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Engraved ochre from Blombos Cave. (image via the NSF and courtesy Chris Henshilwood)

paper published in the most recent issue of Adaptive Behavior significantly updates the long-standing thesis that the global prevalence in prehistoric art of “certain types of geometric visual patterns” suggests hallucinogenic inspiration. The University of Tokyo authors — Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward, and Takashi Ikegami — conclude that this theory is largely correct, and go on to map specific neurobiological features to specific forms of geometric abstraction.

This is one of the artworks cited by the authors, a pot “covered with various spiral patterns … This particular style of vessel, known as Moroiso, was made around 4000 BC by people of the Jomon culture, a relatively peaceful and non-stratified society of prehistoric Japan.” (Photo taken by Tom Froese at the Archaeological Museum of Kokugakuin University, Tokyo, Japan, via the paper)

“[H]uman symbolic practices and their meanings are the historical outcome of a seemingly open-ended social process of cultural evolution,” they write. But the scholarly community in cognitive science is split among those who believe that there exists an internal “symbolic system” and those who hold that there is a “cognitive gap” between basic, adaptive behavior and more abstract forms of human cognition. The former school of thought is held to be the older, more “traditional” view — but the lead author, Tom Froese, has been active in advocating for the latter, what he calls the “enactive approach.”

Alan Turing in 1951 (image via Wikimedia)

The scientific study of the geometric faculties of the human brain dates back to the 1970s, and the authors spend a great deal of time engaging the scholarship stemming from something called the Turing mechanism, which comes from a paper published by the late mathematician Alan Turing in 1952. Turing’s paper, completed shortly before he took his life, provides a model for the formation of complex geometries in nature (there’s a great Wired slideshow explaining the gist of his findings if Turing’s complex proofs aren’t quite your speed).

Froese et al. then proceed to dismantle a handful of theories relating to the appearance of geometric forms in art, most notably an established scholarly view that “social conflict and class struggle” were the primary drivers of the first symbolic artworks. They return to Turing’s idea of natural cell assemblies forming certain geometries to explain the “selective bias” of the first artists throughout the world for certain types of shapes, suggesting a common neurobiological state. In other words, the authors remain convinced that hallucinogenic altered states, shamanic or otherwise, likely played a significant role in mediating the transition from “here and now” basic motor functions to refined visual practices — the first geometric art — by “decoupling” the mind from the survival-oriented mentality driven by the immediate environment.

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14 replies on “The Hallucinogenic Origins of Art”

  1. I’m not sure if it’s made clear that hallucinogenic does not necessarily mean drug-induced. Even in the abstract it states the result achieved through “shamanic ritual practice” but does not seem to elaborate that there are multiple means to achieve that state.

    It would be interesting if a correlation could be made between this phenomenon and that of the “Flow-state” that many lucid, sober artists experience.

    1. That’s a good point — though I think I let the ambiguity carry through from the paper, which in a couple places* repeats that the hallucinogenic state can be both drug-induced or not. They don’t actually resolve what that means, which to me seems like a significant omission.

      *e.g. “Under the influence of drugs, or in an altered state of mind induced by other means, these pathways could all be involved in moving the visual system…” (206)

      1. I’m going to keep reading the study carefully. There’s a lot of very interesting things about it. I appreciate the response.

      2. Something to consider.

        Pulfric Effect is not considered drug induced (though DMT internally it may). The not long ago common Magic Effect is not. My main art piece sails through those effects. And the ancient ones in Americas long ago (5200 to -10,000 -maybe even) had these experiences visually. Check this ancient headdress (recently was returned to So America rather than remain stolen by a major American University) This image is a abstraction of perceptual levels of my main art piece. The volutes are going in two opposing directions. To get this effect you need a painting like mine going in one direction. Pulfric effect was studied extensively my one our major visual scientists – Dr. Lit – SIU (Lit in WWII came up with red glasses so bombers could cope with the German pilots constantly using the moon to shoot down the bombers unseen). With the advent of the helicopters coming on the scene Dr. Lit got another govt contract to solve the issue of helicopter pilots poor habit of wanting to land their machine in an orderly fashion next to their buddies previously parked machine only to land exactly on top of the other helicopter. Dr. Lit solved the issue with standardizing sunglasses for pilots. Dr. Lit and I shared some research subjects (he paid his subjects – I was a tightwad for the arts). So in process of harassing a vile university who had then recently rolled over for an act of congressional (stupidity) – first time intrusion of academic freedom of research in another department, I got to meet with Dr. Lit for some discussions on another mutual research issues. Dr. Lit let me corner some of his graduate students. Starting the meeting off with the graduates Dr. Lit let me experience his Pulfric device he used which amounted to a swinging metranome arm going back and forth but when you wore his glasses the arm splt in two opposing directions. The pilots were not under the influence of drugs. But their was a significant kick to the brain somewhat similar to my painting which would be to say similar enough to consider one was heading to the rush of using mega doses of San Pedro but like I stated before required no substance what so ever. Dr. Lit’s device may too have engaged the pineal gland source of DMT but would be like a drop in bucket versus a full bucket to the rim. Interestingly both Dr. Lit’s device or my painting once you pull your visual attention away the effect is gone instantly. In the painting this perceptual level I called the acid core range also has 3d magic eye effect of an apparent 4 foot depth interaction play field but unlike the magic effect engages a full scale audio visual synergism alotting for hundred of thousands of differing visual inter-plays.

        As to the triangular plates my considered opinion relates to abstracting the triangular plates you can observe on floater cell in the front of eye’s field of vision which when pulled to your center view and you learn to expand it on a blue ten foot wall the pace of movement over the cell wall (once adjusted the internal pressure of the eye with the aid in my case of sweet Mary Jane) determined access of ease to engage the level of other perceptions noted so well in the second orientation of the Ramondi Stella. Not sure how the ancient ones accomplished this without sweet mary jane but they did have a erstwhile jungle to find something else). In the headdress the abstraction could be depicting just the Pulfric Effect of the acid core range or even accessing the second orientation levels of perception. The image is Incan, but of the many cultures I still am not convinced they had the full visual knowledge (they were new age barbarians, they utilized other social groupings for artwork, they could have been aimlessly copying what they knew not. I also wondered similar in the case of Aztecs until some recent findings of a secret priest cult was found and the artwork seems to confirm they did perhaps on privilege scale versus looking at other cultures who obviously engaged the artistic levels on full public basis. Going off on a tanget here, but I had a fellow art student student once show my a book accordingly showing off all the symbols used in the world that denoted my outline painting as associated to a early toltec king who took a vacation and returned with symbol proclaiming it be ‘good’. Closer to the fact it was quintessential thousand of years back to Caral if you only were to look at the volutes on flutes of Caral or the furthest back I can get so far at 5200 years on some rocks.

        Generally speaking some or more likely none of the other levels of perceptions do not require harsh drugs and seemingly some negate usage. In particular some of them require simple states of mind such as being half awake or half asleep is the only way to meet the elder one inside the room your in. Harsh drug usage may have been more for public enjoyment of the level of perception I called the unit lift (involving the movement of the main image top half of the structure lurch upward and slam back on itself. I have seen only one person do this level of this activity in a serious manner without drugs or any visual training in the 44 years of my research in these matters.

        1. “being half awake or half asleep”

          Is that similar with hypnogogia? I have experienced that innumerable times. Unfortunately none of which were during artistic practice.

          1. looked the word up in Wiki and yes that would do. Or perhaps related to somnambulism or at least that is what I called it at the time.

            I named it the Somnambulist Blitz – as it was familiar to wham bam and thank you type of event. In my case, I was either reading a book or watching a stupid b-rated movie on TV on a couch before retiring to an intended bedroom. By walking from one room not fully waking oneself still needing to turn off a light or TV with painting facing ahead of you on a wall I would be shocked with the instantaneous lurch of the painting image of sort taking full body 3d voluminous emergence on the back left back side of myself of the main image peering back at me moving up and down and then also approaching towards me at times encountering at the moment a sensed electromagnetic discharge of some sorts slightly above the hip at least about a half foot from your body. Strange to say the least. At the time of discovery I was quite a few months yet to have discovered the perceptual levels to account for how this functioned.

            The explanation is nicely depicted on the following image of a princess mummy of the energy bead perceptual when learning to do the expressed abstraction perceptual levels of the second orientation of the Ramondi Stella.
            I also figure on the first orientation of the Ramondi Stella the kenning involved of the snakes is more than merely representing hair but also another abstraction level depicting the nature of color beneath itself which is what I mentioned as a visible energy bead your able to stick your fingertip into.

  2. The Joman culture vase selected is not one of the better examples I have seen that use volutes (tentacles) or for some spirals, but what interests me is the connection with the South Americans in recent DNA analysis of some Japanese origin and Polynesian who traveled back and forth. Not sure whom effected whom, but the connection is in color design usage as in this image. The circle design above article could be related to the floater cell used to know when access to perceptual levels were eased by lowering the pressure in the eye. And I do agree well stated by Dain Q Gore, the issue is not necessary drug usage though some of perceptual levels can help in enjoyment were hardly necessary in but one of the twelve levels of perception and many of the other levels of perception would be negated. The point being apparently the ancient ones too figured out how to use their own internal supply of DMT recently confirmed located in the pineal gland. Or as my friends use to state often- ‘Hey we don’t have to acid anymore. Yours sincerely the apprentice of the father of Color Op Art. S. H. Rogoff =

    1. Great thoughts Glen, thanks for sharing them. I was reading the paper some more and it actually has diagrams of different patterns that emerge. It’s really all fascinating stuff overall.

      PS I love that image–what is the medium?

      1. acrylic paint. My master artist Hal Rogoff was at Yale when they were offered the first chance to play with the product. It was quite a drag to come back to studio to find the paintings had dripped to the floor. The product was sent back for adjustment. But it does a great job of holding the color value of what was first applied. Hal, also developed the first inks that had an ultraviolet inhibitor enabling the first printing of colored Op Art around 1972 such as in this case a painting done for the Democratic Party in this piece (under the heading the McGovernites wanting something representing what’s new in the arts) when Hal was selected to be on the diaz and the Dems needed artwork so folks knew where to sit. (it’s a strong example of Hal’s correcting the erroneous nature of the concept called Simultaneous Contrast (where placing any other color on painting changes the color perception) to re-define inclusion of the concept Simultaneous Presence. = When J. Albers faced facts his comment was ‘are you a mystic, a Mystic Man? (in a thick German accent of course), only going to show you Albers could be astute even if lacking in creativity or sufficient brain power to think his way out of a paper bag..

    2. Could you please refer to the source regarding DMT in pineal gland. Last time I heard about this it was only a hypothesis proposed by Rick Strassman.

      1. in this Url Rick Strassman even pointed out the fact.
        he stated his hypothesis in 1991 🙂
        Looking on my papers from a National Lawyer the Year was 78 – 9 years after the actual painted discovery. These papers of 12 pages were sent registered mail only to have a postmaster claim two thugs apparently one claiming to be myself confiscated it first. Wild Bill wrote another operating paper of one page for replacement purposes. I was given a copy of the first two pages.

      2. a newer lecturer on the pineal gland function. Great if you have experienced the great cracking sound or had out of body behaviors associated to shamanic events.

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