Human evolution can be described as a constant expansion of our consciousness, physically by reaching new places and mentally by exploring different realities. These explorations have offered us the knowledge to develop from the primitive, unarmed creatures we were, to today’s ‘wise’ men who are able to predict and to some extend control the forces of the nature. During the 20th century humankind have reached physically into space as far as up to the moon and mentally explored within its own self in depths never reached before.
The story of the Isolation Tank (IT) is a story of a device created to explore new realities within our brain never experienced before. This essay gives a brief definition of what the IT is and the historical framework in which it was created. Furthermore, it is discussed whether people do experienced different, unfamiliar realities through the IT as early studies on IT have supported, or whether the ‘bizarre’ experiences recorded in the IT where a myth as more recent studies suggest. Finally there are discussed some of the main applications that the Isolation Tank has today.
Even before defining what the IT is, it is more important to know why it was created. In the 1950’s the IT was initially created in order to answer a fundamental question in neurophysiology. This question was: ‘How does our brain remain conscious’. At that time there were two dominant hypotheses. According to the first one our brain remains conscious because it is always stimulated by external stimuli- even during sleep. In contrast, according to the second hypothesis there are innate mechanisms in our brain that keeps us conscious no matter of external stimulation (Lilly, 1988).
A solution to that debate would be to create an environment free from external stimuli and test what would happen to the brain. Would the brain get into a coma according to the first hypothesis from lack of external stimulation, or the innate mechanisms of the brain would retain it conscious as the second hypothesis supported? In 1954 the neurologist John C. Lilly succeeded to create a unique environment free from external stimuli and named it Isolation Tank. The Isolation Tank is a sound-proof and light-proof container.
The container is filled with 30-40cm of salted water maintained at a temperature of 35. 5 C. A person enters the IT floats on his/her back without effort. Ideally inside the IT someone will experience a monotonous environment isolated from all external stimuli (eg. light, sound, gravity, temperature differences). Dr. Lilly ( 1977) found that the human brain remains conscious even in a monotonous environment supporting the second hypothesis and solving the debate. But if people remain conscious and alert in an environment like this, what do they experience when the door of the Isolation Tank closes?
According to the early studies on the effects of the IT, it is suggested that people go through four main states (Bexton, Heron & Scott, 1954; Lilly, 1956; Zuckerman, 1964). Firstly a person experience a sense of relaxation for a few minutes before it enters into a second state of severe ‘hunger’ for stimuli. At this second state the brains ‘starves’ for external stimulation and is described as a highly stressful and frustrating experience lasting about 45 minutes. If a person succeeds to control him/herself and remain in the tank enters into the third state.
The third state is a state of relaxation similar to the one when we are daydreaming. Finally, after this third state it is reported that some people have experience a fourth state were various ‘unfamiliar’ feelings ranging from experiences of unknown realities, vivid inner-self trips, spiritual peaks and hallucinations occur (Bexton, Heron & Scott, 1954; Lilly, 1956; Zuckerman, 1964). These rather bizarre findings intrigued scientists to find how does the IT affect humans. According to Dr.
Lilly (1956) the unique stimuli-free environment of the IT has succeed to activate for the first time in a control and systematic way innate mechanisms of the brain that help us to reach higher states of consciousness otherwise reached through meditation or drugs. Furthermore Dr. Lilly suggested that in everyday life these innate mechanisms are masked from various activities and the outside ‘noise’ (Lilly,1956). So it seemed that the effect of the IT in humans was to activate innate mechanisms of the brain that are leading to higher states of consciousness.
However, later studies proved that these first impressions of the IT were misleading based on faulty structured experiments. Faults like small groups of self-selected and non-representative subjects, a lack of control treatments and the presence of experimental artifacts has been found in the earlier studies on the IT (Suedfeld, 1980). These faulty results together with a great amount of impressive and bizarre anecdotal material and articles from the popular media emphasizing the supposedly strange consequences of the IT on humans formed the popular myth of the IT as a mysterious and mystical device.
A myth that also became a very successful movie during the 80’s. The movie was the ‘Altered States’, providing a highly dramatized version of the IT procedure to the public where the actor William Hart was shown to enter the IT as a civilized 20th century man dramatically transformed and coming out of the IT as a wild primitive human (Melnick, 1980). So once we found that all these bizarre stories about the IT were just a myth, what it remain of the IT? Today many researchers regard the IT as an unquestionable unique environment that can induce deep relaxation.
During the 1990’s, more careful studies have discovered numerous new applications of the IT in applied psychophysiology and health psychology with predictable and powerful effects ( Fine & Turner, 1993). Focused on the ‘deep relaxation’ effect that can evoke, IT today is a very useful tool in a wide range of therapies and programs ranging from performance enhancement and pain management to therapies of people with chronic depression and other psychiatric disorders.
Summing up, firstly we gave the historical framework in which the IT was created and we defined what the IT is. Secondly we discussed the findings of the early studies on the IT and the first impressions for its bizarre effects on human subjects. Furthermore, we saw how the faulty results these early experiments, together with anecdotal material and the role of the popular media were the active ingredients that formed the myth of the IT as a mystical device.
Also we discussed how recent better-designed studies proved false the early impressions about the IT and generate a numerous new applications of the IT especially in psychophysiology and health psychology. In overall it become obvious that although our first impressions of the effects of the IT were just a myth, the story of the IT hasn’t completed yet. At this moment, all around the world numerous researchers use the IT as a tool in their explorations inside the human brain extracting knowledge with unpredictable applications for our lives in the future.