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Sensory Deprivation Therapy – Does it Work?

By Jiri Kaloc

Have you heard of darkness therapy and flotation tanks? Did you know they are supposed to make you more creative, less anxious, and happier? Let’s take a closer look at sensory deprivation therapy to see if it’s worth trying.

Even though names like darkness therapy or flotation tank sound like some new age pseudo-science, there’s actually a good amount of research behind these things. Neuroscientist John C. Lilly is credited with first experimenting with floatation therapy in the 1950s. At the time, the technique was just one branch of a larger field referred to as sensory deprivation. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, academic research continued into the positive effects of sensory deprivation techniques, including stress relief and enhanced memory and learning.

What is REST?

A few of the emerging leaders in the field, including Dr Peter Suedfeld and Dr R.A. Borrie, coined the term Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) around 1980. It is commonly classified into two categories: flotation REST, where subjects float in a saline water tank for about one hour, and chamber REST, where subjects spend one to two full days in a dark, quiet room.

Chamber REST

In this modality of REST, the participant stays alone in a room which is usually equipped with a bed, armchair, and toilet. The room provides restricted stimulation (darkness, quiet, reduced mobility, solitude). Food and drink are provided. The individual usually stays for 24 hours but in some cases longer while having therapeutic support available. Chamber REST has been linked in a handful of studies to successful habit modification.

Darkness therapy emerged as a variation of chamber REST. In this modality the individual stays in total darkness for a week or even longer and the room is also equipped with a shower, and sometimes a stationary bicycle. The individual is able to talk to a therapist when they are brought food and drink. It is a relatively new variation but early research shows that people who undergo the procedure come out of the chamber with significantly lower self-reported levels of depression and anxiety. It is hypothesised that spending extended periods of time in the dark might increase individual’s levels of the hormone melatonin, which is linked to sleep regulation, cardiovascular functioning, and the development of cancer.


Flotation REST

During flotation REST, an individual is floating inside a soundproof and dark tank, filled with a skin-temperature salt saturated water. In studies, flotation REST has been linked to a host of psychological and physiological benefits, from elevated mood to reduced stress to improved athletic ability and increased creativity.

The emerging research as well as the fact that in the 1970s, commercial float tanks were created, the popularity of this type of sensory deprivation is on the rise. Newer studies suggest time spent floating in a sensory deprivation tank may have some benefits even in healthy people, such as muscle relaxation, better sleep, and a decrease in pain, stress, and anxiety.

It definitely seems like there is something to this type of therapy, but is it safe? And what specific health and other benefits can you expect? You will find out in the rest of this series.

Next up in Sensory Deprivation Therapy series