plant in front of float tank

From Tablet to Tactile: Curing Digital Sickness

Between you and me, I might have gone into my first flotation experience expecting sci-fi pods and robots. I guess you could say my goal was to have my body entirely engulfed, transporting me away from my physical and mental being and completely connecting me to my inner spirit.

Movies such as Bird Box, A Quiet Place, and Hush may not have received rave reviews for their cinematography, but they did attract the attention of approximately 45 million Netflix viewers, possibly because of their similar underlying plot – sensory deprivation.

After seeing so much about this trend, I decided to try it myself to see if I truly could transcend beyond the constraints of my mind, like many shows and films had led me to believe. Reality, however, was not as cinematic as my imagination, or what recent media has led me to believe.

H2O Float Spa was the best stage for my experience. In an interesting parallel, it sits across from the Danforth Music Hall, where people go to have their senses overloaded, rather than deprived.

Floating is mistakenly considered a method of sensory deprivation, but it’s actually a form of sensory enhancement, says H2O Float owner Shelley Stertz. Flotation therapy is one of the ways people are re-awakening their physical senses in a time of digital over stimulation.

Inside the spa, the aesthetic puts my altered-state-themed anxieties to rest. After being greeted with sandals and citrus-infused water, I am given a lounge robe to change into before the (seemingly) human staff escorts me to a saltwater chamber. I’m left to lay with my thoughts.

Photo credit: Victoria Doudoumis

My phone’s doing the same in a locker with the rest of my belongings. Alone in the pod, there’s nothing to distract me from my own consciousness.

The more we indulge in technology and the digital world, the more we adapt to the intensity of electronic stimuli. This turns into alienating ourselves from inherently analogue experiences.

The more we indulge in technology and the digital world, the more we adapt to the intensity of electronic stimuli. This turns into alienating ourselves from inherently analogue experiences.

As humans, we crave physical connection: babies develop faster when they have their mother’s embrace. Hugs release serotonin and dopamine. Touch helps people communicate socially and emotionally.

Beyond that, our senses dictate how we experience the world: smelling a vanilla candle; scraping your knees on gravel; new sights and sounds when we travel. Today, those sensations are replaced by the cold metals and plastics of phones, laptops and AirPods. VR headsets pull your vision beyond the constraints of your eyes, and make you see places you’ll never visit, making you feel as if you’ve experienced it in true reality.

Our addiction to digital devices, coupled with the barrage of media on our minds, has created a void in our lives. Technology simultaneously creates and fills that void. As it further draws us away from physical connection, it creates opportunities for new advancements to reintroduce our sense of touch through mixed sensory experiences.

The desire to build better and more realistic digital experiences pushes our bodies away from enjoying physical sensations, which creates a longing to invent even better experiences that rekindle our thirst for those sensations.

In an attempt to balance the physical and digital, humans are retreating back to tactile activities and exploring physicality through different sensory experiences, such as the float tank I am about to immerse myself in.

Dark room pool
Photo credit: Victoria Doudoumis

Richard Lachman, director of the Experiential Media Institute and Associate Professor of Digital Media at Ryerson University, explains that trends like total-darkness restaurants and flotation tanks are methods of reclaiming our physical senses. “We now spend a lot more time on our devices, and because of that we are seeing tech developments that cross the paths of screenplay and touch,” says Lachman. In recent years, he explains, people have turned to sensory deprivation which reconnects a person with their sense of touch by restricting stimuli for one or more of their other senses – which is how I have found myself at the float spa.

Before entering the float tank or open tub (essentially a shallow hot tub), I’m given ear plugs to prevent any saltwater from seeping into my ears. The possibility of infectious amoebas worming into my head and playing a solo on my eardrums didn’t worry me, despite the inherently discomforting nature of the thought. I did get a crash course on how important it is to keep your eyes closed and planned on following that to a tee.

A pre-pod shower cleanses me of outside germs. I’m given the okay to start floating. While I wear a swimsuit for personal comfort, I wonder about the people out there in the world who prefer to float completely naked. My brain flits through all the naked bodies that might have been in the very water I am about to enter, so I decide to focus on literally anything else.

At the last moment, instead of the pod, I enter an open tub. To my surprise, I float in about 6 inches of body-temperature water. Laying there, my neck nestled into a floating headrest, I shut my eyes and embark into the floating dimension.

Float therapy works by reducing the sensory input to our brains which allows you to relax as if you are going to sleep. Because our brains’ and nervous systems are accustomed to relentless stimulation, flotation acts as a sudden reset that eliminates outside sounds, sights, smells, and physical feelings altogether. Reducing regular stimuli on your mind allows the body to become hyper-aware of its senses, enhancing physical connection to your body. The science behind it relates to the magnesium that’s in the water while you float. Floating Therapy owner Laura Foster told me that magnesium chemically affects your nervous system to reduce stress hormones like cortisol.

My flotation experience was customized, as I was able control the dimness of light and the volume of soothing sounds playing . After I am settled, the only thought triggering my brain is my obsessive aversion to touching the sides of the tank at any given time.

Water Droplet splashing
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I didn’t think I’d run into any problems, being just a little over five feet tall in a seven-foot long tub, but as I float, I am also slowly turning. Height aside, keeping completely still is not an easy task for anyone in a generation that’s constantly stimulated. For the few moments I find myself truly relaxed, free from stress or lingering thoughts – and that’s when it all becomes worthwhile.

In what feels like a blink, a soft voice prompts me via an intercom that my hour is over. I rinse the salt off my body, then head to the change rooms. My footsteps sound like thunder after the hour of gentle noises, but I am pleasantly relaxed. Maybe even a little rejuvenated, but it is too early to tell. I can confirm that I still couldn’t move things with my mind, and I was trapped inside of my mortal body, so science fiction lost this round with reality.

As I reach into the locker looking for my items, but mainly trying to get to my phone, my thoughts go to my conversation with Foster. She explains that because our society is rapidly evolving to revolve around technology, our desire to stay connected to avoid missing out on anything is increasing.

“It’s something that has been virtually embedded into the status quo,” Foster sa However, when self–care or relaxation isn’t part of work-life balance, burnout and stress occurs. Blood pressure rises. Other health-related issues like anxiety take over our lives.”

With a refreshed mind and soothed body, I plug myself back in and check my phone. There are five missed calls and a long thread of unread texts. My close friend had been in a serious car accident.

Our lives don’t stop or slow down. But, it’s not selfish to try and take the time to repair yourself. You can make a choice to take time for yourself and relax. Using time to unplug and recharge better prepares us to handle stress in our lives.

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