The film “Altered States” altered my young mind and sent me on a lifelong quest. For those that missed out on this classic bit of abnormal psychology ephemera, a scientist drops some quality ‘shrooms and spends a couple of hours in a sensory deprivation tank. Thereby devolving himself back to a monkey and seeing the beginning of time before turning into a glowing creature that regains its humanity through true love and sacrifice of a good woman.
Yeah, it is a hard sell in 2014 as film pitches go, but in 1980 after 10 years of the 1970s it seemed almost sane and plausible. Seriously, the 70s were really weird.
Anyway, back to my story. The movie inspired me to try a “sensory deprivation tank” in real life. A “sensory deprivation tank” is nothing but a fully enclosed bathtub filled with massive amounts of salt and water heated to body temperature. The salt makes you buoyant and the temperature makes it hard to “feel” the water since there is no temperature difference between your body and the water. The theory is the lack of stimuli reduces stress and opens your mind. More than a few sci-fi writers used the tanks as either a way to drive someone crazy or open their mind enough to develop psychic powers. Though an SDT is not strictly gaming related I thought it fringe enough to call for investigation.
Historically SDTs or “float tanks” (hereafter referred to as “tanks”) existed only in research situations or some fringe medical facility. Happily the tanks caught on as a mediation/new age/relaxation experience and retail operations set up shop in many major cities. I found one literally down the street from my house and signed up for a session.
The float facility was a storefront in a strip mall with an independent coffee shop and a Harbor Freight hardware store. Ok, not exactly zen central, but I went in anyway.
After paying my fee for the hour ($79! Wow, the price of enlightenment really went up.) I followed a chipper young woman to a waiting room with reclining chairs and a flat screen for the orientation video. I embedded the video below for your viewing pleasure.
Full disclosure: neither the strange alien doctor or the fetching girl in the bikini were in my float tank room. Too bad.
After the orientation I entered my private room, which is a locker room/shower on one side and the tank on the other. After a quick (and required) shower I jumped in tank and closed the lid. The lid is only plastic and does not lock from either side. First impression was the water felt…solid. Well not really solid but the hundreds of pounds of salt make the water behave differently than fresh or standard sea water. I floated on top of the water and sinking more than a couple of inches was nearly impossible. As a rookie the first ten minutes in the tank involved some mellow music and an LED light show of gently changing, muted colors before it went black.
Black is just a term. I mean beyond dark. It was Sauron’s soul, bottom of a coal mine black. And quiet, with the only sound a gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the tank. Even this faded as I stopped moving and then it was down to the sound of my breathing and whatever random thought popped into my head.
Then my body disappeared. Not literally, but I could not feel anything in the temperature matched water so my limbs just faded away from my awareness. Stop and think about how your arms and legs feel right now. You feel the chair against your legs, your hands on the mouse, clothes on your shoulders. Imagine it all gone and only nothingness. It took some adjustment to deal with this emptiness.
I settled down after a time (time is beyond meaningless in the tank, so for all I know this took 5 seconds or 5 minutes. I really have no idea) and began mellowing out. Until I reached up to scratch an itch no my forehead. Big mistake. You remember all that salt in the water, well I dripped some into an eye. Sensory deprivation became “my eye is on fire!” They have a small spray bottle of clean water in the tank to wash out the eyes of the foolish and I got the issue resolved. I never made that mistake again.
Calm restored I just let myself go (thank you Star Wars movies for meditation Cliff’s Notes) and floated. Time passed and I started to really get mellow, to really let go of stress. It is at this point the colored flashes started. I hesitate to call them hallucinations because hallucinations in my book are more fun. I want flying pink elephants and or a dog lecturing me on how the CIA mind control satellite will fry my brain unless I wear a tin foil hat. Instead I got little flashes of color in my visual field. Think of fireworks watched from a great distance on a cloudy night. Since I thought I was fully aware at this point I find it more likely they are a function of my visual cortex or random firings of my optic nerve. Since I rarely spend extended periods in complete darkness it may happen all the time for all I know. It was a fascinating show.
Finally the session ended with the filtering system starting up and the lights came on. Neither of which bothered me much, but what did bother me was gravity! After an hour of easy floating with zero effort my limbs felt so heavy, almost leaden that it caught me off guard. Took me a second to get my land legs back.
A quick shower and I was out the door.
As this is the first post of my “Versus” series I am going to play around with a scoring system for each of the experiences. My current criteria uses a 10 point scale for the following categories:
Cost: How much did it cost to attempt this experience?
Personal Risk: How likely is this activity to widow my wife?
Cool: The ephemeral awesomeness or lack of a specific experience
Gamer Cred: Will gamers shake in awe when you tell your tale at the gaming table?
So for the sensory deprivation tank I give the following scores:
Cost: 8 $80. That is per hour, so it would add up fast if you take it up as a hobby. Better deals can be had if you get a monthly membership.
Personal Risk: 1 Short of having a heart attack in the tank you will walk away alive.
Cool: 4 Face it, you are floating in a bathtub and contemplating your navel.
Gamer Cred: 5 “You did what last weekend?” “Did you drop acid or devolve?” Some cred possible, but not epic levels. Most people just look at you funny.
Although a bit out there, a float tank was a worthwhile experience and might give some extra flavor to those next RPG adventures in an insane asylum or when you’re describing a dark experiment. Trust me that adding drugs to a tank session is a remarkably bad idea. It was odd enough sober adding psychoactive chemicals would push this into the “I just saw a Great Old One” and “You lost 15 SAN” territory and spend the next couple of years in a padded room. Ultimately the point of these posts is to add some real world depth to an RPG session and for gaming the stranger the experience the better the game (see Numenera.) Give sensory deprivation a try, you might find Nirvana…or a new way to torture your PCs!
Trask, The Last Tyromancer