I’m filling my Earl Grey tea cup this morning at work when the weirdest water cooler conversation bubbles up.
“Let me ask you a strange question.”
I smile nervously, “OK.”
“You ever close your eyes and press your fingers into your eyelids?”
“Yeah, fireworks light show.”
“Exactly!” He flutters his eyes closed and lightly demonstrates on himself, “What colors do you see?”
“Usually red and orange and yellow.”
“Once I saw electric purple,” he excitedly confesses, not unlike a three year-old child.
“I guess it depends on if it’s night or day,” I muse and continue my scientific inquiry, “I imagine it changes with the amount of light. The eyes see what they want when they can—colors, squigglies and all. Like my cat, Xander—he has persistent pupillary membrane in one of his eyes. It’s rare in cats, but essentially, there’s this thin membrane that supplies blood to the lens during fetal development.”
I knit my hands together in front of me and pull my fingers apart like cellular mitosis in anaphase.
“In his case, it didn’t break apart in his kittenhood and stayed in his eye after birth. It looks like little threads of tissue crossing the pupil. You can really only see it when a bright light is in his face. Poor kitty probably sees ghosts.”
“Oh I know, I have floaters! I rub my eyes and they come back, they never go away. It’s frustrating.”
“Well, I like to lay in the grass, stare off into a blue sky and chase the white worms. Or the spots. It’s one of the only times you can see your white blood cells in action. I use it as a sort of playful meditation.”
“What if they just sucked out all the vitreous fluid in your eye, took out the floaters and put it back fresh?”
“I don’t think you want to puncture your eyeball if you don’t have to. Pretty sure any damage to the integrity and you’re on your way to blindness.”
“Well, I’m not worried, in the future, we’ll all have cybernetic eyes capable of x-ray vision.”
“Hmm, yeah,” I consider his stare and wish I were wearing a metal apron.
“Do you think the robotics people have made it possible yet? We could all be like Geordi La Forge!”
I take the geek bait and reveal my Trekkie status.
“I’m into real eyes. I wouldn’t want to wear a VISOR or have implants installed.” This little flash of nerd petticoat encourages and makes him smile. Oh, dear. Graceful exit time.
“Well, I’m going to go put milk in my tea and get to breakfast. Thank you for the talk on visual hallucinations.”
He sticks his foot in the closing door of the conversation.
“You know, I think this is a topic a lot of people think about, but never talk about. I wonder if anyone has created any videos of what it looks like, or made some art.”
“The internet is a vast landscape, I am certain someone has already been there. Take care.”
I walk swiftly away with that “technology at our fingertips” itch—the one that interrupts most conversations to tell a story with pictures from the camera roll or gallery. The same itch that send us fishing in our pockets for our phones to prove a point and confirm random trivia knowledge from the web.
I get back to my desk and excercise my Google-Fu. Sure enough, a quick search is rewarding. Turns out there is a scientific video of it, there’s affectionate art dedicated to one’s eyeball spectre, and of course, the famous epic poem “Squiggly Line” by Family Guy’s Stewie dictated to faithful dog friend, Brian from his “deathbed.”
Floaters (muscae volitantes or “flying flies”) are the most common part of the personal picture show arising from our optic system. These little creepers are displayed on our internal monitor in the form of dots, squiggly lines, threads, bulbs, rods, cobwebs, and rings. It’s a regular eyeball circus in there! But floaters are just one of many entoptic phenomena. There are other sideshow performers with more exciting names (not reminiscent of fecal matter come back to haunt you) such as Haidinger’s Hairbrush, Prisoner’s Cinema, Scintillating Scotoma, Moore’s Lightning Streaks, Purkinje Tree, Scheerer’s phenomenon (nicknamed “blue-sky sprites”), and pressure phosphenes (massaging your closed eyes to see your own stars).
Which leads me to ask, “have you activated your phosphenes lately?”
Now, I would never incite a Leary-esque revolution of “get high and poke your eye,” but the pioneers who tried to “see” differently through their eyes and chose willingly to question reality and sanity are legion. Both medicine man and neurologist sliced the San Pedro into stars and made tea. They learned to drum, to withhold food in fast, and to meditate in order to achieve deep trance states. They discovered how to unbutton the mescaline from a peyote cactus and wander into the desert or dark lab to study the effects and the images that arose. They stimulated their eyes electrically, mechanically, and psychedelically and discovered that familiar patterns emerged.
These common images of natural and geometric shapes show up in everything from primitive cave and rock paintings to the Buddhist yantras and ornate mandalas. Both shaman and scientist chose to fill their vision with flowers and filigree, spirals and stars, spirit animals and geometric shapes, and then draw it or write it all down.
The urge to alter, escape, or transcend our conscious experience isn’t just a human desire, it’s common all over the animal kingdom. Instead of getting blindingly drunk at after work happy hours, a lot of animal species eat low psychoactive plants and fungi, and sometimes, other animals containing low-level neurotoxins just to get high. Dolphins eat puffer fish and wallabies trample and munch on poppy fields. In Africa, once the caramel-flavored fruits of the marula tree hit the ground and ferment, in come the herds of elephants and wild monkeys to fight, feast, fuck, and careen about. Think you can’t function at your job in the morning without caffeine or unwind in the evening without some wacky weed? You’re not alone . . . goats go wild for coffee beans and pigeons fly high on cannabis seeds.
The most famous example is the iconic image of the amanita muscaria, the red and white speckled mushroom also known as the “fly agaric.” It’s pictured in every faerie tale magic forest scene and associated with one of the biggest mythologies of all time.
Yes, even Santa Claus has psychedelic secrets. He’s really just a mushroom gathering shaman. From Russia, with love.
The Chukchi people of Siberia, whose name is derived from the Chukchi word Chauchu (“rich in reindeer”), practice ritual sacramental consumption of the the amanita muscaria mushrooms alongside their domesticated reindeer companions.
These mushrooms are only found growing under certain types of trees, namely firs and evergreens. Siberian shamans wear ceremonial red and white fur-trimmed jackets (umm, hellooo? hi-jacked Holiday costume), gather the magic mushrooms, and place them on the boughs of pine trees to dry and prepare them for eating.
That’s right, those big red bulbs and presents under the evergreen tree now hacked down, stacked in car lots, and later dragged into the house? They’re an homage to the red ‘shrooms!
When the reindeers aren’t being herded or packed, they liberally partake of the mushrooms then swerve about, twitching their heads and wandering away from the herd into the forest for hours on end. Sound familiar? Come on, how do you think Santa trips through the universe if not with flying reindeer who can’t get enough magic mushrooms?! Rudolph’s nose glows red, ‘nuff said! On Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen? Nothing but a herd of cavorting, lascivious beasts in outerspace! Perhaps we should revisit ancient times—instead of drinking at Christmas to take the edge off our depression and relieve our social anxiety, maybe we should all just do mushrooms instead. Much more enlightening!
[For more fun reading on animals getting stoned in the wild, check out author and neuroscientist David Linden’s book.]
But I digress, sort of . . . if not for those who’ve gone before us wondering just what the hell that floaty thing in their vision is, we would not go tripping so far out into our own innerspace to find out. Our need to take in, appreciate, and understand the beauty of the natural world around us and above us is just as powerful as the need to explore the universe within ourselves. The decoding of reality and our experience is both biological and spiritual. Our eyes and our brains naturally trace and memorize these forms, recreating them in the absence of light, in the physical pressure we exert on our own bodies, in the landscapes and symbology of our dreams, and yes, under the exciting influence of psychedelics, natural and compounded.
We start out as children who tickle each other, hide behind trees, stare up at clouds, playing crack the whip to send our friends flying onto the lawn, and spinning ourselves sick on the merry-go-round. It’s no surprise we should later become adults numbing ourselves with the social lubrication of alcohol, quieting our mind with meditation and hybridized forms of yoga, and at the base “return to innocence” level, poking ourselves in the eye to escape the mundanity of work.
The ’60s may be gone, but the psychedelic research trip continues. Without it, we wouldn’t have the stories, the futuristic sci-fi references, or the shamanistic and scientific vocabulary to describe the magic of our own biology and perceptions.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be over here with my eyes closed, checking out my phosphenes.