David Lewis-Williams in The Mind in the Cave and Inside the Neolithic Mind postulates that religion has its origins in hard-wired brain functions he calls “states of altered consciousness.” Among these altered states are the hypnogogic (just prior to and awakening from sleep) as well as states induced by consciously chosen activities, for example, rhythmic dancing, meditation, and persistent highly rhythmical sound patterns. And then there are the other well-known states, whether chosen or inflicted, that alter consciousness — ingestion of psychotropic substances, intense concentration, fatigue, hunger, sensory deprivation, extreme pain, migraine, temporal lobe epilepsy, hyperventilation, electrical stimulation, near-death experiences, and schizophrenia and other pathological conditions (Inside the Neolithic Mind, page 46).

These states of consciousness, combined with homo sapiens’ ability to remember the visions that occur in such states, says Lewis-Williams, account for the rise of religion, some social organizations (primarily religious hierarchies), and the early paintings and art found in western Europe at places like the caves of Lascaux well as in the Near East around the upper reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates, Jordan, and Turkey.

The Mind in the Cave has as its sub-title, Consciousness and the Origin of Art, and while I’m not equipped to evaluate either the neurology nor Lewis-Williams’ archaeological arguments, what he describes as a hard-wired state of the human brain which leads to art (my words) seems valid to me.


It has long been part understood that altered consciousness evokes visions that are used to make art. Think of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (“A damsel with a dulcimer/ In a vision once I saw”), reportedly a result of an opium dream. Or Wordsworth’s “sense sublime” in Tintern Abbey whose “affections gently lead us on,/ Until the breath of this corporeal frame/ And even the motion of our human blood/ Almost suspended, we are laid asleep/ In body, and become a living soul:/ While with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things.”

What occurs to me (and granted it’s a pretty old thought, dressed up by recent neurological research) is that artists, like masters of meditation, are able to achieve an altered state readily, without “artificial” stimuli or illness. They seem to be able to achieve these states more easily than others in our rational, conscious-brain-oriented society. On A&P we talk about being “in the zone” or not noticing the passage of time while we are working. We see things differently because we’re talking and looking at art, as Birgit did on her walk after Steve’s post on quotes from O’Keefe. Sunil talked of living the life of art. I noticed that sometimes I see differently when I’m casually photographing.

We use specific activities or objects as triggers to that altered state, which might be why Karl and I are neither self-indulgent nor masochistic when we work outside. We can obtain some condition of mind that is conducive to our art work; we find our “sense sublime.”

It’s this old knowledge, now validated by science, which provides not only a reason homo sapiens are religiously inclined, but, more important to this group, that art might be a specific function of those altered states. With that knowledge, it’s possible to gain credibility for the importance of artmaking to the whole of civilization. Lewis-Williams says that the earliest “artists,” particularly those who depicted clay figures and skulls with predominant eyes (I keep thinking of Emerson’s “Transparent Eyeball”), were not among the elite shamans and high priests of an organized religion, but rather ordinary people expressing what they saw in their day dreams or fatigue or hunger.

Lewis-Williams isn’t sure he approves of such states of altered consciousness, even though he says they have produced Bach, John Donne, Shakespeare, and other great artists. He says: “The exaltation that those great creators excite in us does not justify mystical atavism. Shamanism and visions of a bizarre spirit realm may have worked in hunter-gatherer communities and even have produced great art; it does not follow that they will work in the present-day world or that we should today believe in personal spirit guides and subterranean worlds. We can catch our breath when we walk into the Hall of the Bulls without wishing to recapture and submit to the religious beliefs and regimen that produced them.” (p 291, The Mind in the Cave)

I guess my question for the day is, am I out in la-la land, imagining that we might ally our rational brains with our (irrational) altered consciousnesses (without necessarily adding any specific religion to the mix) and in doing so enhance our abilities to produce art? And might this become not be only broadly acceptable, but a democratizing of the artistic impulse, rendering it more accessible to everyone? In some ways the DIY movement, the democratizing of art, could be seen as a way into this understanding, giving people a greater knowledge of the mental state out of which “visions” arise. Lewis-Williams says that the earliest altered consciousnesses that we have physical evidence of are the most “democratic,” non-hierarchical. This seems to fit into a DIY world, where it isn’t just the artistic elite among us who can vision and produce art.

I also might venture to ask if this alliance might not actually be a necessary piece of the human condition, and if it were to become part of our greater knowledge,we might make greater intentional use of it. We might move away from sectarian religious upheavals without losing the sense and usefulness of what sometimes is called spirituality. The irrational can be understood as hard-wired into us and turned to good ends, without falling into superstition or la-la land.

And as a side-note, which may or may not illuminate — I have been wont to say that theories of Gaia are really just sentimental foolishnesses, and that Ma Earth will get along quite fine without homo sapiens. She really doesn’t care what we do to her — she’ll just keep rolling along. On the other hand, in my irrational states of altered consciousness, I’m a Cenozoic patriot, and even though I rationally know that in the long run of geological history, what we do doesn’t much matter much at all, my irrational mind insists that the rational information doesn’t much matter. Something outside my rational mind insists that I care for the environment, even if the environment doesn’t give a damn. Not a bad use of an vision from an altered consciousness.