For millennia, people have used mind-altering techniques to achieve different states of consciousness, visualize spirit figures, connect with nature, or simply for fun. Psychedelic substances, in particular, have a long and controversial history. But for just as long, people have been experiencing these experiences without drugs, using rhythmic techniques such as rocking, chanting or drumming.
Perhaps the most powerful technique of this kind is the flickering light, called “ganzflicker”. Ganzflicker effects can be achieved by turning a light on and off, or by alternating colors in a fast, rhythmic pattern (like a strobe). This can create an instant psychedelic experience.
Ganzflicker causes impressive visual effects. People can see geometric shapes and illusory colors, but sometimes complex objects, such as animals and faces — all without chemical stimulants. Sometimes ganzflicker can even 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 throughout the ages, including both of us. We are an art historian and a brain scientist working together on an interactive exhibition of ganzflicker techniques used in science and art. Our collaboration culminated in the museum’s exhibition ‘Ganzflicker: art, science and the psychedelic experience’, which is part of the Being Human 2022 festival.
Ganzflicker effects were first documented in 1819 by physiologist Jan E. Purkinje. Purkinje discovered that illusory patterns could appear if he looked at the Sun and waved his hand in front of his closed eyelids.
Near the end of the 19th century, an English toymaker and amateur scientist, Charles Benham, created the first commercially available flickering device: a blouse with a monochrome pattern that, when spun, produced illusory colors that swirled around the disc.
Modified versions of Benham’s “artificial spectrum peak” were used in experiments well into the 20th century. William Gray Walter, a pioneering neurophysiologist and cyberneticist, further advanced flickering effects by using electric strobe lights, synchronized to brain rhythms.
Fascinated by the mind-altering potential of Walter’s machines, artist Brion Gysin, in collaboration with author William S. Burroughs and mathematician Ian Sommerville, invented the Dreamachine (1962).
The swinging 60s of psychedelics without the drugs
A Dreamachine consists of an upright cylinder with patterns cut into it and a lamp hanging in its center. When spun on a turntable at 78 rpm, the flickering patterns (seen through closed eyelids) can induce trance-like hallucinations.
Gysin envisioned the Dreamachine as a new kind of artwork—”the first art object seen with eyes closed”—and a form of entertainment, which he believed could replace television. Others saw the Dreammachine’s potential as a source of spiritual inspiration.
Burroughs thought it could be used to “overrun the citadels of enlightenment”. Poet Allen Ginsberg said, “It creates visual fields as religious and mandalic as hallucinogenic drugs — it’s like you can have jewelry of biblical designs and landscapes without taking chemicals.”
Flicker’s experiments in art didn’t stop with Dreamachine. Others included Tony Conrad’s pioneering structuralist film The Flicker (1966), which was the first work of art to include the warning that it “may induce convulsions or induce mild symptoms of shock therapy in some individuals”.
Bindu Shards (2010) by conceptual artist James Turrell was an enclosed sphere that bombards the observer with a strobe light. And, most recently, Collective Act created their own Dreamachine (2022), a planetarium-style public artwork inspired by Gysin’s that toured the UK.
The science of ganzflicker
Two hundred years after Jan Purkinje documented the physiological properties of ganzflicker, scientists still do not have a definitive explanation of how it works.
A recent theory suggests that visual phenomena may be the result of interactions between external jitter and the brain’s natural rhythmic electrical pulses, with sharper images appearing when the jitter and brain frequencies are closer.
It is also possible that a strong visual flicker affects brain states. Substantial visions, altered states of consciousness, and heightened emotions can be the result of imaginative suggestion, enhanced by the trance-inducing properties of rhythmic stimulation.
What is perhaps most powerful about ganzflicker is its universality. Engineers, mathematicians, artists, historians and scientists have all joined this modest, drug-free means of inducing dramatic changes in consciousness. The new wave of popularity in this topic will undoubtedly lead to enlightening discoveries in the coming years.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Matthew MacKisack at University of Exeter and Reshanne Reeder at Edge Hill University. Read the original article here.