The Cave of the Mind

Inhale. As you exhale your body relaxes. Exhale moving into a deep quiet place inside you… You can see off in the distance what appears to be a cave. As you approach the cave you see that there is a large opening. Enter the cave…


About 32,000 years ago, humans inhabited the Chauvet Cave in what is now southern France and covered the walls with art. Predatory animals like lions, bears, rhinos, and hyenas are etched into the smoothed wall surfaces next to a chimerical half-human-half-animal figure, abstract lines and dots, and a few unidentifiable winged things. Experts believe that the paintings had some kind of shamanistic purpose for those Aurignacian cave people. Some of what they were painting clearly came from within the mind, rather than what was running around, pouncing, and attacking cave people in the physical world.

32,000 year old painting in Chauvet Cave. Photo by Jean Clottes/Chauvet Cave Scientific Team.

A distinctly separate inhabitation of the Chauvet Cave occurred during the Gravettian era about 3,000 years later. Most of the paintings covering the cave walls were made during the earlier Aurignacian period, so these later cave dwellers would have been confronted with the physical marks of memory, the traces of an earlier people. Perhaps the Gravettian cave people were not of artistic and ritualistic inclination, or did not value the act of mark-making for posterity, since they left only charred remains, smoke residue, and a single child’s footprints. That cavechild was likely the last human to look upon the paintings until three speleologists rediscovered the cave in 1994. For about 25,000 years, a cave full of pictures sat unnoticed in France, a country with a rich history in painting, but those pictures afford a glimpse into the imagination of the prehistoric mind.

Ceramic skull container and alien cookie jar.

In almost anything one might read about the mind, the language of space is often used to describe theories explaining the conditions and processes of memory, imagination, and consciousness. Memory is compared to a storage warehouse of information, while theories diverge about how exactly that data is stored and then retrieved and which parts of the brain are involved in the process. Mental contents – thoughts, concepts, memories, emotions, perceptions, intentions – are things described as being inside the mind, its key distinguishing feature being that “it is a private sphere to which no one but the owner has access.” Although many scientists and philosophers do not consider consciousness to exist in a unitary place in the brain, proponents of the electromagnetic theory of consciousness suggest that the brain’s electromagnetic field is consciousness itself. This literal brainstorm of firing neurons that might be consciousness is housed inside a single space, the skull cavity, while the skull, skin, and cerebrospinal fluid protect the brain’s electromagnetic field from external EM interference.

You’re going deeper into your cave…


Caves are popular destinations for guided visualizations and meditations. They are secluded, beautiful, winding, mysterious spaces that are perfect for mental journeys. Practitioners who spelunk their mental caves understand, at least intuitively, the connection between the mind and caves. Each has the quality of being elusive and difficult to map. Cave systems are awarded superlatives including the qualifier “known” (i.e. Deepest Known Cave)  because it is assumed that there is usually more cave that has yet to be explored, while the mind is a philosophical, psychological, and scientific labyrinth of yet to be understood connections. Parts of the mind are subconscious, while the cave is subterranean. The contents of both can be dreamlike and surreal. Even the plate-like bones of the skull bear a similar physical appearance to cave walls. The recesses of the mind can be dark and mysterious places, while both the physical brain cavity and cave systems are literally dark spaces, devoid of light.

Plato uses light as a metaphor in his Allegory of the Cave (from The Republic ca. 380 BC) to elucidate his Theory of Forms relating to knowledge and reality. In Plato’s parable, the cave dwellers are literally prisoners (they are physically chained), but they are also prisoners in their own minds as they watch a continuous shadow play on a cave wall before them, never seeing the real objects which cast the shadows. Their dark world is a mere reflection of reality.

Neo holding a copy of Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation" in the movie "The Matrix."

The skull is a cave is a movie theater. The image Plato conjures in his myth is very close to that of the cinema: prisoners/spectators gaze at a light show upon a wall/screen that mimics reality, at least temporarily. The dark, sometimes dank, movie theater is where we go to experience a kind of reproduction of or divorce from reality. At the very least, it is a translation of reality onto the surface of a flat screen.

In addition to being metaphorical spaces, caves are also at times replicate, enhanced, and virtual spaces. The cave-space of the cinema occasionally features the caves themselves as the settings and subjects of movies. 1,000,000 Years B.C., Clan of the Cave BearJourney to the Center of the Earth, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dune, Batman Begins, and (kind of ) 127 Hours are just a few. It follows that there might be a few lingering “stage caves” on some unused back lot somewhere in Hollywood. Show caves, like Cave Without A Name, are natural caves equipped with lighting design, hand rails, and guided tours to enhance the visitor’s experience. Perhaps most ambitious are the replica caves such as Altamira in Spain and Lascaux II in France. Much like Chauvet, Lascaux is a cave system in southern France famous for its prehistoric cave paintings. It was discovered by four teenagers and a dog named Robot in 1940, only to be closed to the public in 1963 to prevent further damage to the paintings cause by the carbon dioxide exhaled by numerous daily visitors. In 1983, Lascaux II, a replica of part of the cave system, was opened 200 meters away form the original.


But the ultimate meta-cave is Werner Herzog’s 2010 3D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. If the cave-cinema system of the theater also describes the internal mental projection of the mind’s eye, then watching one of Herzog’s documentaries is like being inside his weird brain, if his brain matter, in the case of this film, was made of cave rock formations. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a 3D film exploring Chauvet Cave, which has been closed to the public, secured with a solid door and alarm system as well as permanent audio/visual surveillance. Herzog sweet-talked his way into 6 days of access to film, thereby creating the ultimate “known” mental cave. The viewer is able to explore the 3D virtual cave space via the edited film’s time-space that inherently mimics the disjointed time-space of the mind all from within the cave-space of the theater.

In any proper guided meditation, the practitioner should exit the visualized space the same way he or she entered or else risk feeling unbalanced afterwards. Moviegoers, except for the (clearly unbalanced) cheaters who cut directly to the parking lot, enter and exit the theater through the same doors that lead to the lobby. To ease the audience safely out of the film, the lobby is a buffer between cinema world and the harsh mall, street, or parking lot world. Many large cave systems demand that spelunkers enter and exit through the same known passages, since alternate routes may be unexplored and therefore extremely dangerous. The cave of the mind asks this as well; we must exit states of consciousness the same way we entered, unless we are going somewhere entirely new.

It is now time to say goodbye. Return through the cave and come back to the meadow. Gently being your attention back to your body and when you’re ready open your eyes…

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