Dr. Justin Feinstein's Groundbreaking Research on the Science of Sensory Deprivation
Dr. Justin Feinstein is a neuroscientist and clinical neuropsychologist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His research focuses on understanding the brain mechanisms underlying emotional experiences and developing new treatments for anxiety and other emotional disorders. One of the treatments he has been studying is sensory deprivation tanks, also known as floatation therapy.
Floatation therapy involves lying in a tank filled with water that has a high concentration of Epsom salt, which makes the water extremely buoyant. The tank is soundproof and lightproof, which creates a sensory deprivation environment that eliminates external stimuli such as light, sound, and gravity. The experience is deeply relaxing and can lead to a meditative state, which is why it is used to treat anxiety, stress, and chronic pain.
Dr. Feinstein's research on sensory deprivation floating has focused on understanding the neurobiological changes that occur during floatation therapy and how those changes may explain the therapeutic effects of the treatment. In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2018, Dr. Feinstein and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in individuals before and after floatation therapy.
One study included 50 healthy adults who were randomly assigned to either a floatation therapy group or a control group. The floatation therapy group underwent 1 hour of floatation therapy, while the control group underwent 1 hour of relaxation in a lounge chair. Before and after the sessions, the participants underwent fMRI scans while they were shown images of emotional faces.
The results of the study showed that the floatation therapy group had decreased activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is involved in processing emotions, especially fear and anxiety. The floatation therapy group also had increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in regulating emotions and attention. These changes were not seen in the control group, indicating that the changes in brain activity were specific to floatation therapy.
Dr. Feinstein and his colleagues also conducted a follow-up study in which they used a similar protocol but included individuals with anxiety and stress disorders. The results of this study, which were published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2020, showed that floatation therapy led to significant reductions in symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as improvements in sleep quality and overall well-being.
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The mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effects of floatation therapy are not fully understood, but Dr. Feinstein and his colleagues have proposed several hypotheses based on their research. One hypothesis is that the sensory deprivation environment of floatation therapy reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response to stress. This reduction in sympathetic activity may lead to a decrease in stress and anxiety symptoms.
Another hypothesis is that the reduction in sensory input during floatation therapy leads to a decrease in the activity of the default mode network (DMN), a network of brain regions that is active when the brain is at rest and not focused on a specific task. The DMN is thought to be involved in self-referential thinking and rumination, which are common features of anxiety and depression. By decreasing the activity of the DMN, floatation therapy may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Dr. Feinstein and his colleagues have also studied the effects of floatation therapy on individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 2018, the researchers found that floatation therapy led to significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, and avoidance behavior.
Additionally, Dr. Feinstein's research measured subject's self-reported muscular tension, by drawing on images of their bodies, which demonstrated remarkably effective changes.
While this research is scientifically sound, it is only the tip of the iceberg of studies on sensory deprivation floating. So far, it has provided valuable insights into the neurobiological changes that occur during floatation therapy, and ongoing research promises to reveal explanations of both the effects and mechanisms of sensory deprivation therapy.
To learn more about their innovative and promising non-profit Float Research Collective, visit their website here.