For millennia, people have used mind-altering techniques to achieve different states of consciousness, imagine spiritual figures, connect with nature, or simply for fun. Psychedelics, in particular, have a long and controversial history. But for as long, people have been having these drug-free experiences as well, using rhythmic techniques such as rocking, singing, or drumming.
Perhaps the most powerful technique of this type is 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). It can create an instant psychedelic experience.
Ganzflicker arouses striking visual phenomena. People can see illusory geometric shapes and colors, but sometimes also complex objects, such as animals and faces, all without any chemical stimulants. Sometimes the 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, the ganzflicker has influenced and inspired many people through the ages, including the two of us. We are an art historian and brain scientist working together on an interactive showcase of ganzflicker techniques used in science and art. Our collaboration resulted in the museum 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 faced the Sun and waved his hand in front of his closed eyelids.
Towards the end of the 19th century, an English toymaker and amateur scientist, Charles Benham, produced the first commercially available twinkle device: a top with a monochromatic pattern which, when turned, produced illusory colors that swirl around the disc.
Modified versions of Benham’s “artificial spectrum vertex” were used in experiments well into the 20th century. Pioneering neurophysiologist and cyberneticist William Gray Walter took flickering effects one step further by using electric strobe lights, synchronized with brain rhythms.
Fascinated by the psychotropic potential of Walter’s machines, 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 cut-out designs and a light bulb hanging from its center. When shot on a 78 rpm turntable, the shimmering patterns (seen through closed eyelids) can induce trance-like hallucinations.
Gysin saw the Dreamachine as a new type of work of art—”the first art object to be seen with eyes closed”—and a form of entertainment that he believed could replace television. Others saw the potential of the Dreamachine as a source of spiritual inspiration.
Burroughs thought it could be used to “storm the citadels of enlightenment”. Poet Allen Ginsberg said, “It creates optical fields that are as religious and mandalic as hallucinogenic drugs – it’s like being able to have bejeweled biblical designs and landscapes without taking chemicals.”
Flicker’s artistic experiments didn’t stop with the Dreamachine. Others include Tony Conrad’s groundbreaking structuralist film The Flicker (1966), which was the first work to include the warning that “may induce seizures or produce mild symptoms of shock treatment in some people. “.
Bindu Shards (2010) by conceptual artist James Turrell was an enclosed globe that bombards the viewer with 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 the ganzflicker, scientists still don’t have a definitive explanation for 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 frequencies of the flicker and the brain are closest.
Strong visual flicker is also likely to influence brain states. Meaningful visions, altered states of consciousness, and heightened emotions can be the result of 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 shifts in consciousness. The new wave of popularity on this subject will undoubtedly lead to enlightening discoveries in the years to come.
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.