Dreamachine preview: A drug-free hallucinogenic trip

A mind-bending light and sound extravaganza is coming to a town near you, and it could help unravel the mysteries of the brain

Humans 23 March 2022

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Dreamachine’s light and sound show can produce intense hallucinations and a sense of calm

Brenna Duncan

Dreamachine

Jennifer Crook

Unboxed Festival

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IN THE late 1950s, when altered states of consciousness were all the rage, the artist Brion Gysin invented a drug-free route to psychedelic euphoria. His Dreamachine – a spinning cylinder that shines flashing lights onto a viewer’s closed eyes – was intended as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment for the masses.

Now, art producer Jennifer Crook has revisited Gysin’s invention as a sci-art multimedia experience. The aim is to produce a communal head trip that will not only expand visitors’ experience, but also probe the depths of human consciousness.

Crook got the idea for the project after having a transcendent experience while at a gig by electronic music artist Jon Hopkins. She went on to enlist Hopkins to provide the soundtrack to the updated Dreamachine, which will be touring the UK as part of the Unboxed Festival.

At the centre of the installation are vivid hallucinations created by the brain in response to specific sensory inputs. In the 1950s, the pioneering neuroscientist Grey Walter discovered that dreamlike hallucinations could be induced by lights flashing on closed eyelids at 8 to 12 hertz, the same frequency as the oscillations of “alpha” brainwaves when we are relaxed and wakeful with our eyes closed. Normally, when we open our eyes, these alpha waves are disrupted by visual inputs. Flashing lights at alpha wave frequencies on closed eyelids stimulates the optic nerve, but provides little visual information, and the brain responds by generating hallucinations.

Because of this, the Dreamachine can produce kaleidoscopic visions and a sense of calm. These hallucinations may also reveal a lot about the way the brain works. As part of the project, neuroscientists Anil Seth and David Schwartzman at the University of Sussex, UK, Dreamachine‘s light and sound show can produce intense hallucinations and a sense of calm are collecting the experiences of visitors, which they hope to use as a window into the workings of the brain. Seth is among the many scientists who believe that hallucinations are part of the way that our brains generate our conscious experience of the world.

One major question concerns perceptual diversity – how varied or similar our internal mental experiences may be. We know that we all see the world in different ways, but science can’t yet explain how and why. In an attempt to investigate this, an optional survey will ask participants to log their visual experiences using colour palettes, animations and shape selections.

Other questions will address the emotional aspects of the experience, which can be intense. Hopkins’s music alone, when played through 360-degree speakers around the audience, can give an eerie feeling of stepping out of time and into a state of being that usually comes with a meditative state.

As well as the physical exhibition, an online census will capture perceptual diversity from millions of people around the world, while a schools programme will be rolled out around the UK. Through activities and resources, children will be encouraged to ask questions about how they perceive the world and to explore how this differs from the experiences of others. The research team’s resident philosopher, Fiona Macpherson, says the goal is to show them how, in our differences, we are all connected.

This aim brings Dreamachine back to the ideals of its inventor, who hoped to give people the experience of being catapulted into a higher level of consciousness. Crook’s new vision is even more ambitious: to explore the depths of the human brain while realising the variation in our inner worlds and celebrating neurodiversity.

Dreamachine will tour London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh from May to September. Sign up for free tickets at dreammachine.world.

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