"We wanted to create an environment that had mass appeal," Antioco, who wore shorts and a T-shirt, explained. She used to be a catering manager who suffered from insomnia; she tried sensory-deprivation floating as a solution. At a floating conference in Portland, in 2013, she met Leventhal, a wiry middle-aged man with Clubmaster glasses. For years, he'd been a partner at a law firm. Then he decided that he wanted to float. "The industry has just had an amazing resurgence," Leventhal said. "A lot of centers in the past have bootstrapped themselves—they're scrappy and ingenious." In Lift, which has so far floated some eight hundred New Yorkers, they were aiming to catch the upper mainstream of the market—people who might have qualms about floating in a stranger's apartment, which is traditionally how many centers ran—and to create a business that could be expanded elsewhere if its popularity grew.
Today, the science of floatation tanks is mostly honorable yet hazy. Their invention is attributed to John C. Lilly, the postwar researcher best known for his important but nutty research on dolphins. (Lilly, a neuroscientist, became convinced that the dolphin brain represented a supreme intelligence that humans could employ to solve a range of problems; he constructed cohabitation quarters—water-filled living rooms, basically—so that he and colleagues could live with the animals and cultivate what he hoped would become a common language.) Lilly was working for the National Institute of Mental Health when he invented floatation tanks, in the fifties, ostensibly with the goal of isolating the brain from normal perceptual experience. Later, in the sixties and seventies, he started experimenting with sensory deprivation under the effects of LSD and ketamine.
Floatation tanks fell out of fashion suddenly after the eighties—a casualty, according to Leventhal, of AIDS panic, since the tanks scared people unsure of how the illness spread. In recent years, they have regained a following, and, at the moment, the case for certain benefits is compelling. Under examination, floatation therapy has turned up encouraging results in reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels
, reducing blood lactate levels after intense exercise, and other physiological improvements. It's been shown to help manage anxiety
, and it appears to be useful in dealing with addiction
(although their waterless cousins, sensory-deprivation chambers, have seemed slightly more effective). One study found that competitive archers who floated for forty-five minutes before shooting arrows
generally shot those arrows better than archers who did not.
I was personally interested in weirder stuff. Richard Feynman, the quantum physicist known for his lucid mind and zesty style, once met John Lilly after a lecture and began using tanks; in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
, he describes undergoing about a dozen long floats. For the first two, he felt nothing much. From the third on, though, he had hallucinations. "I had many types of out-of-the-body experiences," he wrote
. "One time, for example, I could 'see' the back of my head, with my hands resting against it. When I moved my fingers, I saw them move, but between the fingers and the thumb I saw the blue sky. Of course that wasn't right; it was a hallucination. But the point is that as I moved my fingers, their movement was exactly consistent with the motion that I was imagining that I was seeing."
Antioco and Leventhal said that their clients also had "experiences" in the tank, though they were vague on what the range of those experiences could be. Some people had become intensely aware of their heartbeats. A few felt odd aches in their bodies—points of tension that they didn't realize they had. Some effects had been stranger. "After sixty minutes in the tank, someone came out, and I asked him how it was. He couldn't talk, but he was all smiles. I asked him again and he still couldn't talk, but he had this infectious, giddy laugh," Leventhal said.