M M Owen writes: The floatation tank was invented in 1954. Amid debates over whether consciousness was a purely reactive phenomenon or generated by resources of its own making in the mind, the neuroscientist John Lilly arrived at a novel way to examine the problem: isola te the mind from all sources of external stimulation, and see how it behaved. Serendipitously, Lilly’s place of work, the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, possessed a sealed, soundproof tank, built during the Second World War to facilitate Navy experiments on the metabolisms of deep-sea divers. The first floatation tank was born. It resembled a large upright coffin, in which the floater was suspended in water, head engulfed in a rubber breathing mask. Despite this grim setup, during his floats Lilly perceived that the mind was far from merely reactive, and that ‘many, many states of consciousness’ emerged from total isolation. He was hooked.
Lilly was the sort of scientist it’s hard to imagine rising to prominence today. Alongside inventing the first floatation tank, he was an evangelist of psychedelics fascinated by human-dolphin communication and convinced that a council of invisible cosmic entities governed reality. Despite a mixed reputation among his scientific peers, Lilly’s almost single-handed promotion of floating in the 1960s caused it to catch on. In 1972, the computer programmer Glenn Perry attended one of Lilly’s floating workshops, and was so taken with the tank experience that, over the following year, he designed the first inexpensive tanks for home use. To this day, his so-called ‘Samadhi’ tanks (after the ultimate stage in meditation) remain among the most popular, with retail prices starting at around $11,000.
Cultural notables such as the polymath Gregory Bateson and the self-help guru Werner Erhard visited Lilly’s Malibu home and tried out his tank. Word spread. In 1979, Perry opened the first commercial float centre in Beverly Hills.[Continue reading…]