How floating in quiet darkness frees us to think outside the box

Imagine yourself as a toddler, learning to walk. You use a chair to pull yourself up to standing. It takes some time, but when you succeed you feel thrilled. Soon you are ready to try something new. Holding onto the chair with one hand, you put your weight on your left foot, rotate to the right, lift your right leg and move it forward. As you transfer your weight to your right foot, you lose your balance and fall to the floor, laughing.

Through focused attention, presence, and experimentation, toddlers learn very quickly to walk, feed themselves, talk, and do all the other things babies and young children learn.

During this period of our lives, we are fully present with great attention, constantly watching others and experimenting to see what works and what does not. But as we grow older, our brains allow us to do these activities without thinking about them. We can walk down a crowded city street while talking with a friend without focusing any of our attention on how to walk and talk. Our brains enable us to do this automatically.

In 2001, neurologist Dr. Marcus E. Raichle discovered a part of the brain now called the Default Mode Network (DMN). One of its functions is to track sensory input and find past experiences that relate to the situation at hand. As soon as it finds the relevant information, it ignores further input and gives the brain the earlier experiences to use in handling the current situation.

The DMN is very useful for adults by allowing us to attend to tasks based on what we have learned in the past, yet it inhibits our ability to look at problems and possibilities without preconceptions. In Zen Buddhism this is known as “Shoshin” — beginner’s mind. Without the intrusion of earlier experiences, we get a much wider range of input and possibilities. This is the state of consciousness of babies and young children. It turns out that they are better at solving problems that require thinking outside the box than many older people.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, a child psychology professor at UC Berkeley, created an experiment where a music box would only start when the proper colored block was set on it. Halfway through the experiment she changed it so that it required two blocks to play the music. In testing four-year-old children and college students, the four-year-olds did significantly better than the college students. The children were far more willing to consider and try possibilities outside the box.

One reason is that young children have less developed default mode networks. This allows them to see more
 possibilities through diffused thinking — letting the mind wander freely and make connections at random. Long-term meditators also have less-active default mode networks, but it takes them years to achieve this state, Gopnik notes.

“If you want
to understand what an
expanded consciousness
looks like, all you have to do
is have tea with a four-year-old,” she says. “The child's
brain is extremely plastic,
good for learning, not accomplishing,” better for “exploring rather than exploiting.” It has a great many more neural connections than the adult brain. Once we are adults, the neural connections we have used the most remain and unused ones disappear.

Ram Dass said, “The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the level of thinking at which we created them.” Many of our problems require a different level of thinking. How can we turn off the DMN so we can consider all possibilities and think outside the box?

Two ways are meditating and floating in the quiet darkness of a floatation tank.

Floatation tanks are soundproof, lightproof enclosures containing less than one foot of water heated to skin temperature. Epsom salt dissolved in the water allows a person to float effortlessly in what feels like zero gravity. This provides a distraction-free environment for deep meditation, relaxation, and self-discovery.

Many meditators have told me they think that floating is the ultimate place to meditate. They find it makes meditating much easier and more effective. That has certainly been our experience. We think floating is the ultimate place to be creative because it allows us to move into a state of consciousness where the DMN is not active.

To have a high quality of life, we cannot let the brain always arbitrarily choose its selection from our past experience to handle a problem in the present. The automatic functioning of the DMN will not always choose the best past experience for what we need now. To change that, we have to work hard to become conscious and not allow the unconscious functioning of our brain to control our life for us.

Dr. John Lilly invented the floatation tank in the 1950s as part of his experiments into the nature of human consciousness. He said, “It is my firm belief that experiencing higher states of consciousness is necessary for the survival of the human species.”

We invite you also to make expanding your consciousness a high priority in your life by meditating, floating, or both!

Author's Bio: 

Glenn and Lee Perry founded Samadhi Tank Co. and the commercial floatation tank industry in 1972. In their new book, “Floating in Quiet Darkness: How the Floatation Tank Has Changed Our Lives and Is Changing the World,” they tell how floatation tanks help people reboot the brain, access deep calm, and invigorate childlike creativity. Learn more at