Float Tanks and their Applications within Cognitive Science

Float Tanks

When the first humans began to explore the dark crevices of the world, they were the first of us to experience a situation where they could deprive their senses from their harsh daily lives and slip into a mystical experience and reflect inward. Deep within those caverns, animal cults and secret societies emerged, as more complex and abstract ideas were experienced through ecstatic visions (Hayden, 2003). However, our ancestors did not then realize that those visions came from deep within themselves and one of the world's most complicated information processing machines, the human nervous system. We now do know these things and because of this we have developed the psychological and cognitive sciences in order to measure and analyze how we interact with the world around, and inside us, as objectively as possible.

The sensory reduction conditions that our early ancestors experienced in those caves were able to evoke within individuals a religious mania and fantastic visions, which can been termed as a Sacred Ecstatic Experience (SEE)[see Hayden (2003) for detailed discussion]. Us modern human are starting to return back to those dark caves, scientifically and ritualistically, in order to utilize one of best well-formulated induction techniques of an Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) with the use of contemporary float tanks. The Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique (REST) utilizes float tanks in order to help people heal, both physiologically and mentally, and provides an ideal environment to examine its effects on our body and mind. This article aims to show how REST provides a new avenue for psychophysiological statistical measures to be used in the examination of the theoretical cognitive and neurological models of ASC and SEEs.

Consciousness studies involve the idea that our minds are a collection of neural networks that function as information processing systems working together to keep us alive, interact with our environment, and think about our interactions within that environment. Just as the physical universe is viewed at varying degrees along a spectrum, so too can our examination of consciousness occur, from the transmission of a single nerve impulse to the overall electric activity across the scalp. So it comes to pass that an issue arises when deciding what level of analysis to use in an attempt to properly define consciousness.

Many researchers and theorists talk about finding the neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) bypassing the idea that neural correlates will be found regardless if consciousness is or is not physical (Molyneux, 2010). Researchers examining the NCC need to separate the various associated neurological and cognitive states apart to determine which ones are the essential mechanisms for consciousness to emerge from. Unfortunately, this leads to a catch-22 of disrupting the very features that are used to detect consciousness (Molyneux, 2010). ASC provide a good example of this problem.

ASC studies often have to redefine their terms in order to quantify their data. Since ASC is a subjective experience there have been many detailed accounts of the perceptual and culturally biased reports within the literature (Aghajanian & Marek, 1999; Dobkin de Rios, 1984; Móró, 2010; Schier, 2009). Introspection of ASC has also been held to have methodological objections within the cognitive sciences, but outside of the biological disciplines of psychology introspection has been shown to provide statistical data with experimental validity (Mathison & Tosey, 2009; Moore & Malinowski, 2010; Pekala et al., 1991).

By incorporating introspection into the models of the phenomenological experience of consciousness, we can now start to recognize that we cannot simply go about changing the methodologies, because such changes result in changes in the phenomena being studied. Schier (2009) explains that this 'measurement problem' leads us back again to the problem of finding the NCC and that regardless of the source type for data collection, once the variables and baselines are properly in place for the phenomena of ASC and SEEs they can be compared for analysis (Móró, 2010). The following proposal of utilizing REST within cognitive research may not solve any of the hard problems of consciousness but instead can allow for a reexamination of the functional neural correlates of the cognitive mechanisms involved in ASC and SEEs models.

Does it really need to be reexamined? Well of course it does, many philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists make their careers out of it. A clear example of this can be seen in the widely used definitions stating what ASC exactly are (Aghajanian & Marek, 1999; Dobkin de Rios, 1984; Dobkin de Rios & Munkur, 1977; Meyer & Quenzer, 2005; Móró, 2010; Randolph-Seng, 2009; Schmid et al., 2010; Winkelman, 1991). I feel that Móró's (2010) working definition collects together the most important features through the use of self-mapping procedure which concludes; "A hallucinatory altered state of consciousness is a transiently stable mode of operation of supervenient levels in the mind-brain complex, where objectively detectable characteristic changes in the internal information processing mechanisms of neurocognitive subsystems may be subjectively experienced as changes in phenomenal content and overall psychological functioning, as compared with prior and posterior baseline states of the individual."

Due to a wide range of ASC induction techniques, such diversity can be studied using the aforementioned definition and incorporate comparative analysis of different ASC induction agents and psychobiological procedures upon the neurocognitive subsystems of interest. Winkleman (1991:17) compiled a comprehensive techniques list that includes: hallucinogens, opiates, and other drugs; extensive running or other motor behavior; hunger, thirst, and sleep loss; auditory stimulation and other forms of intense sensory stimulation such as physical torture or temperature extremes; sensory deprivation, sleep states and meditation; and a variety of psychophysiological imbalances or sensitivities resulting from hereditarily transmitted nervous system liabilities, epileptic-like states resulting from injury, disease, or other trauma to the central nervous system like extreme temperatures, or other sensitive conditions of the temporal lobe and the associated structures of the parasympathetic system. These techniques share in common the implication that ASC affect the workings of the content processing mechanisms of our minds go through a temporary instability and destabilization process during the induction of an ASC (Móró, 2010). Following this, all alteration processes are defined as states only once they have ended. It is the stabilization of the neurocognitive systems that is most often collected as the NCC. Even the field of anesthesiology refers to the emergence from anesthesia as a "cognitive rebinding" (Lee et al., 2009).

Alterations to our consciousness have been a feature of ritualistic shamanism for generations, and over these generations their induction techniques have found that during transitions between one state to another, a sort of inertia can occur. This inertia overlaps the past mental states with the current one and even the future mental states reverberate back depending on the induction method used. Through training, individuals create automatic physical, cognitive, and behavioral reflexes, reactions, and associations in order to gain mastery over their internal mental states during ASCs and SEEs and return to their present perspective (Hayden, 2003; Winkelman, 1991; Krippner 1991).

Neurologically it has been shown that during hallucinogen induced ASCs there is an increase of coherence in metacognitive processes and the modified oscillatory rate improves the connection of thoughts and feelings primarily to a greater degree of balance and integration of the left and right hemispheres leading to insight and a trance-like or possessive state (Winkleman, 1991). Winkleman (1991) here brings up an example of how the search for the NCC can be aided by ASC research when the proper statistical notions are used.

The ability of ASC to provoke transpersonal experience has been well documented (Aghajanian & Marek, 1999; Dobkin de Rios, 1984; Hayden, 2003; James, 1982; Meyer & Quenzer, 2005; Moore & Malinowski, 2010; Móró, 2010; Randolph-Seng, 2009; Rock et al., 2008; Winkelman, 1991). It is these transpersonal experiences that are the foundation for an individual to develop both cognitively and emotionally from the personal transitions experienced during SEEs, which Hayden (2003:63) defines as: sacred ecstatic states seem to be particularly strong experiences that can occur when a person enters into an altered state of consciousness with cultural values that predispose the person toward sacred ecstatic experiences, when individuals are motivated to have such experiences and have made appropriate ritual, mental, and physical preparations for them.

The ritual and cultural preparations of SEEs have a systematic correspondence with the phenomenal experiences during contemporary pharmacologically induced ASCs research (Móró, 2010; Suefeld & Bow, 1999). Pharmacological induction techniques work in action with the manipulation of ASC by utilizing the concepts of set and setting. Set involves the individual characteristics and expectations while setting contributes through the physical and social context of the practice (Winkleman, 1991; Dobkin de Rios, 1984; Móró, 2010). Research into set and setting has often involved converging evidence from biochemical, electrophysiological, and behavioral studies that psychedelic and pharmacological substances, the indoleamines and the phenethylamines, enhance the role of set and setting upon phenomenal experience and sensory information.

The neurocognitive effects that are elicited during ASC techniques are: a replacement of an externally orientated perspective of sympathetic dominance of cognitive processes and desynchronized activity of the frontal cortex; cessation of external behavior and focus on internally generated perspectives during high doses or severe conditions; increased tendency toward exploratory behavior and arousal response reconditioning; destabilization of habitual experiences and a reduction in egocentric fixation; dealing with a variety of stress related perspectives such as fears, phobias, and stress and tension management; as well as personal integration, self-control and a range of physical changes (Winkelman, 1992).

Hood and Morris (1981) provide a clear picture of how when the research goals are stated, one should strive to produce the set conditions to maximize the elicitation of the desired phenomena. They achieved this through the application of REST in their examination of intrinsic/extrinsic reports of religious imagery (Hood and Morris, 1981). There are two methods of REST that exist, chamber REST and flotation REST. The procedure of chamber REST involves that a subject lies down in a bed for about 24 hours in a dark, sound-reduced room. Instructions are given to reduce movements but no physical restraints are used. The normal biological amenities are provided (food, water and toilets) within the room and an intercom is used so that subjects can talk to the research assistants at anytime. Across studies fewer than 10% of subjects leave the chamber prematurely (Suefeld & Bow, 1999).

The second, and more popular, method used in REST is within a float tank. Floatation REST involves a quiet room that holds an insulated tank (of varying sizes) that contains 20-30 cm of a medium that is a skin-temperature solution (35.5 Celsius) of water and Epsom salts. This mediums density has a specific gravity of 1.25 relative to distilled water that allows for no effort to be made to float and major effort needed to attempt to turn over, because of these features subjects can relax with no concern or worry for their safety. Similar to chamber REST, an intercom can be present and communication with a research assistant is available. Tank floatation has an experimental cost benefit in that sessions on average only last 45-90 minutes compared to chamber REST sessions lasting up to 24 hours (Suefeld et al., 1983).

The psychological effects of REST on consciousness have been documented to reduce the rigidity of behavioral and cognitive patterns with evidence from measures of reactions to counter attitudinal information, attitudinal self-consistency, and problem solving (Pei-cheng & Ying, 2004; Schulz & Kaspar, 1994; Suefeld & Bow, 1999; Suefeld et al. 1983). Improvements of memory also have been seen in ECT patients who have demonstrated lowered rates of subjective memory loss (Suefeld & Bow, 1999). As well as, reduction of distracters, elimination of behavioral trigger cues, and disruption habit patterns through the removal of external demands.

REST has also been examined as a fear- and arousal-reducing procedure. Barabasz (via Suefeld & Borrie, 1999) showed by using four aircraft pilots using REST therapy had reduced anxiety and improved flying performance. Also, seen in a case study by Walker, Freeman and Christensen (via Suefeld & Borrie, 1999) where a patient with debilitating OCD went through multiple sessions of floatation REST while audio recordings of his own obsessive thoughts were played. The lack of his ability to act on these recorded thoughts as a result of his deeply relaxed state reduced the negative OCD symptoms. Accumulation and habituation though, do not occur with weekly floatation REST sessions, for at least 6 months according to another study reviewed by Suefeld & Bow (1999).

Suefeld & Bow (1999) also examined about 20 REST-related smoking interventions and found that when REST was used alongside other treatments it allowed a patient's post-treatment gains to be enhanced over the long-term with lower relapse rates. These findings have subsequently been applied to alcoholics and heavy drug abusers because these therapeutic situations work on the information content processing mechanisms and the subjective experience of set and setting in order to have a measurable impact upon the physical and mental functioning of patients (Móró 2010, Schmid et al. 2010; Zeidan et al., 2010). Such positive mood enhancements as these that occur are one of the main reasons that recreational REST experiences are becoming more commonly available in spas, resorts, and as stand-alone businesses. This is because they provide a drug-free and safe environment and setting for people to personally experience an ASC outside their daily life.

It is these features of REST that I propose should be incorporated into the examination of the theoretical cognitive and neurological models of ASC and SEEs. One model that has briefly been examined using REST is that of implicit and explicit learning models of procedural memory (Norlander et al., 1999). The researchers applied REST to inspect how REST can be applied to reinforce the primary process orientation to enhance the quality of coaching and training methods that occur in individualized sports, such as competitive archery (Norlander et al., 1999).

Another level of analysis that calls for further investigation is the noteworthy neural-level ASC model based on the cortico-striato-thalamocortical (CSTC) loop hypothesis, which explains hallucinogen-induced consciousness alterations by disinhibitory mechanisms in serotonergic pathways between different brain areas (Aghajanian & Marek, 1999; Móró, 2010; Winkelman, 1991). The CSTC neural model is supported by an association with the phenomenal experience during pharmacologically induced ASCs and their common site of action as partial agonists at 5-HT2A and other 5-HT2 receptors in the central nervous system (Aghajanian & Marek, 1999). The noradrenergic locus coeruleus and the cerebral cortex have been shown as examples of the regions where hallucinogens have prominent effects through their actions upon 5-HT2A receptors. (Aghajanian & Marek, 1999; Móró, 2010).

The Locus Coeruleus (LC) projections have been proposed to be one possible mechanism involved in the experience that indole hallucinogens induce and that can be experienced both during Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs), Lucid dreaming, and sensory deprivation. Amphetamine releases NE from the LC axon endings by displacing it from storage vesicles (Meyer & Quenzer, 2005). Electrical stimulation of the LC elicits strong startle responses and hyper-responsiveness to the environment (like an amphetamine effect) invoking the “fight-or-flight" response.

The limbic system is the main neural structure that is our 'decider' of what is real and what is important to our conscious awareness, and when it is under high activity our experiences appear to become “hyper-real”. Another factor being that the limbic mechanisms also plays a role in the information coming out of our memory (Meyer & Quenzer, 2005). So when ‘hyper-real space and sensations’ are being attended to the ASC, the raw material from our memories is not inhibited as strongly and fuses together with the physical senses and produces a hallucinatory experience.

The neural control of sleep and dreaming involves a subtle balance among: serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, adenosine, and histamine in a widely distributed system throughout the brain. Interactions between the serotonergic and adrenergic systems in the brain are important in controlling the switch from Non-REM to REM sleep and generally regulates that dream-like mental contents remain out of waking consciousness. The effects of all kinds of psychedelic substances may be to de-repress this system (Aghajanian & Marek, 1999). 5-HT2A receptors seem to be responsible for the bulk of the hallucinogenic effects and are due to changes in activity in; the locus coeruleus, glutamatergic neurons in the cortex, especially those that connect with the thalamus limbic system activation. Such experience have been documented to occur during extended REST sessions and I propose that it can be made use as another drug-free route in further examining the role of the limbic system in ASC (Fine & Turner, 1982; Flynn, 1962; Forgays & Forgays, 1992; Hoods & Morris, 1981).

The reasons for discussing the mechanisms of hallucinogens and sleep is that these systems may be what Suefeld & Bow’s (1999) work on REST and sensory deprivation were getting at with the idea that while the body is deprived of sensory experiences there becomes an increased sensitivity to any information that is available, both externally and internally, and that the mechanisms involved in producing the psychological effects seen in the use of REST can be hypothesized to be similar to the mechanisms used in sleep, ASC, and SEEs. Using Móró’s (2010) definition of ASC and incorporating it with the introspective measurements mentioned earlier, float tanks can be focused experimentally on correlating the subjective and phenomenal experience of an ASC with the psychophysiological and neurocognitive data.

On a final note in relation to cognitive science and float tanks, it has been found that the presence of or absence of light or audio within a float tank does not interfere with the overall experience and psychological effects of the REST environment (Turner et al., 1989). These findings hold the implication that it is also possible to provide a novel method of experiment duplication within the disciplines of visual perception, memory consolidation, attention systems, and information processing. The capacity to replicate such experiments using a whole new variety of experimental technology within the REST environments creates an opportunity to contribute extensively new and exciting data and further analysis of the established theories of cognitive psychology and how our minds work.

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