Updated: Feb 27
An explanation for much of the art made by prehistoric humans, on the walls of caves, on artifacts, and elsewhere, has strained the imagination of anthropologists. One of the obvious, most important difficulties is the fact that the meaning of this art died with the artists, many thousands of years ago. Even so, we can imagine reasons for many prehistoric drawings, such as those of spears, animals, or naked cave-women. But one type of extremely common prehistoric art (conventionally called “signs”), consisting of depictions of regular or semi-regular dots, parallel or semi-parallel lines, grids, zigzags, waves, chevrons, hexagonal lattices, nested catenary curves, spirals, and similar geometric patterns, has proven particularly intractable.
Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) define entoptic phenomena (entoptics) as “visual sensations derived from the structure of the optic system anywhere from the eyeball to the cortex.” Entoptics can be “seen” without any input of light from the environment. All people are likely able to experience them, regardless of their genetic or cultural background. The authors say entoptics can be induced by electrical stimulation of the eye, flickering light, psychoactive drugs, fatigue, sensory deprivation, intense concentration, auditory driving, migraines, hyperventilation, or rhythmic movement. From a review of the literature on entoptics, they selected the six most commonly perceived forms; and found seven common “principles of perception” that describe how people experience entoptics.
The six common forms include “(1) a basic grid and its development in a lattice and expanding hexagonal pattern, (2) sets of parallel lines, (3) dots and short flecks, (4) zigzag lines crossing the field of vision (reported by some subjects as angular, by others as undulating), (5) nested catenary curves (in a developed form the outer arc comprises flickering zigzags), and (6) filigrees or thin meandering lines.” The categories are not to be taken as rigidly as implied by this list, the authors say, because the forms are ephemeral. They leave out a seventh common form, the spiral or vortex, saying that it deserves special treatment.
The seven principles of perception might be thought of as the way that the six basic forms tend to behave. The principles describe the ways in which entoptics may transform, for instance how they tend to break up, build up, blend into complexes, superpose, duplicate, and move. The principles are replication, fragmentation, integration, superpositioning, juxtapositioning, reduplication and rotation.
Using comparisons of these common forms and principles of perception to art produced by the San of southern Africa, the Shoshonean Coso of the California Great Basin, and that of the European Upper Paleolithic, Lewis-Williams and Dowson argue that the widely occurring entoptic-like patterns in these arts are the result of shamans experiencing entoptic patterns during drug induced states of trance and reproducing what they “saw.” They make the case that all of the six most common entoptic forms are abundant in San, Coso, and European Upper Paleolithic art. They describe several instances in the art of each of these cultures of entoptic-like patterns being drawn in ways that reflect their seven principles of perception; for instance, they say in certain drawings by the San people involving chevrons, the chevrons illustrate fragmentation of the zigzag entoptic. In trance a person often experiences these geometric entoptics together with “iconics” (originating in the brain), the iconics being relatively realistic forms, such as animals. So, as a final line of evidence that much prehistoric art originated in the drug induced perception of entoptics, they point out that it is very common, at least in the art of the three cultures examined, to find entoptics and iconics together.
Lewis-Williams’ and Dowson’s article was published with attached comments from several experts in various fields of relevant research including prehistoric art, psychology, and philosophy. Commentators express appreciation for the creativity of Lewis-Williams’ and Dowson’s model, but also criticize the authors on many points.
One of the most prominent themes of arguments against the author’s ideas involves the extent to which trancing shamans are really necessary to explain signs. Clegg points out that, because entoptics are made by the nervous system, perhaps it should not be surprising to see them again in pictures not derived from trance experiences: “Since these types of pictures are the products of neurological hardware, they could be expected in ordinary people’s ordinary pictures.” Faulstich makes a similar argument, saying that primitive art that was not made by shamans “ubiquitously” incorporates entoptic phenomena; so, human neurological structure may predispose people to produce entoptics whether or not we take drugs and actually perceive them. Davis mentions that children, who obviously are not informed by actual entoptics, often make entoptic-like drawings. Martindale adds that all of the Upper Paleolithic signs used as evidence for shamanistic origins of entoptic-like prehistoric art have been documented among the 20 basic types of drawings made by children two to four years old. Martindale cites this as evidence that production of entoptic-like drawings can be likely without the use of psychedelic drugs.
Lewis-Williams and Dowson refute the idea that trancing shamans are an unnecessary complication in accounting for entoptic-like prehistoric artistic patterns by reiterating that such patterns would not be expected to occur so commonly in conjunction with iconic images if they had not been so perceived during trances. Bednarik contends that he has observed “hundreds of thousands” of Australian rock art images from the Pleistocene, and that all of them incorporate entoptics but none of them iconics. Still, Lewis-Williams and Dowson do not address this particular refutation, which certainly undermines their own, and which further suggests that the apparent entoptic producing nature of the human nervous system in itself can more parsimoniously account for much of what they try to explain by way of an intoxicated intermediary.
The universality of entoptics
Widespread entoptic-like patterns in art, although surely sometimes produced by people on drugs, can hardly be attributed to trancing generally. For one thing, a largely drug-free audience determines the popularity of a piece of art. The Starry Night, painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889, is one of the most famous paintings of one of the most famous artists. Maybe Van Gogh was high, but it is hard to imagine his painting achieving the esteem it has if he had not included great spirals in the sky. Entoptics really are signs of all times. They show up in symbols such as Voodoo veves, Hindu yantras, Buddhist mandalas, coats of arms, flags, advertisements, corporate logos, and are incorporated into the decorative arts of all cultures. Entoptic-like patterns can be seen in helmets, breastplates, shields, swords, saddles, carriages, wheels, thrones, medals, ships, flags, tables, vases, tapestries, bird cages, silverware, plates, cups, baskets, all types of clothing, baby toys, and in innumerable other human artifacts.
The universal and perennial occurrence of entoptics in human art, artifacts, symbols, and decoration can be understood in terms of a general aesthetic preference arising from the physical complexity of the brain. Bewilderingly complex and diverse incandescent, shimmering, growing, and intergrading grids, lattices, hexagonal patterns, parallel lines, dots, flecks, angular or undulating zigzags, flickering nested catenaries, filigrees, meandering lines, spirals, and vortexes breaking, building, blending, duplicating, moving, fragmenting, integrating, superposing, juxtaposing, reduplicating and rotating is not a bad description of an abstract mixture of solid and fluid characteristics. Descriptions of entoptics must be, at some level, or perhaps at many levels, descriptions of the basic form and dynamics of the animal visual sensory system itself, and/or the brain.
Lewis-Williams, J. D., T.A. Dowson, Paul G. Bahn, H.-G. Bandi, Robert G. Bednarik, John Clegg, Mario Consens, Whitney Davis, Brigitte Delluc, Gilles Delluc, Paul Faulstich, John Vostakas, Michael Winkelman, Alison Wylie. “The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Paleolithic Art (and Comments and Reply)”. Current Anthropology 29.2 (1988): 201-245.