Entoptic Phenomena/ The Trance State

This post is to follow up on our lecture on the role of shamanism in the production of rock art in the upper paleolithic and, more broadly, the relationship of art to religion. Shamanism, you will recall, is the ritualized practice of entering into a trance state in order to enact some practical end – healing the sick, calling for rain, bringing greater fertility. This trance state, whatever it is, is surely a mysterious thing. There are some universal aspects of it, however, that appear to be rooted in the central nervous system. As all humans have the same central nervous systems there are similar physiological aspects to altered states of consciousness. How we interpret the meaning of that altered state is informed by our culture.

What interpretations does our culture assign to the trance state?

Here’s a neat old video of a “normal” woman who took some LSD as part of a scientific experiment back in the 1950s. This was a moment in American history where such research was considered legitimate, the value – if that’s what you want to call it – of LSD was still something of an open debate. Today scientific discourses have changed in a way that would preclude such research from taking place now.

I love the old philosopher giving his little commentary at the end of the video. Especially the line, “That’s what death is going to be like. And oh what fun it will be.”

There are still a few organizations like MAPS (founded by New College alums, I might add!) that advocate exploring this taboo area of research and not without some success too, including using MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and using ibogaine to break opiate addiction.

Oh, but where were we? Art! Yes, art and possible connections to entoptic phenomenon: the crazy geometric patterns (lattice work, spiraling, tunneling) that people often see while in a state of trance. Please do not miss this collection of art works produced by German drug patients in the 1970s.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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2 Responses to Entoptic Phenomena/ The Trance State

  1. hilary j says:

    I’ve actually watched this video before and lots of other like it. The woman’s description of everything surrounding her, the realness and wholeness of everything are feelings that can really change a person. The webbing and movement around her are so real to her and her emotion and ability to see the world in a whole new way are intriguing. The entoptic phenomena experienced and the images of cave art and other ancient forms of art are almost completely identical to one another in experience. These geometric patterns and designs all moving in harmony are something to ponder…as ancient peoples clearly did (at least i think so) in discovering natural hallucinogens.

    However, the negative connotation associated with these hallucinogens is that it causes one to become incapable or insane…as shown in this video where LSD was given to British Troops before training.

    First of all, I can’t figure out why they would test it in this situation, as most people don’t want to train for the military tripping…second of all it’s not something one normally does in that situation so obviously they were acting a little ‘ridiculous.’ (I particularly enjoy the man who climbs the tree to feed the birds). In other circumstances, however, it clearly is not as detrimental and produces ecstatic emotions and the appearance of shapes, colors, patterns, etc is more easily interpreted. This girl talks about her perception of color while on LSD:

    The mystery of this altered state of consciousness, achieved by shamanism seems to have many explanations. Obviously, these people weren’t making and taking LSD, but there’s a striking resemblance between hallucinogenic experiences and the art produced by ancient shamans that may have led to the emergence of religion and culture as a whole.

  2. The crazy geometric patterns you are referring to, in my opinion, are related to the phenomenon known as Sacred Geometry (see http://www.crystalinks.com/sg.html).

    I love how the subject says she can “feel the air and see the molecules” and keeps referring to this thing called “it,” saying “I’ve never seen such infinite beauty in my life.”

    Altered states of consciousness ultimately shift ones perceptions on the world, reality, and ones self. Shamans are known to use DMT to trigger altered states, such as the Hopi Indians in Arizona still do, and often say they see God under the influence of DMT, which is a replication of the brain’s natural dream inducing chemical.

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