Understanding Float Tanks: Media vs Reality

Float Tanks in the media are most commonly shown as psychedelic-inspired journeys – a sort of modern vision quest in which the character often confronts either internal (or sometimes literal) demons. This in turn leads to a breakthrough that allows the character to grow and progress on their journey.

Although the benefits from floating are in many cases deeply profound, they also tend to emerge in more subtle ways. Float tanks aren’t one-off epiphany machines, and although visuals while floating aren’t uncommon, they’re far from the surreal DMT trips shown in television shows and movies. Floating, as a practice, has a litany of benefits, including things like reduced stress and anxiety, decreased muscle and joint pain, an improved immune system, heightened creativity, and many other benefits that we’ve written about previously – but these are developed and maintained by floating regularly.

We’re going to spend a little time wading through the (often murky) waters of how float tanks are portrayed in the limelight of popular media. We’ll compare these dramatized renditions to the very real, albeit less flashy, benefits and experiences you may already know.

Float Tanks in Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai – the Netflix series continuing the story of the original Karate Kid movie from the 80s – features an episode where one of the main characters, Sam, joins her friends for a trip to try out float tanks.

Sam has a realistic hallucination in which she’s shown in a mind-scape with a black background, confronted by the demands of all the people in her life. This is followed by a literal fight with her aggressive, “shadow self.” A fight which, in this case, she loses.

Side Notes:

  • Sam’s “hippy” friend also had a realistic vision as well, but in it she was a drop of dew… which is closer to the types of experiences people actually report from time  in the tank.
  • Her other friend couldn’t float, because the heaters in the tank were broken – classic.

Float Tanks in Stranger Things

Stranger Things has a way of making everything look ten times more mysterious, and the humble float tank is no exception. In the series, Eleven uses a makeshift float tank to heighten her psychic abilities, diving deep into an alternate realm in her quest to confront various threats.

In most of these clips she transports to a realistic mental realm, again presented on a totally black background, with characters (or entities) she is able to observe and interact with. In the more recent seasons, she used the float tank to work through very early trauma, which allows her to regain the use of her lost psychic abilities.

Side Notes:

  • Of all of these, Stranger Things gets a break since these scenes are about Eleven’s experience floating, rather than what floating is like for a normal human being.
  • Their explanation of how to construct a DIY float tank is not too far off from a workable setup… although they ignore the fact that all of the heat is sucked out of the water when you add in salt – an extreme endothermic reaction that takes hours of commercial level heating to get up to temperature. Eleven would be floating in absolutely frigid water.
  • The floatation experience is shown in a couple ways: being totally submerged in water with a breathing apparatus, or laying face up in a pool of saturated epsom salt. These actually mirror the progression of float tanks, from being fully submerged tanks of water in 1950’s labs, to lay-down commercial units in the 1970’s.

Float Tanks in Big Bang Theory

In The Big Bang Theory, Amy and Sheldon both hop into float tanks, but they’re shown as having wildly contrasting experiences.

Amy’s float is, based on our previous examples, what you’d expect: she is conjured into a head-space where realistic versions of people in her life are all criticizing her, telling her that she’s a failure. And of course they’re shown as disembodied heads on an all black background.

Sheldon’s float is also psychedelic, with him swimming around inside of visuals of infinitely repeating fractals from Mandelbrot Sets. Although also hyperbolic for a typical float experience, this is actually much closer to common visuals that people report from time in the tank.

Side Notes:

  • Float tanks are almost never in the same room together – each one would be a completely private setup.
  • The description of the filtration process is shockingly accurate, other than clarifying that the water is circulated, disinfected, and filtered between every use, not dumped and fully replaced… which would be over $500 just in the cost of salt per float.

Float Tanks in Dave

Dave, the comedy series parodying the life of the real world rapper Lil’ Dicky as he was trying to make it big, also features a float tank scene at the end of the series. 

Driven by almost sheer desperation, our aspiring rapper finds himself driven to a float tank to overcome writer’s block. In this episode, his psychedelic float hallucinations are heightened thanks to a little “help” from actual psychedelics, so we’ll also cut Dave a little slack on its representation of the pure float experience, but the pattern is familiar.

Dave finds himself engrossed in a realistic, but surreal vision (not set on a purely black background, for once). After exploring, he eventually discovers an alternate version of himself, shaved of all hair and mostly nude, who confronts him about art and creativity.

He has a traumatic end to the float, after which he has a complete creative breakthrough and literally runs to the studio, still soaking in salt-water, to start recording music.

Side Notes:

  • The float tank is located outside, where it doesn’t appear to be connected to a power source… obviously not the ideal situation for a good float.
  • Floaters aren’t directly supervised during their floats, but customers are also not typically served psychedelic tea beforehand, so… yeah, the two dudes at the end were clearly being irresponsible.

Float Tanks in Reality

Television thrives on dramatization. It’s the nature of the medium to amplify emotional and sensory experiences, and (ironically) sensory deprivation offers a convenient platform for this. TV shows have a bad habit of depicting characters confronting literal versions of themselves in some sort of spiritual duel, while the reality is that most floaters find that their true ‘opponents’ are rooted in everyday stresses, anxieties, and physical pain. However, all of this emphasis on drama obscures the more understated and consistently beneficial aspects of floating.

The benefits – such as faster injury recovery, mental clarity, and even the silencing of those pesky inner critics – unfold over consistent float sessions. And while some people do report vivid mental imagery or “hallucination-like” states, they are generally more subdued than the common narratives suggest and do not require confronting a team of internal naysayers to achieve serenity. In fact, an overwhelming majority of people find the float tank to be a freeing space, a blank canvas where the mind can relax, rather than a chamber that amplifies neuroses.

The benefits of float tanks also aren’t momentary, as shown in short-form mass media, but extend far beyond the immediate experience. Even just looking at the basics of stress and anxiety reduction, some of the most studied benefits from floatation therapy, we can see that they have a compounding positive effect on other aspects of physical and mental well-being. The benefits in the real-world are enduring and often life-enhancing (albeit less flashy) than the ephemeral, dramatized portrayals in popular media.

So next time you see a float tank on the silver screen, take it with a grain of epsom salt. Sure, it might not be the cathartic battle or trippy escapade that TV makes it out to be, but what it lacks in theatrics, it more than makes up for in genuine, lasting benefits. As can often be the case, the reality of floating is, in so many ways, better than fiction.