Phosphenes, Entoptics, and a Tiered Cosmos

In the last post I mentioned that altered states of consciousness can result in the experience of phosphenes or entoptic images. These are geometric images or flashes of light that arise from the central nervous system and visual cortex. They are common to all humans (and possibly other animals). You can experience phosphenes by pressing on your closed eyelid. You'll see little illuminated squares, dots, ladders, and other motifs. That's a phosphene! When a phosphene or entoptic image appears in prehistoric art, it can be argued that the art is related to altered states of consciousness, trance, shamanism, or all three. These motifs appear in cave art, megalithic art, and many other forms of art including textiles.
Entoptic "floaters"

A lot of scholars, including archaeologists and neurologists, have argued that the experience of entoptics during the three stages of altered states of consciousness has led to the perception of a multi-tiered cosmos (e.g. underworld/this world/heaven). This is the root of shamanism and later spiritual practices. Shamans derived their power from being able to travel between the worlds and communicate with the beings in other realms. She or he then returned to the world of the living and relayed the message to her or his community. The shaman was able to heal people by utilizing the knowledge imparted to him during his travels. She or he was able to shape communities by instructing them on how to live in order to please the spirits. That's really a great deal of power, when you think about it. I suppose it depends on whether the community believed what the shaman told them. One of the ways to prove you've been traveling between the realms is to bring back important symbols that resonate with the community. An entoptic image would work great, since it is endogenous to all humans and therefore would strike a human as being authentic. The experience would be enhanced if the community learned the meaning of the image while participating in some sort of ritual with rhythmic dance or drumming or intoxicating substances. The neurological processes set in motion would cause the image to be imbued with great significance, perhaps even being seen as the facilitator of the ASC and inter-cosmic traveling! Psychedelic! I'm remembering those big spirograph thingies rotating gently on the scrim behind the Grateful Dead and all those hippies just trancing out and being healed. The music is the induction agent (perhaps in tandem with other agents), the spiraling motif is the vortex through which the congregation (the hippies) travel to another realm, guided by Jerry the Shaman! Ha!

Come along, Children! Totally entoptic image.
The reverie! The healing!
Come into the light! Let us spiral together!

To prove that weavers are shamans, I argued (in the last post) that weaving is a rhythmic activity and involves the creation of and meditation on entoptic images that could induce an altered state of consciousness. Now I'd like to make a case for an association with a tiered cosmos through which the weaver and, by proxy, the community, can travel to another realm. I'm going to start by trying to explain how the human capacity to experience entoptic images together with altered states of consciousness leads to a belief in a tiered cosmos.

The Three Stages of ASC and the Vortex

Cave rock experts, Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) suggest that the experience of altered states of consciousness occurs in three stages. The stages should be thought of as cumulative, each stage building on the last. First I'll remind you what the entoptic images are in humans.

Here are the entoptics, according to Lewis-Williams. These aren't necessarily diagnostic of ASC.

Stage 1: Upon entering ASC, the subject experiences geometric motifs generated within the eye and optic system (Siegal 1977, 132). Images may include lattices, parallel lines, circles, and dots. These may be experienced as "animated, luminous percepts that fragment, replicate, reduplicate and rotate in the field of vision" (Blundell 1998, 10). These images are not culturally based as they arise from the structure of the nervous system (Siegel 1977, 132-4).
Paleolithic phosphenes in Pileta Cave, Spain
A VERY OLD (70,000 years!!!) example of abstract art, one of the first examples accepted as abstract art, South Africa. This is a lattice entoptic!

Anebjerg, Denmark. How much more phosphene-entoptic like could this thing get? The answer is none. None more phosphene-entoptic like.

Stage 2: As the subject moves deeper into ASC, geometric images are interpreted, becoming elaborated into iconic forms (Horowitz 1975: 177, 178, 181). Geometric motifs are cognitively matched against a store of experience or mental template. If a ‘fit’ is affected, the image is recognized as an iconic image (e.g. a meandering line is recognized as a serpent) (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, 203).

Zigzags, meanders, and concentric half circles transforming?
Stage 3: In this stage the subject is drawn into the hallucination, perceiving it as real. Visual imagery is iconic, based almost entirely on cultural bias and personal experience.  The serpent that appeared from the meandering line is now recognized as a local species, for example. These may involve more than the visual sense. The subject often interacts with the hallucinated images. Entoptic motifs may persist, providing a backdrop against which iconic imagery is projected (Siegel 1977, 134).

Concentric half circles, meanders, repeated lines transformed into boats and humans (Sweden)
Concentric half circles, dots, radials, and phosphenes transformed into deer!

Here's a great diagram stolen from some book on the interwebs.

Stages of ASC

Stage 1 Geometric images (grid/lattice/hexagon, parallel lines, bright dots/flecks, zigzags, nested curves with flickering zigzags on outer arc, filigrees/thin meandering lines, spirals)
Stage 2 Geometric images of stage 1 are interpreted as objects with cultural significance (a circle becomes a breast, etc.)
Vortex vortex or tunnel with bright light at the end.
Stage 3 somatic sensation (such as polymelia (extra digits and limbs)), zoopsia (seeing animals), changing into animals and other transformations, synesthesia (confusion of senses)

A tunnel or vortex is very frequently experienced between stages. Horowitz (1975, 178) describes this as the transition between the perception of entoptics and the manipulation of these into iconics. Laboratory subjects reported that the vortex or rotating tunnel seems to surround them (Horowitz 1975, 178). The sides or walls of the vortex may be marked by entoptic motifs, particularly a lattice of squares similar to television screens (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, 204). The first iconic hallucinations appear as images on these ‘screens,’ eventually superseding the vortex as entoptics transform to iconic images and the subject becomes immersed in Stage 3 hallucination (Siegel and Jarvik 1975, 127, 143; Siegel 1977, 136; Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, 204).

According to Lewis-Williams, Dowson, Dronfield, and many others, the spiral is a 2-dimensional representation of the vortex. There are millions of spiral depictions in ancient art, and the spiral continues to be considered a sacred image today.

Shaman standing before the vortex?This image is clearly North American, but I don't know its exact location. I got it off a website that claims that all prehistoric spiral depictions are SLEEPING DESTROYER STARS! They will rise in 188 days (from date of this post) and all humans  will be eaten up in the flames of wrath and consumed by the breath of the DESTROYER. Best collection of spiral rock art I've ever seen in one place, though.
The famous Newgrange triple spirals.

The idea that the vortex is an access route to another realm is supported by the perception that the subject leaves the body during ASC. During ASC, theta:gamma states affect the limbic and bodily orientation systems, and is experienced as extrasomatic, hyperquiescent and/or hyperarousal states (Vaitl et al 2005, 212). This occurs in conjunction with the spontaneous firing of the V5 area during ASC (more about that below), resulting in the combined experience of a tunnel and a sense of traveling outside of the body. This may be responsible for the subject’s perception that she is traveling through the tunnel to another realm. Additionally, in this state, the subject is more liable to accept as reality the perceptions that s/he is able to traverse alternate realms where s/he is able to interact with otherworldly beings (Siegel 1977, 134; Newberg et. al.2001, 87).
Newgrange Passage Grave, Neolithic, Co. Meath, Ireland (profile view at top, plan view at bottom). In my thesis, I tried to prove that the passage grave is a representation of the tiered cosmos. The entrance and forecourt (a paved area in front of the entrance) represents the world of the living, the passage is the vortex between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the inner chamber is the world of the spirits/ancestors. I like it! My professor had misgivings.
Newgrange entrance stone. Spiral motifs leading the way into the passage. Totally vortices. Totally tunnels to the other world.

The tunnel/vortex experience is crucial to the understanding of shamanism and the tiered cosmos, which may have implications as to the origins of religion in general. The tiered cosmos is characterized by the perception that reality can be divided into realms: e.g., the realm of the living, and the realm of the dead. As subjects move through the intensifying spectrum of ASC, they pass from an ordinary reality, through the vortex/tunnel, and arrive at an alternate reality featuring iconic imagery which the subject perceives as real. Often a bright light is associated with the end of the tunnel, enhancing the perception that it is the entrance to a sacred realm (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, 204). Often the subject interacts with spirits or deceased loved ones while in deep ASC, emphasizing the perception that the altered reality is the realm of the dead (Rhawn 1996, 3; Previc 2006, 515). Lewis-Williams (2002, 145) suspects that the tunnel experience is the origin of the common belief that an underground passage leads to a subterranean realm of the dead.

The notion of tunnels as interfaces between dimensions of reality is present in myths and beliefs associated with shamanic practice (Dronfield 1996a, 39). Dronfield (1996a, 39-45) cites several ethnographic examples of tunnels as access routes to the dead. These include San, Bwiti, Tukano, Huichol, and others. Furst (1972, 150) relates a Huichol myth in which the shaman accompanies the Huichol children on a journey to the land of the Great Mother and ancestral gods. The peyote deer deity allows them access by holding back the clouds while “the bird-children fly quickly through the passage” (Furst 1972, 150).

The cross-cultural occurrence of tunnel/vortex experience can be explained in terms of the universal effects of inductive stimuli on the area V5 of the visual cortex, with variation due to the individual explaining these images using culturally relevant terms (Dronfield 1996, 45). Scholars argue that it is this complex neurology that is responsible for belief in a tiered cosmos. The association of the tunnel/vortex experience to intercosmic travel leading to encounters with the dead is not determined by neural structures, but is nonetheless universal (Dronfield 1996, 45). The realms accessible during altered states are not those of the everyday world, and so are interpreted as those of spirits, ancestors, or the dead.

Beliefs in magical flight and vortex travel seem to be inextricably linked to beliefs about a tiered cosmos…both neuropsychology and world ethnography show that the near universality of belief in a tiered cosmos and in movement between the levels may be ascribed to the functioning of the human nervous system in a variety of altered states. (Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2005, 68-69)

Travel between the realms entails proximity to the supernatural. A belief in this proximity may also have its origin in neurological activity during altered states of consciousness, which then serves to maintain belief through spiritual practice. According to neuroscientists, the autonomic nervous system comprises quiescent and arousal systems that have an alternating interaction. In altered states of consciousness, both systems are pushed beyond normal activity. When neural input is depressed (quiescent), as with sensory deprivation, the limbic system, in an attempt to maintain equilibrium, enhances neural flow (arousal), causing hyperawareness of stimuli. When neural input is intensified due to increased stimulation, the limbic system inhibits neural flow. The orientation structure of the brain orients the self in space and distinguishes the self from others, relies on constant neural flow, and without it, becomes deafferented. The result is a less precise definition of the boundaries of the self. This is the ‘unitary experience’ in which there is no perceived separation between spirits/gods/ancestors/spiritual realms, the universe and the self, and is the primary goal of religious ritual (Newburgh; et. al. 2001, 87).
Shipibo spiral tapestry available at Roots Uprising

Ancient Peruvian textile with shaman and LOTS of entoptic motifs including a spirally flower or two. More about this later. I'm loving this one.
Altered consciousness is the ecstatic component that Lewis-Williams contends is at the basis of religion (2005, 10). “When people interpret their neurologically generated mystical states as some sort of contact with supernatural, but to them very real, realms, we have what we argue is a distinguishing feature of all the phenomena that we recognize as ‘religious’” (Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2005, 26). Visionaries and seers, facilitated by altered consciousness, travel between the realms.


  1. love it!!!


  2. Thanks, ladies!!! These comments make my day...

  3. wow!

  4. I love your post. Spot on. I recently finished Lewis-Williams' book, The Mind in the Cave, and I only want to clarify one thing. It seemed in your post that the third stage of an ASC was the development of the images from the 1st and 2nd stages into images of the 3rd, as though curves and dots had assembled to produce pictures of, for example, a bison. I read it quite differently, in that, the 1st stage is a visual phenomenon, the 2nd stage is cognitive, making sense out of the 1st images, and the 3rd stage is independent, a stage of mental hallucination with no relationship to the entoptic images of the 1st and 2nd. Perhaps you meant that as well.

    Besides that, I am fascinated by the connection you have made between shamanism and weaving. It brings to mind Frigg, who knows everything, but tells none of it, who is the consummate and divine weaver of the North. It also brings to mind the Norse Norns, who sit at a root of the World Tree, also weavers, also wise women. I haven't yet read your next post on Textiles as Multi-Tiered Cosmos, but look forward to it.

    One last thought. Kudos to you on making a connection between the Nordic Bronze Age "ship" petroglyphs and the entoptic images of Lewis-Williams. I don't believe he mentioned them in his book, but as a student of the Northern Cosmos, those "ships" came immediately to my mind when he wrote of images similar to migraine fortification images. It seems to extend the range of his shamanism hypothesis beyond the Paleolithic into the Bronze Age and, conveniently for the purpose of your post, into an age of textiles. Wonderful!

  5. Morning Angel: Thank you so much for this great comment. Stage 3 hallucinations, as I have understood them, are the individual's interpretations (based on cultural immersion) of the Stage 2 images, which themselves are interpretations of the entoptic images. The entoptics are visual/neurological and the Stage 2 and 3 images are cognitive, with Stage 3 having the most exogenous influences. Hmmm... At least that's how I've always understood it.

    So you're saying that Stage 3 imagery (during the event itself) is solely exogenous, then? Meaning the images are derived only from outside sources... Or that the images are completely unrelated to the Stages 1 and 2 images? Perhaps I should reread The Mind in the Cosmos!

    If you're saying that Stage 3 imagery is derived from outside sources, I would counter that those outside sources are derived from Stages 1 and 2 images. For example, a series of entoptic images (Stage 1) is interpreted as a four-legged creature of some kind (Stage 2), which is then understood to be a bison (Stage 3) and is depicted as such in shamanic contexts (such as caves, funereal textiles, etc). The bison then becomes embedded in the minds of the community as a sacred animal associated with intercosmic travel.

    And yes... the ships. So beautiful. Perhaps my favorite images of all time. I see that shamanism hypothesis everywhere. In everything. Much to my Neolithic professor's chagrin, I might add!

    PLEASE get back to me re: the Stage 3 thing. I want to make sure I get it right!

  6. Much love,

  7. I'am glad to read the whole content of this topic and am very excited.Thank you.