a mild dream phobia--I'm scared of what my mind will think of when left to run wild. But my summer housemate is an avid floater, and when he comes home from a session he looks completely blissed out. So I went ahead and checked the box next to the statement "I am fully responsible for my thoughts and actions."

Before the hour-long session began, Polcyn delivered a spiel on theories of floating that lasted almost as long. "Original researchers," he said, "were interested in how our nervous systems work: Are we robots? What is a human being?" Whoa, buddy, easy on the Philip K. Dick shit. In a tank, "you become the main source of information," Polcyn continued, "and you start wondering: Who are you? What are you? What's going on?"

He said he'd knock on the door of the tank when the hour was up, and I'd emerge into the glow of a heat lamp--its red light would let me know that it was time, that I wasn't hearing an "unofficial knock." Um, "unofficial knock"? I was afraid to ask.

He left, and I showered as instructed. Then I pushed in the foam earplugs provided and opened the door to an eight-foot-long, four-foot-tall chamber, slightly wider than my wingspan, filled with a solution of water and 800 pounds of Epsom salts. Neither the door to the tank nor the one to my room had a lock, which was simultaneously reassuring and distressing: I wouldn't be trapped, but then again, anyone could bust in at any time.

I stepped into the tank, crouching, and let the door close behind me. I squatted, then sat--the bottom of the tank was grainy--then finally lay down, and immediately bobbed to the surface. It felt like the most comfortable bed in the world, perfectly molded to every different position I tried.

Gradually I took my mind off its leash, first paying attention to sounds. I could hear the air filter toward the back faintly buzzing away, and every noise my body made was amplified, as if I were under an enormous stethoscope. I did, in fact, hear knocking sounds, and I'm not sure where they came from, but there was no red light so I stayed put.

I opened my eyes and stared into the never-ending blackness. Eventually I saw my eyes looking back at me, blinking when I blinked, and I felt so embarrassed by my own corny visual that it turned on me. A snout and maw full of sharp teeth appeared to complete the face, and when it snapped at me I sat up sputtering, groping for the door. I splashed my face, the emulsion burning my eyes, and knocked out an earplug. My body felt so heavy it took a year to get to the opening; after that I propped open the door with a towel so I could have a bit of light.

Polcyn told me the hour would go by both fast and slow, but it crawled. Starship's "We Built This City" was stuck in my head almost the whole time, which was the opposite of relaxing. It felt similar to being on a tanning bed--holding still in a small, enclosed space and letting your mind wander. But while the tank was boring, at times excruciatingly so, tanning is all danger, sizzle, and stimulation, the crackly hot yang to floating's gentle yin. But reentering the atmosphere after a tanning session makes everything feel sharp and cold and slow by comparison. After my experience in the flotation tank, I emerged to a world of softened corners and hazy light, possessed by stillness.

At Lollapalooza two days later, the effect still hadn't worn off. I wandered through Grant Park in a bit of a daze, a hundred unfamiliar faces whizzing by every second, and wondered, just as Polcyn said I would, Where am I? What's my role in all this?

The media tent was bustling as only a tent full of people who tell kids what's cool could: the atmosphere was calculatedly casual with an air of self-importance. I headed into the crowd, where it seemed like more people were talking to their friends than actually watching the bands.

The two girlfriends I was supposed to meet got special all-access passes that allowed them to sit in the bleachers on the side of the stage where Sonic Youth was playing, so I stayed with the hoi polloi, behind the lawn barricade, where I could see my friends clearly, and they could see me too. We waved. They didn't come down to say hello.

I watched them wiggle a little to Sonic Youth's lackluster set, but they mostly chatted with each other. If they weren't interested in the music, why were they even there?

Then I got off my high horse and realized that I do the same thing: I like going places just for the special treatment, whether or not I care about the actual event. Some time ago I decided my place was in the VIP bleachers. I have the flotation tank to thank for changing that, if only for a day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer, Marty Perez.

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