A Case for Universality: Abstraction, Synaesthesia, Neurology and Mysticism

Royal Academy Schools, 2006

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Abstraction and Mysticism. Two words which are inextricably linked, at every turn in the path of abstraction we find the mystical, the romantic, the ‘spiritual’, either lurking behind or clearly opposed. In any case abstraction is called to acknowledge if only to reject the ethereal. What is the basis of this relationship? Is there any place for a concept of universality in art? I do not set out here to outline an historical map, nor am I setting forth to unpick the cultural and philosophical drives behind the rise and fall of transcendent themes in abstraction. I will use various illustrations but I am not looking into a particular artist or period. The work shown serves as a philosophical model rather than a specific point of enquiry. I am taking an entirely different view and one, I believe, is particularly relevant to our time, neurology.

The 1990’s have been labelled by many in the field ‘the decade of the brain’. The enormous advancement in brain imaging technology has enabled neurologists to make huge jumps in their understanding of how the brain works. There are many new branches of the science appearing, including neuroaesthetics (looking into the underpinnings of art production) and neurotheology (proposing a neurological basis for religious experience). There is also a resurgence in the research into synaesthesia, a condition which had been dismissed as a neurological anomaly but may now uncover many mysteries as to the workings of the brain. The twenty first century is one in which the brain is fast becoming the focus of research. As our understanding increases so then we are spurred to ask more probing questions about the nature of the mind and experience. Neurology holds vital information when considering a larger philosophy of the mind. Following Kantian philosophy, in order to understand the universe around us we must first look at the tools we are trying to understand it with.

There are several things I feel I must make clear at this point. Firstly, I am not a neurologist. The scientific research data at the forefront of this field is readily available, but technically beyond the layperson, so for the sake of constructing a theory I have assumed the authority of this research. I have referenced this material. What I propose is embryonic at this point but I present it as a potential new direction in our understanding of the mind. Secondly, I am not proposing a theory that encompasses the entire spectrum of art making. The concept of universality is commonly applied in scientific thought, where making connections leads to great discovery, but when applied to the humanities can be generalising, robbing rather than informing. This is essentially a scientific essay looking at universals within the mind on the most fundamental level.

Chapter one introduces the discussion of ‘Form Constants’ by looking at Palaeolithic cave painting and the origins of art. I will discuss this in light of research linking early art production and altered states of consciousness, forming a link between abstraction and mystical experience. Here I outline Kluvers’ categorisation of visual perceptual phenomena developed through the analysis of hallucinatory experience.

Chapter two discusses the nature of mystical experience and its roots in the brain, considering current research in neurotheology by Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili and Michael Persinger’s ‘God Helmet”.

Chapter three looks at synaesthesia, the phenomena of sensory merging, where one sense stimulation leads to the stimulation of another within the brain. I propose this as the link between visual perceptual phenomena and mystical experience, and discuss research, which indicates that this is common to us all: a universal sensory bridge between abstraction and the transcendent.

Entopic Phenomena and The Origins of Art

I begin my discussion of abstraction and mysticism at the beginning, with the first appearance of abstract forms. These appeared in cave paintings largely situated around Western Europe created during the upper Palaeolithic between 45,000 and 20,000 years ago. The period between the middle and upper Palaeolithic has been called The Transition, as humans relatively quickly developed distinctive cultures involving ritual and the creation of art. There are no concrete explanations as to the motivations and meanings of Palaeolithic art, however it is generally agreed amongst archaeologists that the evidence point to creation during altered states of consciousness. These states occur through various means, hallucinogenic drugs, sensory deprivation, mind control techniques such as repetitive sound or movement, through dreams, psychological and physical illnesses. These early artists may have ingested drugs or it could have been a sensory reaction to the darkness in the cave, either way the forms that they painted have since been found to be common to many altered states. In his book, The Mind in the Cave’, David Lewis Williams outlines three stages of visual hallucinations, which he applies to the production of cave painting;

‘ In the first and ‘lightest’ stage people may experience geometric percepts that include dots, grids, zig zags, nested coronary 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.

The first stage may include forms which fall into the following categories, grid patterns; lattices, honeycombs, chessboards, and circular forms; cobwebs, tunnels and funnels. These patterns appear in vivid colours, expanding contracting and overlaying, often there is a bright light in the centre of the visual field. He identifies these forms as ‘entopic phenomena’ images produced both within the eye and in the visual cortex. These images are in the ‘minds eye’, seen with the eyes closed or open projected onto the surrounding space. The second stage is where the mind attempts to make sense of these images by fitting them into a familiar form (i.e. animals as appear in cave painting).

‘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 affected, the image is ‘recognised’.

He goes on to describe the features of the third stage;

At this point many people experience a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel that seems to surround them and draw them into its depths. There is 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 the ‘screens’ are the first spontaneously produced iconic images: they eventually overlie the vortex as entopic phenomena give way to iconic hallucinations.’

Lewis-Williams’ outline is based on the research of Heinrich Kluver, an experimental psychologist who helped shape the field of neuroscience with his work on the nature of visual perception in children. Looking at children with persistent visual imagery led him into extensive research into how such visual phenomena related to normal human perception. Kluver recognised that studying the effects that hallucinogenics have on the brain provides important tools for understanding visual abilities such as colour and space perception. His research into altered states led him to define a group of ‘Form Constants’ abstract shapes and patterns as described above which are common to many states (including migraine, temporal lobe epilepsy, drug induced hallucination, sensory deprivation and importantly synaesthesia)

Primarily Kluver observed the effects of the drug mescal, described at length in his book, Mescal and the Mechanisms of Hallucinations’ 1966 Kluver discusses the importance of this research and mescal as his choice for the observation;

“On account of its specific effects on the optical sensorium mescal is an excellent instrument of research for the psychologist. It is a very handy tool especially in the descriptive and genetic analysis of space and colour phenomena. Utilizing this drug we may study profitably the various aspects of normal and abnormal visual perception, simultaneous and successive contrast, different types of colour blindness, entopic phenomena, dreams, illusions, pseudo hallucinations, synaesthesia, the relation of the peripheral to the central areas in vision, the role of the visual elements in thinking and the psychogenesis of meaning.’

Kluvers identification of these abstract visual phenomena is now common language in the fields of neurology and under further classification, entopic phenomena are divided into two groups; ‘phosphenes’ which are visual phenomena produced by direct stimulation of the eye (i.e pressure on the eye lid) and therefore considered to be part of the workings of the eye, and ‘form constants’ induced by various sensory stimulation and considered to be produced within the visual cortex. Lewis Williams goes on to discuss the neurology of these phenomena;

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: points that are close together on the retina lead to the firing of comparably placed neurons on 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.

Kluvers identification of form constants gives us a grounded psychological reading of the first abstract forms produced by man in cave painting and rock art, and lays out a universal experience of abstract form. His analysis of altered states also clearly defines the cross over between this universality and culturally derived imagery. These first stages visual experiences would develop (in the second and third stages) into forms recognisable to the subject, which Palaeolithic times would be iconic imagery such as bison and horses.

Palaeolithic art can tell us a lot about the origins and early relationships between art and religion, but where in this do we find the bridge between abstract form and religious experience? Where does the meaning lie?

Form constants are just one aspect of altered states, the other defining feature is the transcendental nature of the experience, which is where the bridge becomes apparent between abstraction and the ‘spiritual’. I will go on to discuss this in the next chapter.

Mystical Experience and the Temporal Lobes

Firstly I feel I should define what is meant by mysticism in this context.

Mysticism comes from the Greek word mystikos, “an initiate” and is the pursuit of achieving with, or awareness of, what could be called, God, ultimate reality, the divine, or spiritual truth. This is gained through direct experience, intuition or insight and the belief that the experience leads understanding of the true nature of things and ultimate wisdom. Traditions may include a belief in the literal existence of realities beyond empirical perception, or a belief that a truehuman perception of the world transcends logical reasoning or intellectual comprehension.

Mysticism goes beyond the normal practices of a religious doctrine and has sprung from each of the mainstream religions; Gnosticism from Christianity, Sufism from Islam, Kaballah from Judaism, Tantra from Buddhism, amongst other mystical practices. Common practices include the use of ritual and repetition in order to induce altered states through sensory experience, the whirling dervish in Sufism and the devotional chanting of the Hindu Bhajan both serve to take the individual into an experience typified by feelings of ‘loss of self’. These states may involve changes in awareness of time, space, physical reality and visual perceptions.

The mystical experience has a universal aspect in these terms, as it is sensory. It is, I claim, part of our neurological make up. Whether induced by sensory deprivation, stimulation, or hallucinogenic drugs, ultimately we are altering our brain chemistry.

Mystical experience need not be religious, but the important common factor is a sense of meaning. They are states of illumination beyond the intellect; there is a sense of connection with something or some power, which is external. Individuals often report having a sense of unity with the absolute, the revelation of great truths.

The study of these phenomena has led to a new branch of neuroscience called neurotheology. Central to this research is the findings of cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Persinger. Famously known as ‘The God Helmet’, Persinger stimulated subject’s temporal lobes artificially with a weak magnetic field to see if he could induce a religious state. Around 80% of the people who wore the helmet reported feeling an external presence in the room, some of those reporting a religious experience. This work, first published in ‘Perceptual and Motor Skills’ 1983 claims that these experiences are caused by micro seizures in the limbic system. Any condition that facilitates such experiences, meditation, ritual dancing or taking hallucinogens does so because it is stimulating the temporal lobe in a way that induces these seizures. He also correlates a tendency to have mystical experiences and religious beliefs with a neurological instability in the temporal lobe. This is backed up by study into temporal lobe epilepsy, sufferers of which often report visionary, out of body, mystical experiences.

This research was furthered by the use of brain imaging/scanning technology. Eugene D’Aquili, professor of psychiatry, and Andrew Newberg, who specialises in nuclear medicine, scan brains to record activity in different mental states. They propose that the brains amygdala, which translates sensory impressions into emotions, is responsible for generating a sense of religious awe.

‘Based on our model presented in prior works as well as our book, it seems that all unitary experiences such as watching a beautiful sunset to the most profound states that may occur only after years of meditation- may have their basis in neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and the flux of neurotransmitters. We have suggested that there is an aesthetic religious continuum that is based on the progressive activation of the holistic operator such that the more profound the experience the more sense of unity. Our recent brain imaging studies of Tibetan Buddhist meditators have begun to provide empirical evidence for the specific mechanisms involved in this continuum of experience.

In an article interviewing D’Aquili and Newberg in Science Magazine (1998) David O’Reilly discusses their work;

(the research) builds on research tying hallucinations, out of body sensations and déjà vu activity, or suppression of activity, in parts of the brain. What intrigues D’Aquili and Newberg is how religious rituals and practices stimulate the two major subsystems of the autonomic systems… The researchers two year study of brains engaged in Buddhist meditation provided ‘mounting evidence that sensations of calm, unity and transcendence correspond to increased activity in the brain’s frontal lobes (behind the forehead) and decreased activity in the parietal lobes at the top rear of the head.

In terms of mystical practice different areas of the brain are activated depending on whether the ritual is fast (whirling dervish) or slow (meditation), both stimulating the perception of a higher state of consciousness.

O’ Reilly explains;

‘In states of very high activity around one circuit, they say, there can be a ‘spill over’, such that the dormant system activates and goes ‘on line’ simultaneously with the other. Although rare, this dual state can lead to “tremendous release” of energy that may feel like ‘oceanic bliss’ or absorption into the object of contemplation. And extreme cases of both systems being activated can induce brain activities perceived by the mind as the ‘Absolute Unity of Being’.

It is this ‘spill over’ within the brain that could be explained by new research into synaesthesia, which in turn I propose provides a bridge between mystical experience and basic universal visual perception.

a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualisation of a certain colour.

Synaesthesia, a mixing or combination of the senses, is a relatively familiar concept in the arts. Several well-known artists, writers and musicians have described this condition, Vladimir Nabakov, Alexander Scriabin and most famously Wassily Kandinsky. Although this phenomenon has been written about since 1890, until the recent developments in neuroimaging it remained an interesting yet ultimately dead-ended scientific anomaly. It explained something of the artists’ inspirations, but served little purpose in understanding larger themes in creativity and the workings of the mind. The dependence on personal experience discounted from serious scientific research. This has radically changed over the past twenty years and at this point in time research into synaesthesia is at the forefront off neuroscientific research. It is widely thought that this condition could in fact tell us much about creativity and the formations of language, and in the context of painting I believe it still holds valuable insights into the workings of abstraction.

So what exactly is this condition? The most commonly reported experience of synaesthesia is seeing colours (in the ‘minds eye’) in response to letters, numbers and days of the week (called Grapheme Colour Synaesthesia). There are also frequent reports of colour experience in reaction to sound. Smell and taste are uncommon but do occur, and an area of particular interest is emotionally mediated synaesthesia, where colour is seen in response to stimuli with an emotional connotation. I will discuss this further on. We do not know exactly how many people experience synaethesia, it is normally something people have experienced since early childhood and is therefore so normal to them they may not realize their experience differs from anyone else’s/ The number could be 1/1000 to 1/200, but it is agreed that it is three times more common in women and 8 times more unlikely in artists, writers and musicians. It is also a trait, which is commonly passed down through generations, but never from father to son which suggests it is an X chromosome linked trait. Other defining traits of the condition include;

The experience is uni- directional, sounds may stimulate colours but it does not follow that the same occurs the other way round.

Relationships between stimuli and experience are durable, the red of a letter A 9for example) will be the same red when the person is 5 years old and 65, it does not change over time.

Relationships are arbitrary in the sense that they convey no cultural or social attachment. The letter A may be green for one person and pink for another, and are reported as such in a ‘matter of fact’ way.

Reactions are not voluntary or controllable by the subject.

The development of brain scanning techniques during the 1980’s has allowed scientists to monitor areas of the brain while experiencing synaesthesic activity. In the 1990’s Richard Cytowic pioneered a new wave of research in America which was then paralleled by researchers in the UK. Brain imaging, which shows us the activity of the brain under certain stimulations, has shown that whilst experiencing synaesthesic perception, subjects show activity in other brain areas closely linked to the stimulated area. It is suggested that executive areas of the brain, primarily the frontal lobes, manifest a high degree of sensory integration. The area which controls the letters/ numbers is next to that which processes colour which suggests the experience is due to some ‘overspill’, A popular theory is that of CMT,) cross modal transfer) which proposes that synesthetes have an abnormally large amount of neural links between normally differentiated sensory modules. New research, that expands on CMT, is now indicating that synaesthesia is common to us all on the most basic level. That it is something we are all born with.

‘The Neonatal Synaesthesia hypothesis builds on the CMT evidence, but suggests that in early infancy, probably up to about 4 months of age, all human babies experience sensory input in a non differentiated way. Sounds trigger auditory, visual and tactile experiences all at once. Following this early initial phase of normal synaesthesia, the different sensory modalities become increasingly modular. Adult synaesthesia, has been suggested to be as a result of the breakdown in the process of modularisation, such that during infancy the modularisation process was not completed. This of course implies that if not now, then at some point in the past, we have all experienced synesthesic perception.’

In February 2006 the journal ‘Cortex’, (devoted to the study of neurology and cognitive function) published an issue covering the current findings of research into synaesthesia. In the introductory article, ‘Synaesthesia: An Overview of Contemporary Findings and Controversies’, Jamie Ward and Jason B. Mattingly state;

‘How different visual attributes such as form and colour are integrated in perception is an issue of interest to many cognitive neuroscientists (triesmann 1999); synaesthesia may represent an instance of colour binding in the absence of external colour information (Robertson 2003). A related reason why many are interested in synaesthesia is that it may shed light on the neural and cognitive substrates of perceptual awareness. By definition synaesthesia is the elicitation of perceptual experiences in the absence of normal sensory stimulation.’

This leads us back to the experience of altered consciousness discussed in previous chapters, and provides the bridge between different sensory experiences which combine with the altered state.

They continue;

‘Some forms of synaesthesia (or synaesthesia like phenomena) can be elicited pharmacologically (Hartman and Hollister, 1963) from sensory deprivation arising from damage to input pathways (e.g., Jacobs et a., 1981), or even prolonged blindfolding (Merabat et al 2004). Ibid

This is discussed further by Richard Cytowic in his overview, ‘Synaesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology’ 1995, where he identifies the hippocampus as being especially important to synaesthesic experience;

‘I cannot enumerate here all the supporting reasons why I single out the hippocampus being especially- but not solely- important for synaesthesic experience. The hippocampus is also necessary for experiencing other altered states of consciousness that are qualitatively similar to synesthesia. For example, the perceptions during LSD induced synaesthesia, sensory deprivation, limbic epilepsy, release hallucinations and the experiential responses during electrical stimulation of the brain all possess a generic, elemental quality- just as they do in synaesthesia. This observation leads us to the topic of form constants, the enduring idea that elemental perceptual qualities exist.’

Cytowic has identified the ‘photisms’ described by the synaesthetes as congruent with the form constants described by Kluver;

‘Variations in colour, brightness, movement, perspective, symmetry, and replication provide finer gradation of the subjective experience. These are not just visual phenomena, but sensory form constants that are apparent in any spatially extended sense. Initially we thought theses spatial configurations reflected some anatomic structure; then we tried mapping it to some prototypical function. Now, neuroscience is not sure what their physical correlates are, but many people do suspect that form constants point to some deep, fundamental aspect of perception.’

So, research suggests that altered states of consciousness are fundamentally synaesthesic in nature and involve a merging of sensory experience known as cross modal transfer. This involves basic sense organs, most commonly sight, sound and the perception of letters and numbers, but also the key to synaesthesic and altered states is emotion. Obviously this is a difficult subject for scientific research due to its highly subjective nature, however, on defining the features of synaesthesic experience Cytowic outlines the emotional aspect as follows;

Synaesthesia is emotional. The experience is accompanied by a sense of certitude) the ‘this is it’ feeling) and a conviction that what synaesthetes perceive is real and valid. The accompaniment brings to mind the transitory change in self-awareness that is known as ecstasy. Ecstasy is any passion by which the thoughts are absorbed and in which the mind for a time is lost. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James spoke of ecstasy’s four qualities of ineffability, passivity, noesis and transience. These qualities are shared by synaesthesia.’

This ‘noetic’ quality (from Greek nous, meaning intellect or understanding), the feeling of certitude accompanying direct sensory experience, is typical of the mystical state and connects us back to reports from Persingers’ God Helmet’. Through this universal intersensory language we are beginning to see a connection between basic abstract languages inherent to our neurological make up and the realms of mystical experience.


There seems little doubt that there are indeed sensory universals. There is a relationship between certain ‘form constants’ and altered states of consciousness. Of course this relationship cannot be applied to all abstract art, but it does go a long way to unpicking the thought behind the abstract symbols found in Palaeolithic art, Indian Yantra’s and rose windows to use various examples. Both the Yantra and the rose window are specifically religious. The yantra is used as a meditation too, the subject focusing on the central point as an aid to reaching an altered state. The rose window first appeared in Gothic Church architecture and replicates the form constant, not only in that it is typically circular with a central point surrounded by complex patterning, but it also relies on the quality of light. Seen from the interior of a dark church the vision of the rose window is remarkably like that of an altered state of consciousness. It is interesting to discuss Jung at this point, although I do not wholly subscribe to his theory of archetypes, I do think his work on Mandala’s held much truth. Jung studied subjects with various mental illnesses and observed that many of them spontaneously produced circular images revolving around a central point. He considered this the way the way that the unconscious works to heal the damaged self. Jung also did much work tracing examples of the mandala symbol across cultures and histories. The meaning of this symbol in invariably one of unity and wholeness;

Speaking of a picture entitled The Circle, by the famous Zen Priest Sangai, another Zen Master writes; “In the Zen sect, the circle represents enlightenment. It symbolises human perfection.”…(Of rose windows) these are representations of the self of man transposed onto the cosmic plane…in non- Christian art, such circles are called “sun wheels”. They appear in rock engravings that date back to the Neolithic period before the wheel was invented…What really mattered at all times was the experience of the archetypal, inner image, which stone age man rendered in his art faithfully as he depicted bulls, gazelles or wild horses.

The specific symbolism is not important, what is, is the persistence of altered state association and the concept of unity. Both of which are traced back to the structure of the brain and the visual cortex.

The filigree, lattice, honeycomb and grid patterns that the cortex produces are visible in the kinds of decoration we surround ourselves with. Could this be, primarily, because we recognise these patterns as reflecting the structure of our own brain? I would not want to commit myself to a theory of aesthetics based purely on entopics but it is worth some consideration. Why do we like fireworks, the most popular display of visual abstraction across the globe? They have all the features of hallucinatory visions; light, forma appearing and disappearing, intense colour, overlaying images and circular, spiral forms.

The possibilities within this field of research are vast, and at this point our knowledge is in its infancy. As far as I am aware, the links I have made here between mysticism, visual abstract percepts and synaesthesia have not been discussed directly by researchers. I can only hope that as general awareness of scientific developments increases, so the art world may open up to these discussions. So how does this impact on art in contemporary terms?

Primarily I am calling for a reassessment of the concept of universality and mysticism in abstract painting. I hope in this essay I have gone some way to show that it is part of who we are and it is not going to go away, however unfashionable it is. Our new scientific understanding gives us a new perspective on the history of abstraction and allows us to return to important art historical texts such as Kandinsky’s ‘On The Spiritual in Art’ and Blavatsky’s, ‘The Secret Doctrine”, and look at them anew. Kandinsky’s writing on the relationships between basic visual percepts and the spiritual may not have been so eccentric after all. In fact it could be something we have all experienced.

There is much room for debate around the subject of entopics and the development of Op art, particularly artists who have their roots on Op but have taken a detour away from its cool science. I think particularly of Ross Bleckner, Phillip Taafe, Fred Tomaselli and Beatriz Milhazes. In an interview with Chris Martin, Tomaselli states;

‘The interesting thing about psychedelics and pop culture is that psychedelics did open me to investigate a neglected art history through the back door of its own self generated kitsch. It allowed me to really get turned on to everything from Asian art to William Blake. It tweaked my vision to deep structure. I think one part is the psychedelic experience and one part is the world that psychedelic drugs deirected me towards.

The study of entopics and the brain raises many questions in the realms of visual art, however there are wider implications to the subjects I have raised in this essay. Perhaps it is time for the humanities to open its gates further to science as cognitive and computational neuroscience continues to encroach on philosophical issues. Do scientific explanations steal are sense of awe and wonder? Does a neurological explanation of mysticism disprove the existence of God? (Ramachradan suggests the brain acts as an antenna and there is therefore no challenge to the concept of God). I cannot fully enter into this debate here, but it leaves us with much food for thought. Amidst many voices on the subject my own view is that there is an inherent contradiction that cannot be overcome. The defining feature of the altered state experience is the sense of truth, reality and externality, yet the indication is that it is derived from internal brain chemistry. We find ourselves with something of a Zen koan, we understand when we realise that we just cant understand. So explaining science does not kill the mystery, the awe and the wonder, it increases our level of awareness and in turn raises the bar of questioning.