Pickering on Flicker


“Flicker” is a long-standing term of art in experimental psychology, referring to visual effects induced by flickering lights (Geiger 2003, 12–15). A spinning top with black and white bands induces perceptions of color, for example. Walter became interested in flicker and incorporated it into his EEG research in 1945, when he came across a new piece of technology that had become available during the war, an electronic stroboscope. Staring at the machine through closed eyelids, he reported, “I remember vividly the peculiar sensa- tion of light-headedness I felt at flash rates between 6 and 20 [per second] and I thought at once ‘Is this how one feels in a petit mal attack?—Of course this could be how one can induce a petit mal attack” (Walter 1966, 8).64 And, indeed, when he experimented with a strobe on an epileptic patient, “within a few seconds a typical wave-&-spike discharge developed as predicted.” The quotation continues: “This was enormously exciting because I think it was the first time that a little theory [in EEG research] based on empirical observation had actually been confirmed by experiment. This meant that there might be some hope of reinstating the EEG as a scientific rather than merely utilitar- ian pursuit. . . . This was one of the critical turning points in our history.” The scientific import of flicker in EEG research was thus that it offered a new purchase on the performative brain, and a new neurophysiological and clini- cal research program opened up here, pursuing the effects of “photic driving” at different frequencies with different subjects. Walter and his colleagues at the Burden, including his wife, Vivian Dovey, experimented on nonepilep- tic as well as epileptic subjects and found that (Walter 1953, 97) “epileptic seizures are not the exclusive property of the clinically epileptic brain. . . . We examined several hundred ‘control’ subjects—schoolchildren, students, various groups of adults. In three or four percent of these, carefully adjusted flicker evoked responses indistinguishable from those previously regarded as ‘diagnostic’ of clinical epilepsy. When these responses appeared, the subjects would exclaim at the ‘strange feelings,’ the faintness or swimming in the head; some became unresponsive or unconscious for a few moments; in some the limbs jerked in rhythm with the flashes of light.” It turned out the optimal flicker frequency for the induction of such effects was often hard to find, and at the Burden Harold “Shippy” Shipton built a feedback apparatus (Walter 1953, 99) “in the form of a trigger circuit, the flash being fired by the brain rhythms themselves. . . . With this instrument the effects of flicker are even more drastic than when the stimulus rate is fixed by the operator. The most significant observation is that in more than 50 per cent of young normal adult subjects, the first exposure to feedback flicker evokes transient paroxysmal discharges of the type seen so often in epileptics” (fig. 3.12).

To follow the details of this research would take us too far afield, so let me make a few comments on it before going back to the sixties.65 First, Walter’s work here exemplifies my earlier remarks about the possibility of being curious about the performative brain. If our capacity for cognitive tasks is immediately before us—I already know that I can do crosswords and sudoku puzzles—the epileptic response to flicker was, in contrast, a surprise, a discovery about what the performative brain can do. Second, this research points again to the psychiatric matrix in which Walter’s cybernetics devel- oped. Third, experiments aimed at inducing quasi-epilieptic fits in school- children should only make us grateful for the controls on human-subjects experimentation that have since been introduced.66 Fourth, flicker is a nice exemplification of my notion of a technology of the self, a material technology for the production of altered states. If you want a paradigmatic example of a technology of the nonmodern self, think of flicker. Fifth and finally, Shippy’s feedback circuit deserves some reflection. In the basic flicker setup the brain was pinned down in a linear relation to the technology. The technology did something—flickered—and the brain did something in response—exhibited epileptic symptoms. This counts as a piece of ontological theater inasmuch as it thematizes the performative brain, the brain that acts rather than thinks. But it does not thematize the adaptive brain, the key referent of cybernetics per se: there is no reciprocal back-and-forth between the brain and its envi- ronment. Feedback flicker, in contrast, staged a vision of the adaptive brain, albeit in a rather horrifying way. The strobe stimulated the brain, the emer- gent brainwaves stimulated the feedback circuit, the circuit controlled the strobe, which stimulated the brain, and so on around the loop. We could say that the brain explored the performative potential of the material technology (in an entirely nonvoluntary, nonmodern fashion), while the technology ex- plored the space of brain performance. I suggested earlier that the tortoise was unsatisfactory as ontological theater inasmuch as its world was largely passive and unresponsive, and I therefore want to note that feedback flicker offers us a more symmetric ontological spectacle, lively on both sides—a dance of agency between the human and the nonhuman. What acted in these experiments was genuinely a cyborg, a lively, decentered combination of hu- man and machine.

We can come back to this below in a discussion of the history of bio- feedback, and at a more general level in the following chapter on Ashby’s cybernetics.

Flicker and the Sixties

Walter and his colleagues experimented with strobes not only on laboratory subjects but also on themselves, and (Walter 1953, 101) “we all noticed a pe- culiar effect . . . a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids. The illusion . . . takes a variety of forms. Usually it is a sort of pulsating check or mosaic, often in bright colours. At certain frequencies—around 10 per second—some subjects see whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels.” Again we can understand these observations as a discovery about the performative brain, continuing a longer tradition of research into such effects in experimental psychology. Walter (1953, 107–13) in fact conjectured that the moving pat- terns were related to the scanning function of the alpha waves (as material- ized in the tortoise): since there is no motion in the strobe light, perhaps the pulsation and whirling in the visual effects comes from the scanning mecha- nism itself, somehow traveling around the brain. But the language itself is interesting. This passage continues: “A vivid description is given by Margiad Evans in ‘A Ray of Darkness’: ‘I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf. . . . Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gain- ing a fury of speed and change, whirling colour into colour, angle into angle. They were all pure unearthly colours, mental colours, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.’ ”67 What should we make of a passage like that? The word that came to my mind when I first read it was “psychedelic.” And I immediately thought of some key texts that were required reading in the sixties, especially Huxley’s The Doors of Percep- tion. Then I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of a wonderful recent book by John Geiger called Chapel of Extreme Experience (2003).68 Geiger traces out beautifully how Walter’s work on flicker entered into sixties culture. I have little substance to add to Geiger’s account, but I want to review his story, since it adds importantly to our topic.

We need to think of three lines of development. First and most conven- tionally, Walter’s observations on flicker fed into a distinctive branch of work in experimental psychology aimed at elucidating its properties, exploring, for example, the kinds of images and visions that flicker produced, and into philosophical reflections on the same. Interestingly, these explorations of flicker were typically entwined with explorations of the effects of psychoac- tive drugs such as mescaline and LSD. It turned out that the hallucinogenic effects of these drugs are intensified by flicker and vice versa. These fascinat- ing branches of psychological and philosophical research on the performative brain flourished in the 1950s and 1960s but seem since to have been largely forgotten—no doubt due to the criminalization of the drugs.69 Of more di- rect interest to the student of popular culture is that Aldous Huxley indeed appears in this story. His 1956 book Heaven and Hell indeed includes flicker, experienced on its own or in conjunction with LSD, in its catalog of technolo- gies of the nonmodern self (A. Huxley 1956, 113–14).

At the wildest end of the spectrum, in the late 1950s flicker came to the attention of the group of writers and artists that centered on William Bur- roughs and Allen Ginsberg, often to be found in Tangiers, where Paul Bowles was a key figure, or staying at the Beat Hotel, 9 rue Git le Coeur in Paris. As I mentioned earlier, the Beats’ connection to Walter was textual, chancy, and undisciplined, going via The Living Brain. Burroughs read it and was fasci- nated to find that “consciousness expanding experience has been produced by flicker.”70 For the Beats also, flicker and drugs ran together. In 1959, when Ginsberg took acid for the first time at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, it was in the framework of a typical Grey Walter setup: “Burroughs sug- gested he did so in concert with a stroboscope. The researchers . . . connected the flicker machine to an EEG, so that Ginsberg’s own alpha waves would trigger the flashes.” I mentioned earlier the strikingly cyborg aspect of such a configuration, and interestingly, Ginsberg experienced it as such (quoted by Geiger 2003, 47): “It was like watching my own inner organism. There was no distinction between inner and outer. Suddenly I got this uncanny sense that I was really no different than all of this mechanical machinery all around me. I began thinking that if I let this go on, something awful would happen. I would be absorbed into the electrical grid of the entire nation. Then I began feeling a slight crackling along the hemispheres of my skull. I felt my soul being sucked out through the light into the wall socket.” Burroughs also gave a copy of The Living Brain to another of the Beats, the writer and artist Brion Gysin, who recognized in Walter’s description of flicker a quasi-mystical experience he had once had on a bus, induced by sunlight flashing through the trees. Gysin in turn discussed flicker with another member of Burroughs’s circle, Ian Som- merville, a mathematics student at Cambridge, and in early 1960 Sommerville built the first do-it-yourself flicker machine—a cylinder with slots around its circumference, standing on a 78 rpm turntable with a 100 watt lightbulb in the middle (fig. 3.13). It turned out that fancy and expensive stroboscopes were not necessary to induce the sought-after effects—this cheap and sim- ple Dream Machine (or Dreamachine), as Gysin called it, was quite enough (Geiger 2003, 48–49).

From here one can trace the cultural trajectory of flicker in several direc- tions. Burroughs both referred to flicker in his writing and built it into his prose style in his “cut-up” experiments (Geiger 2003, 52–53).72 Gysin and Sommerville published essays on and construction details for their Dream Machine in the journal Olympia in February 1962 (Geiger 2003, 62). Timothy Leary, ex-Harvard psychologist and acid guru, was one of the Beats’ suppliers of drugs and learned from them of flicker, which he began to discuss, along with Grey Walter, in his own writings.73 Gysin displayed Dream Machines as art objects in a series of exhibitions and argued that they marked a break into a new kind of art that should displace all that had gone before: “What is art? What is color? What is vision? These old questions demand new answers when, in the light of the Dream Machine, one sees all ancient and modern abstract art with eyes closed” (Gysin quoted by Geiger 2003, 62).

Gysin was also taken with the idea of the Dream Machine as a drug-free point of access to transcendental states, and had plans to develop it as a com- mercial proposition, something to replace the television in people’s living rooms, but all his efforts in that direction failed (Geiger 2003, 66 & passim). And in the end, the flicker technology that entered popular culture was not the cheap Dream Machine but the hi-tech strobe light.75 As Geiger puts it (2003, 82–83): “By 1968 . . . stroboscopic lights were flashing everywhere. They . . . had been taken up by the drug culture. Ken Kesey featured strobe lights in his ‘Acid Tests’—parties where he served guests LSD-laced Kool-Aid to the music of the Grateful Dead. . . . Tom Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool- Aid Acid Test: ‘The strobe has certain magical properties in the world of acid heads. At certain speeds stroboscopic lights are so synched in with the pattern of brain waves that they can throw epileptics into a seizure. Heads discovered that strobes could project them into many of the sensations of an LSD experi- ence without taking LSD.’ ” Flicker, then, was an axis along which Walter’s cybernetics played into the distinctive culture of the high 1960s.76 And Walter himself was happy to claim a share of the credit. In a 1968 talk he remarked, “Illusory experiences produced by flashing lights . . . nowadays are used as a standard method of stimulation in some subcultures. I should be paid a royalty because I was the first to describe these effects” (quoted by Geiger 2003, 83).

This is as far as I can take the story of flicker and the sixties, and the key points to note are, first, that this cultural crossover from Walter’s cybernet- ics to the drug culture and the Beats indeed took place and, second, that the crossover is easy to understand ontologically.77 In different ways, the sixties and cybernetics shared an interest in the performative brain, with technolo- gies of the decentered self as a point of exchange. The sixties were the heroic era of explorations of consciousness, and flicker joined a whole armory of such sixties technologies: psychedelic drugs, as already mentioned, medita- tion, sensory deprivation tanks, as pioneered by John Lilly (1972), and even trepanning.78 In the next section we can take a quick look at yet another such technology: biofeedback. For now, three remarks are in order.

First, just as I conceive of cybernetics as ontology in action, playing out the sort of inquiries that one might associate with a performative understanding of the brain, one can equally see the sixties as a form of ontological theater staging the same concerns, not in brain science but in unconventional forms of daily life.

Second, I want to emphasize the sheer oddity of Gysin’s Dream Machines, their discordant relation to everyday objects and the traditions in which they are embedded. In the field of art, it is probably sufficient to quote Gysin himself, who justifiably described the Dream Machine as “the first artwork in history made to be viewed with closed eyes” (Geiger 2003, 54). As a commercial propo- sition, the Dream Machine was just as problematic. In December 1964, Gysin showed a version to representatives from Columbia Records, Pocketbooks, and Random House, and “all present were soon trying to understand what they had and how to market it. Was it something that could be sold in book form with cut-outs, or was it something that could be sold with LPs? Columbia Records’ advertising director Alvin Goldstein suggested the Dream Machine would make a great lamp. Someone said they could be used in window displays” (Geiger 2003, 69). In its unclassifiability, the Dream machine exemplifies in the realm of material technology my thesis that ontology makes a difference.

Finally, I should return to the question of the social transmission of cybernetics. Just as we saw earlier in the history of robotics, flicker’s crossover from cybernetics to the Beats took place via a popular book, The Living Brain, and thus outside any disciplined form of social transmission. The focus of Walter’s book is resolutely on the human brain; it is not a book about art or living-room furniture. But Gysin read “half a sentence,” and “I said, ‘Oh, wow, that’s it!’ ” (quoted in Geiger 2003, 49). Although not evident in the story of the Walter-Brooks connection in robotics, a corollary of the chancy mode in which cybernetics was transmitted was, as I said earlier, the opportunity for wild mutation—the transmutation of brain science into art objects and psychedelic replacements for the TV. (p. 76-83)

Pickering, A. (2010). The cybernetic brain: Sketches of another future. University of Chicago Press.