The 1980s were an exciting time for float research. Word-of-mouth had grown stronger about this crazy new experience, and more people across the world were searching for and stepping into tanks near them. Early studies had also begun to show that floating had actual, science-backed benefits, and wasn’t just an idea born from unbacked, new-age beliefs. New technology was allowing a wide range of deeper studies to be done, looking to show evidence for the benefits of floating that people were reporting.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Tom Fine was part of a team of researchers at the Medical College of Ohio. It was there he met John Turner, and the two of them soon began conducting a series of studies on the effects of floatation REST on a variety of physical and mental health conditions, especially surrounding stress.
We recently got a chance to interview Tom Fine, and he reflected on how he entered the float world. He first came to know of Dr. John C. Lilly, the inventor of the float tank, from reading The Center of the Cyclone, which ignited an interest in exploring the practice of floating for himself. Fine was researching substance abuse when he read The Deep Self and began to think about how floating could benefit the people he was aiming to help with his research. At the time, he was looking into relaxation training and how that could help those suffering from various addictions.
In our conversation, he mentioned that the tank naturally creates a wonderful space to practice autogenic training, a relaxation technique that involves visualization strategies in a form of self-hypnosis. A colleague of Tom’s mentioned there was another researcher in their building who might be interested in his ideas about floating – John Turner. After an introduction (and Tom sharing his Lilly books with John), the two hit it off – before long, they were starting up their first collaborative research project.
At first, Fine and Turner did a small, three-person case study. It looked at how floating affected blood pressure, and their results were positive, showing that time in a float tank did indeed have the potential to lower participants’ blood pressure. Other early studies they conducted revealed similar effects, showing that floatation REST can have a positive impact, not just on blood pressure, but on a whole range of issues including pain management, muscle tension, and stress-related conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Some of their most well-known research delved into how floating affects the stress response in our bodies. When we’re stressed, our bodies release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can have detrimental effects on our health. Fine and Turner found that floating reduces stress hormones, helping us to relax and feel better while combating that negative stress response.
They also discovered that the more you float, the more significant the effects become. As your body gets used to the experience, it seems to allow you to enter the “float state” earlier, providing more recovery time for your system. In addition to showing this effect by measuring cortisol, they also demonstrated that floating can help balance neurotransmitters like endorphins and serotonin, which play a role in mood regulation and pain relief.
Through their continued research, Fine and Turner also began to explore brain activity in relation to floatation therapy. They found that floating affects both the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, two critical brain regions involved in stress and anxiety. Once again, their research showed that repeated float sessions seem to strengthen the result, in this case by helping the prefrontal cortex in controlling the amygdala, leading to a reduction in stress and anxiety.
One thing that Fine emphasized during our interview was how the struggle to find funding has been a hindrance to float research since the very beginning. The combination of needing funding, not just to pay for staff but also for the purchasing and installation of a float tank itself, is a huge commitment, and one that not many funders want to pay for. Even now, with more and more compelling research backing up the extraordinary benefits of floating, funding is still hard to come by. Most often, new research is limited to facilities that already have existing float tanks (which is still not very common).
He mentioned how lucky he was at the start of his float research that they were able to secure private funding. This allowed them to pursue their ideas and start with that first blood pressure study. Without their success in raising private funding, who knows when, if ever, Fine and Turner would have been able to conduct their float research. Thankfully, in this case, the stars aligned, as their early work was absolutely crucial in advancing the understanding of floating and what it was doing to our bodies.
In addition to his research, Tom Fine has also been an ongoing advocate for floatation REST and has worked to promote awareness of the therapy among healthcare professionals and the general public. He has given talks at the Float Conference and at other events, sharing his expertise and knowledge with the world. When asked about any current work he is doing in the float world, he responded simply with, “I’m floating,” and let out a chuckle. Despite being done with research, he still does clinical work with clients, and says that he consistently suggests to his clients that they visit the tank to help with their treatment.
When we questioned Fine on what excites him about current and future research, he said that the advancement in technology is something that he believes will continue to solidify floating as a valuable therapeutic tool. Being able to take more and more accurate measures pre-, post-, and even during a float session will allow more advanced research that is able to look at various, specific biomarkers to see how the body is responding.
Tom also said he would love to see some of his old studies, like his cortisol study, be replicated as well expanded into looking at other biomarkers. He also talked about how great the Float Research Collective can be when it can become fully operational. The idea of having a synchronized research system across float centers from around the world, all gathering data and pushing the float world further together is one he is hopeful for.
Fine and Turner’s work helped to validate the use of floatation REST as a therapeutic tool, and it shed light on the underlying mechanisms that make it effective. By exploring the effects of floatation REST on the autonomic nervous system, pain perception, and mood, their research truly was the foundation of developing a more comprehensive understanding of the therapeutic benefits of floating.