I am a fairly avid scuba diver and have done plenty of diving at night. One one particular dive in Thailand, I was the first person in our group to descend under the water, armed only with a flashlight and glow stick. When I had hit the requisite depth and was waiting for my companions to join me, I decided to briefly relax, turn off my flashlight, and drift. I couldn’t see anything in the dark and the crackling sounds of the sea were a background of white noise. I was weightless, the water was warm and I was cut off from almost any sensory input. The whole experience was very calming, I imagine that it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being back in the womb.
While this entire episode lasted no more than a minute (it’s dangerous to keep your flashlight off for too long underwater as the flashlight acts as a beacon, showing your location to other divers), I remember it very vividly. As it turns out, a niche industry exists that offers a very similar sensation. At “float houses” across North America, you can enter salt water tanks that suspend your body in silent darkness, offering almost total sensory deprivation. With my limited experience, I could somewhat understand the immediate appeal of trying something new and different, but why anybody would do this long term was a little beyond me. Fortunately, there is a body of scientific research attempting to explain exactly that.
There is a small collection of evidence suggesting that sensory deprivation enhances creativity, a theory sensory deprivation enthusiasts have been championing since the 1950’s. The primary idea behind this theory is that deprivation actually stimulates certain brain regions. The auditory and visual cortices, trying to find patterns where there are none, show increased activity and sensitivity that can result in hallucinations. Additionally, people who have recently undergone sensory deprivation are more likely to generate free imagery and remote associations.
Most research on sensory deprivation, however, finds that the most likely benefits of the process relate to focus, coordination and concentration. In this way, sensory deprivation functions very similarly to sleep, meditation and mindfulness practices. In fact, sensory deprivation can almost be thought of as a form of meditation in and of itself, putting the brain in a state of rest where it is more apt at consolidating information from disparate brain regions. While many beginners have trouble dealing with more traditional forms of meditation, such as sitting meditation (which I have trouble doing in almost any position without my feet falling asleep), the complete removal of all distractions makes sensory deprivation appealing.