Trance and Phosphenism


From the latin word transire - “to cross”, the word trance is connected to the notions of threshold or channel. From the 5th century, the word trance is used to signify the passage from life to death, but it is in the 14th century that it acquires the meaning of “a particular psycho-physiological state”. The word is then used more and more to signify the passage through different states of consciousness and, today, it is particularily linked to shamanism.

It is also interesting to note that the word trance is commonly used in the vocabulary of rave parties, to define a particular style of techno music but also to represent the various states of consciousness produced by the combination of music and the consumption of psychedelic drugs. Though it is based on dangerous excesses, the culture of rave parties seems to be a kind of neo-shamanism or resurgence of an ancient instinct of transcendence.

The states of trance are often interpreted as states of religious ecstacy; several operating modes can produce these states: prayer, religious rites, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, certain physical exercises, tantrism, music, dancing, fasting.

These different techniques are related to the cultures that developed them and are all part of various traditions. Thus, experiences of ecstatic states of consciouness are interpreted within the context of these cultures and traditions.

Shamanism is probably the oldest tradition to have practiced trance. Indeed, shamanism is the first religion and dates back to the dawn of humankind. Shamans systematicaly use music and more particularily rhythms to produce states of trance. Dances are often a major part of these rituals. But, this type of mecanisms can also be found in many subsequent traditions which practice trance. The Sufis, for example, use dancing and music to achieve contact with the sacred. The animist traditions of Africa or Voodoo also practice trance induced by dancing and music. The Eastern practice of reciting mantras is also based on the notion of rhythm, a notion that is much more important than the actual meaning of the words that compose the mantras.

The production of states of trance seems to follow certain universal modes of operation.

Dr Lefebure’s discoveries bring out a new comprehension of these phenomena. Understanding the physiological mecanisms that produce states of trance has permitted Dr Lefebure to draw several essential conclusions and to go beyond the empiricism of primitive cultures.

It is thanks to the systematic use of the phosphenes that Dr Lefebure has been able to study the cerebral mecanisms that are responsible for the production of states of trance. The phosphenes are all the subjective sensations of light, i.e. those which are not directly produced by light stimulating the retina. They correspond to what ophtalmologists call “images of retinal persistence” or “after images”. The phosphenes follow their own particular rhythms. Thus, producing a phosphene by focusing on a source of light also induces these characteristic rhythms in the subject’s thoughts.

In Phosphenism: The Scientific Explanation of the Origins of Religion, Dr Lefebure describes the connections between light and the techniques used for producing states of trance, the latter being inspired by the former.

“The study of the rhythms of the phosphenes is of major importance for understanding their relationship with religious rites. If one thinks during the presence of a phosphene, one’s thoughts tend to follow the natural rhythms of the phosphenes, though one has, on the contrary, the subjective feeling that it is the phosphene that is adapting itself to the rhythms of thought processes.

Focusing on the sun is the basis of all religious rites. The rhythm of the solar co-phosphene actually induces the rhythm of prayer, generating currents of energy within the body that are exteriorized by way of dances and postures.”

States of trance are thus provoked by the induction of a rhythm in thoughts.

The techniques based on breathing or prayer also use rhythms. Their practice can be sensibly improved by using regular and repetitive rhythms. Dr Lefebure designed a scientifically improved yoga: Phosphenism. This set of techniques systematically uses focusing on sources of light and inducing rhythms in thoughts. Its results do not need to be proved but experienced.

An exercise of rhythmic thinking

At the end of the exercise (15 to 45 minutes), observe your state of consciousness.