Consciousness and the Origins of Art

Thames&Hudson 2004

pg 121

The spectrum of consciousness
I shall use a metaphor (inevitably!) to clarify aspects of the notion of consciousness. I hope that this metaphor will expose some serious lacunae in the ways in which archaeologists (and others) consider human consciousness and, more specifically, in what it was like to be human during the Transition. The contemporary Western emphasis on the supreme value of intelligence has tended to suppress certain forms of consciousness and to regard them as irrational, marginal, aberrant or even pathological and thereby to eliminate them from investigations of the deep past.
As long ago as 1902, the influential American psychologist William James, who successively taught physiology, psychology and philosophy at Harvard, noted that what we think of as normal, waking consciousness is only one type of consciousness (though, as we shall see, it too is not a unitary state),'whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness, entirely different'. He added:'No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite dis­regarded.'iY More recently, Colin Martindale, a cognitive (rather than evolutionary) psychologist, has re-emphasized the point that studies of the mind have concentrated too much on rational states. He argues: We need to explore altered states of consciousness as well as normal, waking consciousness. We need to understand the'irrational'thought of the poet as well as the rational thought of the [laboratory] subject solving a logical problem.... We need to investigate the historical evolution of ideas in the real world as well as how concepts are formed in laboratory situations. Finally, since people are not computers, we must ask how emotional and motivational factors affect cognition.
Martindale is by no means alone in this view, yet archaeologists persist in ignoring all but the'consciousness of rationality'. The important point is that consciousness varies: we must not forget Descartes's dreams and Hildegaard's visions. Whether we ourselves value such experiences or not is irrelevant: they are an unavoidable part of being human, and, if we ignore their potential effects during the Transition and the Upper Palaeolithic itself, we must expect to produce no more than a partial explanation. I therefore suggest that we follow Martindale and think of consciousness not as a state but as a continuum or, the metaphor I favour, as a spectrum.
Two points about the colour spectrum are worth noting. First, in a spectrum cast by a prism on a sheet of white paper the colours grade imperceptibly into one another, yet there is no doubt that, say, red is different from green, and green is different from violet. Secondly, we know that the Western notion that the colour spectrum com­prises seven colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blne, indigo and violet) is not a given. Other cultures and languages designate and name different segments of the colour spectrum; that is, they divide up the spectrum differently. For instance, the Standard Welsh word glas denotes hues ranging from what in English is called green through blue to grey. By contrast, the Ibo word ojii denotes a range of hues from grey through brown to black. Why, then, do we think of the spectrum as comprising seven colours, when other cultures acknowledge fewer? It was Isaac Newton who decided on the seven colours. Having poor colour vision himself, Newton asked a friend to divide up the spectrum. When the friend obliged and split it into six colours, Newton insisted on seven colours because of the significance of the number seven in Renaissance thonght, and, as Newton himself said, seven corresponded to'the seven intervals of our octave' Newton therefore asked his friend to add indigo to the spectrum, it being a popular dye at that period.

The spectrum of consciousness

Bearing these two points in mind, I now introduce the spectrum of consciousness. I first describe the states that Martindale identifies between waking and sleeping. Thereafter, I consider a partly parallel trajectory and further states. According to Martindale's view, as we drift into sleep we pass through: - waking, problem-oriented thought, - realistic fantasy, - autistic fantasy, - reverie, - hypnagogic (falling asleep) states, and - dreaming. It should be noted that Martindale has imposed these six stages on a spectrum of states. Other rescarchers may find it useful to propose fewer or more stages.
In waking consciousness we are concerned with problem‑solving, usually in response to environmental stimuli. When we become disengaged from those stimuli, different kinds of consciousness begin to take over. First, in realistic fantasy we are oriented to problem solving. We may, for instance, run through a possible social strategy that we plan to use in a forthcoming interview and assess possible outcomes. These realistic fantasies grade into more autistic ones, that is, ones that have less relevance to external reality. In what Martindale calls reverie, our thought is far less directed, and image follows image in no narrative sequence. Then reverie shades into hypnagogic states that occur as we fall asleep. Sometimes hypnagogic imagery is extraordinarily vivid, so vivid that people experience what are called hypnagogic hallucinations: they start awake and believe that their imagery of, say, someone entering the room was real. Hypnagogic hallucinations may be both visual and aural. Finally, in dreaming, a succession of images appears, at least in recall, as a narrative. Actually, we add much of the narrative structure as we recall the imagery. During REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep that precedes deep sleep) random neuronal activity produces mental imagery. As we all know, this imagery is sometimes bizarre: images transmute into different ones, and we experience sensations of flying, fleeing, and falling, together with attendant emotions.

Concentrating on the first part of this sequence, the neuropsychologist Charles Laughlin and his colleague speak of 'fragmented consciousness'. They point out that during the course of a day we are repeatedly shifting from .outward‑directed to inward‑directed states. Sometimes we are fully attentive to our environment; at other times we withdraw into contemplation and are less alert to our surroundings. This is simply an inherent feature of the way in which our nervous system functions. There is evidence that our normal waking day comprises cycles of 90 to 120 minutes of moving from outward­directed attention to inward‑directed states.26 As I have observed,27 some societies regard inward‑directed states as pathological, others see them as indicative of divine afflatus, while still others pay little attention to them.
Such is the spectrum of consciousness from shifting wakefulness to sleep. We must now consider another trajectory that passes through the same spectrum but with rather different effects (Fig. 25).

The 'intensified trajectory': it is more profoundly concerned with inward‑direction and fantasy. Dream‑like, autistic states may be induced by a wide variety of means other than normal drifting into sleep. One of these means is sensory deprivation, during which a reduction of external stimuli leads to the 'release' of internal imagery. Normal subjects, isolated in sound‑proof, dark conditions report hallucinations after a few hours.28 They also experience what Martindale calls'stimulus hunger': they crave and focus on even the smallest, most trivial stimulus. Comparable sensory deprivation is part of many Eastern meditative techniques. Devotees are required to shut out as much of their environment as possible and to concentrate on a single focal point that may be a repeated mantra or a visual symbol.
Then, too, audio‑driving, such as pro­longed drumming, visual stimulations, such as continually flashing lights, and sustained rhythmic dancing, such as among Dervishes, have a similar effect on the nervous system. We also need to mention fatigue, pain, fasting and, of course, the ingestion of psychotropic substances as means of shifting con­sciousness along the intensified trajectory towards the release of inwardly generated imagery. Finally, there are pathological states, such as schizophrenia and temporal lobe epilepsy, that take consciousness along the intensified tra­jectory. Hallucinations may thus be deliberately sought, as in the ingestion of psychotropic substances, or they may be unsought, as in many of the other modes of induction that I have mentioned.

This second trajectory has much in common with the one that takes us daily into sleep and dreaming, but also differences. Dreaming gives everyone some idea of what hallucinations are like. For most modern Westerners, dreams lack the intensity of hallucinations, but earlier Western values (and those of many other societies) tended to take dreams seriously and to rescue them from the oblivion of forgetfulness. Perhaps one could say that the difference between the two spectra is a matter of degree rather than kind. I draw a distinction between the two trajectories because it is useful for the argument I am developing.

The states towards the far end of the intensified trajectory ‑ visions, and hallucinations that may occur in any of the five senses ‑ are generally called 'altered states of consciousness'

The phrase can apply equally to dreaming and 'inward'states on the normal trajectory, though some people prefer to restrict its use to extreme hallucinations and trance states. By now it will be obvious that this commonly enconntered phrase is posited on the essentially Western concept of the'consciousness of rationality'. It implies that there is'ordinary consciousness' that is considered gennine and good, and then perverted, or 'altered, states. But, as we have seen, all parts of the spectrum are equally 'genuine' The phrase'altered states of consciousness'is useful enough, but we need to remember that it carries a lot of cultural baggage.

It is essential to note that all the mental states that I have described are generated by the neurology of the human nervous system; they are part and parcel of what it is to be fully human. They are'wired into'the brain.

At the same time, we must note that the mental imagery we experience in altered states is overwhelmingly (though, as we shall see, not entirely) derived from memory and is hence culturally specific. The visions and hallucinations of an Inuit person living in the Canadian snowfields will be different from the vivid intimations that Hildegaard of Bingen believed God sent to her. The Inuit will'see' polar bears and seals that may speak to him or her; Hildegaard saw angels and strange creatures suggested by scripture and the medieval wall paintings and illuminations with which she was familiar. The spectrum of consciousness is 'wired', but its content is mostly cultural.

A neuropsychological model

The concept of consciousness that I have outlined will explain many specific features of Upper Palaeolithic art. In this, it is unlike other explanations (such as art‑for‑art's‑sake or information‑processing) that provide overall, blanket understandings that could apply to virtually any images. But, if we are to attempt to cross the neurological bridge that leads back to the Upper Palaeolithic, we need to look more closely at the visual imagery of the intensi­fied spectrum and see what kinds of percepts are experienced as one passes along it. We can identify three stages, each of which is characterized by particular kinds of imagery and experiences (Fig. 26).

In the first and 'lightest' stage people may experience geometric visual percepts that include dots, grids, zigzags, nested catenary curves, and meandering lines. Because these percepts are'wired'into the human nervous system, all people, no matter what their cultural background, have the potential to experience them.
They flicker, scintillate, expand, contract, and combine with one another; the types are less rigid than this list suggests. Importantly, they are independent of an exterior light source. They can be experienced with the eyes closed or open; with open eyes, they are projected onto and partly obliterate visual perceptions of the environment. For instance, the so‑called fortification illusion, a flickering curve with a jagged or castellated perimeter and a'black hole' of invisibility in the centre, may, with a movement of the head, be positioned over a person standing nearby so that his or her head vanishes in the black hole (Chapter 5). This particular percept is associated with migraine attacks and is therefore well‑known to sufferers from that condition. Such percepts cannot be consciously controlled; they seem to have a life of their own. Sometimes a bright light in the centre of the field of vision obscures all but peripheral images. The rate of change from one form to another seems to vary from one psychotropic substance to another but it is generally swift. Laboratory subjects new to the experience find it difficult to keep pace with the rapid flow of imagery, but, significantly for the understanding I develop in following chapters, training and familiarity with the experience increase their powers of observation and description.

Writers have called these geometric percepts phosphenes, form constants and entoptic phenomena. I use entoptic phenomena because'entoptic'means 'within vision' (from the Greek), that is, they may originate anywhere between the eye itself and the cortex of the brain. I take this comprehensive term to cover two classes of geometric percepts that appear to derive from different parts of the visual system. Phosphenes can be induced by physical stimulation, such as pressure on the eyeball, and are thus entophthalmic ('within the eye'). Form constants, on the other hand, derive from the optic system, probably beyond the eyeball itself. I distinguish these two kinds of entoptic phenomena from hallucinations, the forms of which have no foundation in the actual structure of the optic system. Unlike phosphenes and form constants, hallucinations include iconic imagery of culturally controlled items, such as animals, as well as somatic (in the body), aural (hearing), gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell) experiences.

The exact way in which entoptic phenomena are 'wired into' the human nervous system has been a topic of recent research. It has been found that the patterns of connections between the retina and the striate cortex (known as V1) and of neuronal circuits within the striate cortex determined their geometric form. Simply put, there is a spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex: paints that are close together on the retina lead to the firing of comparably placed neurons in the cortex. When this process is reversed, as following the ingestion of psychotropic substances, the pattern in the cortex is perceived as a visual percept. In other words, people in this condi­tion are seeing the structure of their own brains.

In Stage 2 of the intensified trajectory, subjects try to make sense of entoptic phenomena by elaborating them into iconic forms, that is, into objects that are familiar to them from their daily life. In alert problem‑solving consciousness, the brain receives a constant stream of sense impressions. A visual image reaching the brain is decoded (as, of course, are other sense impressions) by being matched against a store of experience. If a 'fit' can be effected, the image is 'recognized'. In altered states of consciousness, the nervous system itself becomes a'sixth sense' that produces a variety of images including entoptic phenomena. The brain attempts to decode these forms as it does impressions supplied by the nervous system in an alert, outwardly‑directed state. This process is linked to the disposition of the subject. For example, an ambiguous round shape may be 'illusioned' into an orange if the subject is hungry, a breast if he is in a state of heightened sexual drive, a cup of water if the subject is thirsty, or an anarchist's bomb if the subject is fearful.

As subjects move into Stage 3, marked changes in imagery occur. At this point, many people experience a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel that seems to surround them and to draw them into its depths. There is a progressive exclusion of information from the outside: the subject is becoming more and more autistic. The sides of the vortex are marked by a lattice of squares like television screens. The images on these 'screens' are the first spontaneously produced iconic hallocinations; they eventually overlie the vortex as entoptic phenomena give way to iconic hallucinations. The tunnel hallucination is also associated with near-death experiences. Sometimes a bright light in the centre of the field of vision creates this tunnel-like perspective. Subjects report 'viewing much of their imagery in relation to a tunnel... [I]mages tend to pulsate, moving towards the centre of the tunnel or away from the bright light and sometimes in both directions.' One laboratory subject said, 'I'm moving through some kind of train tunnel. There are all sorts of lights and colours, mostly in the centre, far, far away, way, far away, and little people and stuff running around the [walls] of the tube, like little cartoon nebishes, they're pretty close. Siegel found that among 58 reports of eight kinds of hallucinations, this sort of tunnel was the most common. Westerners use culture‑specific words like 'funnels, alleys, cones, vessels, pits [and] corridors'to describe the vortex. In other cultures, it is often experienced as entering a hole in the ground. Shamans typically speak of reaching the spirit world via such a hole.

The Inuit of Hudson Bay, for instance, describe a 'road down through the earth' that starts in the house where they perform their rituals. They also speak of a shaman passing through the sea: 'He almost glides as if falling through a tube.' The Bella Coola of the American Northwest Coast believe such a hole is 'situated between the doorway and the fireplace. The Algonkians of Canada travel through layers of earth: 'a hole leading into the bowels of the earth [is] the pathway of the spirits.' The Conibo of the Upper Amazon speak of following the roots of a tree down into the ground. Such reports could easily be multiplied. The vortex and the ways in which its imagery is perceived are clearly universal human experiences, and the descriptions of them that I have given will play a key role in subsequent chapters.
Stage 3 iconic images derive from memory and are often associated with powerful emotional experiences. Images change one into another. This shift in iconic imagery is also accompanied by an increase in vividness. Subjects stop using similes to describe their experiences and assert that the images are indeed what they appear to be. They lose insight into the differences between literal and analogical meanings'. Nevertheless, even in this essentially iconic stage, entoptic phenomena may persist: iconic imagery may be projected against a background of geometric forms or entoptic phenomena may frame iconic imagery. By a process of fragmentation and integration, compound images are formed: for example, a man with zigzag legs. Finally, in this stage, subjects enter into and participate in their own imagery: they are part of a strange realm. They blend with both their geometric and their iconic imagery. It is in this final stage that people sometimes feel themselves to be turning into animals and undergoing other frightening or exalting transformations.
These three stages of the intensified spectrum of consciousness are not ineluctably sequential. Some subjects report being catapulted directly into the third stage, while others do not progress beyond the first. The three stages should be seen as cumulative rather than sequential.

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