You know that washed-clean, ideas-bubbling feeling you have after a good hot shower? That’s how I felt after spending four minutes with a light flashing into my closed eyes in the demo booth at Voice and Exit in Austin, TX this weekend. The PandoraStar is a LED light which strobes a bright white flash many times per second.
The Pandora Star experience doesn’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen before. It creates constantly morphing, psychedelic visuals by overloading your visual system with sensations it doesn’t know how to make sense of. People see kaleidoscopic colors and patterns, geometric shapes, or even the faces of their loved ones.
How does a simple flashing light make psychedelic and sometimes profound visuals?
Decades of neuroscience research into the how the brain processes visual information suggests the PandoraStar induces a prediction error. Here’s how it works – brains do their best to understand the available sensory information based on all prior experiences of similar scenes. In well-lit places, there’s high-quality visual data. For example, the brain accurately predicts that a dress seen from across the room is indeed a dress. If you walked over there and touched it you’d confirm that the prediction of what you saw was correct.
When we have low-quality sensory input, however, our brain still tries to make a predictions about what’s there, even if that’s a low-confidence prediction. The worse the incoming data, the less likely our brain will correctly identify the object we’re seeing. That’s why you see ghosts in the dark and monsters under the bed. So, if you view that same dress at midnight by the streetlight streaming through a dense canopy oak leaves, you might suddenly see a person there instead of a dress.
The brain merges together bits of known to make sense of the unknown.
Sailors of yore saw many things in the deep ocean which they wanted to make sense of but simply hadn’t seen up close. The best their brain could do was to merge existing similar objects. Sailors described a lama, a human-dog-serpent-thing, in Hardwicke’s Science Gossip. Maybe it was a giant eel or — we’ll probably never find out what it was they actually saw, but we’re emphatically sure it wasn’t this…
Nonetheless, the sailors really did see this human-dog-serpent, as inaccurate as that perception was. Given the fuzzy objects they only saw from afar, their brains rounded up the poor quality inputs to the closest thing they’d ever seen. If they’d been able to see it up close and interact with it, then they would have seen the real object in full detail, but since that wasn’t possible, their visual system did the best it could to make sense. The visuals induced by the PandoraStar feel just as real as anything else you see, despite being entirely constructed out of bad prediction errors.
What each person sees depends on their past history. Since everyone’s history differs, what they see differs in the PandoraStar. Everything they’ve seen up to this moment influences what they see in the white strobe. Even though light is pure white, most people see bright colors.
For me, the flashes alternated between bright red and cobalt blue 2-dimensional fireworks that filled my whole visual field. A few seconds later they shifted to peach and aqua radially-symmetrical ripples in a pond, then swirling star fields in rainbow colors.
The experience of the Pandora Star ranges from the relatively mind such as seeing pretty colors to the more intense such as visions of their dead grandmother or crying tears of relief because something deep within has let go. I experienced a calm in my body in a layer deeper than words can adequately describe. It’s hard to believe a flashing light can stir up such deep emotions, but it does for many people.
I interviewed a fellow conference-goer at Voice and Exit, Karissa Schwartz, who described feeling like she couldn’t quite let go and enjoy the experience. The first time through I also had some mild anxiety because it was such a strange sensation. I wasn’t quite sure what was about to happen, and if it was going to break my brain in some unpleasant way.
I had a bad experience with a homemade binaural headset with flashing red LEDs at a MakerFaire many years ago. One moment I was noticing the flashes were unpleasant, the next I was holding the glasses and realizing I had ripped them off my face. Though the Pandora Star might look like a simple flashing light, my prior bad trip shows that calibrating the experience isn’t trivial. The PandoraStar seems to have dialed in an experience that is positive for most people. Of the dozen of people I observed, no one had a bad time.
After Karissa finished her session and sat up, she welled up with tears of release and described a big whoosh of that feeling of being freshly showered. Another conference-goer, Chris Larcombe, said he had visuals which were superficially similar to closed eye visuals that can be experienced with psychedelic plants, and that he was inspired and relaxed afterward, a bit like he’d been meditating.
If you’d like to try out the PandoraStar, there is a map on their site of the locations and events where it’s available. In Austin, my new buddy Charles can hook you up with individual sessions or bring it to your event.