Flicker Fusion and Visual Cymatics

Geometry and tracers are popular subjective effects. There may be a link between these two effects. They could even be the same phenomenon. We may be able to study subjective experience by tapping into flicker fusion. Most peculiarly, we can use knowledge from our understanding of music theory to further assess subjective experience.

The character of tracers often varies between drugs. Some produce a solid line. Some produce stroboscopic echoes. Others produce inverted coloration. The team at Qualia Research Institute (QRI) has actually produced a novel tool that allows one to recreate their visual tracers and then catalog them with information about the drug, including dosage. So there are some who are currently doing work in this area. There are two things to consider with visual tracers: the possible involvement of wave cancellation and of flicker fusion. These will make sense soon.

The cover image for this post is the artwork of the brilliant Utheraptor! Please show him love on instagram 🙂 This piece is called “At the Dawn of Time”.

Here is a demonstration of QRI’s new tool. This was the data for DMT:

I suspect that visual tracers don’t necessarily have separate components involving stroboscopic echoes or solid lines, but rather, these two phenomena are the same thing in a sense. It may be that very fast flickers/strobes cross the flicker fusion threshold. You can imagine that there is a point at which the frequency of a flicker becomes a solid light and the flickering is no longer detectable, as if it has surpassed your temporal acuity. This threshold is the flicker fusion threshold.

There is an interesting analog to be made with auditory perception here. If we observe a ticking sound as the tick frequency increases, there will be a point at which the ticking transforms into a new kind of auditory percept, a pitch. This occurs at around 20Hz, which is the low end of perceivable auditory vibrations for humans. This may be likened to an auditory flicker fusion threshold. You can observe this transformation with the audio below:

This presents us with an interesting oppurtunity in qualia methodologies. Audio is something that we have a lot of interesting ways to play with, mostly because of the artform that is music. For example, there is something known as the harmonic series, which you can observe below:

As you can see, there is a clear mathematical pattern that defines the harmonic series. There is a distinct ratio of the frequencies that progresses as 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and so on. The way in which we make music that is beautiful may depend on inducing non-noise patterns, which as those at QRI might suggest, induces a high valence that emerges from symmetry.

Speaking of music, fire up this new song I recently created :). Allow it to set the mood for this article.

Though, harmonics are not usually separate as shown in the image above. Instead, they are bound together as a waveform with sub-waves. Here is an example of how the harmonics in a sound would stack together to create a unified timbre:

Another even nicer photo:

This one is particularly interesting because of the grid shown. If you imagine that the vertical lines on the grid represent the flicker fusion threshold, auditory temporal events that occur on scales smaller would be perceived as a pitch. If the auditory events are occurring on a timescale that is larger than the flicker fusion window, then you would more distinctly notice the amplitude changing, observing this as individual ticks. The flicker fusion threshold is the point at which you are no longer able to perceive the gaps between individual ticks. Perhaps we may dub this the ticker fusion threshold.

We can also apply this concept of the harmonic series when we try to understand visual tracers and their sometimes stroboscopic manifestations. Not only this, but we could probably apply this concept to fractals as well. Visual fractals appear to be an effect of resonance patterns, like cymatics, and also like timbre in music theory.

Cymatics actually allow us to observe harmonic resonant patterns:

During resonance, a sort of amplitude enhancing effect exists. You can imagine this with waves of water. Two large wave peaks may collide and spike even higher for a brief moment. This is essentially what resonance is: an additive amplitude effect. Alongside this, there are wave cancelling events, where the peak and valley of two waves collide and cancel out each other’s amplitude.

Wave cancellation:

You can observe cancellation and amplification more 3-dimensionally in the photo below:


INTERFERENCE PATTERNS OF 2 POINT SOURCES 2 Sets of Concentric Waves In A Ripple Tank. Constructive interference occurs when crests meet crests or troughs meet troughs, forming an anti-nodal line. Destructive interference occurs when crests meet troughs, forming a nodal line.

In the shadow of the tools, you see a wave form in 2-dimensional form. That is essentially the waveform or timbre. One common timbre or waveform utilized in electronic music is the square waveform.

Now let’s try to imagine a square wave in 3-dimensional form (kinda).

You can see what seems to be square-like shapes in this image, which is pretty fascinating. A square wave is the sum of every odd-numbered harmonic; i.e. 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and so on. The reason we explore this in relation to cymatics is so that we could apply what we have learned about harmonics to study psychedelic effects or the brain. In essence, the study of visual harmonics and visual cymatics.

Here is a cymatics photograph that looks a lot like the kind of visuals people report on psychedelic drugs:

Now look at this replication of psychedelic-induced geometry made by Josie Kins at Effect Index:

Visual Timbre?

I also wonder if convergence in the eye is amplified by psychedelics somehow. I have looked into this to no avail yet.

Now let’s move back to visual tracers, which are arguably less fantastic and beautiful to observe, but still interesting and far easier to study. Stroboscopic trail perceptions may involve wave cancelling and amplifications. These may occur even with solid tracers that seem to lack stroboscopy, but in these cases, the flickering may simply be above our flicker fusion threshold.

When an object is moving, many of the flickering patterns may become more apparent to us. This is essentially what happens when we look at digital clocks as well. When it is stationary, we do not perceive the clock to be flickering. But when we move it, there is a ghosting effect and we observe the flickering. If you move your eyes or pan the clock across your visual field, you will observe this effect.

This is sometimes also called phantom array:

It could be that the fractal geometry might be a product of the same phenomena underlying visual tracers, just that it is basically occurring in a stationary image. The stacking of repeating stimuli may create interference patterns. The rippling of our perception becomes apparent during motion. This may be combined with some effect that allows percepts to linger longer, essentially palinopsia. This allows for the flickering percepts to create interference patterns and visual cymatics.

We could simulate psychedelic geometry using cymatics and use this to study the mechanisms of psychedelics and the visual system. What if we can predict the geometric patterns observed in psychedelic states by measuring flicker patterns in stroboscopic tracers? That is just on example of the directions we can take with this.

We could also check EEG patterns and maybe even translate this data into cymatics. That would be particularly strange and honestly amazing. If anyone knows how to manage EEG data, connect with me and let’s see if we can create a system that does such a translation. We could then ask people who are tripping if these patterns resemble their subjective effects. Although, I would suspect that EEG is far too noisy to reproduce anything occurring at the neural level. Perhaps even a faint pattern will be noticeable in the sea of noise that is EEG data. We could measure the level of noise and harmony to see if psychedelics or high valence states alter this. There’s a lot that we can do!

Research I’m Reading

I’ll give you a list of the research I am currently exploring about this topic, particularly flicker fusion.

1. Flickers and time dilation. It appears that flickers alter time perception, possibly by inducing changes to “frame-rate” would be my guess. I’ve hypothesized this in the project Flicker.

2. Cannabis Increases Flicker Fusion Threshold. I actually started exploring this because I felt that cannabis increased my temporal acuity so much that I was able to observe the flickers of household lights. I only found this recently. I actually worked on the flicker topic mostly before I ever knew that flicker fusion was an established concept. Knowing this concept opened a whole new world of research for me.

3. Psilocybin and Flicker Fusion Threshold. This is in French. I can translate this at some point, but if any of you speak French and want to tell me about this one, please do :).

4. Flicker Fusion and Psychotropic Drugs. They have a chart that nicely shows all the studied drugs and their impact on flicker fusion thresholds.

5. Flicker Fusion Threshold and Anticholinergic Effects of Antidepressants. They argue that flicker fusion threshold is decreased by anticholinergics and antidepressants that have anticholinergic properties.

6. Flicker Fusion Threshold and Ketamine. This paper doesn’t focus on that concept but they do mention flicker fusion threshold being decreased with ketamine. This actually challenges my previous hypotheses.

7. Negative Symptoms of Schizophrenia Associated to Decreased Flicker Fusion Threshold, NOT Positive Symptoms Though. This is interesting.

If you want to go deeper on this topic, trip down the rabbit-hole that is Flicker.

. . .

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