plant in front of float tank

From Tablet to Tactile: Curing Media Sickness

While technology constantly changes, our biological desires rarely do. The more we expose ourselves to automated machines, the more we kindle the primitive need for the physical world. But as we compete in the technological arms race, advancing the intensity of electronic stimuli means alienating ourselves from analogue experiences.

Humans require 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 when we travel. Today, those sensations are replaced by the cold metals and plastics of phones, laptops and airpods. VR headsets pull your eyes out of your head and put them in places you’ll never visit, making you feel as if you’ve experienced it all.

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 distances us from physical connection, it allows opportunities for new advancements to reintroduce our sense of touch through mixed sensory experiences.

In an attempt to balance the physical and digital, humans are retreating back to tactile based activities and exploring physicality through different sensorial experiences. Richard Lachman, the Director of the Experiential Media Institute and Associate Professor of Digital Media at Ryerson University, explains that trends like total-darkness restaurants and floatation 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.

According to Lachman, while we are a techno-centric society, our desire for physical intensification is growing. In recent years, people have turned to sensory deprivation which reconnects a person with their sense of touch by restricting stimuli for one or multiple of their other senses.

Photo credit: Victoria Doudoumis

Floatation therapy is one of the ways people are reawakening their physical senses. Floating is mistakenly considered a method of sensory deprivation, but it’s actually a form of sensory enhancement, says H2O Float owner Shelley Stertz. While floatation therapy originated in the 1950s, there has been a resurgence in floating for relaxation. Floating Therapy owner Laura Foster explains that the trend is a response to our society rapidly evolving to be the epicentre of technology, staying connected to avoid missing out on anything.

Foster says, “it’s something that has been virtually embedded into the status quo. However, when selfcare 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.”

Experience at The Float Spa

Between you and me, I might have gone into this experience with expectations of sci-fi pods and robots, and my body being engulfed, transporting me away from my physical and mental being and connecting me fully to my inner spirit. Regrettably, even though I can’t move things with my mind and I’m still trapped inside of my mortal body, I wasn’t disappointed with the experience.

H2O Float Spa was the best stage for my experiment. It’s across the street from the Danforth Music Hall, where people go for the exact opposite experience.

Inside the spa, the aesthetic put my altered-state themed anxieties to rest. After being greeted with sandals and citrus-infused water, I’m 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.

Inside the spa, the aesthetic put my altered-state themed anxieties to rest. After being greeted with sandals and citrus-infused water, I’m 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.

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.

Maybe the thought of how clean each pod is.

Before entering the float tank or open tub (essentially a shallow hot tub), I’m given ear plugs to prevent any salt water from seeping into your earholes. The possibility of viral amoebas worming into my head and playing a solo on my eardrums didn’t worry me anyways. I did get a crash course on how important it is to keep your eyes closed.

Dark room pool
Photo credit: Victoria Doudoumis

A pre-pod shower cleanses me of outside germs. They look at me, and I’m given the okay to start floating. While I wore a swimsuit for personal comfort, I wondered about the people out there in the world that prefer to float completely naked. Would that introduce some bacteria that the saltwater would struggle against sterilizing?

At the last moment, instead of the pod, I entered the open tub. To my surprise, I floated 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.

The experience can be customized, as you control the dimness of light, volume of soothing sounds playing, and whether you want to keep your eyes open – there’s a towel and spray bottle to your left just in case. After I was settled, the only thought triggering my brain was my obsessive need to never touch any side of the tub at any time. I didn’t think I’d run into any problems, being 5 foot 4 in a seven-foot tub, but as I floated, I was 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 found myself truly relaxed, free from stress or lingering thoughts – it all became worthwhile.

A soft voice prompted me via an intercom that my hour was over. I rinse the salt off my body, then head to the change rooms. My footsteps sound like thunder, but I feel relaxed. Maybe even a little rejuvenated. I freshen up with their lotions before grabbing the rest of my things.

With a refreshed mind and soothed body, I plugged myself back in and checked my phone. Five missed calls and a long thread of unread texts. My close friend had been in a serious car accident.

Water Droplet splashing
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Our lives don’t stop or slow down. It’s not selfish to try and 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.

In a Statistics Canada report from 2018, 23 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 say they feel most days are “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful. Hence why reconnecting with a physical sense of relaxation for the body and mind proves crucial for a balanced and healthy life.

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 used to relentless stimulation, floatation 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 the physical connection to your body.

The science behind it relates to the magnesium that’s in the water while you float. Foster says that magnesium chemically affects your nervous system to reduce the stress hormones like cortisol. In a society that is inundated with digital information and stimulation, stress is a common symptom that can lead to more severe health factors if wellness is not taken into consideration.

Because of floatation therapy’s ability to reduce external stimuli on the human senses, it can be used to revitalize an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing. The resurgence of float centres has been a big part of the self-care industry becoming mainstream in the last decade says Foster, predicting other industries to tap into it as well.

Films have also recently started exploring this phenomenon. 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.

Each plot focuses on depriving the characters of one of their basic senses: sight in Bird Box; sound in A Quiet Place; and touch in Stranger Things. Sensory deprivation engages the audience more intimately to queue an emotional response, says Lachman. It creates a physical-emotional response the viewer feels vicariously through the characters. While the viewer is sitting passively, each film’s focus on basic human senses creates a hyperreality that reconnects the human mind to its physical sensations.

Films might be the most relevant area the trend appeared in, but Lachman explains that it all relates back to an overarching interest in sensory design, a popular new industry among the digitally addicted. Instead of looking at design to solve a problem, it is now used to evoke a feeling that people can identify with. The smell of a new car, the sound of an old typewriter, and the feeling of slime are characteristics reminiscent of a familiar past that can now be physically experienced in the present through modern technology.  

This intensification of physical feeling has carried over from films to virtual reality. We now use technology to cross paths of physical sensations with digital surroundings to create imaginary experiences that feel virtually realistic. By limiting our sense of sight and sound around us and placing those senses in a virtual world portrayed on screen, we hone in on our tactile feelings, in a way, grounding us in this digital world.

Our desire to build better and more realistic digital devices pushes our bodies away from enjoying physical sensations, which creates a longing to invent even better devices that rekindle our thirst for those sensations. Finding balance between the digital and physical world will be our society’s biggest feat as it begs the question – is the solution to technology more technology?

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