Float yourself healthily – what does science say about floating?

Float yourself healthily – what does science say about floating?
Float yourself healthily – what does science say about floating?

It is sometimes said that one hour of floating is equivalent to four hours of sleep. But why aren’t we all floating every day? That would save a lot of time. The promises surrounding this form of therapy are great, but is there scientific evidence for this? We asked psychologist Michiel van Elk. He conducts research into spirituality, altered states of consciousness and placebo effects at the University of Leiden.

A piece of cake

The concept is simple: you come in, take off your clothes and get into the cabin. This is filled with extremely salty water to ensure that you stay afloat. Then the hood closes, and there is nothing at all for an hour. You hear nothing, see nothing, and because you float you don’t feel anything.

All that fun in the float tank would provide quite a few benefits, both mentally and physically. For example, it is said to reduce stress levels, be invigorating and help against muscle pain. That of course sounds very plausible. You take a warm bath and come out fresh and relaxed. That’s kind of the idea of ​​a bath.

But the claims go further. For example, according to various providers, floating would also help against symptoms of anxiety and depression and addiction. In addition, it is said to lower blood pressure and relieve pain in people with, for example, rheumatism or osteoarthritis. You usually can’t achieve that in your own bathtub. What’s up with that?

The researcher went to investigate

When Van Elk first heard of floating, he didn’t really know what to think about it. That’s why he decided to try it out himself. And I liked that. ‘It’s an interesting experience. You are completely cut off from the outside world. This makes you lose all sense of time and space.’

According to Van Elk, this can be quite relaxing. ‘Because external stimuli no longer come in, your brain relaxes. It is also easier to focus on what is happening in your head without these distractions. That is why floating is also popular with people who want to meditate or who feel overstimulated.’

What makes floating nice?

Scientists mainly attribute the positive effects of floating to the closure of the senses, also called deprivation. Because it is clear that people have positive experiences with floating, says van Elk. ‘People indicate that they relax and feel sharper and more alert afterwards.’

‘It is more difficult to demonstrate whether these effects are actually due to floating,’ Van Elk continues. ‘A lot of research was done into floating, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, but that research was often of poor quality,’ the researcher explains. ‘The problem with this type of research is that it is very difficult to simulate a good control group.’

The control group
Research into medical treatment methods or medicines usually uses a test group and a control group. The test group actually undergoes the treatment, while the control group receives a placebo. This way, researchers can determine whether any results are a result of the treatment, or simply the idea of ​​being treated.

In this type of research it is essential that the conditions for the test group correspond as much as possible to those of the control group. But this is difficult when researching floating. After all, you can’t give someone a placebo floating session. You can let someone sit in a normal bath. But that experience is substantially different from floating.

Open to the experience

This makes it difficult to pinpoint what causes certain results to be achieved and to rule out placebo effects, the researcher says. ‘People who participate in research into floating, for example, are often very open to the experience. This can enhance the positive effects.’ Someone who simply takes a bath will probably see this a lot less as a real ‘experience’ with therapeutic effects.

So is there a placebo effect at play here? Probably. But in this case that may also be an essential part of the therapy. The purpose of alternative forms of therapy such as floating and meditation is to relax and improve the mental state. This will only work if you are open to it and want it to work. In that respect, floating is also a bit of a challenge self-fulfilling prophecy.


Do you really need an expensive floating session for that? That is doubtful. A warm bath and a moment for yourself will probably go a long way. The positive results of floating are therefore comparable to those of other alternative forms of therapy, such as meditation or microdosing with psychedelics, says Van Elk. ‘What seems especially important is that you take a moment for yourself to de-stress and relax.’

The physical benefits attributed to floating are also probably related to this, says Van Elk. ‘We know that mental stress can also have a significant impact on your body. If you give your brain a rest, this could lead to reduced transmission of pain signals.’ In addition, the tank is of course also just a warm bath. That helps the muscles relax.

Salt with magnesium

However, according to float promoters, there is also another factor at play. The float water does not contain just any salt, but Epsom salt. That’s a nice name for a specific type of salt with a high magnesium content. All kinds of surgical effects are attributed to this salt. For example, it would help with the breakdown of waste products in the body and provide an energy boost.

Whether it actually does this is highly doubtful. It has never been proven that we can absorb magnesium sufficiently through our skin. And that’s a good thing, otherwise you would probably overdose in a float tank. Moreover, you usually don’t need that extra magnesium boost at all, most people already get enough of it. What this salt does do is keep you afloat.

Oh, and that every wound on your body will sting enormously when you lie in the water. So postpone your shave if you know you will be floating the next day.

Can floating replace your night’s sleep?

What about that sleeping thing? Would two hours in a float tank be enough to make you skip bed for a night? ‘If you actually fall asleep in the float tank, it can replace your sleep. But an hour of sleep while floating is still equivalent to an hour of sleep in your bed. Unless of course your bed is on a construction site.’ So trade in your bed for a float cabin? Do not do it.

A warm bath can help you relax, but there are also benefits to a cold shower or ice creambath?

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Float healthily science floating


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