Introduction

Recently Japan found itself combatting TV 'Pocket Monsters' sickness after a video game show mysteriously sparked epilepsy-like seizures in more than 700 viewers, mostly children. The children suffered these seizures after watching an explosion scene with red and blue flashing lights. Medical experts suspect that a scene featuring rhythmic bursts of brightly coloured light was so rapid and intense that it interrupted normal brain function. [1] TV Tokyo is cancelling the program until the cause of the reactions becomes clear and it has urged video stores to stop renting all episodes of the show.

A video game show is not immersive art, of course, but it can focus us on the making of consciousness and computer art which is what this paper is about. I am a philosopher who happened by chance to experience Osmose. Before this immersive art experience I was working on iconic dynamics, which led to my investigation of virtual reality dynamics. The dynamics of vision has now led me to turn my attention to the biological aspects of consciousness, particularly the effects of light on the making of consciousness.

Osmose, a Computerized Immersive Work of Art

It has been said of immersive computer art like Osmose that something quite different (often explained as a transcendent experience) happens to the person experiencing it. (I have referred to it elsewhere as being an ultimate work of art fulfilling the sense of techne that Heidegger talked about).[2] We have also come a long way from Heideggerian-like philosophising about 'the work of art'. There will always be works of art hung on museum walls but immersive computer art forces us to examine the biological aspects of what it is that happens to brainwaves because of the colour and sound and motion the eyes are receiving.

Light as Controlling Factor

If light is the controlling factor in viewing a work of art, then the immersive work of art, because one is surrounded by three-dimensional space, and because its lighting effects are produced by an electronic secondary light source, would evoke quite a different response in the subject (distinct from the work of art hanging in a museum that we look at in a lit room, often today supplemented by daylight). This is a rather complex subject. But I hope even after this short inquiry into daylight and computer light and their wavelengths that if nothing more, we can at least put to rest the mundane philosophers' arguments about what the colour red is or isn't and whether we all see the same colour red or not.

Natural versus Computer Light

The first question we must deal with is how would the effects of artificial light differ from natural light? How would the waves of light produced within the computer work on the visual brain and ultimately how might it affect consciousness? We have already noted above that artificially produced light such as that which the children experienced in Japan can, indeed, control vision and the brain and hence supposedly, in extension, control or influence consciousness. There is, for example, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) a method which uses a light bar flashing horizontally to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is, also, brainwave entrainment (BWE) or photic stimulation, which uses flickering light and pulsating sound as therapeutic tools.

The knowledge that flickering light can cause mysterious visual hallucinations and alterations in consciousness is something that humans have known ever since the discovery of fire. We have just to sit in front of a fire and gaze into its fractal flames to appreciate the state of reverie that it draws us into. There are also other types of natural BWE that can be experienced by a person, such as the flickering of sunlight through leaves or on water, or the dotted lines that flick by us when we are driving a car. These kinds of rhythms, we ought to note at this point, create alpha and/or theta rhythms in our brain which tune into our dream frequency wavelengths. Not so good when one is driving a car.

Many experiments have been performed to examine the brain's response to photic stimulation including an experiment at the Tohoku University School of Medicine in Japan in 1976 which should be of interest to the Japanese today. Researchers published the influence of colour on the photo-convulsive response (PCR). In measuring the effects of white, red, yellow, blue and green photic-stimulation on the photo-convulsive response they noted that the colour red at a frequency of 15 Hz was most likely to cause a PCR. Interestingly, they also noted that this stimulation could be inhibited by introducing low levels of blue light at the same time. [3]

Wavelengths and Consciousness

In order to establish how light can affect and/or create different orders of consciousness, I shall consider the difference in dynamics between natural photons hitting the eye and artificially produced photons hitting the eye. I think it is apparent from the foregoing that photons which are produced artificially to initiate a photic response do not initiate the same response in a subject as natural photons that hit the eye in a normal state of consciousness. Ostensibly. photic response can and is manipulated. We know the range of wavelengths natural colours produce. Most of us receiving photons in a normal uncontrived daylight state would be experiencing beta or alpha states of consciousness because of the natural range of lightwaves and thus, ideally, receive a comparable amount of energy through our visual systems. It is this energy that drives consciousness biochemically.

The lower brain region, which I think we are dealing with in immersive computer art, includes the brainstems limbic region. It is a region that is not only involved in the automatic control of basic vital functions but is revealing itself to be the locus of instinctive consciousness not only of humans but of animals. Theta rhythms associated with meditative or dreaming states in human beings but with conscious states in animals originate here and it is these theta rhythms, connected with a special order of instinctive consciousness that, I propose, an immersive work of art such as Osmose evokes.

lmmersive Computer Art and Dream-like States

We are ready to examine why an immersive experience of art such as Osmose plunges one into what can be called a different dimension of being or state of consciousness. I believe that this dimension of consciousness is closer in reality to dream-like states of consciousness and I shall attempt to explain all this, briefly, from a physiological/biochemical point of view. The argument hinges on endogenous light. a secondary light, that is produced in the body through the energy of sunlight when photons enter the visual system in a normal way. Lightwaves of different colours control the intensity of energy that enters into the brain. Not very much is known about the effects of lightwaves on the making of consciousness although scientists are deeply ensconced in trying to find out. So this is a relatively new field to be studying.

You are all familiar with colour, of course. Colour is light which travels in waves. Each colour's wavelength strikes the retina of the eye uniquely and is converted into different electrochemical impulses accordingly. These pass into the brain and then into the hypothalamus, which governs the endocrine glands, which in turn produce hormones, and so on. In the middle of the hypothalamus lies that dried-up prune, Descartes' pineal gland, which has highly modified photo receptive cilia that look very similar to retinal photoreceptors.

The energy of visible light must be stored by the brain and body to be reused by the endogenous system of light within the body that I believe energises or lights up the unconscious when we are dreaming or in reverie. Light enters the eye and is instantly gone, transmitted through a series of dynamics that in the eye begins with the vitamin A family and rhodopsin. We can simplify things, here, by stating that mitochondria cells located between rods and cones in the eye are known emitters of photons within the body and, then, jump to the claim that cilium or microtubule-type structures probably transport endogenously created light throughout brain/body. [4] It should be noted at this point that I distinguish between the making of consciousness and the transporting of consciousness. The kind of consciousness, for example, that Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose propound is to my mind very much a digital or left-brain consciousness… however non-linear they make it out to be. It is not the kind of consciousness that an immersive work of art would evoke.

Photons, as Natural and Artificial

It can be argued that the photons hitting the eye, which are created by the electronic light in an immersive work of computer art, can and do evoke a realm we generally refer to as an "unconscious" or reverie state of mind. In the case of Osmose, most people described the immersive experience as evoking a 'transcendent' state of consciousness. So far as I know, no actual neurological testing of subjects' brainwaves has taken place while a person(s) was experiencing Osmose.

Because the eyes' response in Osmose is to an artificially produced environment which the subject sees through the computer's synthetically produced light and colours, the dynamics would, according to my thesis, play a significant role in creating the kind of consciousness a subject was experiencing. Since the subject in Osmose experiences a kind of floating through space created by his/her bodily-harnessed movements and since a transcendent, timeless experience is reported by immersants, we could hypothesise at this point that the subject is also experiencing alpha and/or theta rhythms. This can be adduced because she/he falls into a dream-like state of consciousness quite different from the cognitive processes of the left hemisphere even when the brain is exposed to Char Davies's text world.

Instant 3D Images

Another reason this "unconscious" dimension of consciousness is accessed by immersive computer art is because the photons that hit the eye in an immersive work of art relay three dimensional images to begin with. This leaves the eyes/brain with much less to do-a person more or less simply observes the image that emerges all around him/her. The eye does not have to translate two dimensional input into three dimensional input… this is already done for it by the computer. i.e., consider how difficult it is to achieve the stereoscopic effect by manipulating one's eyes and how easy it is for the eyes when one is simply immersed in 3-D.

Watching Dreams Unfold

The effect of immersion in 3-D is similar to what happens in a dream-like state where one is also immersed in three-dimensional space, viewing images of a symbolic nature. i.e., the hypnagogic state just before passing over into slow-wave sleep in which holographic images in glorious colours arise. During one of the four periods of REM sleep one watches the dream unfold—images are ready made—in the same way that they are in an immersive work of art.

Endogenous light

The link, then, between immersive art and the dream-like state lies in the effects of secondary light on the brain, not unlike what occurs in brain entrainment. Dream light is endogenous—produced and stored by the cells of a human being possibly in the pineal gland—that 'third eye' in the middle of the brain that receives light. Computer light is also 'endogenous' artificially producing colours and thus controlling wavelengths reaching the subject. The images produced by dreams and by the computer, I submit, are a result of a different order of consciousness based on an internal dynamic spawned by endogenous light. In neither states do the eyes respond to light and/or the image in the same way that they would if the eyes had first processed natural light and natural images that we see two- dimensionally and then translate into three. If we cannot yet prove that the brain is induced into a brainwave state of theta dream-like consciousness in a work of art such as Osmose, we can, I think, on the evidence we have of brain entrainment which utilises wavelengths to produce soothing alpha and or theta rhythms in the brain, state that something similar to this happens.

Inducing Instinctive Consciousness

The upshot of all this is a curious one. It seems that immersive computer art has a way of stimulating the visual system biochemically because, in the end, lightwaves are reduced to biochemicals that evoke a deep-rooted sense of archaic or instinctive consciousness similar to dream consciousness. Jung would have agreed because, curiously, this has to do with his astute claim, many years ago, that "instincts are archetypes". Recent research with animals who, unlike us, evidence theta rhythms consciously while engaged in predatory behaviour substantiate this Jungian insight. Researchers have confirmed that instinctive theta rhythm exists by comparing it to the animal's theta rhythms in the REM dream-state. This is done by carefully studying the response of the animal's neurons in a conscious state and in REM sleep. [5]

Unlike photic stimulation which purposefully attempts to control brainwaves, Osmose, I suspect, has innocently transgressed, with its flickering lights. pulsating sounds and use of subdued colour, into the realm of the 'making of consciousness'. In the case of this immersive work of art and the reports of hundreds of immersants, the results appear to have been beneficial in respect to the 'making of consciousness'. It elicits a dream-like effect in the subject that is capable of allowing herself/himself to transcend the logical, sequential-like progressions of the left-hemisphere and to enter into a simultaneous sense of consciousness. This is something that artists who do not use technological means are not always successful in doing, or sometimes, as with modern and postmodern artists, deliberately strive not to do because they want their art to be abstractly 'intellectual'.

Conclusion

Immersive computer art is, indeed, employing digital means that are being described as being post-biological. Yet, ironically, the computer it seems is turning out to be a 'consciousness-heightening' instrument in the hands of some talented artists. Immersive computer art handily reveals its complicity with underlying biochemical human nature, not only with the consciousness of human beings, but with cosmic consciousness itself.

Notes

1 . The incident took place in December, 1997. More than 2000 viewers with symptoms including blackouts, nausea and convulsions had to be kept at the hospital overnight.


2. McRobert, L. 1996. 'Immersive Art and the Essence of Technology', in Explorations, Journal for Adventurous Thought, Fall 1996, Vol. 15. No.


3. Siever, D. 1997. 'The Rediscovery of Light and Sound Stimulation', excerpt found at http://www.comptronic.com.

4. Simanonok, K. 1997. 'A theory of physiologically functional Endogenous Light and a Proposed Mechanism for Consciousuess", p 4. http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/go/karl/consciousness.html
[link inactive 2013; further information can be found at http://light.simanonok.com]†



5. Winson, J. 1990. The Mysteries of the Mind, A Scientific American special issue, 1997, 'The Meaning of Dreams', pp.62,63.



Laurie McRobert, Ph.D., is a freelance philosopher, associated with Thomas More Institute for Adult Education in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. A past director of the Institute, she is still a discussion leader. She has also taught philosophy at McGill University. Studying the nature of the dynamics of consciousness brought her first to consider the radical Evil of Holocaust. In recent years she has focused her attention on the iconic imagination, virtual reality and holographic dynamics. She is presently studying light, its effects on the visual system and hence consciousness. She has published many essays in books and articles in journals on these subjects. Some of the published work can be found at http:/ /idnet.qc.ca/~mcrobert.
[site address updated 2007: http://pages.citenet.net/users/m6009788/]†

E-mail: mcrobert@intlaurentides.qc.ca
[e-mail address updated 2007: laurie@mcrobert.org]

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.