The Science Behind Dreamachine

A rad wolf

The use of flickering light to create vivid visual experiences can be traced as far back as ancient civilisations, when communities would congregate around campfires and peer into the shimmers. Today, the phenomenon is known to researchers as ‘stroboscopically induced visual hallucinations’ – and this provides the scientific foundation for the Dreamachine Project.

The academic team for Dreamachine – which is made up of neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers – has been built into the project from the very beginning, and will continue to build on the legacy of the project. The team is based across the Universities of Sussex and Glasgow, with the core team anchoring a growing network of collaborators across the country and throughout the world. The team is led by Professor Anil Seth, a neuroscientist recognised as one the world’s leading researchers into consciousness and perception (and author of the recent bestselling book Being You – A New Science of Consciousness), working closely with postdoctoral research fellows Dr. David Schwartzman and Dr. Reny Baykova.

Professor Fiona Macpherson – director of the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience at the University of Glasgow, and a renowned philosopher – has been involved every step of the way, helping the Dreamachine team guide the research projects through their many stages.

Science and philosophy are deeply woven into many areas of the project. The primary phenomenon – the rich inner experiences created by the Dreamachine – involves our brain activity matching the frequency of the flickering light. The discovery was first made by the pioneering British neuroscientist Dr Grey Walter in the 1950s. In his revolutionary book ‘The Living Brain’, Walter observed that states of consciousness could be dramatically affected by flickering light on closed eyes, and that this effect did not merely impact those areas of the brain associated with vision, but the entire cerebral cortex. The scientific team has been investigating these illusions and visual experiences for many years, and continue to study precisely how and why they arise. At Sussex, the team is investigating the idea that flickering lights impose a ‘beat’ on the rhythms of brain, similar to the ‘alpha’ rhythm – a brain state normally associated with relaxation.

For the Dreamachine experience, the scientific team collaborated with the technical team to support the design and optimisation of the lighting sequences to ensure that the experience is as enjoyable and widely accessible as possible. Working with the creative technology studio Holition, they have also developed an engaging interactive tool which visitors will find in the reflection area of the experience.

The Sensory Tool guides visitors through a series of reflections on their experience, from what they saw (colours, shapes, movement), to what they thought and what they felt – alongside deeper questions such as the perceived passing of time and sense of place and space. The tool has been developed to provide audiences with a deeper insight into their experiences, and to shed light on how and why people have such distinctly individual Dreamachine journeys.

A key research theme throughout the Dreamachine is ‘perceptual diversity’. We are all familiar with externally visible diversity, for example in terms of height, skin colour, but much less is known about how our perceptual experiences differ from each other. Audience responses from the Dreamachine will shed new light on this question, and the scientific team have developed what aims to be the world’s largest ever citizen science research study of its kind– the Perception Census –an unprecedented scientific attempt to map out the diversity of our perceptual experiences, which will launch in June 2022.


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