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Float On 

To find an hour of glorious silence, I had to enclose myself in a tank full of salt water

click to enlarge Float tanks are not popping up all over the Northwest. - COURTESY OF RENEW FLOAT
  • courtesy of Renew Float
  • Float tanks are not popping up all over the Northwest.

As I lay in a tank of 120 gallons of water containing half a ton of Epsom salt, I realize that I'm thinking exceptionally well. I untangle a hassle with a story I have coming up and perform a mental inventory of my refrigerator to see what I can make for dinner. I come up with three or four jokes that, at least in this state of extra buoyancy, seem like true gold.

I've come to explore this float tank phenomenon that's recently popped up in Spokane, and I expect to maybe relieve some soreness in my back, or even experience some of the sober hallucinations I've heard you can take in when immersed in a dark tank of water heated to 93 degrees. But at Renew Float in Kendall Yards, what I've found is that you can pay for an hour of silence that's damn hard to find these days.

I wake up to the sound of one or both of my kids moaning for Netflix or waffles or both. In the car, it's constant NPR. At my desk, I'm streaming music into my earbuds between phone calls and visits from other staffers. At home, it's barking dogs and lawn mowers and SUVs and baseball on the radio. I even sleep with a fan on high, a habit from my nocturnal days as a police reporter.

It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that the hour in the float tank — an immaculate white pod that appears stolen from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey — was the quietest hour I've had in a decade.

"It's dark, it's silent and your brain is just all about you at that moment. It's not focusing on anything," says Kelly Glenn, who opened Renew Float about a month ago, of the floating experience.

Glenn says his customers talk about the silence, but the experience is different for everyone. Some find that it releases joint pain; others feel like an hour in the tank makes up for lost sleep. For Glenn, floating has helped get his life on track. Just a couple of years ago, he was running a profitable town car business that required long hours and involved ample stress. He was overweight, depressed and struggling with diabetes when, on a trip to Southern California, he tried his first float tank. He went in a skeptic, but two sessions later came out without the shoulder and neck pain that had nagged him for years.

"I almost hate telling my story, because people are going to say, 'Oh, you're full of shit,'" says Glenn.

Like a lot of new-age therapies, floating is touted by some of its evangelists as a cure-all treatment for whatever ails you. You'll still hear these tanks referred to as "isolation tanks" or "sensory deprivation chambers," as they were called when neuroscientist John C. Lilly investigated their use beginning in 1954. "Float tank" is now the preferred and less alarming nomenclature, and these pods — in their various forms, but uniform in water depth and temperature — are popping up all over the Northwest. In addition to Renew Float, there's also Float Spokane with locations on the Northside and in Liberty Lake.

The notion that silence can be helpful to one's psyche is hardly revolutionary. But there's evidence that our brains can really benefit from quiet. A 2013 study on mice found that two straight hours of silence led to the development of new brain cells. Neuroscientists have also speculated that silence helps develop one's sense of self.

Glenn says that whatever you get from the float tank experience — which, as a moderate claustrophobe, is hardly as cramped as you might expect — is fine, as long as it's beneficial. A man preparing for the Coeur d'Alene Ironman did a couple of float sessions before last week's race. The first time, he thought through everything he needed to do before race time, and the second session let his muscles relax. For me, the treat was that glorious, delicious silence.

"We are overloaded with stimuli more than we ever have been before. Most of us, no matter what job you do, you're attached to your phone," says Glenn. "You're never away from any of it, and that time floating is utilized to check out. Some people can shut down and check out. Some people use it for writer's block. Artists use it for inspiration." ♦

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