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Pocket psychedelia

Light and hallucination, from Nostradamus to the Lumenate app

Published: 28 1月 2022
Michel de Notre Dame, better known as Nostradamus, often frequented the court of Caterina de' Medici. In fact, the two may even have been together on the terrace in the French royal palace when Nostradamus had his prophetic visions while looking at the sun with his eyes closed and creating a flicker effect by waving his open hand in front of his face. This is one of the first cases in history of flicker-induced hallucination.

Stroboscopic stimulation is an integral part of encephalograms as it establishes responses to alpha waves and tests for eventual photoparoxysmal reactions in people affected by photosensitive epilepsy. The neurophysiologist William Grey Walter, one of the pioneers of applying electroencephalography to neurological and psychiatric clinical research, noted another effect of stroboscopic light. This was that certain people claimed to have seen, “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions ... In testing a device to study epilepsy we had stumbled on one of those natural paradoxes which are the surest sign of a hidden truth,” stated Walter in his book The Living Brain. The poet Margiad Evans gives a dizzying description of these hallucinations and is quoted in Walter’s book: “Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling colour into colour, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colours, mental colours, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.”

In scientific circles, reactions to the discovery of these visual hallucinations aroused no particular interest and it was never regarded as an important milestone in the field of medical progress. It did, however, have a significant effect on 1960s underground culture and, more specifically, on the Beat Generation.

As one person who read Walter’s The Living Brain was William Burroughs. Flicker-induced hallucination may well have reminded him of a story he had been told by his friend Brion Gysin. In the 1950s, they both lived in a modest hotel in Rue Gît Le Coeur 9, in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris. On 21st December 1958 Gysin noted in his diary an episode that had taken place while he was travelling on a bus in southern France. As he was passing by a row of trees, sunlight came flickering through and Gysin described the sensation as follows: “an overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. The vision stopped abruptly when we left the trees. Was that a vision?”

Gysin had learnt by experience what scientists and neurophysiologists like Walter, had discovered in the laboratory. Burroughs, who had read The Living Brain, was able to hand his friend a theoretical framework for his experience. Gysin then persuaded the mathematician Ian Sommerville to build him a stroboscope. The resulting device had a simple but effective design. It consisted of a cardboard cylinder with holes cut into it at a fixed distance, mounted on a 78 rpm turntable with a light bulb inside it. When the light was turned on and the turntable began to spin, light was emitted at a regular frequency within the 8–12 Hz alpha range, similar to a laboratory stroboscope.
Gysin named his device the Dreamachine and it soon became a household name amongst the beatniks. Allen Ginsberg described his experience of it as follows: “it’s like being able to have jewelled biblical designs and landscapes without taking chemicals”. In Gysin’s opinion, the Dreamachine had the potential to replace the television in people’s homes. He patented it as “a procedure and apparatus for the production of artistic sensations” and he even contacted the Philips Corporation. The company sent a representative to the hotel in Rue Gît Le Coeur 9 to look at the Dreamachine, but despite all Gysin’s attempts, no agreement was reached to mass produce it. Philips saw no commercial potential in it, a decision that was probably influenced by a deeply rooted fear of photosensitive epilepsy.

In the 1980s, Gysin died in anonymity, apart from the musicians he had influenced, like Iggy Pop and Marianne Evelyn Gabriel Faithfull, and now his name is all but forgotten by the wider public. His Dreamachine suffered the same fate, and despite its popularity with the Beat Generation, musicians like Kurt Cobain and Genesis P-Orridge and writers such as Aldous Huxley (who saw it as «a pillar of visionary experience») and Margaret Atwood, it never became the pop object its inventor dreamed it would be.
But now people are talking about the Dreamachine again, due to a renewed interest in psychedelic experiences. This interest in science that widened into pop culture and encompassed substances like LSD, psilocybin and DMT no longer arouses fear, but curiosity and a desire to explore the confines of the mind. Perhaps it was this so-called “psychedelic renaissance” (which you can read more about here and here) that led to the creation of the Lumenate app that operates exactly like the Dreamachine by making the light of the user’s smartphone flicker to induce a psychedelic and deeply meditative experience. The Lumenate creators, Tom Galea and Jay Conlon, have stated that their aim is «to make impactful, psychedelic, subconscious exploration more accessible than ever». Christopher Timmerman, a researcher at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College, London has also spoken out in favour of the app, saying, “By exploring the immersive experiences of users of Lumenate App, we might learn a lot about the mind and brain”.

So, the Dreamachine has not replaced the TV as Gysin wanted it to, but thanks to Lumenate, it is now part of an object that is carried around in the pockets of millions of people. An object that can put us in touch with other human beings and now with our deepest consciousness too, thanks to this app.