Global Blake: David Worrall

David Worrall explores how developments in neuroscience may help us understand Blake’s visions as ectoptic experiences.

The basis of this presentation is that Blake’s neural networks are global and universal.  We can best understand him and his ‘visions’ by understanding our own neural networks.  Yours are the same as his  -- which may be why he enjoys the ‘Afterlives’ of the conference CFP. 

No later than his watercolour Milton’s Mysterious Dream, where they are shown, Blake had identified three out of the four ‘form-constant’ visual geometrical hallucinatory types later classified by Heinrich Klüver in 1926 (1816, Morgan Library). Klüver form-constants are percepts appearing within the visual field which are mapped from the Primary Visual Cortex (V1) directly onto the retina. Unlike other theories of patterning in Blake’s art, Klüver form-constants have neural correlates.  These neural correlates were validated by Ermentrout and Cowan (1979) and Bressloff and Cowan, et al, (2001) who successfully traced their source to V1. They are neural phenomena and have no known connection to ‘mind’ (as consciousness) and are not evidence of a disorder. 

Klüver form-constants are provoked by a variety of agencies, of which migraine aura is the most naturally occurring. Blake would have seen these as self-luminous percepts, eyes open or eyes closed. Blake’s accompanying documentation to Milton’s Mysterious Dream refers to ‘Scrolls & Nets & Webs’ (E 685), accurately described the spirals, lattices, tunnels and ‘cobwebs’ later categorized by Klüver.  Their stability and predictability across h.sapiens (e.g. they don’t alter according to race or gender) have offered important insights into the structure of V1 in a field where advanced mathematics meets neuroscience (Ermentrout and Cowan, 1979; Bressloff and Cowan, et al, 2001). 

By tracing the incidence of Klüver form-constants across Blake’s art, it is now possible to assign his ‘visionary’ moments, differentiating them from his more culturally derived compositions.  The results are remarkable.  They have a high rate of prevalence in the illuminated book designs but a relatively low rate of prevalence in the paintings. However, this low incidence can, in turn, be used to analyse how he distributed ‘visionary’ paintings amongst his patrons (the Reverend Joseph Thomas, of Epsom, bought several, for example). *A more detailed account, ‘Seen In My Visions’: Klüver Form-Constant Visual Hallucinations In William Blake’s Paintings and Illuminated Books,’ will appear in Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly in 2022.

David Worrall’s recent work on Blake includes, ‘Blake as Shaman: The Neuroscience of Hallucinations,’ in Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly (eds.) Beastly Blake(Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature) (Palgrave Macmillan: 2018) pp 135-152; ‘Les Relations de William Blake et de Mécènes, vues sous L’Angle de la Neurologie,’ in Le Mécènat litteraire aux XIXe et XXe siècles, ed.