Last summer, in various cities in the UK, more than 40,000 people visited the Dreamachine, a large space designed to induce hallucinatory experiences with white stroboscopic light and electronic music. “We had guardians there to guide and relax people at the beginning through breathing exercises,” says Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex and a collaborator on the project, which includes a team of artists, engineers, designers, and musicians. Twenty to 30 people were allowed into the room and asked to lay down and close their eyes. After the 30-minute session, participants would typically describe the experience with adjectives like vivid, kaleidoscopic, powerful, and magic. “Seeing the responses of participants when they come out the other side of the curtain and they’ve just had this experience was so rare and magical,” Seth says. “We’re really making something that is internal and transcendental and personal into a collective experience.”
One of the aims of the Dreamachine project is to shine a light on something that Seth has investigated for more than a decade: the effect of stroboscopic lights on the brain. “It’s a phenomenon that’s still not understood,” he says. “The flickering light gives rise to really unexpected and powerful perceptual effects and conscious experiences that are kind of unrelated to what’s out there. It’s just white light yet people see colors and shapes.” This psychedelic effect might be key to understanding the neural basis of visual experience, because participants report having visual experiences even though their eyes are closed. “There’s something about experiencing the power of your own mind and brain to generate an experience that is really transformational,” Seth says.
What also fascinates Seth is that participants reported very different experiences even though they were immersed in the same environment. “Of course, this is not only true in the Dreamachine,” he says. “One of the lessons is that everywhere, all at once, all the time, we’re all having a different experience, even when we share the same objective reality.“
To further map out that inner perceptual diversity, Seth and his team have also started a project called the Perception Census, an online survey that aims to measure how different people perceive different dimensions like sound, time, color, and even expectations. “The idea is to understand the latent space,” he says. “The underlying organizational structure by which we all vary on the inside because it’s so hard to see. It seems to us that we see the world as it is, so it’s very hard to realize that other people might see it very differently.” Already, 20,000 people from more than 100 countries have taken part in the census, making it one of the largest experiments of its kind.
In spite of that diversity, participants in the Dreamachine do overwhelmingly report experiencing one emotion in common: peace. This finding might show that in the near future, the Dreamachine could also lead to new forms of mental health therapy. “There’s a long history of light-based treatment for things like depression and grief, whether it’s treating seasonal affective disorder or other forms of depression,” Seth says. “The experience has certain parallels to psychedelics in that they bring about an unusual, unexpected, vivid perceptual experience in your brains. The experience really made people feel different and, in most cases, a lot better.”
This article appears in the July/August 2023 edition of WIRED UK magazine.