“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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