When I was a child, I stayed up late one night cramming for an exam. In search of distraction and escape, I closed my eyes and looked, really looked. At first, I saw nothing. And then, for a moment, a vast constellation of unfathomable depth and dimensionality burst to life in my mind’s eye. In that fleeting, yet indelible moment, I felt what psychonaut John C. Lilly spent his life expounding: there are infinities within the mind.
Altered States (1980) is based loosely on Lilly’s invention of isolation tanks, which are filled with salt concentrated water heated to skin temperature, allowing people to float in a sound and light-free environment. In this film, as well as other fictional depictions, sensory deprivation (in conjunction with psychoactive stimulation) is a portal to psychic depths, cosmic scales, primordial states, and parallel worlds.
Developed from Cold War interrogation techniques, isolation tanks have been rebranded into an industry. Flotation therapy unplugs us from digital overstimulation into a meditative theta brainwave state, priming us for the alleviation of chronic pain, optimization of performance, and the New Age transcendence of self. As its foremost proponent, comedian Joe Rogan describes floating as peeling off the sensory distraction of the body and the linguistic clutter of the brain to arrive at a state of pure thought, where he contemplates the mysteries of the universe and refines his comedy routines.
This fusion of sublime revelation and occupational optimization encapsulates our current phase of psychonautic capitalism. Like “technodelics” that use VR and wearable neurostimulation to mirror pharmacological psychedelic states, isolation tanks are designed to channel noetic qualities into creativity on demand. In these pandemic times, digital connection is no longer an obligation but a lifeline as we stand alone together in solidarity. As isolation takes on new meaning in quarantine and being alone with our thoughts is no longer a premium experience, time will tell how the psychonautic journey will reroute the self, society, and the cosmos through technology.