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Processing Mandalas

Kevin Marshall

A&C 5255

Winter 2008
Previous explanations for mandala's power and appeal were made before recent advances in
neuroscience. This paper makes the case that those explanations are based on world views (vMemes in
the language of spiral dynamics) that are below the integrative level of consciousness (yellow vMeme)
in development. This paper presents a falsifiable hypothesis for a physical, neurological explanation of
mandala's power and cross cultural appeal. A brief explanation of the primate visual system is given.
Current topics in visual processing and the physical correlates of consciousness that have not reached
consensus are highlighted. The author then motivates his hypothesis, based on his intuition and the
creation of thousands of pictures based on kaleidoscopic form constants (mandala-like, yantra-like
forms). A research strategy to confirm or deny the number of hypotheses is presented.

The general hypothesis is this: mandalas activate levels of the visual system in a manner that brings
preconscious material closer to consciousness. This hypothesis accounts for the unusual degree of
attention that follows from viewing mandalas for any length of time. This hypothesis also accounts for
their cross cultural ubiquity and their reputed psychic effects.

The Primate Visual System

The visual system shared by humans and macaque monkeys has been mapped. Large volumes of
research have confirmed and are refining the functional characteristics of the components.
Figures 1 and 2 (Koch 2004) show the anatomical and information processing views summarizing these

Figure 1 (B and C) frontspieces of The Quest for Consciousness Koch (2004)

Figure 2 D frontspiece of The Quest for Consciousness Koch (2004)
Obviously this is a lot of information. I do not need to give anywhere near a full explanation of the
visual system to motivate my hypothesis. And indeed at the current time, such an explanation does not
fully exist. However, a summary of Koch 2004, which is in turn a review of the field is necessary.
Koch 2004 is a detailed and comprehensive presentation. Where Koch disagrees with current accepted
consensus he is quick to say so.

Processing of visual stimuli starts in the retina. “The retina actually performs a significant amount of
preprocessing [... –] sending what can be thought of as a dozen movie tracks - distinct abstractions of
the visual world to the brain.” “Each track embodies a primitive representation of one aspect of the
scene that the retina continuously updates and streams to the brain. One track, for example, transmits a
line-drawing-like image that details only the edges of objects. Another responds to motion, often in a
specific direction. Some tracks carry information about shadows or highlights.” (Werblin and Roska

The point to keep in mind is that, although to our introspection, the visual world seems seamless,
complete and uninterpreted, this is an illusion. A large body of research going back at least 50 years
shows that the visual world that appears in our consciousness has a large number of interpretations
already present and those interpretations are unavoidable.

You can experience this fact right now. The kanisza illusion is illustrated in figure 3

Figure 3 (Koch 2004)

It is a function of the human visual system that contours are completed. There is no triangle in figure 3. One
cannot will away the impression that a triangle exists in figure 3. The reason one cannot is that the triangle
is perceived in a combination of the subsystems in Figure 1 that are below the level of normal
autobiographical consciousness.

The interpretations as shown in the diagrams that follow are dervied from (Koch 2004 pg137-148 and
more). In the rest of this paper, when I will refer to the primate brain, I do so because almost all vision
research has taken place using macaque monkeys. The current accepted consensus is that structurally the
macaque monkey's visual system gives a very close analogy to the human visual system. For example,
monkeys perceive visual illusions such as figure 3.

Only the lowest levels of the visual system contain a full representation of the whole scene present to a
person's sight. After V3, the different sections of the brain that process visual information contain only
abstractions and simplifications of part of the complete visual scene.(Koch 2004 pg 151)

What this means is that only these levels of the primate brain contain a full representation of the visual field.
Please take a look at Figure 2 again. Everything that you see in the diagram other than the areas circled
above are abstractions. They contain sketchy, simplified maps of the visual field optimized for different
features. How all these different representations become the homogenous visual field we experience is a
difficult and currently unsolved problem in cognitive neuroscience.

One other fact to note about figure 2 is as follows: in many cases, there are more connections going down
the hierarchy (from more conscious to less conscious and finally into the unconscious) than there is visual
information being sent to the more conscious areas of the primate brain. One currently unsupported
possibility is that the lower levels are being instructed by higher levels of consciousness what to focus on. In
this case I am using the word focus in the sense of processing; the only optical focus was present before the
retina's neurons became active.

Visual information is coded into two pathways vision for perception and vision for action Koch (2004 pg
Here are some of the specializations of areas of the visual system:
Koch (Koch 2004) goes to great lengths to establish that at least V1, even though it is the brain, is not
accessible to autobiographical consciousness. This view is somewhat controversial, but Koch is a well
respected and long standing member of the cognitive neuroscience community. I'm going to base my next
point on Koch's being right in this regard.

From now on I'm going to use the shorthand “consciousness” for “autobiographical consciousness”. By
“autobiographical consciousness” I mean the experience we have of a autobiographical life span and the
experiences, memories and sensations available to our normal waking state. If I need to refer to any other
states of consciousness I will make the distinction clear.

What this section of this paper is meant to do is to motivate these facts: 1) Not all areas of the human visual
system contribute to consciousness 2) the visual information that does enter consciousness is highly
processed and consists of a number (perhaps as high a a dozen) of information streams 3) exactly which
levels of the visual system are available to consciousness is at present unknown to a great extent.

What this section of this paper is meant to do is to motivate these plausible but not currently factual
suppositions: 1) different degrees of attention make available to consciousness different layers of the visual
system 2) conscious experience of different layers of the visual system gives a different feeling, where
feeling is defined as a non-verbal quale*.

* Quale is the singular of qualia, a contentious area of philosophical inquiry and neuroscience. To be brief,
qualia describe the feelings we have that are too basic to have adequate verbal representation. A commonly
used example is the color red. In general we agree that this object or that object has the property of the color
red. One cannot describe this color to a blind person. One of the perrenial philosophical questions is: “Do
you really see the same thing as I do when we see something red?”. Koch (Koch 2004) has a very well
reasoned argument on this subject that is beyond the scope of this paper.

What do people like to look at?

People like looking at straight lines and ninety degree angles. I'm basing this supposition on the buildings
that people live in all over the civilized world. The reason people like this geometric simplicity is that it
takes a minimal amount of processing to orient oneself in the scene. That is because there are numerous
subsystems in the visual system designed to isolate lines and angles.

People like looking at repeated patterns. I'm basing this supposition on the fact that they are ubiquitous
across many cultures. I'm postulating that the reason people like repeated patterns is that it takes less brain
processing to experience a series of repeated shapes. This could be verified using the same tools (fMRI,
behavioral studies, among other techniques) that were used to map the primate visual system. Whether
current techiques are detailed enough to ascertain this and most of the following hypotheses is unlikely. I
predict that future advances in brain imaging and neural electrical detection will be up to the task.

People like looking at mandalas. By mandalas I an referring to a range of art works from many cultures. A
more general precise formulation that has not caught on is “form constants” as first formulated by Heinrich

The wikipedia article about form constants is so germane to my next points that I'm going to reproduce it in

Form Constants

History whole section (Form constant 2007)

In 1926, Heinrich Klüver systematically studied the effects of mescaline (peyote) on the subjective
experiences of its users. In addition to producing hallucinations characterized by bright, "highly
saturated" colors and vivid imagery, Klüver noticed that mescaline produced recurring geometric
patterns in different users. He called these patterns 'form constants' and categorized four types: lattices
(including honeycombs, checkerboards, and triangles), cobwebs, tunnels, and spirals.[1]
Many of these shapes have an intriguing similarity to much of the imagery in Ernst Haeckel's
Kunstformen der Natur.

Precipitants whole section (Form constant 2007)

Klüver's form constants have appeared in other drug-induced and naturally-occurring hallucinations,
suggesting a similar physiological process underlying hallucinations with different triggers. Klüver's
form constants also appear in near-death experiences and hallucinations of those with synesthesia.
Other triggers include psychological stress, or threshold consciousness, hypnagogia, insulin
hypoglycemia, the delirium of fever, epilepsy, psychotic episodes, advanced syphilis, sensory
deprivation, photostimulation, electrical stimulation, crystal gazing, migraine headaches, dizziness and
a variety of drug-induced intoxications.[citation needed] These shapes may appear on their own or with
eyes shut in the form of phosphenes, especially when exerting pressure against the closed eyelid.
Author Michael Moorcock once observed in print that the shapes he had seen during his migraine
headaches resembled exactly the form of fractals. The diversity of conditions that provoke such
patterns suggests that form constants reflect some fundamental property of visual perception.

Cultural significance whole section (Form constant 2007)

The practice of the ancient art of divination may suggest a deliberate practice of cultivating form
constant imagery and applying the brain's intuitive faculty and/or imagination to derive some meaning
from transient visual phenomena.
Many religions represent geometric and/or repetitive forms as indicative of the divine, particularly in a
starburst pattern. Examples include mandalas, yantras (both of these specifically designed to evoke
certain mental states), Islamic art and cathedral architecture. Psychedelic art, inspired at least in part by
psychedelic substances, frequently includes repetitive abstract forms and patterns such as tessellation,
Moiré patterns or patterns similar to those created by paper marbling, and, in later years, fractals. The
op art genre of visual art created art using bold imagery very like that of form constants. (Form
constant 2007)

Cultural significance revisited

As cited above, “geometric and/or repetitive forms as indicative of the divine” (Form constant 2007) is
a common, culturally instigated explanation for any mandala's power. “It [mandala ed.] represents
wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself – a cosmic diagram
that reminds us of our relation to the infinite” (Cunningham 2002 p 13) . “Yantras function as
revelatory symbols of cosmic truths and as instructional charts of the spiritual aspect of human
experience. All the primal shapes of a yantra are psychological symbols corresponding to inner states
of human consciousness, through which control and expansion of psychic forces are possible.”
(Khanna 2003 p 12)

The question is “Why?”

Under previous cultural frameworks (vMemes) this was a meaningless question. Divine intervention
was an apriori and also a final answer to any questions in this category. Using Ken Wilber's AQAL
framework we are required to investigate the inner personal (psychological), outer personal (physical
manifestation), inner societal (belief systems) and outer societal (cultural) aspects of any phenomenon.

This paper is mostly concerned with the observable process of transformation from a physical
emanation of light to a mental representation (upper left hand quadrant to upper right hand quadrant in
AQAL terms). Under previous cultural frameworks this process was not available for study. It was
considered a mystery, which I contend leads to the cultural mis-identifcation and inflation of mandala's

Outer Personal to Inner Personal

As I go through this section I will indicate my hypotheses with a numeral and square brackets thus: 1]

Mandalas offer an interesting method to investigate the transition of a holon* from outer personal to
inner personal experience. As cited above: “One track [sent from the retina ed.] for example, transmits
a line-drawing-like image that details only the edges of objects.” (Werblin and Roska 2007) The edges of
objects or lines of a mandala are isolated very early in the visual system's processing. 1] The areas most
likely to be activated to a greater or different degree by mandalas than by other visual experiences are the
areas concerned with objects: AITd, AITv, CITd, CITv, PITd, and PITv. However since mandalas generally
do not have much three dimensional object information it is possible that their processing does not happen
as high up as the IT area. 2] Mandalas may give some insight into the division of processing between the IT
(AIT...PIT) and higher areas of conciousness. Is the IT in conciousness or not? 3] Subsitute a lower
processing area for IT in the previous hypothesis.

* holon, a concept adopted by Wilber from Whitehead. A holon is a whole which is also a part of a greater
whole. Citing Wilber everything is a holon, because every event/object whether physical or mental is a
whole and also a part of a greater context.

One experiment might be to compare the fMRI scan of viewers looking at these two figures

Figure 4 tiling of the plane 4

Figure 5 7 kaleidoscope of figure 4

The unit pattern of both figure 4 and figure 5 is identical. 4] What difference does it make to the visual
system that figure 5 is centered instead of an all-over pattern?
Figure 6 8 kaleidoscope of figure 4

5] What is the difference in visual processing between figure 5 and figure 6?

Final Comments

My most important hypothesis is as follows: mandalas activate levels of the visual system in a manner that
brings preconscious material closer to consciousness. This hypothesis accounts for the unusual degree of
attention that follows from viewing mandalas for any length of time. This hypothesis also accounts for their
cross cultural ubiquity and their reputed psychic effects. I am suggesting that the visual processing of
mandalas causes a pattern of brain activation that gives a quale similar to other experiences of higher
consciousness. These patterns are quantifiable and correlate to spiritual advancement. See Appednix A
(Wise 2008)

Because mandalas are a very concentrated form of geometry and they generally have a distinct center, I am
proposing that their mental effects are stronger than other geometric figures. 6] Centeringof a visual figure
has measurable mental effects in the visual system, probably because the fovea* is a privileged area of the
retina. 7] The combination of the distinctive features (consisting of geometric content, centering, pattern)
cause the psychic effects of a mandala. Besides the fMRI scans necessary for isolating effects on the visual
system, I am further proposing that brain wave measurements be made. Anna Wise has proposed and
implements a system classifying the frequency ranges (alpha through theta) of whole brain activity. She has
correlated distribution patterns of the classes of waves to degrees of enlightenment. 8] What exactly is the
neural correlation between different activation patterns of the visual system and different brain wave
patterns? Mandalas provide a focus (ha ha!) for investigating this topic.

*fovea is the 5% of the visual field where optical focus is clearest. It has a disporportionate comcentration
of sensory neurons.

Although this paper has emphasized the physical aspects and effects of mandalas, I am taking this space to
assert that I am by no means a materialist, if that means believing that psychic phenonmena do not exist, are
an epiphenomenon of brain activity, or are otherwise inconsequntial. I do believe that previous explanations
for psychic activity are outdated and need to be revised. The use of strained analogies to cosmic
observations, deities, quantum physical concepts, archetypes, or nebulous spiritual forces do not serve the
modern quest for higher consciousness.

Appendix A

Anna Wise web site: the “we” refers to her research team.
The Awakened Mind™

For almost three decades we have measured the brainwave patterns of people whose states of consciousness one
would emulate – spiritual masters, meditation teachers, and people of optimum creativity in all walks of life. The
brainwave pattern that we found, named the Awakened Mind™, is a combination of all four categories – beta, alpha,
theta, and delta – in the right relationship and proportion.

Since beta is thinking and the combination of alpha, theta and delta is meditating, you can see that the masters are in a
state of thinking and meditating simultaneously, with a flow of connection between the two functions. Someone in the
Awakened Mind™ brainwave state has access to the unconscious empathy, intuition, and radar of the delta waves, the
subconscious creative storehouse, inspiration and spiritual connection of the theta waves, the bridging capacity,
lucidity and vividness of imagery, and relaxed detached awareness of the alpha waves, and the ability to consciously
process thoughts in beta – all at the same time!

Cunningham, Bailey. (2002). Mandala : journey to the center. New York: DK Publishing

Koch, Christof. (2004). The quest for consciousness : a neurobiological approach. Englewood,
Colorado: Roberts & Company

Khanna, Madhu. 2003. Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity.Rochester, Vermont: Inner

Form constant. (2007, December 16). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:40, January
13, 2008, from
Werblin, Frank and Roska, Botond. (2007). The Movies in Our Eyes. Scientific American April 2007.
Wise, Anna. 2008. Retrieved January 13, 2008 .