Manipulating light can induce psychedelic experiences, and scientists aren’t entirely sure why

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Brion Gysin and William Burroughs with Dreamachine, 1972. Carlo Gatewood, Author provided

For millennia, people have used mind altering techniques to achieve different states of consciousness, imagine spiritual figures, connect with nature, or just for fun. Psychedelics, in particular, have a long and controversial history. But for just as long, people have gone through these experiences even without drugs, using rhythmic techniques such as rocking, singing or drumming.

Perhaps the most powerful technique of this type is the flickering light, called “ganzflicker”. Ganzflicker effects can be achieved by turning a light on and off or alternating colors in a fast, rhythmic pattern (like a strobe). This can create an instant psychedelic experience.

Ganzflicker arouses surprising visual phenomena. People can see illusory geometric shapes and colors but sometimes also complex objects, such as animals and faces, all without chemical stimulants. Sometimes ganzflicker can also lead to altered states of consciousness (such as loss of sense of time or space) and emotions (ranging from fear to euphoria).

Although its effects are little known today, ganzflicker has influenced and inspired many people over the centuries, including the two of us. We are an art historian and a brain scientist working together on an interactive showcase of ganzflicker techniques used in science and art. Our collaboration culminated in the museum exhibition “Ganzflicker: art, science and the psychedelic experience”, which is part of the Being Human 2022 festival.

The effects of Ganzflicker were first documented in 1819 by the physiologist Jan E. Purkinje. Purkinje found that illusory patterns could appear if he faced the sun and waved his hand in front of his closed eyelids.

From Jan E. Purkinje’s documentation of the subjective visual phenomena he saw when he waved his hand in front of his closed eyes. Author provided

Towards the end of the 19th century, an English toy manufacturer and amateur scientist, Charles Benham, produced the first commercially available flicker device: a top with a monochromatic pattern that, when spun, produced illusory colors that swirled around the disk.

Modified versions of Benham’s “artificial upper spectrum” were used in experiments up to the 20th century. William Gray Walter, a pioneering neurophysiologist and cybernetician, pushed the flicker effects further by using electric strobe lights, synchronized with the brain’s rhythms.

Fascinated by the mind-altering potential of Walter’s machinery, artist Brion Gysin, in collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs and mathematician Ian Sommerville, invented the Dreamachine (1962).

The swinging 60s of drug-free psychedelics

A Dreamachine consists of a vertical cylinder with carved motifs and a light bulb suspended in the center. When run on a turntable at 78 rpm, the flicker patterns (seen through closed eyelids) can cause trance-like hallucinations.

Gysin thought of the Dreamachine as a new type of artwork – “the first art object to be seen with your eyes closed” – and a form of entertainment, which he believed could replace television. Others have seen the potential of the Dreamachine as a source of spiritual inspiration.

Burroughs thought it could be used to “storm the citadels of enlightenment”. Poet Alan Ginsberg said: “Set religious and mandalic optical fields as hallucinogenic drugs: it’s like being able to have biblical drawings and bejeweled landscapes without taking chemicals.”

The flicker experiments in art didn’t stop with the Dreamachine. Others included Tony Conrad’s groundbreaking structuralist film The Flicker (1966), which was the first work of art to include the warning “it can induce seizures or produce mild shock treatment symptoms in some people”.

Bindu Shards (2010) by conceptual artist James Turrell was a closed globe that bombards the observer with a strobe light. And, more recently, Collective Act created their own Dreamachine (2022), a planetary-style public artwork inspired by that of Gysin who toured the UK.

The science of ganzflicker

Two hundred years after Jan Purkinje documented the physiological properties of ganzflicker, scientists still don’t have a definitive explanation of how it works.

A recent theory proposes that visual phenomena may be the result of interactions between external flicker and the brain’s natural rhythmic electrical impulses, with more intense images occurring when the flicker and brain frequencies are closer.

Strong visual flicker is also likely to affect brain states. Significant visions, altered states of consciousness, and heightened emotions may be the result of an imaginative suggestion, which is amplified by the trance-inducing properties of rhythmic stimulation.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about ganzflicker is its universality. Engineers, mathematicians, artists, historians and scientists have all been united by this modest, drug-free means of bringing about dramatic changes in consciousness. The new wave of popularity on this topic will undoubtedly lead to enlightening breakthroughs in the coming years.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversation

The conversation

Matthew MacKisack has received funding for this exhibition from the Being Human festival, the UK’s national humanities festival, which will run from 10 to 19 November 2022. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. For more information, see beinghumanfestival.org.

Reshanne Reeder has received funding for this exhibition from the Being Human festival, the UK’s national humanities festival, which will run from 10 to 19 November 2022. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. For more information, see beinghumanfestival.org.

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