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The homemade device that uses flickering light to alter the viewer's state of consciousness

Dreamachine - p orridge

Genesis P-Orridge stares into the dreamachine.
Courtesy of FLicKeR


As the Sun set on 21 December 1958, the artist and poet Brion Gysin experienced a vivid hallucinat­ion while on a bus driving through rural France. In his journal he wrote:

“Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees.” [1]

Although he was initially unaware of what had happened, Gysin had experi­enced the visionary, consciousness-changing effect created by rapidly flickering light. Returning to Paris, where he resided in the legendary Beat Hotel alongside his close friend and collabor­ator the author William S Burroughs (see FT251:42–47) and other beat lumin­aries, Gysin spoke of his experiences. Through conversations with Burroughs and their associate, the Cambridge mathematics student Ian Sommerville, he was introduced to W Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain (1953).

Here, Walter observed that states of consciousness could be affected by rapidly flashing lights, and that this did not merely affect those areas of the brain assoc­iated with vision but the entire cerebral cortex; as Walter wrote: “Its ripples were overflowing into other areas.” [2] Walter noted that the effect of flickering light on various subjects created “vivid illus­ions of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids”. [3] The patterns reported by the test subjects included vividly coloured spirals and explosions of colour.

Burroughs and Sommerville subsequently explored Walter’s work, but Gysin already had the vital information he needed. He would later state: “I never met him and he never had any other effect on me except that one thing he said, just in half a sentence, that people who are subjected to interrupt­ions of light between 8 and 13 (cycles) a second reported experiences of colour and pattern.” [4] Sommerville and Gysin would go on to examine the possibilities of flicker at length.

The brain produces electrical waves of various frequencies, which can be measured by electroencephalography (EEG), the earliest recordings of which were carried out on dogs in 1875. German physiologist Hans Berger made the first human EEG recordings in 1920. These recordings, and subsequent experimental studies, revealed that specific conscious states appear to function within broadly defined parameters. Thus, in adults, the frequency range most commonly associated with sleep is the 0.5–3Hz delta wave. Between 4 and 7Hz, the theta wave is associated with feelings of drowsiness and is common just before falling asleep. The alpha wave of 8–12Hz is associated with both feeling relaxed and with concentration, while being fully alert is associated with beta waves of 13–30Hz. [5]

W Grey Walter established that subjects experiencing light flickering within the alpha wavelength could experience powerful effects, varying from epileptic seizures through to calming visions. So powerful can these effects be that it is currently estimated that five per cent of epileptics may have seizures that can be triggered by flickering light, and, in some cases, by patterns of stripes of highly contrasting colours. As a result, strobe lights are considered to be potentially dangerous if they flash at a frequency of between 5 and 30Hz, the flicker-rate that can create seizures for those with photosensitive epilepsy. In Britain, it has been recommended that strobe lights in nightclubs operate at a frequency of less that 5Hz. This increased awareness of the effects of flicker on some epileptics is also why television broadcasters now warn of an excess of flashing lights prior to some programmes (for a TV-induced epilepsy scare in Japan, see 'Pokemon Panic'). However, these lights may also have a radically differ­ent effect on non-epileptics, enabling the viewer to experience an altered state of ‘expanded’ or ‘visionary’ consciousness, visual effects and hallucinations.

Neuropsychological studies have observed that altered states of consciousness commonly described as ‘expanded’ or ‘visionary’ create a series of familiar visual effects which can be divided into three stages. The first of these is characterised by luminescent colours and geometric forms such as grids, lines, zigzags, and concentric circles. During the second stage, the individual tries to interpret these random shapes and they transmute into recognisable objects and organisms. Finally, the third stage is that of full hallucination, in which the subject experiences complex visions experienced as reality. During the transition between the second and third stages the subject often experiences visions described as of a vortex or tunnel. [6] In his essay Accessing Alternity, Bruce Harrah-Conforth, who examines third stage visions in relation to Jungian archetypes, hypothesises that the experience of this ‘gyre’ may represent the process of birth.

A cursory glance at the description of a peyote trip in The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience details a broadly similar progression from abstracted geometric forms and colours to full hallucination. Similarly, Robert Anton Wilson’s description of a Dream Machine session details a move from “intensely bright abstracted patterns in supernatural colours“ to “geometric wallpaper” and “the symbols of all the great religions”. [7]

The experimental filmmaker, ethno­musicologist, magician, and visionary Harry Smith created numerous abstract films in the 1940s and ’50s, numerically titled and commonly referred to as The Early Abstractions. These films consist of abstracted patterns created from shapes such as dots, circles, and grids, and culminate in the (fully) hallucinatory No. 10, which features various occult references including spirit forms and the Cabalistic Tree of Life constructed from human skulls. In his notes on these early films, Smith described them as “organized in specific patterns derived from the interlocking beats of the respiration, the heart and EEG Alpha component and should be observed together in order…” [8]

But while the scientific understanding of the brain is a comparatively modern development, the awareness of the effect of flicker on the mind has a far longer hist­ory. Flickering light has been used across numerous cultures to create altered states of consciousness, a method for exploring interior realities alongside other extrinsic tools ranging from the ingestion of hallucino­genic plants to the experience of ecstatic body-piercing rituals.

Many traditional and tribal cultures embrace initiation rites and rituals that use the repetitive stimulation of ceremonial dance or rhythm to create altered states of awareness. Such rhythmic movements could, as Bruce Harrah-Conforth states, produce “visual flicker effects due to shifts in ocular focus and the dancer’s movement in relat­ion to light source”. [9] For example, Voodoo rituals that take place in smoke-filled areas lit by flaming braziers and feature rhythmic dancing, which may create the transformed mental functioning necessary for possession.

While rhythmic movement and music clearly has an important effect on the participants, it is not essential; even staring with eyes unfocused into flames can create a trance-like effect and further emphasises the importance of light. Such rituals can be seen across cultures, from the Australian Yualai, who initiate a boy as a medicine man by tying him to the ground for a night and burning fires all around him, [10] through to figures such as Michel de Nostradamus who reportedly stared at the Sun while waving his fingers over his closed eyes.

In Western magical studies, such as those carried out in the 16th century by John Dee and Edward Kelley, the researchers would stare at polished crystal balls. This process of ‘scrying’ (a 16th-century corrupt­ion of ‘descry’, literally meaning ‘to catch sight of’) enabled the practitioner, or so it was believed, to see and commun­icate with super­natural intelligences. The process necessitated the correct positioning of the globe and – more importantly, and something that would have been taken for granted by occult researchers prior to the 20th century – the careful use of lighting. Spoiled by the introduction of electricity, we take light for granted; however, for those gazing into crystal balls before such advances of technology, the only light would have come from candles. With the candles correctly positioned to illuminate the globe, it’s possible that the refraction of the flickering candlelight through the crystal could have created a flicker effect for the scryer.

Back at the Beat Hotel in February 1960, two months after his luminous epiphany, Gysin received a letter from Ian Sommer­ville in Cambridge. The mathematics student had constructed a simple but effect­ive flicker device using a turntable and a card tube cut with a number of slits; inside this tube was positioned a 100-watt bulb. When the record player was run at 78rpm, spinn­ing the tube, the slits in the cylinder created a flicker at the alpha wave frequency.

Ian would sit a few inches from the spinn­ing tube with his eyes closed, allowing the bright flicker to wash across his eyelids and onto his retina in the same way that Gysin had experienced his earlier hallucinat­ion on the bus. Sommerville wrote of a “kaleidoscope of colours” which gradually became “more complex and beautiful…” [11] Sommerville went on to describe the effect of background music, noting that rhythmic music served to modul­ate the visions to the tempo of the sound.

The two friends collaborated on numerous designs for what Gysin would term the Dreamachine. They experimented with differ­ent shaped slits within the tube to create different speeds of flicker within the band of alpha rhythm frequencies and with paintings inside the cylindrical structure. The device, described as the first work of art designed to be viewed with closed eyes, enabled viewers to explore their own interior space. In Gysin’s words: “Dreamachines make visible the fundamental order present in the physio­logy of the brain.” [12]

Early examples of the device in operation can be seen briefly in the short film Towers Open Fire directed by Antony Balch with the collab­oration of Gysin and Burroughs. The Dreamachine was first officially exhibited in Paris in 1962, at the group show L’Objet, and examples of the device have been periodically displayed in underground art spaces, large galleries and retrospective exhibitions ever since. But this positioned the Dreamachine not as a real device or a tool for exploring inner space, but merely as art.

Given the period in which the Dreamachine was invented, it was inevitable that it would have connot­ations associated with the LSD trip; but, crucially, Gysin understood it differently and framed it as a drug-free experience. Throughout the rest of his life, Gysin would periodically be tantalised by the possibility of a commercial manufacturer mass-producing Dreamachines, but in the end only a few were ever professionally made. The calming interior experience of the Dreamachine lost out to the spectacle of the large-scale lightshows at the Merry Pranksters’ communal acid tests and the concerts of the Grateful Dead, fuelled by the increasing availability of LSD. Ultimately, the groundbreaking device failed to ignite widespread interest.

From the late 1970s onwards, musician, artist, and subcultural engineer Genesis P-Orridge has promoted the Dreamachine. P-Orridge was vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, and both groups have produced Dreamachine-related work. The first side of Throbbing Gristle’s groundbreaking Heathen Earth album was described by Gysin as an ideal soundtrack to accompany sessions sitting before the device’s flickering light, while Psychic TV released numerous recordings that could facilitate Dreamachine use. Additionally, the Temple Ov Psychic Youth – the ‘magickal’ group based around Psychic TV – also disseminated information about the Dreamachine. This worked as exceptionally effective promotion for the device, and throughout the 1980s subcultural interest in the Dreamachine grew, with people making their own devices according to the plans published by Temple Press. As P-Orridge would later write:

“The Dreamachine can quite literally invoke. It can call out that same blue light mentioned in high Egyptian magic and in Sufi texts. The energy Dervish Dance calls out… The Dreamachine can facilitate lucid dreaming outside the normal consider­ations of space and time. The Dreamachine can generate physiological manifestations of these altered states. The Dreamachine is a practical process of accelerating empathogenic bonding within groups working in psychic territories.” [13]

In true underground fashion, the Dreamachine was eventually distributed not as a physical object but as a cogent concept, complete with easy-to follow-construction plans. It was comparatively simple to make and ready for immediate use at home, and people began to construct their own versions of the device using cardboard tubes, lights and old record players, echoing Sommerville’s initial invention.

Strobing light has been characterised as a method of stimulating a variety of magical and psychic experiences and as having an effect on ‘normal’ brain functions. While it can be seen as having a scientific basis in effecting the functioning of the brain, it also has a history that can be traced through various ‘transcendental’ experiences and even fortean phenomena.

Perhaps the effect of flicker may be best understood as pertaining to both cate­gories of phenomena despite their apparent anti­thesis. Flicker opens up the possibility of access to a realm of expanded and transformed consciousness and the potentialities that could lay within; what the user decides to do with the knowledge and experience of the effect of flicker remains the pathway to the future.

The instructions for manufacturing a Dreamachine are readily available online and have been published in numerous books. Those who cannot find a turn­table that plays at 78rpm will be pleased to see that plans are available for a Dreamachine that functions correctly at 45rpm. It should be obvious that the Dreamachine may not be suitable for those prone to epileptic seizures.

1 Brion Gysin: ‘Dreamachine’, in Paul Cecil (ed): Flickers of the Dreamachine, Codex, Hove, 1996, p5. See also Terry Wilson: Here To Go: Planet R-101, Quartet Books, 1982, p240. See also Ion Will’s similar experience, FT86:51.
2 W Grey Walter: ‘The Living Brain’, in Cecil, op. cit., p114.
3 Ibid, p117.
4 Brion Gysin, cited in John Geiger: Chapel of Extreme Experience, Soft Skull, New York, 2003, p49.
5 Yogis in trance states, firewalkers, and others applying the technique of ‘mind over matter’ appear to produce an excess of alpha waves at will. These appear to block out unnecessary external stimuli. Young children (below the age of four) have a more pronounced presence of both delta and theta waves.
6 See J David Lewis-Williams & David G Pearce: San Spirit­uality: Roots, Expressions and Social Consequences. This work broadly suggests that some styles of rock art may be indicative of specific stages of transformed mental states, and that some recurr­ing patterns in rock art (such as zigzags and spirals) may indicate an experience of altered consciousness. In George Nash: ‘The Symbolic Use of Fire: A Case for its Use in the Late Neolithic Passage Grave Tradition In Wales’, published in Time and Mind, the author observes a darkened space within a burial chamber on which shapes such as vertical zigzags and spirals appear on the walls. While Nash does not suggest these shapes were created to represent states of expanded consciousness, he does suggest that they would have been viewed in the light of fire, which may have made the “images flicker and dance” (p156). I leave it to the reader to speculate on this.
7 Simon Dwyer: ‘Dreamachine: An Information Montage’ in Rapid Eye, vol 1, Creation Books, 1995, p54.
8 Harry Smith: film notes quoted in Jack Sargeant: Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, Soft Skull, 2008, p92.
9 Bruce Harrah-Conforth, PhD: Accessing Alternity: Neuro­technology and Alternate States of Consciousness, www.mindmodulations.com, p22.
10 See AP Elkin: Aboriginal Men of High Degree, Inner Traditions International, 1994, p92, which details the ritual and the ensuing events from the perspective of the initiate. Of related interest is the children’s story The Wonder­ful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl, which describes a man who invests himself with visionary skills through a process of learning based on staring at a flame.
11 Sommerville, cited in Gysin: ‘Dreamachine’ in Cecil, op. cit. p5.
12 Brion Gysin: ‘What Is A Dreamachine’.
13 Genesis P-Orridge: ‘The Only Language Is Light’ in Cecil, p19. Note that a slight variant of P-Orridge’s text is available at Division Circuit.  For the alleged use of a Dreamachine by Kurt Cobain before his suicide, see FT83:7.

To even begin to examine the notion of consciousness is problematic. Broadly speaking, the dominant First World culture equates productive waking with ‘normal’ conscious functions. Other states of consciousness are generally considered as either unproductive, as in sleep in which the subject may be ‘dead to the world’, or abnormal and undesirable such as in ‘altered’ states of consciousness. Even ‘daydreaming’ is considered indicative of lazy unproductivity.

In the post-Freudian West, the unconscious is still often considered as a repository of undesired memories or repressed urges that remain largely inaccessible except through dreams and slipp­ages. In contrast, some non-Westernised cultures may understand consciousness differently, viewing dreams as revelatory, and trance states as desirable conditions in which information may be learned, medicine may be worked, and communication to ancestors or entities may be experienced.

Despite the First World’s unwillingness to consider other states of consciousness as valuable, it should be apparent that consciousness should not simply be understood as being either awake or asleep. Instead, consciousness may best be perceived as a continuum that includes states ranging from deep sleep to hyperactivity, from drowsiness to meditative trances, and from relaxation to states described as possessed.

In 2001, a patent was granted for an Enhanced Non-Lethal Visual Security Device. One of the growing number of non-lethal weapons being devised, this device uses flickering laser lights from the opposite ends of the visual spectrum to create “disorientation” in the target. The theory behind such weapons is based on the Bucha effect, the principle that even those who are not epileptic can still be affected by flicker between 1Hz and 20Hz.

Nik Sheehan’s documentary film FLicKeR (2008) examines the phenomenon of flicker and shows various cultural icons, artists, and musicians – including Iggy Pop, a close friend of Gysin – using the Dreamachine and discussing its effects. Sheenan was first made aware of the Dreamachine (like so many people) thanks to the San Francisco journal Re/Search, which published a special issue on Throbbing Gristle, Gysin, and Burroughs, and when offered the chance to make a film on the Dreamachine based on John Geiger’s book Chapel of Extreme Experience, Sheehan jumped at the opportunity. The film is currently screening on the festival and indie-film circ­uit, and is highly recommended viewing.

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Author Biography
Jack Sargeant has produced many books and essays. His book on underground film Naked Lens: Beat Cinema has recently been republished in an expanded edition by Soft Skull, and includes a chapter on Brion Gysin. He is currently researching for his PHD. See www.jacktext.net.


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