Okay, y'all. This is a long, involved post. Each of these questions has been the subject of lengthy treatises, dissertations, scholarly feuds, articles, etc. for many years. Millions of words! I'll try my best to be brief (not my strong suit, but let's give it a whirl...).

It is widely accepted that trance and shamanism played a role in prehistoric art and mark-making. Most scholars agree that the depiction of motifs on cave walls does not occur while the artist is actually in a trance state, but that the artist creates the artworks afterwards, illustrating her or his experiences during the trance. Weaving the motifs, though, may be another matter. As any weaver can attest, weaving is most certainly a repetitive action. Could the action of weaving, itself, be the induction method for the weaver to enter a trance state during which time she or he communicates with and travels through the spirit world? If that is the case, then the production of motifs occurs contemporaneously with, or within, the trance. If trance is indeed the origin of many traditional textile motifs, this may explain why they have been relevant and compelling for thousands of years. 

In order to travel between the worlds (everyday world and spirit world), a shaman/practitioner enters an altered state of consciousness (ASC). This can be done in many ways, including using intoxicating substances or through repetitive or rhythmic activity (drumming, dancing, swaying, chanting, etc.). Altered states of consciousness can result in the experience of phosphenes or entoptic images. These are geometric images or flashes of light that arise from the central nervous system and visual cortex. These are common to all humans (and possibly other animals). You can experience phosphenes by pressing on your closed eyelid. You'll see little illuminated squares, dots, ladders, and other motifs. That's a phosphene! When a phosphene or entoptic image appears in prehistoric art, it can be argued that the art is related to altered states of consciousness, trance, shamanism, or a combination of the three. These motifs appear in cave art, megalithic art, and many other forms of art including textiles.

Jeremy Dronfield's "diagnostic" motifs (The presence of these motifs is diagnostic of ASC!)

Lewis-Williams' Entoptic Motifs



Loughcrew magnificence


When a person enters a trance state and then comes back to ordinary reality, the motifs she or he has experienced and then depicts are seen as originating from that other reality. This is perceived as evidence that the person/artist has traveled to and communicated with another realm.

How does trance happen? What happens to the brain within a trance? How does trance lead to the experience of phosphenes and entoptic motifs? And what is the cultural significance of phosphene depiction?


Anatolian Kilim motif




Zigzag and serpentine motifs, antique kilim

Radial and diamond motifs, antique kilim

Obvious entoptic image from a Shipibo textile (Peru)


How does trance happen and what happens to the brain within a trance?

No one would argue that weaving is a repetitive, rhythmic action. Repetitive, rhythmic action affects the brain in a profound way. It induces corresponding brainwave frequencies associated with ASC and causes physical functions such as heartbeat and respiration to become synchronized with the repetitive stimuli. It seems as if a loop of sorts is set into motion with weaving. The weaver enters an altered state of consciousness induced by rhythmic activity, and maintains and deepens the experience by visually engaging with the motifs that emerge under her hands. Due to a number of neurological factors, a deep sense of satisfaction, peace, safety, and union with the world are produced by this activity. This pleasure causes an increasing desire to engage and imparts a sense of cultural importance to the activity.

Weaving is a visually creative act in which the artist not only performs rhythmic, meditative activity, but stares fixedly at entoptic motifs for extended periods of time. The artist is in a state of focused awareness, a kind of hyper-reality detached from the outside world (Bahn and Vertut 1997:182). Because of humankind's deep reliance on the perception of lines within the environment (the visual ability to discern shapes based on their outlines, and to use those cues for navigation and other decision making), the neurological system has developed in such a way as to reward engagement with lines and shapes with feelings of gratification, protection, etc. imparted by the secretion of neurotransmitters and hormones. Those individuals with the most pronounced experiences were more likely to live to reproductive age. This led to an increasing propensity for actual mark-making and fascination with the depictions of artists by her/his compatriots.

The creation and repetition of geometric shapes may be a fundamental biological propensity in humans, providing pleasurable feelings of mastery, security, and relief from anxiety (Dissanayake 1992 :84, c.f. Hodgeson 2000). Engagement in mark-making produces pleasure, leading to an optimal level of arousal through a neurological feedback loop (Berlyne 1960 ). To take it a step further, the production of shapes and lines and the discovery of similarity may be part of a search for order and structure in a complex and often threatening world (c.f. Hodgeson 2000).

So what actually happens to the brain?

During normal, waking states, everyday consciousness and subjective reality depends upon continuous neural processes. Since gamma frequencies are associated with communication between all areas of the brain,  an interruption or breakdown of gamma activity results in a breakdown of the connectivity between neural networks, causing cell assemblies to operate as functionally independent units. This may be a basis for altered states of consciousness (Vaitl et al 2005, 116).

Transcendental meditation involves rhythmic chanting. Practitioners report a state of blissful quiescence or transcendental consciousness in which thought is suspended but consciousness remains. Alpha frequencies emerge during this state, as well as generalized EEG coherence, which is associated with an ordering of the mind and intense concentration. Alpha frequencies (8-13 Hz) are linked to distraction-suppression function (Jensen et al 2002). Alpha waves appear to suppress cortical activity in areas of the brain that are not being used to focus on stimuli (Ward 2003). Musicians listening to music, meditators, and cannabis users under the influence of cannabis also exhibit increased alpha activity related to intense concentration (Ward 2003; Corby et al 1978, 575). It has also been found that weaving induces an alpha state. The intensity of blissful experience in transcendental meditation correlates with increases in theta waves in anterior frontal and frontal midline regions and increased theta synchronization between pre-frontal and posterior association cortex, peaking in the left prefrontal region. This compares with EEG during positive and negative emotional experience, suggesting that theta activity peaking in left pre-frontal regions indicates positive emotional experience (Vaitl et al 2005, 109).

Lehmann, Faber, Achermann et al (2001) showed that meditators concentrating on visualization showed increased gamma EEG activity in the right posterior, those concentrating on verbalization the right central, and those concentrating on a dissolution of self the right anterior portion of the brain (Vaitl et al 2005, 109). Newberg and d’Aquili (2000) showed that meditators concentrating on becoming one with the object of meditation is linked to the blocking of a parietal cortical area during meditation that represents the position of the body in 3-dimensional space (Vaitl et al 2005, 109). This relates to the dissolution of the boundary between self and other and therefore to absolute unitary being.

Rhythmic behaviours produce feelings of euphoria within the limbic system, and subtly alter responses in the hypothalamus. This neural activity is responsible for what are known as absolute unitary states and states of religious awe (Newburgh; et. al. 2001, 86). These are associated with the perception that the self and the outside world become one, with the boundaries between them dissolved.

In the case of drumming and dancing, the rhythmic body movements become synchronized with the beat and finally seem to happen automatically, without effort or voluntary control. Self-reflective thinking ceases when the subject becomes increasingly absorbed in the action. In addition, alterations also include a distortion of the time sense, unusual bodily sensations (e.g. feeling light, warm, energized), vivid imagery, and strong positive emotions (e.g., joy, happiness, ecstasy) in conjunction with the impression of becoming one with the rhythm (Vaitl et al 2005, 107).

Absolute Unitary Being and states of religious awe can lead to full trance and hallucination. Studies (Maxfield 1990, Rau, Pauli, Brody, Elbert and Birbaumer 1993; Vaitl and Gruppe 1995) show that rhythmic, monotonous, patterned drum beats are inductive to theta brain waves. Theta frequencies are associated with shaman-journey experiences including changes in time sense and body image, enhanced imagery, dissociation from the body, hallucination, and vivid dreams (Vaitl et al 2005, 107).

I'm going to throw this in here. It may be minutiae, but I think it's important in understanding the role of trance or ASC in religious experience. Basically, it talks about the biological underpinnings of being "ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE!"

The autonomic nervous system maintains equilibrium in the body through the alternating interactions of the quiescent (parasympathetic) and arousal (sympathetic) subsystems. In altered states of consciousness, both systems are pushed beyond mundane activity. When neural input is depressed (quiescent), as with sensory deprivation, the limbic system, in an attempt to maintain equilibrium, enhancesneural flow (arousal), causing hyperawareness of stimuli. When neural input is intensified due to increased stimulation, the limbic system inhibitsneural flow.

When either the quiescent or the arousal system is maximally stimulated, a "spillover effect" occurs, causing stimulation of the other, normally antagonistic, system (Newberg et al 2001, 41). For example, in meditation and slow chant, quiescent activity can result in feelings of peace and unity, but when quiescent activity reaches optimum levels, a rush of energy may occur. "Someone who experiences this state while concentrating upon some object – a textile motif, for example, or a cross – may feel as if he were being absorbed into that object" (Newberg et al 2001, 41). Similarly, peak arousal states may cause a surge in quiescent systems. For example, someone engaged in energetic dancing or singing may experience an ecstatic rush of energy, attention and intention that ultimately becomes a state of trancelike bliss (Newberg et al 2001, 42). Newberg et al (2001, 42) hypothesize that ritual could theoretically lead to the maximal discharge of both systems, causing hallucinations, mystical visions, or a state of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB).

Rhythmic, ritualized behaviour on the hypothalamus and autonomic nervous system and eventually the rest of the brain. Rhythmic behaviours subtly alter autonomic responses to the body’s quiescent and arousal systems. Fast rhythms: arousal system is driven to higher and higher levels of activation. Increasing neural activity is addressed by the hippocampus, the part of the limbic structure responsible for maintaining equilibrium in the brain (Newberg et. al. 2001, 86).

The hippocampus regulates neural flow to various regions of the brain. When input is too high, it inhibits neural flow. In this case, certain areas of the brain are deprived of the normal supply of neural input on which they depend in order to perform their functions properly. “One such structure is the orientation association area – the part of the brain that helps us distinguish the self from the rest of the world and orients that self in space – which requires a constant stream of sensory information to do its job well. When that stream is interrupted, it has to work with whatever information is available. In neurological parlance, the orientation area becomes deafferented – it is forced to operate on little or no neural input. The likely result of this deafferentation is a softer, less precise definition of the boundaries of the self” (Newberg et. al. 2001, 87).

This is important to us:

The same neurobiological mechanism underlying unitary experiences can also be set in motion, in a slightly different manner, by the intense, sustained practice of slow ritual activity such as chanting or contemplative prayer. These slow rhythmic behaviours stimulate the quiescent system, which, when pushed to very high levels, directly activates the inhibitory effects of the hypocampus, with the eventual result of deafferenting the orientation area and, ultimately, of blurring the edges of the brain’s sense of self, opening the door to the unitary states that are the primary goal of religious ritual. (Newberg et. al. 2001, 87)


The orientation structure of the brain orients the self in space and distinguishes the self from others, relies on constant neural flow, and without it, becomes deafferented. The neural flow is interrupted in hyperquiescent and hyperarousal states. The result is a less precise definition of the boundaries of the self, blurring of cognitive boundaries and a pleasurable sensation. This is the ‘unitary experience’ in which there is no perceived separation between spirits/gods/ancestors/spiritual realms, the universe, conspecifics and the self. This is the primary goal of religious ritual (Newberg et. al.2001, 87).


Next: Phosphenes, and Entoptic Images