Can you feel time passing?

Do colours only exist in my mind?

How does your brain create the world around you?

These are some of the fascinating questions that the major interdisciplinary Dreamachine programme explores and tens of thousands of people from around the world are helping to answer. 

Through radical collaboration, our team of artists, scientists and philosophers have co-designed, outside of a laboratory setting, a pioneering research programme generated from the Dreamachine immersive experience and mass citizen science study, The Perception Census.

Two womem entering the Dreamachine experience, a dark room from a well lit environment

Participants entering the Dreamachine experience
Photo by Urszula Soltys

The programme’s aim is to shed light on our inner universes, shaping our understanding of the human mind and the unique ways we each experience the world. At this year’s British Science Festival, members of the Dreamachine team shared some initial findings and the transformative potential of the research.

In this guest blog, we hear directly from some of the minds behind the scenes of Dreamachine: Jen Crooke, Director of Collective Art; Trevor Hewitt, doctoral researcher at the Sussex Centre for Consciousness Science; and Professor Fiona Macpherson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

About Dreamachine

So far, over 40,000 people have visited the immersive experience, providing our team a rich collection of images and data that demonstrate the diversity of perceptual experience, explains Jen Crooke, Director of Collective Art, the creators and producers of Dreamachine.

Additionally, over 30,000 people from more than 100 countries have taken part in The Perception Census, giving us the opportunity to study perception at scale. 

The Dreamachine research team, made up of academics at the University of Sussex and the University of Glasgow, are now conducting a three-year research programme, with further laboratory controlled experiments and analysis of the data from The Perception Census, to realise the potential of this research and contribute to a still-emerging field of study. 

According to Jen, the findings – expected in 2027 – will expand on Dreamachine's ambitious research foundation, impacting numerous academic fields from neuroscience, to philosophy and anthropology, for years to come. The public are directly contributing to an inquiry that has never before been attempted on this scale.

The Dreamachine immersive experience

Together we’ve collected an unprecedented set of data about the experiences people have in the Dreamachine, says Trevor Hewitt, doctoral researcher at the Sussex Centre for Consciousness Science.

One of the most common things that people reported in the Dreamachine was seeing geometric forms. A similar set of geometric forms have been reported not only in Dreamchine experiences, but many different types of hallucinations and altered states of consciousness.

Trevor adds that the ubiquity of these geometric forms has led scientists to suggest that these geometries are not a quirk of flashing light, but a reflection of the ways in which our brain processes visual information from the eyes. In the Dreamachine, you may be getting a little window into the inner workings of your own brain.

But the range of geometric forms people report from the Dreamachine stretch far beyond the current scientific thinking, adds Trevor. So, the nature of these experiences remains an open question which makes this research incredibly exciting.

Drawings from participants experiencing Dreamachine. There are a collection of colourful drawings on black paper ranging including lines, swirls and objects

Dreamachine participants are invited to draw and/or write what they 'saw'.
Photo by Neil Harrison

The Perception Census

Professor Fiona Macpherson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, thinks that it’s fascinating to get an idea of how our own mind is different to that of other people’s. With The Perception Census, according to Fiona, we’re able to explore the range, extent and nature of those individual perceptual differences on an almost unimaginable, and previously thought-to-be unfeasible, scale.

Over 100,000 sections of The Perception Census have been completed by more than 30,000 people. There is such a vast range of participants, from those aged 18 to in their 80s; all of whom are actively contributing to the investigation of how our senses work together.

By looking across the sections and tasks within the Census we can find out if there are any new correlations that haven’t been discovered. For example, does people’s colour perception relate to their shape or sound perception? And how is our perception influenced by our beliefs and desires? 

Fiona adds that while we’re familiar with perceptual differences like shortsightedness, we are starting to uncover many other differences. For instance, some people experience “synaesthesia”, a conjoining of the senses. They might experience colours whenever they hear music, or experience touch on the body whenever they taste foods. Others have “aphantasia”, which means they are unable to form mental images in their mind’s eye. These are just two examples of perceptual phenomena we are studying that show the diversity of our experiences. 

The Perception Census helps people recognise that not everyone perceives the world the way they do, Fiona explains. We're all different, we all have different past experiences, different brains, different sensory apparatus. We all have different experiences of the world, and perhaps understanding this might lead people to be a little bit more understanding of each other.

How you can take part

The Perception Census closes on 31 October, take part now: (opens in new tab)

Visit Studio Dreamachine in Hackney, East London: (opens in new tab)

The Dreamachine immersive experience is inspired by a 1959 invention by Brion Gysin that used flickering light to create vivid illusions and explosions of colour in the mind of the viewer. Over 60 years after its original invention, Dreamachine has been radically reimagined as a powerful new collective experience. A seated, multisensory experience and conjured entirely by light and music, a colourful world will unfold behind your closed eyes – created by your own brain and completely unique to you.

The Perception Census is a scientific study exploring the unique ways we each experience the world around us. It is the first major citizen science project investigating perceptual diversity, and it is led by world-leading academics Professor of Neuroscience, Anil Seth, University of Sussex and Professor of Philosophy, Fiona Macpherson, University of Glasgow.

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