Shamanic outreach activity

We kick off at the British Festival of Neuroscience  Street Fair, Barbican, London (7th – 10th April) with ‘The Mind in the Cave’, a dynamic, hands on (but eyes off) activity with the artist Paul Evans that allows participants of all ages to engage with the earliest art known to have been made by humans.

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Ruby Wax – seeing in the dark

This activity has been devised by artist Paul Evans to explore the role of Phosphenes in art. Phosphenes are the strange patterns consisting of waves, dots, zigzags, grids, and nested curves that sometimes appear in front of our eyes during blackouts or under conditions of sensory deprivation. This phenomenon may have been the origin for the universal abstract art forms and motifs that appear in cultures around the world.

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Waves, dots, zigzags, grids, and nested curves?

 

“Scholars looking for a biophysical origin to the forms of human art go back to such images ….  We may see them without knowing where the images come from, either the eye or the brain.  Close your eyes after staring at the sun and they appear, or in the middle of the night, in the heart of dreams.  If you’ve seen enough abstract art you may be more inclined to take such images seriously.”

From Survival of the Beautiful by David Rothenburg

There is a short interview with the artist Paul Evan who explains how we generated the images below.

“Scholars looking for a biophysical origin to the forms of human art go back to such images ….  We may see them without knowing where the images come from, either the eye or the brain.  Close your eyes after staring at the sun and they appear, or in the middle of the night, in the heart of dreams.  If you’ve seen enough abstract art you may be more inclined to take such images seriously.”

From Survival of the Beautiful by David Rothenburg

Activity

Blindfolded contributors reach back into their ‘mind’s eye’ to the dark caves of the Upper Paleolithic to create phosphene art using the same pigments as the very first artists. The lead artist (Paul Evans) and the Shamanic Street Preachers (a team of Guerrilla Archaeologists) provide examples, encouragement and support for this unusual – yet universal – route to creativity.  Drawing blindfold not only allows the appearance of phosphenes to take place, but adds a novel and fun dimension to this activity. It also places everyone on the same level playing field creatively – no amount of artistic training will prepare you for this exercise – so everyone is equal!

Encouraged and supported by lead artist Paul Evans and Guerilla Archaeologists the blindfolded participants are led back in the ‘mind’s eye’ to the dark caves of the Upper Paleolithic. They use charcoal and ochre – the very same pigments that the very first artists used – to create art from entoptic phenomena – visual effects whose source is within the eye itself.

“Once the eye has become adapted to the darkness, and particularly if one relaxes, the visual field lights up: wispy clouds and moving specks of light appear, generally in pastel shades of blue, green, orange and yellow. If one presses the eyes further, figures are evoked.”

(Oster 1970:83)

After their eyes adjust to the blindfold, participants apply a very light, very gentle pressure to the eyeball – and  begin to see the brightly coloured, floating phosphenes that David Lewis-Williams and T. A. Dowson have argued to be the source imagery for the origins of human art.

Participants are handed a piece of ochre or charcoal  to make their drawing whilst remaining blindfold. Help and guidance is provided.

Scientific content and background

A phosphene is a phenomenon characterized by the experience of seeing light without light actually entering the eye. The word phosphene comes from the Greek words phos (light) and phainein (to show).  Phosphenes can be directly induced by mechanical, electrical, or magnetic stimulation of the retina or visual cortex as well as by random firing of cells in the visual system.  They are experienced by people using particular meditation techniques (commonly called nimitta) and by those who go for long periods without visual stimulation (also known as the prisoner’s cinema).

In 1988, David Lewis-Williams and T. A. Dowson published an article on phosphenes and other entoptic phenomena and argued that, among other things, non-figurative art of the Upper Paleolithic depicts actual visions of phosphenes and neurological “form constants”.

This activity allows modern day participants to explore the neurological stimuli for creative art that exists within each and every one of us and provides a bridge to our common human past and present day world cultures.

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