Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The flicker effect

with 3 comments

In 1953, the neurologist and roboticist W. Grey Walter published an extraordinary book titled The Living Brain. Among his many other accomplishments, Walter was a pioneer in the use of the electroencephalograph to study the brain’s electrical activity, which was described here for the first time for a wide popular audience, although his book become more famous for the chapter “Revelation by Flicker.” It described how stroboscopic light could produce epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions, including one particularly memorable anecdote: “A man found that when he went to the cinema he would suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to strangle the person next to him.” And when Walter tested the equipment on his own team, he became aware of some unusual effects:

In the biological sciences it is a good principle to be your own rabbit, to experiment on yourself; in electroencephalography the practice is widespread, convenient, and harmless. Whenever a new instrument is to be tested or calibrated, normal subjects from among the laboratory staff are used as “signal generators”…When we started to use high-power electronic stroboscopes to generate flicker, with the aim of testing the hypothesis of resonant synchronization in epilepsy, we took a large number of records from one another while looking at the brilliant flashing light…The tests were entirely satisfactory and in fact gave us much information which will be discussed later, but as well as that we all noticed a peculiar effect. The effect was a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids.

Walter characterized these patterns as “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels,” quoting an evocative passage from a memoir by Margiad Evans, a poet who suffered from epilepsy:

I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf while things clicked and machinery came to life, and commands to gasp, to open and shut my eyes, reached me from across the unseen room, as though by wireless. Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling color into color, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.

After investigating further, Walter concluded that the imagery wasn’t an optical illusion caused by the light, but a phenomenon that occurred within the eye or brain itself, and that it involved more than one sensory system. (Walter doesn’t mention this in particular, but after reading his description of “whirling spirals,” I was surprised that it hasn’t been more widely used to explain away the vision of the chariot—with its mysterious “wheel within a wheel”—of the prophet Ezekiel, who has been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.) And his work with strobe lights inspired a number of interested readers to try it out for themselves, although to rather different ends, in the fifties equivalent of neurohacking.

One was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. After reading The Living Brain, he wrote—but evidently never sent—a long letter to Walter himself, and he also built a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent tube in his basement workshop. (The idea of using flickering lights to induce hypnotism was a familiar one in the genre, and it had appeared in stories including Campbell’s short novel The Elder Gods and in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted.”) When he tried the device on his family, his wife’s throat tightened up, his stepson felt asthmatic, and his daughter’s head hurt, but it bothered Campbell for just ten seconds. He was, he proudly noted, “immune.” Writing to his father, he said that he thought that it might have therapeutic value:

The only way a human being exposed to this device can continue to think coherently is by shifting his method of thinking. He either changes his method—his frequency—or is hopelessly scrambled in panic. The device, however, doesn’t tell him to think; it simply forces him to think in some new manner. The result is that the problems he’s been denying existed, the ideas he’s been refusing to consider—all of these will now come into sight, and he’ll be forced to at least consider them. The one sure and certain thing is that he can not continue to think in the terms he has been!

This insight inspired one of Campbell’s best editorials, “The Value of Panic,” as well as a premise that he gave to G. Harry Stine, who wrote under the pen name Lee Correy. The resulting story, “Design Flaw,” was about an experimental rocket plane plagued by a series of accidents that turn out to be caused by a flashing screen that provides landing data, which accidentally interferes with the pilot’s alpha rhythms.

A few years afterward, Walter’s work had an even more striking afterlife, and it serves as a reminder of the surprising overlap in those decades between science fiction and the counterculture. On September 14, 1960, William S. Burroughs wrote enigmatically to his friend Brion Gysin: “Also will see Grey Walter when he returns from vacation.” He followed up two weeks later: “I heard Grey Walter. Most interesting and will make a flicker date with him in Bristol.” Burroughs also wrote to Walter directly about “possible therapeutic applications in drug addiction” and “the effect of flicker on the creative process,” neatly tying together the two major threads of his career. His interest in the flicker effect emerged from the same impulse that led to his ongoing dalliance with Scientology, and he often mentioned the two in the same breath in his letters. And it led Gysin and his collaborator Ian Sommerville to build the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder with flashing slits that was viewed with the eyes closed. In an interview, Burroughs vividly described its effects: “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.” And he closed in terms that echoed Margiad Evans, who had spoken of “lights like comets”:

“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called “modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. Art history is no longer being created. Art history as the enumeration of individual images ended with the direct introduction of light as the principal agents in the creation of images which have become infinitely multiple, complex and all-pervading. The comet is Light.

3 Responses

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  1. I love your posts. Intriguing and intelligent. I might need to make a dream machine.

    marialberg

    October 10, 2017 at 8:55 am

  2. @marialberg: Thanks so much!

    nevalalee

    October 14, 2017 at 8:51 pm

  3. this is really interesting!
    I really want you to see my art, here’s a video..

    do check it out!

    nimit kaushik

    October 19, 2017 at 6:08 am


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