Spiritual Experiences as Inverted Perceptions — Dragons, Roses and Double Rainbows

I’d like to start with a personal story.

Two years ago I went to a Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s a 10 day experience where practically all you do is concentrate on your bodily sensations and try to perceive them as accurately as possible without emotionally clinging to them or resisting them. There is a lot to such a practice, but within this context I just want to mention a little experience I had.

After about 3 days of concentrating on my breath, I went to bed and when closing my eyes my visual field was occupied with moving light patterns, a kind of visual daydream. The patterns had the structure of 2001’s space odyssey “Star Gate” sequence, though less spectacular (here’s the hilariously touching “Double Rainbow” rendition, for your enjoyment 😄).

What characterizes these images? They have a center “from which things emerge and repeat”. They are fractal.

Where did those images come from? One particular “vision” I had can give us a hint. It was an image of masks within masks, becoming smaller and smaller towards the center.

This made me realize something. Imagine if we used a blueprint to recognize faces, what would such a blueprint look like? Faces appear to us from all directions, in all sizes. We are better at recognizing faces we are looking at directly, than faces that appear at the borders of our visual field. The vision I had would be exactly what such a blueprint would have to look like. I realized that what had happened after all those hours of concentration, was that I had somehow inverted the process of perception, and was “seeing the inner workings of my own pattern matching engine”.

What could be a better confirmation of this theory than the DeepDream phenomenon? Just a few months after my experience, some Google employees did something with their image perception algorithm that nobody had ever done before: they inverted it. Instead of giving it an image as input, and asking it what it saw (a concept), they gave it a concept (say: “dog”) and asked it to produce an image. What came out was, let’s say, “peculiar”.

Just an example, google images “deep dream”.

An even more interesting use of DeepDream was to give it an existing image and tell it to “weave in it what it was perceiving”, a process called inceptionism (and, one might ask, how is this different from art?).

You might recognize the original:

An insight we may take away from this is that every concept can manifest itself as a fractal. A dog fractal is deeply informational, because in some form it contains the totality of the manifestations of the concept dog. If you see a dog it’s just that, a dog. If you see a dog fractal, you somehow see dogness itself in its manifold reality. This is, in my opinion, why fractal images can be so mind-blowing: they satisfy the totality of a circuit that has the function to recognize a concept.

Those are some ugly dogs, anyways.

Note that we might never be able to fully define the concept that’s behind the fractal. You might be able to define what a table is, after a few failed attempts (no, it’s not “a thing with four legs”). But I doubt you can define “dog”. With access to a dog fractal you can only recognize a dog, or produce a representation of it (actually, an infinite amount of representations). Because of its lack of definiteness it is therefore more accurate to use the word archetype, rather than concept, for the thing that’s at the source of the fractal.

Many questions arise here. Why do we instinctively describe these images as “trippy”, or drug-induced? What is a trip? What do psychedelic drugs reveal? Was my experience (during which, barring the patterns playing in my visual field, I felt completely sober) the precursor of a “spiritual experience”? How are all these experiences related?

Let’s follow the promising intuition that it’s possible for our brain, under certain conditions, to manifest to us its own pattern matching mechanisms, “dogness” being just one under many.

There are some very primal examples that reveal this property extremely quickly. Take for example these words individually: Worms. Snakes. Spiders. These words immediately evoke a powerful, somewhat fractally shaped visual response in me.

The Hydra, a fractal vision of snakeness?

One can then move to more abstract concepts, like predator, a very useful category to have hardwired in your brain if you have been a prey animal for millions of years. What does a predator look like? A predator has teeth, claws, feathers, scales, it has a poisonous bite, it comes out of the darkness and may attack you from all directions. It’s some kind of absolute monster. How might we represent this? Right, a dragon, one of the most ancient mythological figures out there. A dragon is a “predator fractal”.

Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, the mythical creature dragon, 1806

Let’s dive deeper: What about even more abstract concepts? What about the more general concept of danger or even, beyond that, the concept of evil? What does the totality of evil look like? An image of something dark arises in my mind. An emptiness that slowly sucks and draws you in. A bottomless pit. To even try to imagine it is scary, as if lingering too much on it must corrupt you. Isn’t this vertigo the source of Nietzsche’s comment:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
A black hole — an image that strangely speaks to us. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/26209716511

A word like “hell” only comes natural. Hell then could be described as “the fractal vision of the archetype of evil”.

It’s time to stop and notice how quickly we moved into religious imagery, and this without making any assumptions about beyond and afterlife (I already described elsewhere how I believe the world can be construed as “magic” with no need for the supernatural). Let’s forget for a moment about dogma. The question arises: what were the founders of religions up to? What were they trying to express?

For example: doesn’t this symbol represent a fractal concept?

Yin and Yang — things repeating within their opposite

Here’s an other one. In the XIV century, a man named Dante Alighieri more or less single-handedly invented the Italian language. His major work is the Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy. It’s a massive poem, in which Dante himself goes on a trip to cross hell, the purgatory and then paradise. Towards the end of his journey, he gets a glimpse of the divine hierarchy. How does he describe it?

In forma dunque di candida rosa
mi si mostrava la milizia santa
che nel suo sangue Cristo fece sposa.
In fashion, as a snow white rose, lay then
Before my view the saintly multitude,
Which in His own blood Christ espoused.

With regards to the “snow white rose”, let’s admire one of the innumerable awesome engravings by Gustave Doré.

Candida Rosa — Gustave Doré, 1867

This seems, to me, the fractal vision of an abstract archetype, the archetype of the ultimately lovable and the absolute good. And this is what such a supreme spiritual experience might be like: our “goodness detection mechanism” revealing itself, and revealing with it the frame it uses to recognize goodness in the world. And in that lies crucial information.

Just like with a dogness fractal you have an ultimate source of information on how to produce things that your brain will recognize as dogs, it seems to me that with a goodness fractal you have access to the patterns that you can embody to be perceived, if not by other people, at least by yourself, as something approximating the ultimate good. By definition, then, it seems that the more you live your life according to those patterns, the more your own brain must experience it as something ultimately lovable and absolutely good. Such an experience seems therefore a gift of the highest order: an ultimate plan of action.

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In this article I tried to put forward a hypothesis: that spiritual experiences are a form of inverted perception. This article is inspired at multiple levels by Carl Jung and Jordan Peterson. It is the sequel to another article called The World is Magic, and part of a more general attempt to revivify the culture I came from, by reading classic books and trying to formulate their wisdom in my own words. If you want to read more, follow my Medium publication Cum Grano Salis.