Deprivation Tanks: From Brainwashing to a Stronger Mind

The widespread understanding of the concept of "brainwashing" can to a great degree be credited to a fictitious book by Richard Condon entitled The Manchurian Candidate. The book, which became an instant best seller, narrated a story about an American soldier who was captured in Korea and brainwashed by a secret mind control method devised jointly by the Soviets and Chinese. Through this secret process, the soldier was transformed into a remote-controlled assassin programmed to kill the President of the United States. The book, though fictitious, had such an impact in the Western World that many of its governments actually feared that the Communists would devise such a technique. This fear was fed by reports that some American soldiers had, indeed, been "brainwashed" into adopting Chinese doctrines.

The fear that the Eastern World may possess a psychological magic that could transform flag-waving Americans into Communists had a rather sudden impact. Before you could say "brainwashing", the American government initiated plans for their own Manchurian candidate. With government blessing, the CIA began experimentation designed to eliminate the free will of man. The majority of these experiments dealt with isolation and sensory deprivation. One of the more successful techniques, devised by a behavioral scientist named John Lilly, was known as the deprivation tank.

A deprivation tank is a large enclosed basin that is filled with a dense salt-water solution. The salt water allows the subject inside the tank to float in a type of suspended animation. Generally, the water in the tank is kept at the subject's exact body temperature, a mask is worn to block out audio and visual stimulus and a diver's suit is donned to inhibit sensory input from skin receptors.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) first used the flotation tanks in scientific brainwashing experiments in 1954. Subjects who were submerged in the tanks for as little as two hours reported hallucinations, distortions in their body images, and long "blank periods" in which they were unable to engage in any type of cognitive thought. As you might expect, the longer the period of sensory deprivation, the greater the subject's desire for sensory stimulation. Consequently sensory stimulation becomes a strong reinforcer for sensory deprived individuals, and was used as such to mold behavior as desired. For instance, the more sensory deprived the subject becomes the more likely he was to act in accordance with the experimenter to get sensory stimulation. The results of the NIMH experiments were all in accord, indicating that indeed an individual could be brainwashed into making profound changes in his attitudes and values. In short, deprivation tanks were successful in stripping an individual of his free will. On a more encouraging note, the research revealed that subjects who were brainwashed reverted back more or less to their normal selves once they were returned to their usual environment.


Those same sensory deprivation tanks that were used in the brainwashing experiments in the 50s are now being used as a recreational and therapeutic tool. They have been used successfully to treat individuals who were suffering from anxiety, depression, fear even alcoholism. Case in point, Dr. Henry Adams of the NIMH has reported that alcoholics who are periodically deprived of sensory stimulation reduce their consumption of alcohol - significantly.

In Adams’ experiments, college students who were classified as being social drinkers were submerged in flotation tanks - to deprive them of sensory stimulation - for two and a half hours daily. Adams reported that after only two weeks, the subjects’ alcohol intake dropped by an average of 33 percent. Other studies with the same experimental design have revealed similar results.

Perhaps of greater interest, at least to the field of athletics, is the fact that sports psychologists are now experimenting with flotation tanks to enhance athlete performance. In an experiment conducted by Donald Carter in 1985, athletes who were suffering from pre-competition anxiety were subjected to two hours a day of sensory deprivation in a float tank for a period of three weeks. Carter reported that subjects significantly decreased their anxiety.

In similar experiments conducted by Carter, the subjects spent the same amount of time in the flotation tank, but were exposed to tape recorded messages designed to enhance confidence and de-sensitize anxiety. The results of these experiments were even more encouraging, indicating that confidence could be increased and anxiety decreased. According to Carter, the flotation tank was capable of inducing a relaxation state that was more complete than the deepest of sleep. He theorized that in this state of consciousness an individual's mind was much more receptive to suggestions.

Although current research seems to indicate that flotation tanks are valid instruments for enhancing performance, more research is necessary before such a judgment can be made unequivocally. Still, it seems that in the very near future, flotation tank will be used in psychiatry and sports as a means of treatment.



1. Subjects who underwent complete sensory deprivation in flotation tanks were coerced into making profound changes in their attitudes and values.

2. Subjects who are brainwashed through sensory deprivation usually revert back to normal once they are returned to their normal environment.

3. Sensory deprivation tanks have been used to successfully treat individuals suffering from anxiety, depression, fear, and alcoholism.

4. Sports psychologists are now experimenting with flotation tanks to enhance athletic performance.

5. Although more research is necessary before a definite statement can be made concerning the effectiveness of using flotation tanks to enhance human behavior, the current experiments indicate that it is a very viable form of treatment.

Yours in Strength,

Dr. Judd







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