21 July 2011

All in your head (or 'The Ironing and the Ecstasy')

Just under two years ago I went far into the Arctic Circle, to the Svalbard Archipelago, for a few days of hiking, kayaking and other general outdoorsy stuff. One particularly memorable day involved an open sea kayak across water so cold that I didn't need to worry about drowning in it (I'd freeze to death long before I drowned. Yay!) followed by a hike up the 1000 meter-high Hiortmountain. A hundred meters or so from the end of our climb I had to stop and couldn't go any further. The slope of the mountain was rising at a 60 degree angle, covered in loose sharply pointed scree, and at that time of year was basically on the snow-line. As I started to climb over the rocks a strange thing started to happen, the angles of the loose rocks combined with the alternating dark and white patches caused by snowfall created a powerful strobing effect as I looked at them, triggering a rapid and deeply painful migraine. Ignoring the decidedly un-existential threat of polar bears I sat on the side of the mountain as my companions headed for the top, took some pain-killers and waited for it all to pass.

This was not the first instance of a landscape triggering a migraine. Earlier that same year I arrived in Monaco by train at the fantastic Gare de Monaco underground station (along with the Oceanographic Museum possibly the best thing about Monaco). The platform is buried deep within the side of the cliff and curves around sharply so that the start of the platform cannot be seen from the end. The ceiling is curved like most underground stations, but unusually is covered in horizontal slats of wood. As I walked down the platform the rows of curving parallel lines started strobing and we spent our first hour in Monaco looking for a pharmacy to get some pain killers.

While I am prone to migraines, not all are accompanied by overwhelming pain. Frequently I will simply get a strobing effect in the corner of my eye, seeing ghost-images of black and white geometric patterns in my peripheral vision which gradually increase in size until I experience a form of tunnel vision surrounded entirely by cross-hatching. I will feel woozy and light-headed, but not in any actual pain. While this effect can occur spontaneously, lately I have noticed that it tends to happen with alarming regularity as I iron two or three of my shirts, the type of shirts a PR person would advise me not to wear on TV because the stripes don't play nice with the cameras.

Since this seems to happen with some frequency, that the interplay of light and dark geometric shapes, parallel lines and/or sharp angles all seem to be able to trigger a physical response in me, I assumed that there was a biological and/or neurological explanation for this; I was, however, honestly surprised to find one in recent readings on the subject of our earliest truly human ancestors.

In his exploration of the motivation for and meaning of Paleolithic art, like that found in the caves of Lascaux, David Lewis-Williams examines the geometric flashes that I have experienced:
"...geometric visual precepts that include dots, grids, zigzags, nested catenary curves, and meandering lines. Because these precepts are 'wired' into the human nervous system, all people, no matter what their cultural background, have the potential to experience them. They flicker, scintillate, expand, contract, and combine with one another; the types are less rigid than this list suggests. Importantly they are independent of an exterior light source. They can be experienced with the eyes open or closed; with open eyes they are projected onto and partly obliterate visual perceptions of an environment... This particular precept is associated with migraine attacks and is therefore well-known to sufferers from that condition." - David Lewis-Williams, 'The Mind in the Cave', p126
Lewis-Williams refers to these geometric illusions as 'entopic phenomena', from the Greek for 'within vision', for they take place between the eye and the brain. In fact they seem to be hardwired into the human nervous system itself:
"It has been found that the patterns of connections between the retina and the striate cortex are (known as V1) and of neuronal circuits within the striate cortex determined their geometric form. Simply put, there is a spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex: points that are close together on the retina lead to the firing of comparably placed neurons in the cortex. When this process is reversed, as following the ingestion of psychotropic substances, the pattern in the cortex is perceived as a visual precept. In other words, people in this condition are seeing the structure of their own brains." - David Lewis-Williams, 'The Mind in the Cave', p127
In his novel 'Blindsight' Peter Watts explores many psychological oddities, amongst them a race of vampires imagined as an early hominid predator whose 'crucifix glitch', a genetically hard-coded aversion to right angles, only became a lethal hindrance once their prey became civilized, as a character in the novel states, "How many intersecting right angles do you see in nature?".

While fiction, it is not as far-fetched as it sounds (the triggered mental effects of constructed geometric shapes, not the vampire bit). Geometric shapes are not that common in nature, and yet are common to Paleolithic art across the globe. While many have argued that these are representative of images seen in psychotropic trances, it has also been argued that their depiction on cave walls were used to induce these trances, overwhelming the neurons between the retina and the visual cortex with visual stimuli that trigger Lewis-Williams' entopic phenomena. Once in this state the mind can be induced into even deeper neurological states where full-blown visual hallucinations are triggered, and many explanations for the origins of religion use these hallucinatory states as their starting points.

When Feuerbach argued that god was merely the projection of our own internal nature, he couldn't have known how close to the biological truth he was, and this use of angles and lines to indice a religious experience is not confined to our neolithic ancestors; one only has to think of the geometric patterns of Islamic religious art or the Christian cross used as an object of mediative devotion across the globe to see that Watts' vampires might not be the only hominid with a 'crucifix glitch'.

It could then be argued that as civilization advanced and the artificiality of the environment in which we dwelled increased, our susceptibility to religious experiences increased rather than decreased, as our mind reeled from constant exposure to geometric shapes. Or perhaps less harmfully, the low-level trancelike state induced by an urban environment stimulated the mind to make subconscious leaps of understanding. Thus the city itself has literally rewired the human psyche on a neurological level, the city created us as much as we created it.

All of which goes a long way to explaining how as I sat on the side of an Arctic mountain, once the exploding pain inside my head had been brought under control by the finest of modern pharmaceuticals, I experienced a calm and serenity that belied the precarious nature of the situation, and why ironing a shirt in the morning is perhaps the closest thing to a religious experience I will ever enjoy.

Top: Hiortmountain, Svalbard, September 2009
Upper Middle: My shirt, this morning
Lower Middle: Lascaux II, Vallée de Vézère, May 2010
Bottom: la Sagrada Família, Barcelona, June 2005

The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams
Blindsight by Peter Watts



At 12:42 am, Blogger Aidan said...

Wow Dave you had alot of time to catch up on your reading.

Fantastic post Dave incredibly interesting.

At 12:31 am, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

amazing post, extremely interesting. makes me want to read about and search out more of these patterns (esp in Irish stone age sites), among other things. this post could become a book.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Older Posts... ...Newer Posts