Psychedelic Information Theory

Shamanism in the Age of Reason


Altered States: The Origin of Art in Entoptic Phenomena

Pettifor, Eric; Internet Reference, 1996.

J.D. Lewis-Williams and T.A. Dowson (1988) in their article 'The Signs of All Times' propose a neurobridge backwards in time to the Upper Palaeolithic by which we can gain insight into the nature of the origins of art. Our nervous system has not changed much in the past 100,000 years. We are still physically very much the hunter-gatherers we were prior to agrarianism. In the signs of Upper Palaeolithic art Lewis-Williams and Dowson see entoptic phenomena very similar to those produced by people in altered states of consciousness today. 'Entoptic' is derived from the Greek for 'within vision', that is, anywhere within the optic system between and including the eye itself and the cortex where signals from the optic nerve are interpreted (Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988). Lewis-Williams and Dowson further break these down into 'phosphenes' which can be produced by physical stimulation (such as the patterns seen when you close your eyes and apply gentle pressure to your eyelids), and 'form constants' which are produced beyond the eye in the cortex itself. It is the latter which Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) primarily focus on, though they do not exclude phosphenes, and refer to both under the general term 'entoptics'. They do, however, distinguish between entoptics and hallucinations. Entoptics are geometric patterns whose origins are in the nervous system itself, whereas hallucinations are iconic and culturally determined and may be experienced in all senses (aural, visual, tactile, olfactory and synesthetic) not just the visual. Hallucinations may arise out of entoptics as will be outlined shortly.

The six entoptic forms which Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) see in common with Upper Palaeolithic art and contemporary research into drug induced visions are the grid, parallel lines, dots, zigzag lines, nested catenary curves, and filigrees (thin meandering lines) (see diagram). Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) do not address the spiral form directly, stating that it needs to be addressed all on its own. These basic forms manifest according to six principles: replication, that is, the entoptic itself, fragmentation, or broken down, (example: a ladder like form is a fragment of a grid); integration, where two or more forms combine (example: a zigzag grid); superpositioning, where one form appears atop another; juxtapositioning, where forms appear next to one another; reduplication, or multiples; and rotation.

Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) outline three stages in the process; first there are the entoptic images alone, then these begin to be elaborated into iconic forms, and the final stage is that of intensification of the iconic forms. In the second stage, entoptics are elaborated into iconic forms, and this elaboration is informed by cultural expectations as well as individual dispositions. In a shamanic society, such as Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) argue is the San, a shaman in training may be encouraged to 'guess' at what the entoptics represent, and some measure of control and manipulation of the entoptics into culturally prescribed forms is encouraged. In the final stage, intensification, the experience moves beyond that of simile (I see something like) to a perception of the experience itself as being real.

While many things may contribute to altered states (psychoactive drugs, sensory deprivation, fatigue, intense concentration, migraine, hyperventilation, rhythmic movement, schizophrenia, brain damage, intense emotion, stress, food and water deprivation, withdrawal from alcohol, advanced syphilis, crystal gazing, fever, etc. (Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988; Asaad and Shapiro, 1986; Siegel, 1977)), Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) focus primarily on those induced by psychoactive drugs.

Web Resource: www.wynja.com

Keywords: entoptic, hallucination