I was wading in the waters of Lido Beach when a dolphin came within riding distance of me, but I failed to fulfill that childhood dream of befriending the marine mammal. I went home and googled “dolphin communication,” and John C. Lilly came up.
Lilly, I learned, was a “psychonaut,” an explorer of consciousness, and the first to conduct scientific experiments on cetacean communication. His research revealed that bottlenose dolphins could develop a basic grasp of English grammar. In 1954, Lilly, working with Timothy Leary, invented the sensory deprivation tank—a lightless, soundproof tank filled with warm saltwater that simulates the sensation of weightlessness. I forgot all about my oceanic friends and quickly found the only sensory deprivation tank in town.
At the Mindspa Integrative Wellness Center off Bee Ridge, office manager Darla A. Thixtun ushered me to the spa’s new, state-of-the-art sensory deprivation tank. Smooth and white, it’s shaped like a giant peanut and looked like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Thixtun explained that 850 pounds of magnesium salts saturate the water and simulate the feeling of weightlessness. I asked her about the mind-altering effects of the tank. She gave me a distrustful look and declared that people who come to use the tank do not use drugs, nor would the spa permit them if they did.
Thixtun left, after warning me that in 10 minutes the tank’s lights would turn off, so I shouldn’t dawdle. I rinsed off before entering. I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to be naked or leave my trunks on. I figured if I wanted the real experience, I’d better get naked. I entered the tank. The water was skin temperature and maybe 10 inches deep, but all the salt made me buoyant. There was a blue light and I could hear the hum of the tank’s filter.
Then everything turned the blackest dark. I couldn’t see my hand if I put it in front of my face. I could only hear noise if I made it. This was to be the next hour of my life.
Soon consciousness became indistinct and I lost awareness of my body. I could not tell if I was awake or asleep. I tried to figure out by blinking hard to see if my eyes were closed. I eased into my mind, trying not to think of anything in particular, just staring into the void. Faint glimmers of light began to streak across the darkness. You know when you close your eyes and see those dancing, nebulous patterns across your eyelids? That’s what I saw, except with my eyes open. Pale yellows and deep reds and colors that I could not make out all formed shapes in front of me. Occasionally I saw little stars.
All of a sudden I flailed around in the water as if waking from a dream. I had fallen asleep. How long had I been in there? There was no way of knowing. I felt hot. Sweat drops formed and rolled over the parts of my body that were above water. I began to play a game of neural whack-a-mole and scratched everywhere I felt sensation. Then I began moving, bumping into the sides of the tank’s walls like one of those old PC screensavers.
The lights turned on and I could see again. I got out of the tank and washed salt out of my hair with the fancy organic shampoo and conditioner the spa provided. I dressed and went to the front desk. Thixtun asked me how I liked it. It took me a long time to respond. I was zonked. I felt at ease and my mind didn’t pressure me to do any one particular thing. The thought arose that maybe I could try talking to dolphins, and I decided to drive to the beach.