We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Justin Feinstein, Director of the Float Clinic and Research Center (FCRC) at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. The FCRC’s mission is to investigate the effects of floatation on both the body and the brain, as well as explore its potential as a therapeutic treatment for promoting mental health and healing in patients who suffer from conditions such as anxiety, addiction, and anorexia.
In our interview, Justin tells us how he first heard about floating and shares some of his research and insight on how floating can help alleviate stress and anxiety.
How did you first hear about floating?
I was working at a neuroscience laboratory at Caltech. This serendipitously happens to be the same place that John C. Lilly went for his undergraduate degree about 75 years before I was there. But basically, for the last 15 years I had studied neuroscience and I’d been very interested in consciousness and very interested in subjective emotion and feeling states. But in particular I’ve been focused on anxiety, both for personal reasons and my career, with an eye towards how we can alleviate anxiety.
When I was in the lab at Caltech working with patients, one of the research assistants who shared an office with me at the time, came to me on a Monday and over the weekend she had just had her first float. At the time I had never even heard of what a float tank was. She preceded to tell me over the next several hours with great drama how intense and powerful this first float was for her. I listened with great curiosity because she had been describing something I had been interested in almost my entire life.
What she was describing to me was what’s known in our field as interoception. The idea is how to access what’s happening in our inner body. It really brings to bare the idea that inside all of us is a pathway into our brain that provides signals about the internal milieu of our body. It provides signals about the heart beating, the blood pulsating, your lungs and respiration, it provides signals about the immune system and it provides signals from the gut. And all these various signals come into the brain through a dedicated pathway. This interoceptive pathway had been my focus of research for many years dating back to the early 2000’s.
When she was describing her first float to me it became clear to me, even though she didn’t use those words, that what she was accessing was her interoceptive self. What was really interesting to me is that at the same time I was hearing this story I was learning about the primary disruption to this same pathway in patients who suffered from anxiety disorder. There’s something about this interoceptive pathway that’s critical for anxiety, it seems to be dysregulated in anxiety disorders. When you float, it provides a sneak peak into this pathway in a way that you could never access outside of a float.
She continued to describe how liberated she felt after her first float and I was to be honest, both scared and fascinated. The fascination because of everything I just talked about but the fear because I knew I had to try this.
How did you feel after your first float?
I think a lot of my first float was pure novelty. Everything was new…. from the sensation of no gravity–to being able to feel my heart beating in such an intense way–to letting my physiological systems come down to an all time low. I definitely felt relaxed but at the same time had my mind turning. As soon as I stepped out of the float tank, the first thing I wanted to do is figure out how I could buy one of these to start doing research with it.
How did you transition into actually doing research on floating?
It wasn’t until my second or third float that I achieved a state of pure sensory awareness, unlike anything I’d ever obtained before meditating outside of the float tank. At that moment in the tank I felt total bliss and it was really with moments like these, and repeated moments like these, that I realized how powerful this environment is. I knew I needed to pursue floating as a line of research.
I was able to team up with my original mentor from when I was a freshman in college at UCSD named Dr. Martin Paulus. Together, we did a lot of work during my time at UCSD and one area we had a lot of success with was studying the concept of interoception.
Around the same time that I was discovering floating as technique, Dr. Paulus had been offered the position as the scientific director of this institute that had recently opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was collaborating with him on a project I was working on at Caltech and was visiting him in San Diego when I mentioned some of my experiences using float tanks. He started talking to me about this opportunity at LIBR and it was over the course of that week that we put our heads together and realized how ideal this situation was for a few reasons. We were able to reconnect and reunite after a decade of not working together, we had the opportunity to pursue a novel line of research that no one else in the neuroscience community has focused on, and better than that, we knew that the core mission for LIBR was to think outside of the box to come up with brand new novel treatments for mental illness. In this case, we actually went inside the box because we decided to pursue floating as a treatment. I can’t emphasize how serendipitous all of this was.
Why do you think floating alleviates the negative symptoms of stress?
I think there are several reasons but two in particular. First off, our brain is wired in such a way to be reflexively triggered by the outer world. We’re living in the midst of an anxiety epidemic and a lot of this is driven by our technology. Smartphones in particular have taken off in such a way that almost every culture and every country has these now. It gives us instant connectivity and it provides us with a slew of conveniences that we never used to have.
What our society doesn’t realize though is that every time we get pinged with a new text message, or a new email, or a new phone call or every time we get some update on our Facebook or Twitter, it’s setting off a cascade of events in our brain that creates a state of temporary stress.
We become addicted to this, to a point where we aren’t able to leave our phones behind us or disconnect from them in any way, shape or form. It’s affecting our sleep patterns. It’s affecting our ability to socialize and our ability to communicate in the real world rather than the virtual world. It’s affecting us because people are now living in a constant state of connectivity.
So, one of the reasons I think floating helps stress is because it's the ultimate form of disconnection. It allows your brain to literally go into a state of rest without having any distractions whatsoever from the external world.
The second thing is that stress isn’t just in the brain. It’s physiological, it's through the entire body. One of the most strong and powerful results of the past research into floating is the profound physiological effects that floating has on the body.
We’ve created equipment here at LIBR to study this. We have devices to measure things like blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, EEG, movement, and what we’re finding across all of these measures is that you are entering into a state of absolute relaxation. Your blood pressure is going way down, your respiration is going way down, your heart rate is going down. So you’re really entering into a physiological state of relaxation, which is the exact opposite of the state of stress. Floating doesn’t only affect the brain. It has profound effects on the body as well.
In your professional opinion, what would be the benefits of being able to float at home?
It would certainly provide that access (to floating) that a lot of people are missing. Having the ability to float at home is so beneficial, especially for clinical populations who can do this on a regular basis. It can help them better control their symptoms and also help them achieve the relief and benefits that they really need.
In summary, the future of floating is bright. We find it very encouraging that research both old and new are focusing on the idea of float therapy as a treatment not only on stress and anxiety, but also for overall health and wellness. We also look forward to Dr. Feinstein’s research, more of which he will present at the 2016 Float Conference next August.