Last week I got to go experience the Dream Machine with a friend. The nature of the experience is such that I think it'’ll be extraordinarily hard to convey via text, but I’ll give it at least a weak go.

The overall conceit of the project is that when placed in a dark room, a mix of flashing lights and sounds can alter your conscious experience. Or rather it “invites you on a magical journey to explore the extraordinary potential of your mind” to quote their website.

First up you start off in a room where past participants have attempted to draw what they experienced. You get to do the same when you’re done, although my art skills are such that I didn’t even try. Many of these pictures resemble colourful geometric patterns or bright fields of light. A handful appear to contain human-looking objects, perhaps aliens, that kind of thing, especially exciting to me. You can see some of these pictures on their their website. Here’s an example:

Picture of what someone saw in the Dream Machine

Next up they relieve you of your phone and other devices and, unexpectedly, your shoes. You’re issued a bag that contains some hotel-style slippers, an eye mask and a blanket. There’s a short safety talk to check everyone’s willing and ready. The default experience is not suitable for people with sensitivity to flashing lights (precluding folk with some forms of epilepsy) or loud sounds. But they do have modified experiences available that should allow most people with those sensitivities to proceed if you let them know that’s what you’re after.

You’re led into a kind of inside tent with maybe 10-12 people to sit space d out on a large circular sofa type thing. The back of it is slanted such that you’re half lying down. Two speakers surround your head. There’s a big white spherical thing on the ceiling, which is the soon-to-be-flashing light. Your bag’s blanket is for if you’re a bit cold. The eye-mask is for you to put on if the experience starts to feel temporarily too much.

More safety briefing and confirmations that one is ready to proceed are given. Whilst the supervisors aren’t going to be in the room with you when the experience starts they must be watching you I suppose as the deal is that if you need help you should wave and they’ll come help you. All this is either a bit off-putting or a bit exciting depending your constitution, I definitely felt the latter.

Two key facts include that 1) you should keep your eyes shut throughout the experience if you can and 2) no matter what you think is going on out there they promise that all they’re actually doing is flashing a white light at various intervals. Anything else you perceive is coming entirely from the mysterious world of your brain.

Then there’s a little taster session just to make sure everyone is OK with the actual experience rather than a description of it. The room goes dark, you close your eyes and a prerecorded audio grounding starts. If you’ve done certain types of meditation (including the app types) it’s that kind of thing. Focus on your breath, your body, and so on. Then the sounds start, slightly ethereal music for the most part. And through your closed eyes you can tell the light must be turning on as a kind of brightness changes your eye-closed perception, similarly to how you know whether it’s a sunny day or the middle of the night when you wake up each day but can’t be bothered to open your eyes.

Then a few minutes of presumably flickering lights, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, wherein you get a taste of what’s to come. The taster experience soon ends. The supervisors return and check that everyone is fine to proceed. Everyone was, so the main experience begins, again with the grounding.

This main course is a lot longer. I’m not actually sure how long. Maybe 20 minutes? It’s not like us humans are particularly good at keeping track of time in our heads even when at our most connected to stark reality, which in this experience is not really the case.

The sounds start, the light flashes, on and off, fast and slow, and your mind does what it does. Which in my case was mostly giving me visions of animated geometric patterns. Sometimes white, in line with the white light that we’re told is the entirety of the external generative process. Sometimes not. Deep reds, yellows and oranges filled my inner eye at times.

These were usually organised into field-of-perceived-vision-encompassing dots, hexagons, and a repeating motif of diamonds. They zoomed in and out, they swirled, transitioning more intensely from one to another than even the best PowerPoint could. They exploded. They shrunk into nothingness. At first I felt just a little stressed or even nauseous perhaps, but it didn’t last long and I relaxed into it to enjoy the perception show.

At one point I kind of felt like I saw a face in the centre of my vision - an alien? A God? Who knows? - but as much as I tried to focus and keep the glowing white visage present within the vision, the surrounding burning-white pulsating diamonds suddenly expanded and occluded the face within seconds.

So all in all, a lot was going on. Time flew, and I was not really ready to stop when unfortunately it was time for the experience to end. At that point you leave into a far more normal room with the possibility to draw something of your experience, write about it or just chat around a literal watercooler.

It was my friend’s second time at this kind of show, so one of my immediate questions could be answered. Apparently no, you do not see the same thing each time you do it. And also, as intuitively would be the case, not everyone sees the same things. You are to be silent during the experience so there’s no real way of communicating live what’s going on in your head, and maybe it’d ruin the experience if you tried to do so. But for sure we saw different things; deep blues for her if I remember correctly, reds for me. Assuming we mean the same things with the same words, that classical challenging philosophical problem. I expect humanity’s inner mental lives are as diverse as their outer characteristics.

Tickets are currently £15 and you’d need to get yourself to Hackney, London - everything you need to sign up is here.

Fun fact: apparently this was originally designed as part of the Festival of Brexit (aka “Unboxed” but the former name is much funnier). It’s not an original observation, but there are certainly plenty of folk out there who think that anything designed to alter your consciousness in any direction away from the grim reality of contemporary Britain is the best that we can really hope for to be fair. The Government’s DCMS committee said the whole thing was an “irresponsible use of public money”. The festival of course, not Brexit, definitely not.

It’s much earlier inspiration comes from work by an artist called Brion Gysin. In 1959 he made a much smaller device that used flickering light to create “vivid illusions” in the minds of those who experienced it.

Here’s a photo of it taken by Charles Gatewood.

The original Dream Machine

Gysin designed it after noticing that the flickering of sunlight when driving through trees put him into a somewhat hallucinatory state.

The Dreamachine would awaken humanity, Gysin hoped, from cultural stupefaction and liberate us from being passive consumers of mass-produced imagery. Gysin hoped it would replace every TV in every home in the US and make us creators of our own cinematic experiences.

It might surprise you to learn that that’s not quite what ended up happening. But I’m glad its derivatives are still around for us to experience all these years later.