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Towards a science of psychedelic aesthetics

January 14, 2019

What is it about psychedelic visuals that makes them so arresting and absorbing? In Heaven and Hell Aldous Huxley argued that the arresting qualities of psychedelic visuals derives from their relation to mythic and preternatural realms of the mind. Many of the ancient mythologies (e.g. Greek, Celtic, Japanese, Hindu), Huxley noted, imagined and described the other, divine realms of heaven and the afterlife as realms of intensified color and light, as well as extraordinary visual beauty and harmony. These are places filled with gems, shining stones, or colorful flowers. Ezikel’s version of the Garden of Eden is filled with such luminescent gems. The New Jerusalem is constructed in glimmering buildings of shimmering stone. Plato’s world of the ideals is described where colors possess a purity and brilliance absent from their real-world manifestations.[1]

[An example of mutli-perspectivism in psychedelic video. Jeu]

Our fascination with gems, shimmering objects, colorful flowers, and translucent stained-glass windows stems from their resemblance to the glowing beauty gleaned in the visionary’s inner eye, argued Huxley. By viewing such objects of beauty, we are reminded of the visionary realms and can be transported into them.[2]

Huxley’s ideas about the ways in which visual perception and aesthetics underlie the mystical experience and define its features have provided some of the background to a web project I’ve started eight years ago, dedicated to the exploration of psychedelic video aesthetics. The Daily Psychedelic Video began with the simple premise of creating a daily stream of curated psychedelic videos. It started out as an individual effort but quickly evolved into a group blog, representing the tastes of some 15 psychedelic video aficionados who have since contributed to the site.

Over these years, we’ve been cultivating a growing selection of psychedelic videos, one video a day (after eight years these have amassed to 3,000, making this the largest psychedelic video collection on the web), compiling video lists, and arranging psychedelic screenings. What I’ve learnt in this period inspired me to think not only about psychedelic aesthetics in themselves, but about their connection to both the natural and preternatural worlds, and to the processes and dimensions of psychedelic healing.

The relationship between psychedelic visuals and the psychedelic experience

Where does one begin an exploration of the aesthetics of psychedelic video aesthetics? Perhaps by noting some of their common characteristics. Beyond their lavish colorful qualities, and their effusive use of light, noted by Huxley, psychedelic videos have several recurring and defining characteristics. Among these are the preoccupation with (1) multi-dimensionality (particularly in the use of fractals, see for instance Cyriak’s Hurray for Earth video, or this extreme Mandelbrot fractal zoom) as well as with (2) multi-perspectivism (See for example in George Schwitzgebel’s Jeu, in Wild Child’s Rillo Talk video, or in Let Forever Be video by the Chemical Brothers), an (3) fondness to the use of mandalas, tunnels, kaleidoscopic imagery and other types of harmonious symmetries (Busby Berkeley provides some examples from the 1930s, a video titled ‘L’illusion de Joseph’ does the same based on 19th century phenakistoscope images), and (4) perhaps most uniquely to the video format, a proclivity towards  the exploration of flow, fluidity and shifting contours and shapes (see for instance this meditative video of the ocean waves, this video by Nihls Frahm, or this one by Liquid stranger, the Love and Theft video by Studio Bilder, or this bird watching video). Finally, (5) psychedelic videos often showcase distinct synesthetic qualities which are arguably less common in other psychedelic media. Synesthesia—the mixing of senses, as in the seeing of sounds or the hearing of colors—is a common feature of the psychedelic state. In media that involve one sense only, such as paintings or music, synesthetic qualities are habitually implicit only. The music video genre, by contrast, is based on the combination of video and sound, so that it is, in a sense, inherently synesthetic. Psychedelic videos often draw on and develop these synesthetic qualities as seen in this captivating example by Andrew Thomas Huang or in many of the other examples above.

[Observe the use of multi-dimensionality in this psychedelic video by Cyriak]

Psychedelic mental and ideational phenomena, in other words, are reflected in their visual effects. It is perhaps because of this close relation between psychedelic visual phenomena and the ideational phenomena of psychedelics that psychedelic videos are able to recreate some of the disorienting, but also the harmonizing and healing effects that psychedelics tend to bring about.

The therapeutic language of nature and mathematics

How should one go about exploring the features and meanings of psychedelic video aesthetics? Unfortunately, works on psychedelic aesthetics have generally been few and far between. The fields of art studies and aesthetics have generally neglected to consider this area, concomitantly to their general disregard of the genre of visionary art. And while the last decade saw some renewed interest in psychedelic aesthetics (one reviewer spoke of a “psychedelic ‘turn’ in art criticism,”[6] a grossly exaggerated claim, in this author’s opinion) scholarly explorations of psychedelic videos are even more incipient than their equivalents looking into psychedelic art and design. A search of the literature was unable to produce even one paper dedicated to the subject of psychedelic video, their features, or properties. A remarkable state of non-knowledge. Moreover, it is unclear where exactly such a discussion would take place: a comprehensive view of this phenomena would need to consider not only the perspectives of art and aesthetics, but also those of cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory, religious studies and even computational theory, as I show below.

One possible entry point that might provide context and insights to the study of psychedelic aesthetics can be found in the domain of sacred geometry. Granted, the notion of a ‘sacred’ geometry seems remarkably out of sync with trademark academic language. Indeed, sacred geometry is not an academic field of study (though it has been the object of some academic attention). Nevertheless, the geometrical and natural patterns which it explores have fascinated philosophers, artists and mathematicians since millennia, capturing the attention of such varied luminaries as Pythagoras, Fibonacci and Leonardo de Vinci.[7] The ancient Greeks saw form and natural patterns as essential to the universe, part of a universal science which underlies the whole of reality. Naturalist scientists have long directed their attention to the harmonious mathematical ratios that are ubiquitous in nature: in the structure of crystals and snowflakes, the growth of ammonite, the vortexes of water streams and the movements of clouds. These contemplative explorers of nature found common and recurring ordered structures and patterns (spirals, waves, branching trees, and most famously the golden ratio and its related Fibonacci series) on different scales of natural phenomenon from conches and flowers to storm formations and galaxies.

[The use of symmetric patterns such as fractals and mandalas can already be observed in this 1930s video by psychedelic choreography maverick Busby Berkley]

In psychedelic videos we can observe many of the harmonious patterns and structures unveiled by earlier observers of nature and its patterns. Nevertheless, an additional element is present – an added dimension of dynamism, movement and unfolding. This element, of course, derives directly from the reality of nature, where things not only assume certain mathematically harmonious patterns, but also move in mathematically harmonious ways.

This dimension of movement and fluidity, which is absent from visionary and psychedelic art, but present in psychedelic video, is crucial to the meditative and visionary experience, which is not static but dynamic. Humans are naturally drawn to observing the movement of the clouds, the water in a stream, or the flames in a fire. In the psychedelic state our preponderance upon these natural phenomena seems to increase multifold. Psychedelic voyagers have been known to enter deep states of absorption while observing clouds, flames, streams or trees moving in the wind.

The pleasure we derive from watching these patterns of movement unfold in natural phenomena has more than just aesthetic implications. As anybody who has spent their time attentively observing such phenomena might recognize, they can have calming, soothing and even healing effect. Philosophers and naturalists have long sought inspiration and healing in the observance of nature and its patterns. Following various contemplative traditions which argue that when we are truly absorbed in the contemplation of an object, our minds become indistinguishable from the thing, it is easy to see how the creation of inner calm and harmony can be assisted by taking in external manifestations of such harmony and consonance. By observing the ratios and proportions of nature we are, in a sense, aligning our minds with perennial cosmic laws that bring order, solace and satisfaction to the mind. This recognition is part and parcel of countless religious and spiritual traditions. Religious structures such as mosques, temples and cathedrals utilize the proportions and patterns of sacred geometry to inspire awe and religiosity in their visitors.[8] Taosim teaches the art of Feng Shui, which aims to inspire harmony within one’s personal dwelling place. This principle of using external harmonious structures to inspire inner harmony can also be found in entheogenic religions, which pay homage to the principles of set and setting, and to the notion that a well-arranged physical setting is paramount to inspiring inner calm and harmony. The Santo Daime entheogenic religion utilizes sacred geometry in the arrangement of space, as well as in the arrangement of the table (mesa) to which participants are called upon to direct their attention in the search of inner harmony.

[Observe the synesthetic qualities of psychedelic video, in this extraordinary example by Andrew Huang]

“Nature is data” as one gifted psychedelic video artist and mystic once put it to me. By watching the movement of clouds, streams, flames and tress in the wind, we are able to directly observe in physical form the universal mathematical laws that move creation. These laws that move things exist on many different scales and levels, from the conch and the flower, to storms and galaxies, but presumably also in computer algorithms, the movements of the stock market and other man-made phenomena. These perennial relations, ranging from the miniscule to the gigantic, and from the natural to the man-made, are held together by the language of physics and mathematics that permeates the cosmos and directs its movement. Digital physics has long promoted the idea that the universe could be seen as a sort of gigantic digital processor, computing some irreducible mathematical/evolutionary problem, with each electron in the universe representing a singular bit, in a what could be viewed as a cosmic computer.[9] Even ocean waves with their countless streams and splashes could be viewed as calculating some irreducible and inconceivably complex problem that our most advanced devices and processors would be grossly incapable of precisely measuring or computing.

Many works of psychedelic video utilize these natural patterns and mathematical formulas of change to inspire joy and awe in their viewers. The same features of the harmonious movement of a branch in the wind, or seaweed in the stream, can be found in many of the psychedelic videos that observe or imitate the flowing harmonies of nature. By viewing these perennial ratios and patterns on the screen we are transported and able to connect to inner sources of order, harmony and healing.

If psychedelic videos can inspire deep states of joy and healing, as I have observed them do countless times in private and public screenings, then their significance transcends the purely aesthetic and becomes therapeutic. As noted above, the principles and practices of set and setting — the idea that the context of psychedelic experimentation shapes its content — encourage us to search for suitable forms (physical or otherwise) that might provide supportive and inspiring context for psychedelic experiences. In the same way that art and artistic reproductions have been used in psychedelic therapy from its inception,[10] meditative video aesthetics can be used as part of therapeutic processes. Moreover, such mind-transforming videos might prove to have measurable and potentially useful psychological and physical effects on their viewers in and of themselves.

[Fluidity is another key characteristic of psychedelic videos. The video Infinite Now demonstrates spectacularly]

Understanding psychedelic video might prove instructive and useful not only for the fields of art, aesthetics and therapy. Psychedelic video aesthetics might prove to be a worthy object of investigation for other areas including cognitive science and evolutionary theory. The human propensity to observe, become absorbed and find satisfaction and solace in certain recurring, mathematically-patterned, aesthetic phenomena, offers a phenomenon worthy of the attention of those interested in understanding human cognition and its evolutionary roots. Where does our fascination with such ordered forms come to? How do they bring alterations of body and mind?  What can they teach us about the way our mind and its interactions with the world?

Towards a science of psychedelic aesthetics

So what prevents the study of psychedelic or meditative video aesthetics from becoming a field? The inertness of research on the subject is particularly curious when contrasting it to the growing scientific interest in other comparable cognitive phenomena such as the perception of cuteness. Over the past years, a growing field of research extending from psychology and evolutionary science to neuroscience and cultural studies has come to focus on human perception of cuteness, producing hundreds and thousands of scientific papers. This research identifies on recognizing the distinct physical traits that facilitate the perception of cuteness (such as large eyes, bulging craniums and retreating chins), but also on its evolutionary sources (the need to ensure parents care for their offspring), behavioral reactions to cuteness, and its hormonal, genetic and neuroscientific substrates.[11]

The study of cuteness presents a possible model for the study of psychedelic video aesthetics. Unfortunately, this task has not yet been undertaken by any of the relevant academic disciplines, and this ignorance and peculiar incuriosity is accentuated by comparison with the wealth of interest and attention afforded to phenomena such as cuteness. It is time we started to study the universal and perennial forms of beauty and grace that are ubiquitous to human experience, nature and the arts, and which are equally omnipresent in psychedelic experiences and aesthetics. By studying such phenomena, we can advance not only our appreciation of the human mind, its development and proclivities, but also come across new methods and techniques with potential life-enhancing value of optimizing therapy and conducing the healing of the psyche.

[1] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell (NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2011).

[2] Huxley.

[3] Heinrich Kluver, “Mechanisms of Hallucinations,” in Studies in Personality, ed. Q McNemar and M.A. Merrill (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1942); Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Beyond the Milky Way: Hallucinatory Imagery of the Tukano Indians (UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1978); James L. Kent, Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason (CreateSpace, 2010).

[4] See for instance Philip K. Dick, VALIS, Reissue edition (Boston: Mariner Books, 2011); Stanislav Lem, The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy, 1 edition (San Diego: Mariner Books, 1985); and also the work of Huxley and Leary on the concepts of reducing valves and reality tunnels covered in Ido Hartogsohn, “Psychedelic Society Revisited: On Reducing Valves, Reality Tunnels and The Question of Psychedelic Culture.,” ed. Robert Dickins and Andy Roberts, Psychdelic Press 2015, no. IV (August 2015): 83–99.

[5] Terence Mckenna, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1992); Katherine A. MacLean, Matthew W. Johnson, and Roland R. Griffiths, “Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness,” Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) 25, no. 11 (November 2011): 1453–61, https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881111420188; Matthew M. Nour, Lisa Evans, and Robin L. Carhart-Harris, “Psychedelics, Personality and Political Perspectives,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 0, no. 0 (April 26, 2017): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2017.1312643; Taylor Lyons and Robin L. Carhart-Harris, “Increased Nature Relatedness and Decreased Authoritarian Political Views after Psilocybin for Treatment-Resistant Depression,” Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2018, 0269881117748902; Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al., “Neural Correlates of the LSD Experience Revealed by Multimodal Neuroimaging,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 17 (April 26, 2016): 4853–58, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1518377113.

[6] Orit Halpern, “Psychedelic Vision,” BioSocieties 8, no. 2 (June 1, 2013): 239, https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2013.11.

[7] Stephen Skinner, Sacred Geometry: Deciphering the Code (Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2009).

[8] Skinner.

[9] Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science, 1 edition (Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002); David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications (Penguin Books, 1998).

[10] Betty G Eisner and Sidney Cohen, “Psychotherapy with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” Journal of Mental Disease, 1958, 127 (1958): 528–39; Timothy Leary, George Litwin, and Ralph Metzner, “Reactions to Psilocybin Administered in a Supportive Environment,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 137 (1963): 561–73.

[11] See for instance Morten L. Kringelbach et al., “On Cuteness: Unlocking the Parental Brain and Beyond,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20, no. 7 (2016): 545–558; Melanie L. Glocker et al., “Baby Schema in Infant Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Motivation for Caretaking in Adults,” Ethology 115, no. 3 (2009): 257–263; J. W. S. Bradshaw and E. S. Paul, “Could Empathy for Animals Have Been an Adaptation in the Evolution of Homo Sapiens?,” Animal Welfare 19, no. 2 (2010): 107–112; Douglas Watt, “Toward a Neuroscience of Empathy: Integrating Affective and Cognitive Perspectives,” Neuropsychoanalysis 9, no. 2 (2007): 119–140; R. Sprengelmeyer et al., “The Cutest Little Baby Face: A Hormonal Link to Sensitivity to Cuteness in Infant Faces,” Psychological Science 20, no. 2 (2009): 149–154.

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