The Science Fiction of Floatation Tanks in Altered States

Altered States

We all know that science fiction movies aren’t real. That’s the point, right? To explore imagined worlds and consider things that would be otherwise impossible.

No one would be tempted to call the 1980 sci-fi cult classic Altered States realistic. It rests squarely in the science fiction genre, with limited grounding in actual science. Nevertheless, Altered States was one of the first creative portrayals of sensory deprivation, making it an entry point into popular consciousness.

There’s a lot to critique (or even laugh about) in the films depiction of floatation. But despite its fantastic leanings, Altered States makes some interesting—and surprisingly accurate—points about the effects of floatation on memory, hallucination, and sensory overload.

The Plot

Altered States follows Dr. Eddie Jessup (played by William Hurt), a Harvard scientist, as he conducts experiments on himself in an isolation chamber. He believes he may be able to reveal previously unattainable states of consciousness by combining psychedelic drugs with stints in a sensory deprivation tank.

Alarmingly, these experiments cause unexpected altered states – not only of consciousness, but of physical being. Dr. Jessup begins to devolve and nearly disappears before his wife brings him back to reality.

Truth in (Science) Fiction

When Dr. Jessup enters the floatation tanks, he experiences intense hallucinations. While the disturbing nature of his hallucinations is the stuff of science fiction, the fact of them is real.

Many people engaging in floatation experience visual or auditory hallucinations. This is because the lack of external information creates a blank canvas on which the brain may project interpretations of internally occurring sensations. Unlike Altered States, people experience floatation as a relaxing and rejuvenating experience.


Another somewhat accurate element is the film’s correlation between memory and floatation. Dr. Jessup’s regression to a primitive state is supposed to be a kind of memory regression through the evolution of humanity.

While the character’s assertion that we have “more than 6 billion years of memory in our minds” isn’t scientifically sound, we do hold many memories we don’t access during the course of our ordinary lives.

Floatation actually promotes a sharper, more accurate memory. While this is hardly the same thing as “remembering” your way back to the dawn of creation, there’s certainly a correlation between memory and floatation.

Moving to Reality

Interested in trying floatation for yourself? Contact Northwest Float Center to schedule a real-life experience, and see what all the hype is about.

Original author: Alex Ziegler

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