The Dreamachine

This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series Countercultural History

Had a transcendental storm of color visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?”

Extract from the diary of Brion Gysin, 21 December, 1958

Designed and developed by Ian Somerville and Brion Gysin (with a little help from author William Burroughs) in the early 1960’s, the Dreamachine comprises a perforated cylinder attached to a 78 RPM turntable, illuminated from within by a light bulb.


Users sit before the cylinder, eyes closed, causing light to flicker through the holes and onto the eyelids. If done correctly the flickering of the light should induce a frequency of around 20 Hz (between 7 – 13 flickers per second), theoretically relaxing the brain by stimulating Alpha waves. Many users report seeing intricate coloured patterns and kaleidoscopic imagery, feeling rejuvenated and sometimes full-on transcendental experience.

Although often disputed, the supposed benefits of this invention include “develop(ing) the knowledge of the hidden aspects of things”, increasing problem solving abilities, reaching meditative states quickly and as a “drug-free trip”. On the flip side, there is a small chance of fitting if you’re epileptic and use a Dreamachine (about the same percentage as a TV set or PC monitor), so bear that in mind!

The thinking behind the Dreamachine is not new – an almost identical Alpha wave induction process is performed in Western medicine (the electroencephalogram), North African tribesmen entered trance states by rapidly moving their hands and fingers in front of their eyes whilst facing the sun and Sufi mystics described similar visions. There are now many companies retailing “Brain Machines” (utilising light and sound to achieve specific wave states) & the effects of light flickering through trees on drivers has even led engineers to “reconsider the use of evenly spaced trees to line long stretches of straight road”.

Gysin was an influential and well-connected figure on the underground; primarily a painter and writer, he had introduced Burroughs to the “cut-up” method, been expelled from the Surrealists (by Breton himself) and hung out with the Rolling Stones (introducing Brian Jones to the legendary Master musicians of Joujouka). Upon hearing of his visionary experience, his friend and collaborator Ian Sommerville (an electronics technician & computer programmer, amongst others) built a device to reproduce the flickering effect that Gysin had described.

He described the result to Gysin;

I have made a simple flicker machine. You look at it with your eyes shut and the flicker plays over your eyelids. Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colours on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of colour are pounding to get in. After a while the visions were permanently behind my eyelids and I was in the middle of the whole scene with limitless patterns being generated around me. There was an almost unbearable feeling of spatial movement for a while but it was well worth getting through for I found that when it stopped I was high above the earth in a universal blaze of glory. Afterwards I found that my perception of the world around me had increased very notably. All conceptions of being dragged or tired had dropped away…”

Excited by his friend’s success, Gysin carried on developing the Dreamachine throughout 1960, obtaining a patent in 1961. Descriptions of the experiments were featured in the arts publication “Olympia” in January of 1962, a contributing factor to the interest in purchasing the patent expressed by several large companies (including the electronics giant Philips). Although initially excited by Gysin and Sommerville’s invention, these companies soon lost interest in the project – when Gysin told them that the device “made more people awake they lost interest. They were only interested in machines and drugs which made people go to sleep”.

The Dreamachine

‘Dreamachine Plans’ (Temple Press, 1992)
‘Flickers of the Dreamachine’ (Ed. Paul Cecil)

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