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Floatation Tanks and Psychedelics, Oh My!

“You don’t have to suffer continual chaos in order to grow.” A simple sentence of complex proportions made by Dr. John C. Lilly, a neurophysiologist and psychoanalyst who, among other things, conducted research in 1954 to examine how the brain would react when it was denied external stimulation.

This research brought about the development of isolation tanks. Lilly writes of his experiments and the tanks, “In our experiments, the subject is suspended with the body and all but the top of the head immersed in a tank containing slowly flowing water at 34.5 degrees C. (94.5 degrees F.), wears a helmet (enclosing the whole head) for breathing and wears nothing else. The water temperature is such that the subject feels neither hot nor cold. The experience is such that a large fraction of the usual pressures on the body caused by gravity are lacking. The sound level is low, one hears only one’s own breathing and some faint water sounds from the piping; the water-air interface does not transmit airborne sounds very efficiently. It is one of the most even and monotonous environments I have experienced.” He also noted, “I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe. I gradually began to see through to another reality. I didn’t know about alternate realities at that time, but I was experiencing them right and left without any LSD.”

Joe Fambo

These isolation tank research studies by Lilly resulted in what are known today as Floatation Spas. The Flo is one one such spa in Buffalo, and is owned by Joe Fambo and Sam Galbo. I recently visited and met with Fambo to learn about the modern day isolation tank experience.

Beginning with the basics, Fambo and Galbo opened The Flo just four years ago on Allen Street, across from Mulligans Brick Bar. The 1,500 square foot space has two sensory deprivation floatation tanks, each holding 350 gallons of water, 1,350 pounds of epsom salt, and nothing else. The tanks’ dimensions are 5 feet wide by 10 feet long, resulting in about 14-16 inches of water depth with a continuous water temperature between 95-97 delightful Fahrenheit degrees that produce that feeling Lilly described as neither hot nor cold to the body.

Unlike most floatation spas, The Flo’s tanks are commercial grade Float Lab tanks with UL certification, a nationally recognized safety standard. The Flo is the only business in the region using these $55,000 tanks that only require water and epsom salt. No chorine, bromine, or chemicals of any kind are used as they are in other tanks that do not carry UL certification and therefore need to meet spa requirements.

Fambo learned of floatation tanks while listening to a Joe Rogan podcast on the subject, and looked into the health benefits of floating and discovered that they were plentiful. Having grown up in an alternative household with a mom who was a holistic healer, and where yoga, meditation, and juicing were daily regimens, Fambo understood the benefits of Homeopathy and the concepts behind sensory deprivation tanks. Floatation therapy was something he could wrap his head around and felt he could turn into a business.

He explained that during a float, your brain waves travel through several patterns. Fambo described what happens to your brain during a 90-minute float as follows:

  • Before you enter the tank, your brain is operating in Gamma (heightened, insightful) or Beta (alert, conscious) waves.
  • After entering the tank and closing the door, secluded in darkness, wearing earplugs so the only sound you hear is your breath, and floating with no intentional physical movement, your brain waves change to Alpha (mental and physical relaxation) waves within 30 minutes. During this time, muscles begin to relax and the spine begins to expand.
  • After another 15 minutes with no intentional movement Theta (creative, insight, dreamlike, deep meditation, and reduced consciousness) waves take over. It is in this state that the maximum benefits occur, as well as the potential for hallucinogenic-like effects.

Floating has several physical and mental benefits. This brain wave odyssey has been beneficial in treating anxiety and depression as well as brain injuries. According to Healthline.com, “A 2018 study showed that a single one-hour session in a sensory deprivation tank was capable of a significant reduction in anxiety and improvement in mood in the 50 participants with stress and anxiety-related disorders.” Fambo maintains that the psychological effects of one 90-minute float can remain with you for several days.

Healthline also states, “The effect of sensory deprivation tank therapy on chronic pain has been confirmed by several studies. It is shown to be effective in treating tension headaches, muscle tension, and pain.” Fambo said that for more intense pain, it is beneficial to float once every 3-5 days for the first month, then somewhat regularly thereafter.

Additionally, the effects of epsom salt’s magnesium replacement through self-regulation via the skin are critical. Magnesium deficiencies are quite common due to a loss of naturally occurring magnesium in over-farmed soil. A deficiency can result in fatigue, muscle aches and cramps, mood problems, migraines, PMS, and irregular sleep patterns. Floating is an easy way to naturally restore this essential nutrient.

After hearing about all these great benefits, I had to give the tank a try for myself. I will admit I was a bit nervous. For one thing, I was concerned I would feel claustrophobic; I don’t care for closed-in spaces, particularly dark ones. Secondly, as a tightly wound, type-A, middle-aged (or so) woman, I was concerned (or terrified) that I would have the feeling of wanting to jump out of my skin lying in water for 90 minutes. Lastly, I thought, would I fall asleep, roll over, drown, and never write this article? But, I figured, I’d just go for it. Here is what happened:

Fambo directed me into a 10’x15’ room with a shower and small changing area along with what looked like a large safe standing seven feet tall. This was the flotation tank. I was instructed to take a shower to wash off any lotions and potions, put earplugs in my ears that were supplied, enter the tank naked, close the door and float trying not to move my body at all. Fambo said that after 90 minutes he would gently knock on the wall to let me know that my time was up.

So I did everything I was instructed to do. After I stepped in and closed the door it was pitch black. I had lain down and found that there was no way I could roll over due to the buoyancy from the salt to water ratio, so I was pretty certain I was not going to drown. Now I needed to relax and not move, the two most difficult things in the world for me to do. After listening to my brain go through a litany of thoughts in a matter of minutes, ranging from what I was going to make for dinner to who will win the 2020 presidential election, I decided to be quiet. I turned to the one thing I knew would help, meditation. With the only sound I heard being my own breath, I purposely concentrated on each muscle of my body working my way from my toes to my head without movement, and it began to work.

I felt completely weightless, and a feeling of utter calmness slowly descended upon me.

I felt completely weightless, and a feeling of utter calmness slowly descended upon me. Contrary to my fear of wanting to jump out of my skin at the prospect of lying still for 90 minutes, I wanted Fambo to take his time knocking on the wall so that I could just stay in that lovely space as long as possible, and I felt myself drifting away, drifting, drifting down a warm lazy river in my mind, not even an ounce of claustrophobia, just sweet stillness and serenity.

Soon I was only disrupted by the occasional sudden twitches of my body as my brain fought to slow down. I know at some point I fell into a light sleep, but no beams of light or hallucinogenic occurrences during this float, sadly. The warm water was so soothing, and as Lilly stated, it was the perfect temperature to somehow sort of not feel its presence, and instead simply feel suspended.

Eventually the knock came on the wall and I exited the tank and took a shower using the organic soap, shampoo, and conditioner available in the shower stall. Towels and a hair dryer are provided as well, so you really need to bring nothing with you for a session.

Afterward, I felt a little different. I couldn’t really pinpoint what the feeling was exactly, but then it dawned on me. I was relaxed. Perhaps the most relaxed I have ever been in my adult life. I truly felt deeply happy, imagine that. Then I realized, the headache I walked in with was gone. I get headaches so often that I don’t even regard them half the time. This intense feeling of calmness quite frankly felt like a drug to me, but so natural and so very appealing. I left telling Fambo that I would certainly be back for more.

For the rest of the day that sense of peace was only slightly overshadowed by my incredibly soft skin that I realized was a great side effect of the whole experience.

Memberships at The Flo are available and are the most economical way to float, you can get pricing on their website as well as book an appointment. There are a couple tips to follow before a float, do not eat a heavy meal or drink coffee before-hand and do not shave that day because the salt water will sting. And don’t worry, the tanks are thoroughly flushed and cleaned after each use.

If you are in need for major some self-care, I highly recommend checking out The Flo to float your cares away.

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Written by Holly Metz Doyle

Holly Metz Doyle

A Buffalo native, Holly spent quite a bit of time traveling the globe, but after living on the West coast for a bit was called back to her roots in Western New York.

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