The Dreamachine: a journey to where science, art and magic intersect – by David Holzer (Oct, 2019)

It was two in the morning. The water pouring through the ceiling and down the walls came from the apartment above mine. I expected Mimi to help but she rolled over and went back to sleep on her bed in a corner of the room where the water hadn’t penetrated. She slept all night while I mopped the ceiling and the floor and imagined killing my neighbour.

Andrew Lees pic

Dr Andrew Lees

 * * *

On a raw January morning in Bloomsbury, London early in 2019, I walked over uneven paving stones down an alleyway between tall grey buildings with too many windows and into Queen Square. I had finally found the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

I was about to be part of an experiment designed to test whether flicker created by the Dreamachine and a full-screen computer flicker stimulus could induce hallucinations, offering an insight into those experienced by Parkinson’s sufferers.


The Dreamachine used in the experiment.

Dr. Andrew Lees, a medical doctor and Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital in London, had invited me to take part in the experiment. He’s one of the three most highly cited Parkinson’s researchers in the world, included in Thomson Reuters 2015 List of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds. Andrew is also a Burroughs fiend.

Dr Rimona Weil and Dr Angelika Zarkali of the Dementia Research Centre at University College London were integral to the project.

I interviewed Andrew for Beat Scene magazine back in 2016 when his elegant, utterly absorbing book Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment was published. The book described the impact of Burroughs’s writing and work on Andrew’s attitude to his scientific research.

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My first interview with Andrew was conducted via Skype video. Andrew, a dapper character, was in his otherwise nondescript office. I was intrigued to see a Dreamachine perched behind him. Andrew’s fascination with Burroughs had led him to it. He explained that “people with Parkinson’s hallucinate and describe seeing little people who don’t speak, as well as animals. No-one knows the mechanisms that cause this but I’m experimenting with the Dreamachine and stroboscopes using functional magnetic resonance imaging to try and find out.”

The Dreamachine is a cylinder with holes cut in it at strategic points mounted on a turntable with a light bulb on a pole at its centre. When the cylinder rotates, light comes out of the holes at a frequency of between 8 and 13 pulses per second, corresponding to human alpha waves. The Dreamachine was designed and made by Ian Sommerville, a scientifically inclined friend of Burroughs and Brion Gysin. It was born out of a hallucinatory experience of Gysin’s, triggered by light flickering through an avenue of trees when he was riding the bus in southern France.

Burroughs, that unlikely inspiration for Andrew, wasn’t directly involved in creating the Dreamachine. But he was a great proselytizer for its use.

As I wrote in “Revolution by Flicker”, an article for Beat Scene based on a paper on the Dreamachine I gave at the 2018 ESBN conference in Vienna, “Burroughs’s best-known accounts of the efficacy of the Dreamachine appear only to refer to other people’s experiences: ‘Subjects report dazzling lights of unearthly brilliance and color…Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.’”

Despite this deft sales pitch and the references to the Dreamachine throughout Burroughs’s writing, especially the Nova Trilogy and 1963 film Towers Open Fire, Burroughs doesn’t appear to have ever directly described its effect on himself.

Ever since I realized this, I had wondered why not. Burroughs wrote fulsomely about every other mind and body altering experience he had, from yage to the Orgone Accumulator. Maybe the Dreamachine quite simply didn’t work for him. Or, because Burroughs had seized the Cut-up method and run with it, bringing him artistic liberation and a measure of exposure, he perhaps didn’t want there to be any suggestion that he was stealing Gysin’s thunder again. He would also have been aware of Gysin’s bitterness at the art world and at being constantly broke and wanted his friend and collaborator to make some money. Ditto for Sommerville.

(When Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris kindly read an early draft of this article, he pointed out that, when Burroughs first encountered Ian’s prototype in October 1960, he wrote to Gysin “the effect of flicker even with this crude model on your pictures is a thing to see. The figures jump right out of the canvas.” To me, this suggests Burroughs could be looking through the Dreamachine at Gysin’s paintings or at them after he’d used the device. He’s not directly saying that it works in the way Gysin intended.)

My own frustration at the fact that I’d never seen anything when I gazed into the Dreamachine with my eyes closed was one of the reasons why I accepted like a shot when Andrew invited me to take part in the experiment.

I’ve never had my space-time continuum disrupted, never peered through a window into the magical universe, never seen the symbols common to all religions or had my memories changed. And I’ve stared into a Dreamachine in Joujouka, the Moroccan village that is the epicentre of magic and magical thinking for Gysin, Burroughs and their acolytes. My failure to hallucinate made me feel there was something lacking in me. I longed to join the gang but I also wanted a scientific explanation.

The other reason is that I’m fascinated by the way Andrew is using Burroughs. As he said when we first spoke, “I have taken at face value the things he wrote about which many scientists would consider to be crazy. In a subliminal way he’s informed a lot of my major discoveries.”

Andrew is breaking down the line between art and science as Burroughs hoped would happen. This appeals to me no end.

* * *

It took me a few more lost minutes before I found out where I was supposed to be, met Dr Angeliki Zarkali of the Dementia Research Centre who was conducting the experiment, and began. I was there for more than three hours. It was pleasantly incongruous to use a Dreamachine in such a mundane set and setting.

I hoped the Dreamachine would give me hallucinations this time because I know, from personal experience, flicker affects my brain. I use a flicker device called a David’s Delight (honestly) on average once a week. This is a photic mind machine that uses flashing lights imbedded in glasses, binaural beats and a small portable unit with a choice of settings to stimulate alpha, beta and theta waves.

The David’s Delight is used by all kinds of medical practitioners and therapists treating anything from OCD to bulimia. According to its makers, it’s been proven to be effective in creating new neural networks that can benefit sufferers of conditions like Alzheimer’s. I bought my mind machine to aid my memory and creativity and out of pure curiosity. I didn’t make the connection to the Dreamachine right away.

My David’s Delight works like a dream for me. It’s also deeply relaxing. After a session, I feel energized, creative, more focused and positive.


The author and his mind machine.


But all I saw that cold January morning in that pale green room was the same old geometrical patterns and colours I’d seen before with the Dreamachine and, with more intensity, my mind machine. I didn’t class those as hallucinations. After I’d taken part in their experiment, Andrew, Rimona and Angeliki were kind enough to answer my questions collectively via email.

Why was the Dreamachine selected for your tests in the first place?
Patients with Parkinson’s disease frequently experience visual hallucinations that are often distressing and linked with worse outcomes. The phenomenology of Parkinson’s hallucinations varies, but they typically include detailed and complex images of people or animals which can be still or animated. For example, mice or insects running on the floor. Parkinson’s hallucinations are usually intermittent and unpredictable which makes them difficult to study and as a result what causes them is still unknown. Having a way to reliably induce typical hallucinations in patients with Parkinson’s disease would enable us to “capture” hallucinations as they happen using functional MRI and analyze the brain activity during hallucinations.

Flickering light and specifically the Dreamachine, has long been claimed to induce drug-free visual hallucinations. Using the Dreamachine in our study, as well as an equivalent flickering stimulus on a computer screen, seemed like a reasonable step, given the many testimonials of flicker’s potential to induce visual hallucinations

Were you surprised at the results from using the Dreamachine?
Yes and no. We found that Dreamachine, and the equivalent screen-flickering stimulus, did indeed induce geometrical hallucinations (images of shapes and simple colours) in a minority of healthy volunteers and patients with Parkinson’s disease (1 in 4), similar to other studies using different flickering stimuli. No participants however experienced more complex hallucinations of people or animals like those commonly reported by people with Parkinson’s disease.

Why do you think some visual artists and musicians have experienced complex hallucinations using the Dreamachine? 
That’s difficult to answer. We used very controlled, experimental conditions when trialling the Dreamachine which were likely quite different to when it’s used by artists and musicians! Changes in the environment, the lighting, sound and company could possible affect the resulting experience as well as concurrent alcohol or drug use. The Beats reported that the Dreamachine enhanced complex visual hallucinations seen with psychedelic drugs

It is also interesting to note that patients with Parkinson’s typically experience visual hallucinations in low stimulus environments such as dark rooms, and especially in their own homes. In our study, as in any test situation, conditions are likely to be more stimulating, perhaps further reducing the likelihood of hallucinations.


The Dreamachine


Do you think the ritual of setting up and using the Dreamachine (or any other flicker device) has any influence over the results?
Perhaps, as it starts a distinct mental process where the person setting up and using the machine is mentally prepared and expectant about the experience. Our prior expectations such as memories, context and needs play a significant part in how we experience the world and may influence how hallucinations occur in healthy individuals and patients with Parkinson’s disease.

* * *

When I asked Andrew later if he was disappointed that the Dreamachine didn’t trigger complex hallucinations of the kind so many users have reported, he said “Disappointed isn’t a word we use in science! What the results show is that flicker is not a trigger for the complex visual hallucinations which occur in about 30 per cent of people with Parkinson’s disease. This suggests that whatever the mechanism underlying them is, it must be different from the hallucinations seen with the Dreamachine.”

It’s possibly significant that the people who’ve experienced complex hallucinations with the Dreamachine tend to be visual artists like Gysin himself. Perhaps they’re more prone to see patterns in visual stimuli that can graduate to complex hallucinations.

I went into the experiment wanting to hallucinate, or to receive an explanation as to why I don’t. I was surprised and pleased to discover that the geometrical patterns, shapes and colours I saw peering into the Dreamachine with my eyes closed are classed as hallucinations. Hurrah! I’d assumed that, by definition, hallucinations were complex.

Excuse my delight. I know that unwanted hallucinations, especially if they persist, are no fun for people who suffer from them.

Interestingly, my mind machine induced hallucinations have grown more intense, rich and strange as I’ve continued to use my machine once a week. In one recent session, using the alpha setting, I saw pages printed with words I couldn’t make out being torn apart by an unseen force and bleeding. Most Burroughsian. I was thrilled, but this does suggest it’s possible to consciously direct the content of hallucinations.

This would be in line with my attitude to the ecstatic response to the Dreamachine on the part of so many people, that it may be conditioned by what Timothy Leary called “set and setting”. This refers to the mental state a person brings to the experience and where, when and how they’re having it.

For someone who wants to get insights and material for their art from flicker, set and setting is only relevant if it helps create a state out of which hallucinations can arise and be used. If flicker is being used for healing purposes, believing it’s beneficial is more important than a rational explanation.

Although this is what I also believe, I do wish that the experiment had revealed Sommerville, Gysin, Burroughs and all their acolytes to have been proven scientifically correct about the power of the Dreamachine. But that’s my problem. And I still wonder what Burroughs saw when he looked into the machine with his eyes closed.

* * *

Later that morning, when the water had stopped pouring and Mimi was helping me clean up, I asked her why she hadn’t panicked the night before like I had. “I thought I was dreaming,” she said. “After I used your mind machine, nothing seemed real all day. I told you I saw a complete movie, right? I can’t remember anything about the movie, but I remember someone kept pouring me champagne.”

Mimi, a visual artist, is the only person who has had a complex hallucination while using my mind machine. She used the machine out of curiosity and didn’t expect to hallucinate. She has told me she’ll never use it again.

I envy her for her experience.


Additional reading

Read the scientific papers relating to the experiment here and here.

Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment by Andrew Lees is available from Notting Hill Editions.

Buy Beat Scene magazine here.