Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine
Book Review: Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light and the Dream Machine by John Geiger (Soft Skull Press 2003)
This is a really cool account of the phenomenon of ‘flicker’ and stroboscopic light as studied in consciousness psychology and therapy and in psychedelia as a means of visionary enjoyment. The Dream Machine is a homemade flicker machine devised by Ian Somerville and Bryon Gysin after Gysin had an experience in 1958 while closing his eyes as he traveled on a bus through trees amidst the setting sun. Under these conditions he saw multidimensional kaleidoscopic visions of both color and pattern that amazed him. He described it as: “the visual merges with the visionary.”
Briefly described are some early machines of the 18th and 19th centuries that involved flicker and imagery. Some of these are the Magic Lantern which flashed light with moving slides, early stroboscopes, the Zoetrope which used drawings inside a turning to cylinder to give an illusion of transparency and movement, and Benham’s Artificial Spectrum Top which was a flat cardboard disk on a spindle where the disk was painted half white and half black and with concentric circles. These devices were considered precursors to the motion picture. A surprising effect of Benham’s top was that it produced illusions of color apparently by confusing the retina and led to further study of the visual system. Early electrically powered flicker machines and stroboscopes followed these devices.
In 1946 Neurologist Dr. W. Grey Walter began experimenting with psychophysical responses to an electronic stroboscope. He found that strange patterns can be produced with closed eyes under certain rates of flicker. At the theta rhythm (4-7 flashes per second) emotions of annoyance and anger could be provoked. But at the alpha rhythm (8-13 flashes per sec) the results were often visual imagery. Walter noted the effects of flicker on the brain. Visual imagery, colors, and patterns were most common. In 3-4% percent of subjects there was some brain wave activity similar to epileptics and petit mal (small seizures) induced in a very few subjects. This photosensitive epilepsy was later said to be inducible in 1 out of 4000 people. Some epileptics have noted a pleasant state of well-being just before a fit. In 1953 Walter published his account of the electronics of brain activity called “The Living Brain.” He had an interest in testing flicker as a possible form of therapy for schizophrenics. The schizophrenics to which he induced flicker during experimentation seemed to have some profound experiences of a hallucinogenic nature – but flicker as therapy failed to produce any definite therapeutic results overall. Some effects were comparable – although milder – than the effects discovered in the experiments by Wilder Penfield on electrical stimulation of the brain (ESB) where very intense hallucinatory and mental/psychological effects were encountered.
Colors induced by flicker are often noted to be more vivid than normal experienced colors and are often experienced as in motion, dynamic and changing. Walter theorized that flicker combined with a scanning mechanism of the brain produced the perception of movement.
“Walter further surmised that the activity of the alpha rhythm, as a scanning mechanism, is central to the understanding and transference of information from the visual projection areas of the brain to the association areas ...” Walter described it in a 1952 Discovery article as, “transforming the pattern of things seen in space into a sequence of signals in time.” Walter thought that flicker produced an interference pattern onto brain activity that confuses the brain. I think maybe a related phenomena is that of hypnagogic imagery where the brain perhaps reprocesses recent imagery while the body is falling asleep and there may be some sort of interference or other conditions that make the unusual and often moving imagery.
Next we come to the effects of flicker combined with mind-altering drugs. The experiments of John Smythies, Stanislov Grof with LSD and the writer Aldous Huxley with mescaline are recounted. Huxley used flicker with some of his experiments. Flicker was thought to enhance the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and perhaps by itself or in combination to invoke the effects of hallucinogenic chemicals already present in the brain. Huxley had advocated that these drugs can produce genuine mystical experiences but others noted also that they could mimic the effects of mental illnesses just as well. The whole notion explored – more particularly in flicker research – was that flicker, especially in combination with the drugs, could be used to access visionary experience. William S. Burroughs thought that flicker could be used with very small doses of drugs. He suggested to Allen Ginsberg to add flicker when he took LSD but Ginsberg seemed to have a rather ‘bad trip.’
Smythies and others , in working with stroboscopic light found that certain geometric imagery patterns were predominant like checkerboard, spider webs, mandalas, various crosses, grids, radial patterns, labyrinths, snowflakes, grids, and beehive patterns.
“One explanation was that the flashing light offered no clue to guide the visual system in the process of pattern recognition, so the visual system generated its own hypothesis which took the form of the illusory image or pattern.”
Other theories focused mainly on the visual system and its interface with brain functions.
Grey Walter’s theory was consistent with Smythies’ observation that there were four general types of patterns.
“... each group is similar to a scanning mechanism. You can scan with parallel lines, with a radial scan where you start in the middle and spiral outward, with a star radiating outward, or by moving as through a maze.”
Burroughs was friends with Bryon Gysin and shared books and researches. Gysin was a painter and was living at the so-called Beat Hotel in Paris near other artists of the time. The psychedelic and consciousness revolution of the 60’s was strongly influenced by the people described in this book – the first ‘official’ explorers with newly available hallucinogenic drugs and brain-altering technologies.
Ian Somerville managed to make the Dream Machine according to Gysin’s wants by using a gramaphone turntable with a light dangled into the center of a cardboard cylinder with slits cut into it spinning on the turntable at whatever speed is chosen. Burroughs mentioned flicker and mind-altering drugs on many of his novels. Indeed his idea of ‘cutouts’, in writing as well as audio and video may have been inspired by flicker – as random and changing – words, sounds, and imagery – to possibly reveal deeper levels of
experience. This imagery as well as that from the psychedelic drugs has been likened to access to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Burroughs and perhaps Gysin and some of the others as well were less hopeful of the drugs as a panacea than was Timothy Leary who was promoting them as the new way to live and totally transform society into a big love cult.
Gysin had sought to market the Dream Machine for many years but was ultimately unsuccessful although he seemed to have come close many times. He saw it as an alternative to TV. Gysin had spent many hours meditating on the imagery and apparently found it a worthwhile device for such. Having read a book about Gysin called Planet R101 – which documents his wild and experimental life living in Morocco – I can guess that he was a deeply committed consciousness researcher. Gysin showed the Dream Machine in various ‘art Installations’ at galleries. One was called the – Chapel of Extreme Experience – which gives the book’s title. In describing the Dream Machine, author Richard Condon noted:
“The Dream Machine rearranges components of experiences into patterns which are new even to the unconscious mind and they do this by presenting to the perceptual system inputs of such extraordinary novelty that the mind/memory system hauls out its entire stock of perception memories and concept-memories and works itself dizzy trying to assemble and test different combinations of theses components in an effort to recognize or explain the totally new perceptions ... The Dream Machine presents an oscillation between consciousness and memory.”
The flicker response was noted in some films and there was even one in 1965 called – The Flicker – that was meant to induce flicker responses. Strobe lights did manage to become a part of sixties culture as well. There was an episode of a Japanimation movie – part of the Pokeman series – that apparently caused a great many reactions including seizures due to flicker effects. When I was in college I was with about 4 friends watching a horror movie after taking psilicybin “shrooms.” One guy fell forward while we were sitting there and actually went into a seizure with convulsions. He had never had a seizure before. At the time I thought it was the shrooms or another toxic component in the shrooms but now I think that the combination of the shrooms and the flicker of the TV and possibly the fear-provoking effect of the horror movie were the cause – and flicker may well have been the dominant cause.
Walter did other experiments involving flashing light and reactions to unexpected and novel stimuli. Another topic that interested him was the possible use of flicker to detect ‘psi’ phenomena. Walter, Huxley, Smythies, Gysin, and Humphry Osmond were all friends with the famed English psychic Eileen Garrett. Through his experiments Walter discovered that slight changes in brain waves could predict when a person was about to do something. He called these “expectancy waves.” He thought that this finding could have implications for things like willed psychokinesis and perhaps telepathy. Burroughs had taken yage, or ayahuasca which had reputed telepathic effects. Simiarities between mediumship and mind-altering drug experiences were explored as well. One very interesting result of the experiments was that of the seeming detection of remote stroboscopic flashes unconsciously through brain waves but not consciously. The results were apparently statistically significant.
Next comes Genesis P-Orridge, and English art-mage and musician who wrote Gysin to get permission to publish plans of the Dream Machine. P-Orridge’s band Psychic TV had made recordings into the moving Dream Machine which altered the sounds and then cut them up into a CD. After many hours with Dream Machines he stated that he thinks they could be useful in developing telepathy. P-Orridge was instrumental in founding Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth – which is where I got my own Dream Machine plans in the late 80’s. We hade made two different ones at the time and I must say they did make great ambiance although we didn’t seem to experiment enough with them with eyes closed – only occasionally. I just found the plans the other day and have acquired an old turntable so I plan to make another one soon.
Gysin, who died in 1986 – mentioned that he had maybe “lived a life of adventure, leading nowhere.” In any case, he did leave a legacy of paintings, writings, books, and an exploratory spirit. The 1986 book Mega Brain – about –new tools and techniques for brain growth and mind expansion - by Michael Hutchison described Hutchison’s use of the Synchro-Energizer, “which utilized ‘stroboscopic goggles’ – rhythmic flashes from small light bulbs surrounding each eye – accompanied by an electronic humm heard through headphones.” Apparently, users described vivid experiences and I remember trying out at least one of the so-called “brain machines” in the early 90’s and had a few friends that used them regularly for relaxation.
A more recent researcher of stroboscopic effects was Stephen Stwertka. He called the stroboscopically-induced patterns ‘dissipative structures’ in a 1993 article.
“Dissipative structures are patterns of order that exist solely through the dissipation of energy. They are part of the science of chaos, which holds that behind the oscillations, turbulence, and randomness – the chaos – in nature, there exists a strange manifestation of order and pattern. Dissipative structures are found in cloud patterns, in the organization of colonies of unicellular organisms, and in the rotating spirals found in chemical reactions. They display certain preferred patterns of organization, many of them the same patterns described in the stroboscopic studies – circles, vortices, spirals, and grids – suggesting what Stwertka described as “an almost universal expression of spatial self-organization and order.”
Stwertka also related these dissipative structures to the activity of neurons. He thinks they collectively organize, synchronize, and otherwise cohere – possibly instantaneously across different areas of the brain. Apparently, color, shape, and movement are interpreted in three different areas of the brain. I can see this tying in with some of the quantum matrix hologram ideas as well in a deeper sense.
Well, this was really a cool book about an interesting subject and perhaps another cool techno-art meditation to rediscover.