The photograph above shows a cave bear tooth that I’ve had it for years and keep by my bedside, as a sort of talisman I suppose, but also as a link to the past and the world in which our ancestors lived. The coin by its side is a more modern Roman denarius, about 1 cm across. This bear had a formidable bite.
I’ve always been interested, like most people, in prehistoric cave dwellers and in the art they left behind. So I pricked up my ears when I heard Oliver Sacks suggest that some cave art could have been partially inspired by visual impairment.
In case you don’t know, Sacks is a neurologist and writer of a series of best-selling books. His idea came as a throw-away remark at the end of his TED talk on Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
Charles Bonnet syndrome (CBS) is something experienced by many people who lose some or all of their vision. They see vivid hallucinations involving a phantasmagorical range of objects. These may be “formed” – look like physical objects, such as animals or landscapes – or “unformed”, which means they consist of geometric objects, patterns, symbols and the like. If you don’t know about CBS already, Sack’s talk is well worth listening to.
The conjecture that these visions may have some connection with cave art is a daring and intriguing thought. I wondered if I could find any evidence to support it. Obviously we cannot now ask the artists and the only approach is to compare their legacy with pictures known to have been drawn by CBS sufferers.
In the cave art of Europe byte most noticeable motif is animals of various kinds, such as this famous horse from the cave of Lascaux (image from Wikipedia).
It seems hard to interpret images such as these as pictures of CBS hallucinations. This horse looks like something the artist is familiar with in everyday life and the simplest explanation is surely that they have painted a portrait of something they know.
Unformed – geometric – pictures seem more promising candidates. These non-representational images are very common hallucinations amongst CBS sufferers. They are thought to originate in specific parts of the visual system, dedicated to recognition of shape and geometrical forms. These pathways can’t have changed greatly in the last 40 000 years. And in cave art geometry is commoner than animal images by a factor of two to one, although it attract less notice.
For comparison I turned to the excellent and comprehensive study by Genevieve von Petzinger, who has surveyed geometric cave art from many parts of the world and classified the signs she found there. Here is my sketch of the 8 commonest she identified.
She named these 1. Circle 2. Dots 3. Triangle 4. Quadrangle 5. Piniform (=Featherlike) 6. Angle 7. Line 8. Oval
What about present-day pictures drawn by CBS sufferers, showing the hallucinations they have witnessed? These are surprisingly rare and perhaps this is related to the fact that CBS is under-reported. I think people don’t want to admit they are “seeing things” because they fear stigma.
To my considerable surprise I was unable to do better than the pictures I myself drew when suffering from CBS. I thought thee might be many hits but found very few. So here is one of my sketches.
My names for these were:
A the Hexagons
B me jumping into a vortex
C the Pennants
D the Gingerbread Man
E the Bubbles
G the Chequered Tablecloth
H the Scroll
I Benzene Rings
J Herrings and Undulations
K the Hand
What strikes me straight away is that these don’t look much at all like the geometric cave art.
I felt quite persuaded at the start of the investigation that I would see close and compelling parallels between cave art and CBS hallucinations, but disappointing perhaps the evidence turns out quite weak.
So perhaps the images of CBS are not so much like cave art after all.
But this made me wonder if there are other forms of art that are more like CBS? If so could the similarities result from similar neurological conditions? I shall explore this idea further in my next post.