Saturday, May 2, 2009

Modern Mad Science With The Dreamachine

Modern Mad Science With The Dreamachine
Mental Trips Through Electrical Blips

Imagine a machine that is capable of diminishing writer's block, inspiring artists and allowing one to dream while wide awake, a machine that grants visions of biblical proportion and acid trips without the acid. Sound like something out of a science fiction novel? What if I told you such an invention exists and this modern mad science is owed to friends of William S. Burroughs?

The Dreamachine was invented in 1959 by poet Brion Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville. It all began when Gysin was on his way to spend the holidays with a friend at an artists' colony. He recounted the experience in a journal entry dated December 21, 1958:

“Had a transcendental storm of color 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 colors exploded behind my eyelids: A dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly when we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?”

When Ian Sommerville heard of this, he suggested that Gysin read a book entitled The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter, in which the phenomenon of “flicker” is explained. The descriptions and effects of the experiments performed by Walter touched a nerve with Gysin. He wrote back to Sommerville and asked him “How can we make it at home?”

Sommerville set to work and soon created a prototype, which wasn't much beyond “a slotted cardboard cylinder which turns over a gramophone at 78 rpm with a lightbulb inside.” He told Gysin:

“You look at it with your eyes shut and the flicker plays over your eyelids. Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colors on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually becomes more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of color are pounding to get in. After awhile the visions were permanently behind my eyes and I was in the middle of the whole scene with limitless patterns being generated around me. There was an almost unbearable feeling of spatial movement for a while but it was well worth getting through for I found that when it stopped I was high above earth in a universal blaze of glory. Afterward I found that my perceptions of the world around had increased very notably. All conceptions of being dragged or tired had dropped away.”
In no time at all, Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin began making them and exhibiting them around Paris. William S. Burroughs championed the invention and relied on it heavily for inspiration to his bizarre novels. Gysin would later finalize the design, perfecting the slits in the tubes so that the flicker would occur eight to thirteen times a second, which is the optimal speed.

How does it work? A conscious person's brain functions at 4 to 8 hertz per second but when the high speed flicker of the Dreamachine strikes closed eyelids, it overrides the waking signal and sends a 10 hertz impulse to the brain, imitating the same wavelength the brain operates on when dreaming.

The use of “flicker” to achieve these visions predates Sommerville and Gysin, possibly going all the way back to the days of the Bible. Some believe that the Old Testament's reference to the “Tree of Knowledge” (Genesis 2:9) is a veiled description of the same occurrence that had happened to Brion Gysin on his way to Marseilles.

Johannes Trithemisu (1562-1516), an Abbot of Germany's Benedictine monastery, published a series of manuals on how to speak to angels, entitled Steganography. In order to communicate with these holy beings, one was to memorize and recite these passages with their eyes closed, faces close enough to burning religious candles that the light from the flames danced upon their eyelids.

And even Nostradamus was known to use the flicker method at times. On sunny days he would climb to the highest point he could find and lie down, waving his fingers before his closed eyes until the visions came. Many of his famous prophecies were reached through this very method.

And what of today? Why can't one just walk into the local drug store and pick up a Dreamachine? Chances are that people are afraid of the machine, not trusting what they don't understand. The long term effects are unknown and the machine should be used with caution or not at all, especially if you suffer from epilepsy or mental instability. There are a few sources online where you can purchase a Dreamachine of your own or you can buy the plans and build one yourself.

Venture forward bravely, and let me know what you see.


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