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‘People Talk About Heaven…’


Published in Cambridge Archaeological Journal, April 2004 [14:1, 86-90]

As I have some personal experience which may be relevant, I hope that my remarks on the series of articles in CAJ October 2003 relating to ‘Testing the ‘Three Stages of Trance’ model’ will be of interest.


In 1999-2000 I wrote and produced a BBC film about this issue[1]. There some points in Helvenston & Bahn’s paper which are directly contradicted by what I learnt in making the film.


Firstly, they assert [p214, col 2 para three] that:


‘Desperately Seeking Trance Plants' discussed six representative, naturally-induced trance states, including: hypnosis (both heterohypnosis which is a trance induced by another party, and autohypnosis which is a trance induced by the subject), meditation, relaxation states, peak experiences, psychoanalytic free-associative trance, and ritual dance-induced trance.  None of the subjective reports of altered consciousness reported in these trance states is consistent with the TST model!  Moreover, the experiences reported for other trance states cited by Ludwig do not conform to the TST model insofar as the authors have been able to determine.'


Furthermore, in 'Desperately Seeking Trance Plants' [shame about the title] they remark that Patricia Helvenston ‘had never had a patient who had ever described anything remotely similar to the three stages’. If so, that may be attributable to the clinical arena and purpose within which she was working.


Certainly the experience of one of the contributors to our film, Dr Etzel Cardeña [then at the United States’ Services’ University of the Health Sciences, now at the University of Texas] was very different. I interviewed him because he had conducted a study with a number of highly hypnotizable subjects, having screened hundreds of people ‘to find out the top one to two per cent, that is people who are very responsive’, auto-hypnotics as it were. The purpose of the study was to discover what happened to them in the absence of any suggestions from outside. To try and eliminate the cultural components of their experience and discover what their experiences had in common. The result was as follows, and I am quoting from the interview I conducted with him in 1999:


‘What I found was that across individuals, and again please bear in mind that these people were not in contact with each other, they were not in the same class, they did not know each other.  I found out that there seemed to be more or less a general pattern. 


In the first stage, if you will, what you might call light hypnosis, again a very highly hypnotisable people, what they would experience might be a number of body sensations, such as spinning, beginning a floating, relaxation, feeling perhaps that their limbs were changing in size, and there might be some geometric figures as well that were happening, seeing tunnels, grids, things of that sort. 


From that place they would typically then go to having a sensation that they were floating out of their bodies, and they could float out and fly.... that's what they were experiencing, sometimes they would both float and fall down a tunnel. It was not at the same time, but you would have both types of experiences.  Now this is different from the first one, in that the person is no longer in his or her physical body, the experience is done in some other realm. 


After this going out of the body, coming out of the body, they would go into a place where they may see a number of unusual images.  If you have heard sometimes, like surrealistic type of landscapes, where you might see something that was just a vast sea of darkness, or they may see just colours, bright colours, kaleidoscopes, music going on with the kaleidoscope, something that was very rich in terms of vivid imagery.  This was more going into the realm of deep hypnosis, associated with the deep hypnosis sometimes people felt that there was something spiritually very rich and important to what they were having…


…Some of the most striking and for me actually touching type of experiences and interesting experiences were exactly those in which people not only felt that they were becoming part of, but very literally would say I am merging with the energy, I am merging with the colours, I am merging with the light, I am it, I cannot differentiate myself from it, very clearly stated, so you have a kind of state where there was no separation between them and what they were experiencing, they were it. At times you might say well, I'm no longer matter, I am just energy, I am just energy. And again, you know, bearing in mind that we are not talking about anything that has been suggested to them, but something that happens to them and that surprised them. One of the very clear things about this study is that I would have people with some of the most striking experiences come to me afterwards and some of them would ask me am I crazy, where is this coming from, and I say to them no, it's a striking experience I cannot tell you very much about it, because I don't want to guide what experience you have, but no you are not crazy.’[2]


This sounds to me exactly like the ‘Three Stages’ described by Dowson and Lewis-Williams, elicited not by drumming, or dancing or even any particular process, but by deep relaxation. And certainly not by drugs.[3]


As an illustration – rather than evidence - we filmed a hypnosis session with one of Cardeña’s subjects, who did indeed experience this kind of pattern. ‘People talk about heaven,’ she said on emerging from her trance, ‘and I think that’s what it’s like.’


Experiences like this have suggested to Cardeña and others that these effects may be produced by the absence of sensory information arriving at the optical cortex; so for the film I then turned to Dr Dominic ffytche of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, who coincidentally had just published a paper about such ‘automatic’ hallucinations[4].


The starting point of this paper was a study of hallucinations occurring spontaneously to patients with eye disease. 37% of them experienced what the study called ‘tessellopsia’, that is grid patterns, interpreted by patients variously as ‘very fine netting’, ‘brickwork’, ‘diamond shaped fences’ etc. Other less prevalent styles of hallucination included ‘hyperchromatopsia’ [‘shapes in vivid colours that wiggle’, ‘angular patterns in vivid colour’] and ‘dendropsia’ [‘irregular branching forms described as trees, branches or maps’]. A brief scan on the Lascaux website turns up examples not only of tessellopsia, as Lewis-Williams and Dowson have reported, but also hyperchromatopsia and dendropsia [see pictures, below].
















Tessellopsia                                                                           Hyperchromatopsia/tessellopsia












Dendropsia: the paired curves extending from the base of the antlers are also 

motifs common both to ‘The Signs of All Times’  and to the experience of

ffytche and Howard’s  macular blindness  patients Pictures from the Lascaux Website


ffytche and Howard were the first investigators to recognize these categories of hallucination as occurring with patients with eye-disease, which was their main concern. So when I turned up inffytche’s office at the Institute of Psychiatry, it was quite a surprise. We filmed an interview with him, and a session with one of his patients, who, when asked on camera to draw his hallucinations, drew spontaneously three of the Signs of All Times’ ‘form-constants’: parallel lines, grids and nested curves.


ffytche and Howard’s paper went on to consider the literature of such hallucinations and found equivalent patterns across a wide range of other non-optical conditions: cerebral pathology, sensory deprivation, ingestion of LSD/mescaline, and migraine. Please note that only two of these conditions would normally be considered as inducing ‘altered states of consciousness’.


Other research by ffytche and others has shown through fMRI scanning that the hallucinations are indeed caused by the spontaneous firing of neural networks in the optical cortex of the brain in the absence of stimuli from outside[5].


Taken together, the two lines of research show


1.     That the ‘TST model’ does exist in nature in the absence of psychedelics.


2.     That the neurological mechanisms which produce the sensations associated with ‘Stage One’ – what Dowson and Lewis-Williams called ‘entoptic hallucinations’ [erroneously, as we now know, as they come not from the eye but from optic neural networks] - derive from the inherent architecture of the human brain.


3.     That such Stage One hallucinations are, because of point 2 [above], likely to occur in almost any deep form of altered consciousness, as indeed ffytche and his colleagues discovered, when they reviewed the literature.


A further point to be made regarding Helvenston and Bahn’s paper is the nature of what they call the ‘TST model’. When talking about hallucinations one must always bear in mind that because they are so intense and subjective, and because they usually involve some interference with a subject’s sense of time and space, as well as an important emotional component, one is very unlikely to get detailed and accurate reports of what a person has experienced and in what order. Yet their paper insists upon a very rigid interpretation of what was anyway originally only an explanatory scheme. The wonder is that what one might prefer to call the three modes of trance are reported so consistently from so many different visionary milieux. For example images of tunnels and vortexes are common to near-death experiences, Cardeña’s auto-hypnotics, Alice in Wonderland, and in a most spectacular example Hieronymus Bosch’s Ascent to the Empyrean [see below] in the Doge’s Palace, Venice.





















Bosch: Heaven and Hell                                                                                                 Ascent to the Empyrean: Detail


Of course, what exercises archaeologists is not the intrinsic nature of hallucination, but whether the palaeolithic paintings and markings to be found on the cave walls of France, Spain - and now it seems England - are to be understood in terms of such hallucinations. The proponents of such a view have adduced arguments that extend far wider than merely the presence of ‘entoptic’, or more accurately, perhaps, ‘Stage One’ imagery. Those arguments will stand or fall on their own merits. But there is a general point which ought to be made – or remade, as Richard Bradley has already raised it very cogently in the last issue of this journal. And that is that we should never forget that for most of human history, religion has been perhaps a more potent motivating force than any other. It infused the whole of life, colouring even the most ‘secular’ activities. So even if the palaeolithic pictures were not painted in remote, difficult, and useless locations, one would suspect that they were religious in inspiration, and indeed, most interpretations tend to assume this.


But the connection between religion and what today we call art is deeper than a mere question of iconology. There is a matter of process. In discussing analogues for ‘religious knowing’ - that sense religious people have that their experiences have led them to know more not only about this world, but the spiritual world too – cognitive psychologists Fraser Watts and Mark Williams have this to say about “aesthetic ‘knowing’”:


‘Though there is no exact consensus on the nature of aesthetic cognition, one widely accepted tenet is that it involves a kind of distancing… In aesthetic perception, we separate the object from ourself… This contemplative absorption needs to be in some degree an emotional one.  Feelings of affection and reverence are necessarily involved.  Without them, all that is possible is a critical analysis of the work of art, not aesthetic perception of it.


However, emotional restraint is also required… Seeing a work of art may set various emotional impulses in train…However, impulses at the centre of consciousness have to be restrained if the web of associations at the fringes of consciousness are to elaborate themselves.  There also has to be restraint of any direct striving for results while viewing the work of art…


The ability to perceive art in this way is by no means universal.  It is a specialised perceptual skill that some people acquire more easily than others. Even when the general skill has been acquired, it cannot invariably be brought into operation. There are times when we are too tired or preoccupied to respond to art in this way. Usually repeated attention is necessary before a work of art is properly seen. The moment when this occurs, though somewhat unpredictable, can be sudden and dramatic…


In all these ways, it seems that aesthetic cognition is a relatively good analogue of religious cognition. The religious person needs to acquire a steady contemplation of the divine that is in some ways like the aesthetic contemplation of a work of art. This is very different from discursive theological thought. The religious person also needs to put self-preoccupation aside. Further, the kind of contemplation of God which is cultivated in prayer, because it is sustained by love of God, is necessarily an emotional response. Efforts to contemplate God are sometimes rewarded only with the experience of 'aridity' that contemplatives over the centuries have described so vividly and bitterly. However, with repetition and persistence, moments of illumination are reported to follow in which the caul is removed, and God is discerned with a directness and certainty that is like the moment when the work of art is suddenly 'seen'.[6]


The two modes of thought – ‘religion’ and ‘aesthetics’ - engender similar mental experiences in the minds and hearts of adepts. So it is no surprise, really, that religion relies so heavily on elaborate artistic production or that so much art is religious: they are almost like two sides of the same mental coin.


This leads of course on to the consideration of what religion is, and in particular, how people ‘do’ religion. And here it is obvious that altered states of consciousness are key. Religious experience, as opposed to religious belief, inevitably does involve ASC, as we see every day in evangelical churches, Hindu ashrams and Buddhist monasteries. The formal correspondences between palaeolithic art, ‘shamanic’ art in the American West and the San/bushman art and mythology of Southern Africa would seem to suggest that  the religious experiences, and possibly even beliefs, may have been similar, although obviously not the same. Look a bit further and you find the same vocabulary of motifs extending to classical mythology and beyond. Mediaevalists and ancient historians, with their knowledge of sibyls and oracles, saints and prophets, will not be surprised to hear that religion involves altered states of consciousness. Not for everyone, indeed - and religious authorities once they develop have a notorious reputation for fierce protection of the ‘mysteries’ of the faith [that is, the core experiences which validate it] – but in every case at the heart of religion is an all-embracingexperience, a spiritual experience, of altered consciousness, Pentecost, if you like. Much religious activity aims to reproduce that experience in controlled conditions, even where, as with Buddhism, it eschews the concept of a supernatural deity.


So in contemplating the palaeolithic paintings, one has to ask, as Colonel Rainborough asked at Putney in 1649, ‘what is the reasonableness of it?’ The answer seems obvious. These are religious paintings and they reflect religious experience, that is, what people of a skeptical and scientific bent used to call ‘hallucinations’. How they got there is the subject of this controversy. It must be said that one of the characteristics of Drs Bahn and Helvenston’s writing is a failure of imagination in this area. They may not like the ‘shamaniac’ approach, but they offer no alternative. So they can only argue for a negative, which as I hope I have shown is illusory. Were they to offer their own suggestions, then at least one could engage in a real debate about real history.








[1] Ape-Man, BBC2, 2000


[2] BBC transcript of interview with author, 1999


[3] For the details of Cardeña’s research see Cardeña, E., ‘"Just floating on the sky": A comparison of shamanic and hypnotic phenomenology’ in R. Quekelbherge & D. Eigner (Eds.):  6th Jahrbuch für Transkulturelle Medizin und Psychotherapie (6th Yearbook of cross-cultural medicine and psychotherapy), Berlin 1996. [pp. 367-380]


[4] DH ffytche and RJ Howard, ‘The perceptual consequences of visual loss: ‘positive’ pathologies of vision’ in Brain [1999], 122,1247-1260


[5] See D. H. ffytche, R. J. Howard, M. J. Brammer, A. David, P. Woodruff and S. Williams, ‘The anatomy of conscious vision: an fMRI study of visual hallucinations’ in Nature Neuroscience, volume 1, no 8  [December 1998], p 738-742; W Burke: ‘The neural basis of Charles Bonnet hallucinations: a hypothesis’ in Journal of Neurology and Neurosurgical Psychiatry 2002;73:535–541


[6] from Fraser Watts and Mark Williams: The Psychology of Religious Knowing, Cambridge 1988

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