How the cortex got its stripes
February 16, 2010 10:07 PM   Subscribe

Uncoiling the spiral: Maths and hallucinations So common are these geometric hallucinations, that in the last century scientists began asking themselves if they couldn't tell us something fundamental about how our brains are wired up. And it seems that they can. (via MAPS)
posted by kaspen (31 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
In one of my experiences with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, I was smoking, and when I exhaled the smoke it formed intricate spirals composed of right triangles. I remember it vividly, of course I also saw huge snowflakes fall in the apartment and float the furniture around as they melted.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 10:15 PM on February 16, 2010

Interesting. I had years of flashbacks of this type of pattern. Mine was a sort of snaking pattern of circles with circles inside - like a watch battery viewed from above, but with sort of rainbow-y coloring on a black background.

Not that you asked.
posted by serazin at 10:22 PM on February 16, 2010

That's fascinating. However, I think the actual effect is a bit more complicated then that. In particular, there seems to be a feedback effect in play as well. And it's certainly the case that patterns similar to those can also be generated by feedback, without needing the diffusion explanation.

What's also interesting is that those types of patterns are the some of the easiest things to imagine, without needing to take drugs.
posted by delmoi at 10:30 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

That was one of the best popular science articles I've ever read: clear, comprehensive, written for the lay audience but not condescendingly, an with sidebars that actually add rather than repeat. Wow.
posted by orthogonality at 10:43 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Those honeycombs and lattices are a great deal like what I see if I stand up too fast and grey out.
posted by eritain at 10:44 PM on February 16, 2010

What's also interesting is that those types of patterns are the some of the easiest things to imagine, without needing to take drugs.

Since early childhood, I have regularly imagined lattices.
posted by orthogonality at 10:45 PM on February 16, 2010

I also saw huge snowflakes fall in the apartment and float the furniture around as they melted

Visual snow is a known hallucination probably not explained by this model.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:39 PM on February 16, 2010

Saw the honeycomb pattern after taking some very good brownies and after closing my eyes before falling asleep that night. Interesting to see that it wasn't a unique hallucination.
posted by dibblda at 11:39 PM on February 16, 2010

Very interesting! I am sure some people have come to the conclusion that the spirits are an internal phenomenon rather than an external one, but they may have been treated as heretics. Nice to see science taking up the mantel.
posted by asok at 2:00 AM on February 17, 2010

I've been waiting for years for an update on this stuff!

There was an article way back in 2001 from new scientist
(may be behind a subscription wall, but if you quickly click 'read full article' then ctrl-a, ctrl-c, you'll be able to catch it)

Plus a press release from University of Chicago about the same time.
posted by leibniz at 2:13 AM on February 17, 2010

I will be sure to read this carefully later on - very interesting post.

Incidentally I asked a question not long ago covering non-drug induced hallucenations of this variety, which led me to discover this picture, which I instantly recognised as MY hallucenation.

So whilst I might feel a little less unique after reading this, I'll certainly feel a little more sane. Thanks!
posted by Acey at 4:30 AM on February 17, 2010

Reminds me of an old AskMe. Folks were waaaaay too quick to believe that the child was hallucinating (or seeing "spiritual realities") when, in fact, there really was something that no one else was seeing.
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:36 AM on February 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was rather hoping that was going to be about hallucinations of math, rather than hallucinations involving math, but it was still damn interesting.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:14 AM on February 17, 2010

On this topic, though, I was rather taken aback by my reaction to a smoke in The Netherlands. I’d burnt through it pretty quickly and was entirely unprepared by the harsh honeycomb of lines strobing behind everything else I saw. Grating and headache-inducing. Then I realized that it was the tobacco. I have and had no tolerance for nicotine.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:24 AM on February 17, 2010

yeah this was really interesting. Any time I have "tripped" I have always had really crazy shapes forming.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 7:55 AM on February 17, 2010

Acey, thanks for that link to the artwork. My key hallucination is not a spiral, but a multi-rayed star shape, with circles between the rays. Yet, your pattern there has the circles (more-or-less). It is not inconceivable that I saw something more like that, and changed it to a star in my own head. I was, after all, rather ripped at the time. :-)) For all the reputation of the 60's, I have to say, I had me quite a lot of fun in the 70's.
posted by Goofyy at 7:58 AM on February 17, 2010

Oh, I forgot to add, my 'hallucination' was not quite that. It's something I imagine seeing, and don't really see. It's more like an idea. The only real hallucinations I've ever had have been the product of sleep deprivation and/or starvation. Trees turning golden? Awesome! It sure feels like they are doing that. But I see normal trees. And it is perfectly clear I am walking 12" above the pavement, in spite of the fact that I know my feet are upon that same pavement.
posted by Goofyy at 8:03 AM on February 17, 2010

Peyote was famous in my neighborhood before Carlos Castenada.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:09 AM on February 17, 2010

This picture by Escher, a notorious nondrug-taker, was precisely my youthful drug-induced hallucinations
posted by criticalbill at 8:09 AM on February 17, 2010

Sort of reminded me of this great ol' game...
posted by TigerMoth at 8:27 AM on February 17, 2010

Are we really at the point where so many don't know the difference between "then" and "than"?
posted by humboldt32 at 8:45 AM on February 17, 2010

Interesting post. My peak experience in college was laying on a couch with speakers on either side of my head listening to the Beatles, and every surface in the room was covered in multi-color flourescent stripes flowing on them. Up the wall, across the ceiling, down wall, across the chair. This was also when I learned about fungus dosage and the lag between digestion and effect, and you should wait patiently and not keep taking more.
posted by Big_B at 8:47 AM on February 17, 2010

I wonder if this will draw any threads together as far as how most DMT users have a very similar 'trip' narrative and experience, down to the scintillating geometric chrysanthemum patterns.. that trip commonality would also go a long way to explaining the 'tunnel and light' phenomenon of the 'near death experience', if that can reliably be tied to pineal release of DMT as a death process.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:34 AM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

That was a great article. It didn't dumb things down at all. All popular science should be written so well.
posted by painquale at 9:36 AM on February 17, 2010

I too once ate some curiously strong brownies, and when I closed my eyes I saw what I would describe as a repeating geometrical pattern of interlocking 3s and 7s. But actually it looked a lot like the bottom left and bottom right patterns overlaid on each other. It had never occurred to me that the experience might be repeatable or relatively common.
posted by penduluum at 10:12 AM on February 17, 2010

This whole magazine is excellent! And it's on the 53rd issue? Why have I never heard of it before?
posted by painquale at 10:18 AM on February 17, 2010

Since I started experimenting with various substances I've become pretty convinced that there was some neurological basis in what was going on; what I found myself seeing and drawing on these things had commonalities with art I know damn well is drug-inspired - it's a pretty safe bet that a surrealistic page by Crumb with the title "STONED AGAIN" is stuff he drew while totally baked!

Core compositional shapes and themes, ways of repeating images; what I chose to fill in the details with was still the same, but the ways I wanted to organize things on the page when under the influence changed to resemble "trippy" art. And now this confirms my suspicions; these patterns emerge from the architecture of the brain, and we fill in the details from our visual memories, or admire the abstractions, as the case may be.

Wheels within wheels.
posted by egypturnash at 12:45 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

It looks like I'm completely in the minority here, but I just don't see the point of this. Perhaps because I'm not only a classical pianist but also a guitarist, so if I want to play metal I just pick up a guitar. Her transcriptions seem unimaginative to the extreme, what I'd love to see are paraphrases and transcriptions more in the style of Liszt... I've always thought that there's a huge potential niche for someone who could do this well, such as Volodos' arrangements of Rachmaninov songs for instance, but for pop and metal songs instead. Perhaps I'll have to give this a go!
posted by BobsterLobster at 8:03 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops, wrong thread! Hope someone deletes previous comment!
posted by BobsterLobster at 8:05 PM on February 17, 2010

Awesome; thank you! I always get these effects from just rubbing my eyes and have long been curious why and if this was so for everyone.

Eating peyote in the lab = great image as well
posted by theredpen at 9:20 PM on February 17, 2010

Have a look at some of the art of Alex Grey as a good example of DMT and other psychedelic-inspired art which represents a lot of the patternwork that many people experience under the influence.

Of particular note:

and especially in the context of this discussion, White Light
posted by nonspecialist at 12:35 AM on February 18, 2010

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