Floating and creativity

Peter Gabriel, the musical legend, says, “[My isolation tank] was quite useful, in the sense that you could get into a dream state, and I think that did allow…different thoughts and pictures to come through.

by Tia Davis
Float-inspired artwork by Tia Davis

Joe Rogan, the comic and MMA host, says, “The sensory deprivation chamber is the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind, for thinking, for evolving.

Matt Stangel of the Portland Mercury reports that after floating, “I began to write creatively for the first time in months, but with an uninhibited ease that I haven’t experienced in almost five years. In short, I was astounded by the changes I saw in myself.

What’s going on here? Why does everyone seem to come out of the tank talking about peace, clarity, and cosmic oneness, or “colors — of cars, of buildings, of the sky — [being] more lush“, or achieving “profound, ecstatic nothingness“, or even “like a DJ had showed up to the party and started remix­ing my brain“? People seem convinced the tank increases their creativity, but does it really, or are they just tripping?

Maybe it doesn’t even matter.  What many people get from the tank is a safe, legal, ecstatic voyage to an altered state of consciousness, and as Joe Rogan observes, if that was a ride at Disneyland, “the line would be seven hours long.”  You should try it!

But let’s look at the science.  Many researchers over the years have tried to dig into what’s going on, because creativity is interesting and things that might improve creativity are even more interesting.

Norlander et al [1] did a study where floating and non-floating groups were challenged with puzzles and problems.  There were verbal logic puzzles (syllogisms), visual logic puzzles (join pieces of chain with a minimum of cuts), freeform brainstorming (talk through consequences of unexpected dramatic events), and standardized questionnaires measuring attitudes towards change.

Compared to the control groups, the floating test groups:

  • were scored as 50% more original in freeform brainstorming (p < 2%), but
  • were 30% slower solving the visual logic puzzle (p < 4%).

Floating may give access to a deeper, more creative but less logical process of the mind.

Meanwhile, Peter Suedfeld and five colleagues in the University of British Columbia did a simple, very direct, but completely subjective test of their own creativity.[2]  Each spent six sessions sitting alone in their office and six in a float tank, brainstorming as many ideas as they could about their own research.  Some did all the office sessions first, and others did all the float sessions first.  They tape-recorded their ideas as they thought of them, and then 1-3 months later went back and scored their own ideas according to “quality”.  Further, a year later they went back and scored any ideas that proved fruitful — led to new research results or grant proposals.

There were only five participants and their scoring was of course subjective, but overall they rated their post-float ideas as more than 20% better than their usual sitting-in-the-office ideas.  It’s hard to say what the numbers mean in a test like this, but at the same time, it’s important that there was nothing indirect or artificial about the procedure.  They floated, tried to come up with ideas for their jobs, and (later on, after any floating giddiness had passed), rated how good they were.

In a different variation, Suedfeld joined with Oshin Vartanian to see if repeated floating would help the learning and creativity of students taking a course in jazz improvisation.[3]  All the students recorded a 5-minute sample a week before starting floating, then (while taking the course) the test group floated weekly for four weeks. A comparison group only took the course.  A week after their last float, they again all recorded a 5-minute improv piece.  The course instructor graded all the pieces on the basis of improvisation, creativity, expressiveness, technical ability, and overall quality, without knowing when each piece had been recorded, nor who had been floating and who hadn’t.

Intriguingly, the test revealed a significant difference between the test and comparison groups on improvement of technical ability (p<5%), but not on any other aspects, including creativity or expressiveness.

How does this jibe with everything else I’ve just said about how floating encourages creativity?  Well, for one, it shows there’s a lot about floating we don’t understand.  But Vartanian and Suedfeld’s suggestion is that what matters is probably that the student’s post floating recordings were not made until a full week after they got out of the tank.  It seems that regular floating can persistently improve things like relaxation and focus (affecting technical ability), but that improvements in creativity “wear off” as you come down from the float.

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[1] Torsten Norlander et al, “Effects of Flotation REST on Creative Problem Solving and Originality”, Journal of Environmental Psychology (1998), 18, 399-408.

[2] Peter Suedfeld et al, “Enhancement of Scientific Creativity by Flotation REST”, Journal of Environment Psychology (1987), 7, 219-231.

[3] Oshin Vartanian and Peter Suedfeld, “The Effect of the Flotation Version of Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique (REST) on Jazz Improvisation”, Music and Medicine (2011), vol. 3 no. 4 234-238.


About colin

Cofounder, FLOAT. Colin has been an astronomer and a software developer. He's watched the sun set from Angkor Wat and rise over the Arctic Circle, and believes that life is much too important to take seriously.