A History of Humans and Sensory Reduction


“Human beings are born with a drive to experience modes of awareness other than the normal waking one; from very young ages, children experiment with techniques to change consciousness. Such experiences are normal.” 

“It is valuable to learn to enter other states deliberately and consciously because such experiences are doorways to fuller use of the nervous system, to the realisation of untapped human potential, and to better function in the ordinary mode of consciousness.”

–Andrew Weil, ‘The Natural Mind’


The float tank is a valuable specific tool for cutting down the amount of external stimuli that reach our senses, probably the best sensory deprivation device ever created. But humans have been using tools and techniques of various sorts for exactly this purpose for thousands, probably millions of years. The following are just a few of the most common:


Preparation for the Hunt

In primitive societies, like those our own civilization has evolved from, men prepare themselves before going out on a hunt by withdrawing from normal activities and “purifying” themselves through fasting, silence, steam baths, and/or isolation, either within a small shelter or alone in some spot away from village life. They believe that this sensory restriction improves their hunting abilities; and recent tests, demonstrating that short periods of sensory deprivation increase acuity of smell, taste, sight, and hearing, show that ancient hunters knew what they were doing.


Rites of Passage

In every premodern society an important ceremony marks the passage from childhood to acceptance into adult society. These rites of passage gain much of their power from the inclusion of more or less arduous sensory deprivation as part of the preparation. Some young people are confined for days or weeks to darkened huts, or undertake fasts. In many cultures the boys are expected to go out alone into the wilderness for long periods until they have experienced their spiritual coming of age, by confronting demons, ghosts, ancestral spirits, or dreams – the dream quest. Whatever the sensory deprivation technique used, it works in part by making the young people more open to new experience, new wisdom, new responsibility, by making them more sensitive and aware, so that the experiences they undergo will be intensified, momentous, unforgettable.


“When one or more senses are restricted,
the sensitivity of the other senses is expanded.”


Spiritual Withdrawal

In every culture some sort of sensory deprivation experience has been considered essential in the training of spiritual leaders. Shamans, with doctors, monks, priests, gurus, fakirs, yogis, priestesses, mediums, mystics, and other spiritual seekers endure frequent and often rigorous periods of total silence, fasting, retreat into small cells or caves or dark rooms, withdrawal to mountaintops or deserts or islands where isolation can be combined with restricted or monotonous sensory input…hermits, monks, and seekers of enlightenment have always found sensory reduction…an important part of all mystical, transcendental, or revelatory states.


Creative Isolation

Numerous profound aesthetic experiences, and moments of creative illumination, insight, or revelation have occurred in circumstances in which sensory input has been reduced in some way. We all know stories of artists or scientists whose sudden creative intuitions or revelations have come to them in the confines of the “artist’s garret” or while staring into the fireplace or walking on the beach with attention turned inward. In fact, one of the essential elements of all creative thought is concentration gained through some sort of restriction of sensory stimulation.


In conclusion

…it should be clear by now that the use of sensory isolation has a long and respectable history, and should not be viewed as mere escapism.

Sensory restriction is an effective way of turning toward reality, of increasing our sensitivity to and awareness of the world as it is.

Altered states of consciousness have been found to share a number of general characteristics, among them alteration in thinking, changes in the sense of time, changes in body image, a sense of the ineffable, feelings of rejuvenation, hypersuggestibility, change in emotional expression, and temporary release from ego control.



The above excerpt is from The Book of Floating by Michael Hutchison.

Cover artwork by Moonassi

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