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Phosphenes and Inner Light Experiences in Medieval Chinese Psychophysical Techniques: An Exploration

"The findings of a preliminary exploration on phosphenes and other subjective inner light appearances as found in three medieval Chinese sources are presented: Text (A): Commentary on the Inner Canon of the Yellow Court, dating to the early 8th
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  Phosphenes and Inner Light Experiencesin Medieval Chinese PsychophysicalTechniques: An Exploration by  Rudolf Pfister   Introduction Technical texts, mainly medical and Daoist writings, form the veryfragmented material base for my project Psychophysical techniquesin ancient and medieval China . They discuss know-how and tech-niques meant to influence one’s own mental states positively, to im-prove health and achieve longevity. In sexual body techniques, forexample, this is thought to be possible by the use of a partner andsexual stimulation (Pfister, forthcoming), but such ideas underlieeven more techniques like meditation and visualisation. This explo-ration uses the subject of phosphenes, the subjective inner light ap-pearances, as a means to interpret one aspect of such techniques onestep further.   Why phosphenes? Phosphenes were studied scientifically in Europe since the early  th century. The term was coined in  by Henri-Auguste Serre(  -  ) to mean light appearances («l’apparition d’une image lu-mineuse»)  . Earlier, in  , Johannes EvangelistaPurkyn Í (  -  )  . Serre (  , p.  ): «Nous avons donné le nom de Phosphène (de fôw , lumière,et de fainomai , paraître, apparaître) au phénomène de vision subjective qui se ma-nifeste par l’apparition d’une image lumineuse dans la région orbitaire de l’œuil mé-thodiquement comprimé à travers les paupières, et spécialement à l’image annulai-re qui apparaît quand la compression s’effectue à l’aide de la pulpe du doigt».   studied what he named  Druckfiguren (pressure figures): these arepressure phosphenes, which appear when you close the lids and ap-ply gentle pressure to the eyeballs  . Several researchers expressedtheir fascination while doing this during their childhood. Purkyn Í says, the child follows the traces of the cheerful light, and is absorbedinto the charming presence of the colours  . It seems worthwhile tokeep in mind that such a positive emotional response is felt towardsthe phenomenon by the grown-up scientist.In older Arab and European theories of vision, phosphenesplayed an important role, as one believed that they proved, like thegleaming eyes of animals active during the night, that an internal lightis generated and emitted by the eye itself. This view was only givenup in the  th and  th centuries  .Subjective visual phenomena, both of endogenous and halluci-natory nature, were used for the interpretation of geometrical pat-terns and designs in prehistoric cave art, and brought into relation with altered states of consciousness  .Phosphenes are subjective light appearances which can be seen, when the visual system is stimulated by non-usual ways. Besides thepressure phosphenes already mentioned, which are easy to elicit,phosphenes may appear together with certain kinds of headaches, asa result of anaesthesia, or as a side effect in clinical pharmacology  . Cf. Purkyn Í (  ), and below, FIG .  .  . Purkyn Í (  , pp.  -  ): «Freudig schwelgt der muntere Sinn des Kindes inder bunten Mannigfaltigkeit der einströmenden Aussenwelt; allenthalben formet erdas Unbestimmte, weidet sich an der Wiederholung des Geformten; jeder Augen-blick zählt einen neuen Fund, offenbart neue und reichere Welten von Erscheinun-gen. Vor Allem aber verfolgt es gerne die Spur des heiteren Lichtes und vertieft sichin der Farben reizende Gegenwart». Kampmeier (  , p.  ): «If the writer’s ownexperience is any criterion, many persons in their youth discovered by chance thatslight pressure continued for a short time on the eyeballs would elicit luminous man-ifestations in the subjective optical foreground which resolved themselves into flick-ering or vibrating mosaic-like designs of great intricacy and beauty. Kaleidoscopic intheir variety, and in their symmetry, delicacy and intangibility more fascinating thansnow crystals, they have perhaps served many of us as a pastime».  . Cf. Grüsser, Hagner (  ). See also Grüsser et al. (  , pp.  -  ).  . This work has provoked a controversy. Cf. Lewis-Williams (  ,  a,  b); Lewis-Williams, Dowson (  ); Dronfield (  ); Hodgson (  ). Vehe-ment criticism in Helvenston, Bahn (  ).  PHOSPHENES AND INNER LIGHT EXPERIENCES  (Cervetto, Demontis, Gargini,  ). Certain meditative states of re-laxation, and, most important to my present purposes, hypnagogic orhypnopompic states may induce them. Hypnagogic states are presleepor sleep onset phenomena, whereas hypnopompic states occur com-ing or leading out of sleep. In Italian both states could be called dormiveglia , and some authors use the collective term hypnagogia  .Nowadays phosphenes can be generated by direct electrical stim-ulation of the optical nerve, on the surface or underneath the retina(Delbeke, Oozeer, Veraart,  ), or by trans-cranial magnetic stim-ulation of the visual cortex (Ray et al. ,  ; Fernández et al. ,  ).Because even blind people see phosphenes, some research teamshope to assemble such artificially generated visual perceptions to auseful percept, in order to construct a visual prosthesis for the blind  .The recent work of Philip Nicholson turned my attention to theproblematic of subjective light experiences. He stimulated the cur-rent research, as he uses phosphenes seen during meditation to ex-plain descriptions of light experiences in the  Rig Veda and Daoisttexts  . Under the proposition that in written sources specific lightphenomena are described consistently in regard to certain character-istics and processes, it seems possible to recover the belonging expe-  . Mavromatis (  , pp.  ff). The term «hallucinations hypnagogiques» was in-troduced by Maury (  , p.  ), to denote appearances which are «leading to sleep».See Manford, Andermann (  ) for a review of clinical and neurobiological insightson complex visual hallucinations.  . Fernández et al. (  ) . This research team describes a protocol using tran-scranial magnetic stimulation to systematically map the visual sensations induced byfocal and non-invasive stimulation of the human occipital cortex. From the abstract,p.  : «Our results show that TMS is able to elicit phosphenes in almost all sightedsubjects and in a proportion of blind subjects. Evoked phosphenes are topographi-cally organized. Despite minor inter-individual variations, the mapping results arereproducible and show good congruence among different subjects. This procedurehas potential to improve our understanding of physiologic organization and plasticchanges in the human visual system and to establish the degree of remaining func-tional visual cortex in blind subjects. Such a non-invasive method is critical for se-lection of suitable subjects for a cortical visual prosthesis».  . Cf. Nicholson (  ,  a,  b,  ,  ,  ); Nicholson, Firnhaber(  ). See also the older overview on the «world of inner light appearances», as in-duced by diverse means, and in different cultures, by Knoll (  ). On inner light ingeneral, see Eliade (  ). RUDOLF PFISTER    PHOSPHENES AND INNER LIGHT EXPERIENCES  riential content and compare it to experiences in self-experimenta-tion (as it was done by Nicholson), or in current scientific research.The remainder of this paper discusses findings in three me-dieval Daoist sources and contrasts them with modern ideas aboutphosphenes. This is done in a dialogic mode, which should shed lighton basic assumptions about vision, the nature of phosphenes, andother pertinent features.  Text A:Commentary on the Inner Canon of the Yellow Court  The Commentary to theJade Canon of the Inner Sceneries of the Yel-low Court  ( Huang Ting Nei Jing Yu Jing Zhu 黃庭內景玉經註 ) was written by Master Liang Qiu 梁丘子 , that is Bo Lüzhong 白履忠 (  floruit   -  , Tang), in the early  th century CE . The canon text,called Canon of the Yellow Court  ( Huang Ting Jing 黃庭經 ), is by it-self an early meditation manual to be recited aloud. As it uses ex-tremely flowery language, it would remain highly obscure without thehelp of such a commentary  . FIG .  shows the relevant passages  , as they are found in the  -  edition of the  Daoist Canon (  Dao Zang 道藏 ).The double pages  and  contain thirteen seven character versesof the Canon of the Yellow Court  , running from top to bottom  .  . The French translation of Carré (  ) does not contain Liang Qiu’s com-mentary. On the meditative use of the manual, see Saso (  ). The existing com-mentaries, however, vary widely in their explanations of a given passage.  . Commentary to the Jade Canon of the Inner Sceneries of the Yellow Court  , in  Xiu Zhen Shi Shu  , pp.  a-  b.  . At the conference in Lecce I speculated, that the interspersed drawings mightbe illustrations to the text and even depict phosphenes. However, I later discoveredthat many texts in the  Dao Zang contain similar drawings, making this speculationuntenable. Whereas the drawings remain unexplained, the interpretation of the pas-sage as a phosphene description still stands. The uneven, but wide distribution of such drawings in the  Dao Zang makes it unlikely that Needham’s suggestion, madefor our text only, is valid. He thought, that these «curious little signs», might be the«[p]ossible beginnings of symbolic notation in physiological alchemy», but rightlyremarks: «The text gives no clue to the meaning of the drawings» (Needham,  ,p.  , see also pp.  and  -  , where our FIG .  is presented as FIG .  ).  FIGURE   Xiu Zhen Shi Shu  :  a-b (above),  a-b (below) They are coming together with the Liang commentary, always to theirleft, and one character deeper in the line.Verse  :  reads: «The spirit canopies and the pupils produce vio-let [or, purple] mist». Master Liang Qiu’s comment runs as follows:«While one observes reflections, during the actualisation of thoughts[or, visualisation] false details are taken as fact. Below we read [in RUDOLF PFISTER  
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