I Tried to Trip on Light With My Homemade Dream Machine

All you need for a psychedelic trip is a utility knife, some cardboard, a lamp and a faint memory of maths lessons.

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19 August 2016, 9:00am

All photos by Janus Engel

This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark

I really like tripping. I like not being able to tell where I end and the rest of the world begins. But while there's no better feeling than lying in the grass and having the world breath in sync with you, there are clear downsides to using hallucinogenic drugs. They can have dangerous effects if used in the wrong dosages or circumstances, they're mostly illegal and being on a trip can take hours and hours out of your day.

So when I heard you can hallucinate just by using a lamp and a cylinder – a system called "The Dreamachine" (or "Dream Machine") – I didn't hesitate to try it out. It works on the same principle as when you're in a car or train facing the window, slowly drifting off. With the sun low in the sky, shining through the trees you're passing, you'll get flashes of light flickering on your closed eyelids. Those repetitive, rapid flashes create patterns on the inside of your eyelids, and it's exactly that experience that inspired British painter, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin to develop the Dreamachine.

Gysin created this simple light installation in 1959 together with engineer Ian Sommerville – who, like Gysin, was part of the Beat Generation. The Dreamachine is a hollow cylinder with mathematically placed slits cut out of it and a strong light beaming inside, spinning on a record player. When you look at it with your eyes closed, the stroboscopic flicker should have you hallucinating.

The light emanates from the cylinder at a frequency of 8 to 13 Hz, which mimics the so-called alpha waves of the brain. We have those brainwaves right before we fall asleep, when we're daydreaming or meditating. For centuries, artists and scientists have connected this mental state with creativity – most notably perhaps surrealists like Salvador Dalí.

Instructions on how to build a Dreamachine can easily be found online – all you need is a large piece of sturdy cardboard, a utility knife, a ruler, a pencil, an old record player, a very powerful light bulb and patience. Lots of patience.

When the Dreamachine was invented, most record players were spinning along at 78 rpm, but it can be quite tricky to find one like that today. I didn't, so I first had to crack some numbers and adapt the formula of where to place the holes in the cylinder to a 45 rpm player.

I had also found a guide online on how to convert the Dreamachine from a 78 rpm record player to a 45 one. The page was created by a Frenchman who demonstrated how to convert the first numbers, but once he presented the formula, he left the rest to calculate for me. As he rightly pointed out, the whole point of the machine is to expand people's minds, so it would be too easy to serve all the dimensions of the holes in the cylinder on a silver platter.

That left me with an hourlong mental struggle, sweating it out with squared paper and a calculator, trying to remember long-forgotten maths lessons. I spent the entire rest of the night measuring and drawing a vast pattern of lines on the cardboard. The next step was to cut out all the holes with my utility knife, which took up the majority of another night. When the cylinder was finally done, I spray painted it – just for aesthetics. Once I had mounted the whole thing to the record player, I suspended a light from a hook in the ceiling. And then finally, my Dreamachine was good to go.

I invited some friends over who shared my fascination with the psychedelic realm and we spent a Thursday afternoon listening to Icelandic techno while staring directly into a stroboscopic 100 Watt light bulb with our eyes closed.

My friends Christoffer and Katrine were the first ones to try it out, and although the premise of the Dreamachine is an individual experience – impossible to share – they were pretty compelling when they explained their experience to me.

"I see crosses and swastikas – it's mainly red and blue, turning magenta," Christoffer said with his eyes closed. "There is a strong source in the centre of my vision, a powerful sun, moving from side to side. It is like looking at 3D without the 3D glasses. Oh, now it's triangles. My eyelids are vibrating – I feel like I'm inside the eyes of a fly."

Katrine was sat next to him, but although they were looking at the same flicker from the same angle, it was clear that hers and Christoffer's brains worked different magic: "I see flames. Organic and red. It's very intense. I need to really breathe to be able to continue," she said while taking a deep breath.

Even with your eyes closed, the experience can be very visual: "I see a forest becoming a sun with all the colours of the rainbow. The light is emanating from the centre," she continued. "I feel like I'm inside a sunflower – everything is embracing me. I can see light from behind me as well. It's almost too much."

After about 15 minutes, Katrine needed a break. Erik took her place next to Christoffer, and soon Mads squeezed in next to them. After they immersed themselves in the light for a bit, Erik exclaimed: "Wow, there are dots all over now!"

I asked the guys on the floor to be a bit more detailed in describing what they saw. Christoffer leaned back against the chest of drawers to make the light less intense but kept his eyes closed and stayed in the trip. "There is a starry sky coming towards me," he said. "Like that old Windows screen saver. It's really nice when you look away while keeping your eyes closed. It's snowing inside my head."

The boys started trying different things – moving a bit, squeezing their eyes more shut – and quickly realised that made a big difference. "When you lean your head back and look down towards the bottom of your eyelids, it's crazy," Erik said. "It's all blue for me – a deep darkness," Mads added. "When I hold up my hand between my closed eyes and the light, I can see my hand through my eyelids."

The others tried it out and excitedly agreed. "When you close your eyes more tightly it's like looking through a membrane, and when you release the pressure it goes nuts in an explosion of colour. Like a cartoon kaleidoscope," Christoffer said and leaned back again. After almost half an hour he needed a break – he was completely dazed. It's recommended to stay immersed in the light for at least ten minutes for the visuals to really get going, but three times that amount of time is a very intense experience. Erik and Mads remained on the floor, enchanted.

"It's like a beautiful sunset," Erik said with a smile. "If I hold up my hand in front of me it becomes static, like an empty channel on TV. But there is depth to the darkness, there are several dimensions. And little white lights."

I sat down next to them with my girlfriend, Rosa. It was difficult to concentrate because the others were done and were chattering on about their experience. Somebody rolled a joint while others found a new record to put on. After a few minutes of red slowly turning into green pulsating dots, I gave up, opened my eyes and looked at my friends instead.

The Dreamachine is a visual experience, paradoxically meant to be seen with your eyes closed. If you have the patience, it can be a wild ride – but it won't induce a euphoric state. It won't transcend your soul or transform the world around you. But that doesn't make the experience any less beautiful or worthwhile. I can only recommend you try to build your own – whatever happens, you'll have a pretty lamp shade and you get to practice your maths skills.

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