You might think that maths and psychedelic hallucinations tend not to mix very well. But you would be mistaken! There are a series of visual hallucinations known as form constants that are highly geometric, and a mathematical model of them has provided us with some fascinating insight into how our visual cortex (the part of the brain that processes the information we receive from our eyes) works.
These hallucinations were first observed in patients who had taken mescaline, a psychedelic drug produced from a cactus found in South America. Form constants have subsequently been reported in a number of other altered states such as sensory deprivation, waking/falling asleep states, near death experiences and by individuals with synaesthesia. Some people even report seeing these patterns after closing their eyes and applying firm pressure to both eyelids for a few seconds!
The mathematical model we referred to was described in a paper by Bressloff et al., and is based on anatomical features of our brain. It seems that the visual cortex has certain symmetry properties, such as reflective, translational and even a novel shift-twist symmetry. Its electrical activity can be represented mathematically and—a bit of group theory, some eigenvectors and a couple of transformations later—has steady state solutions to the resulting equations that are remarkably similar to the observed hallucinogenic experiences. Groovy!
Disclaimer: Chalkdust does not advocate pressing hard on your eyelids.
[Written in collaboration with Samuel Mills. Pikachu adapted from picture by Matt Levya, CC BY 2.0; Hallucination pictures taken with kind permission from PC Bressloff, JD Cowan, M Golubitsky, PJ Thomas and MC Wiener, What geometric visual hallucinations tell us about the visual cortex, Neural Computation 14(3) (2002), 473–91.]