Deprivation and focus

Last year I spent an hour in a sensory deprivation tank and thoroughly enjoyed the experience — so much so that I mentioned it to a friend and before I knew it ABC News had dubbed me a “floating enthusiast“. Well, the celebrity has worn off and I’m still a float tank devotee. Last Thursday I returned to the tanks, but this time I was armed with a waterproof iPod case and underwater headphones.

It all goes back to Autour de la Lune, the haunting, minimalist album by Geir Jenssen aka Biosphere. Many months ago I had commented to a friend that the harmonically rich drones from this album coupled with a removal of non-auditory sensory input (such as when partially submerged in a bathtub) was like an out-of-body experience. My friend mentioned that, in fact, there were real sensory deprivation chambers in Chicago. And thus the story picks up. The first two times in the tank I was in silence, listening only to my breathing getting slower and the pulsation of blood through my inner ear.

But this time I was ready for audio. Call it extreme sensory focus, if you will, enabled by a deprivation of all other sensations. The unit worked flawelessly. I floated as normal, iPod on my chest. The ear inserts which sound awful out of water came alive when submerged. The water in the tank acted a bit like a speaker diaphragm. It was like my head was in the middle of a surround sound field. Truly audiophile-quality listening.

I chose Autour de la Lune because it was the music that originally got me thinking of sensory deprivation, but more importantly it was the only kind of music that I felt would work with the timeless, motionless nature of the tank. My reasoning was that any kind of music that conveyed the passage of time — that is, music with a beat, or with lyrics, or with any kind of discernible structure or movement at all, indeed anything with discrete tracks — would jar you out of the hypnagogic stasis of the tank. Jenssen’s opus fit the bill perfectly. While there are tracks on the album the tones blend seamlessly throughout. There is absolutely no way of knowing where you are in any individual track as the timbres and harmonics cycle, overlap, and interact. (Sample here, here, and here.) I must say, it worked beautifully in the tank.

The album is the result of Jenssen’s access to Radio France’s archival recordings of a dramatization of Jules Verne’s De La Terre A La Lune (From Earth To Moon). You’d think this was a factor in my selection too, since a float in the nothingness of the tank must in some way approximate a spacewalk or the noiseless, lightless experience of deep space. Alas, this only occured to me after the fact. Truth is, the experience is more about inner space than outer space.

As in previous silent floats I found myself coming in and out of lucid mental moments. The music was enveloping; it felt like I literally floated in it. At times I forgot I was hearing anything and just drifted off into thought or a kind of dream. I do know that these brief flares of dream-like visions were much more intense than in silent floats. (No hallucinogens or controlled substances involved.*) Twice I recall having vivid flashes of people becoming increasingly more physically deformed. But these were brief, not part of any larger dream narrative — for one, I wasn’t asleep — just glimpses of something from my mind.

A few times I was unable to distinguish the music from the sound of nothingness. I don’t mean silence. Even a silent tank is quite loud after a while. Your ears can ring from the noise of your vascular system doing its work. (The tanks provide earplugs, if you like.) Because so much of Autour de la Lune is composed of harmonics at the extreme ends of the sonic frequency there were times when I did not know what I was hearing — music, myself, or the echo of both in the reverberant saltwater solution.

To me the best ambient music effects the same kind of experience as a sensory deprivation tank, focusing the mind, providing a sense of envelopment, and effacing the passage of time. If NASA won’t let me tool around in the Manned Maneuvering Unit, I guess this is the next best thing.

[*] I did eat the better part of a poppyseed coffee cake that morning, so it is possible that I had a higher than normal level of opiates in my body. I’m pretty sure I was unaffected by this.