Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

My brain… It’s full of stars


My God… It’s full of stars”, said astronaut Bowman while he was being absorbed by the black Monolith in “2001”. A succession of psychedelic imagery (created with slit-scan photography) then followed, representing the contact with the Divine, or whatever it was, as Kubrick never made clear what for Sirius sake that ending actually meant. But it was something big, mystical, even religious.

Spiral images and tunnels of light often emerge in experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, and perhaps not by mere coincidence, in religious iconography referring to “visions”, such as eastern mandalas, Islamic art or even Christian cathedrals. Not only that, it also shows up in near-death experiences, synaesthesic hallucinations, migraines, epilepsy, psychotic disturbances, sleep disturbances, advanced syphilis and even in ancient rock art thousands of years old.

This universality of the theme seems to suggest something literally Higher, perhaps a contact with higher planes, even though migraines, advanced syphilis or psychosis are kind of out of place in this interpretation. Neuroscience offers an alternative explanation that seems to fit them all.

In the 1920s, German neurologist Heinrich Klüver dedicated himself to study the effects of mescaline (peyote) and noticed that some geometrical patterns were repeatedly and consistently reported by different subjects (including himself). The patterns were then classified by him into what he called “form constants”, of four types: (I) tunnels, (II) spirals, (III) lattices and (IV) cobwebs.


All very interesting, but this is just description. Recent studies however, combining discoveries on the workings of the visual cortex with models of the workings of neurons suggest that such patterns could be the result of something akin to a short-circuit in the brain. Simple disturbances in the visual cortex, when mapped to what patterns would be perceived by the subject show a striking similarity with psychedelic imagery.


On the left, the representation of the visions of someone quite high. On the right, the simulation of the perception generated from a simple disturbance in the visual cortex. Simple as that. No god, no spiritual plane, just an artifact of how our visual cortex process images and how it then reacts to anomalies in its workings. “It’s full of stars”, but they may all be inside your brain.

Well, perhaps things are not so simple, I must note. Those damn scientists, they keep insisting on having solid evidence and naming speculation and hypothesis as just speculation and hypothesis. So this oversimplified description of their work must not be taken as gospel, and I have to say that in their papers they make clear that this is just a work-in-progress, and that even the comparison above involves some fiddling with the model.

And as believers would say – as they said in response to a first Portuguese version of this text – who are to say the “disturbances” that create the imagery are not somehow “holy” in themselves?

To which I answered that this is missing the whole point here, that such seemingly complex and universal images are product of our brains, even if there could be countless root causes for the simple planar disturbances that may cause them. Including some kind of brain fiddling god. Fact is, our brain would do most of the work.

Amazingly, even to this day, many people still have doubts about that. Funny ape brains.

For a more rigorous and accurate description of these findings check:

Physics Makes a Toy of the Brain (Science after Sunclipse);
– "What Geometric Visual Hallucinations Tell Us about the Visual Cortex" (PDF) Neural Computation 14 (2002):473–491.

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Posted in Paranormal,Science | 1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Matt July 20th, 2010 6:45 am

    I think you missed the whole point by citing the dazzling complexity and beauty of what our brain creates even by “mistake,” and smugly intoning it as proof of no god or spiritual plane. I can imagine someone with the precise opposite view using the same reasoning to point to an existence of God. You are also disregarding what millions of years of “simple planar disturbances” achieved or might say purposefully evolved; a functioning visual cortex let alone the countless other masterpieces of design that compose the human body – they all had to spring from somewhere.

    Furthermore putting an image of what is already a simulation of something no human can experience except through their own eyes (more specifically mind) next to a drawing which is another abstract representation of a highly individualized experience is a weak appeal to aesthetics. In other words don’t try to peddle subjectivity as objectivity, even with sardonic disclaimers.

    You have a chicken/egg paradox on your hands:

    “The human brain creates all spiritual phenomena”

    “The human brain is a spiritual phenomena”

    I can’t fault your reasoning, nor your logic, nor analytical thinking. They are flawless when held up against the light of science. I can only tell you as the light illuminates what is within its reach, it equally so darkens what falls out of its glow. Determinism, reductionism, and quantification may yield brilliant knowledge but they risk blotting out the stars at night…or blotting out all life altogether, as their judicious overuse in every aspect of our personal and collective lives is currently demonstrating. We have an addiction to control.

    Human emotions aren’t to be trusted. Our senses decieve us. Cogito is superior to body. Only science can winnow truth from lie. Sound familiar?

    Once you venture beyond the veil of objectivity and recognize the unique character that affects everything you focus your intent upon, you will find your scientific endeavors will reward you in unimaginable ways.

    The Ascent of Humanity most compellingly appeals to any intelligent person who is hoping to better them self and by extension of which this world. And best of all anyone of any spirituality can read and appreciate it, for free online if you so choose.

    It changed my definition of self; and thus all my relationships with the world.

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