Thursday, July 9, 2009

Synesthesia, Eye, and Mind

Rudolf Steiner describes beautifully the way a child who wants a sweet wants it with her whole being; that it, we see her desire in her expression, her body, her fingers, her bouncy toes. (We reserved adults have learned to be more circumspect; only our salivary glands might give us away.) It is as if she can already taste the sweet, and, not only that, she experiences this sweetness not just on her tongue or palate, but throughout her being. Her senses are unified in anticipation of sweetness.

Doesn't this remind us of synesthesia, the condition in which a sensory perception produces an automatic, involuntarily perception via another (or more than one other) sense? Those with synesthesia may see colors when they listen to music. They aren't just imagining them, as I might; the colors are diachronically consistent; that is, if you ask the synesthetic person to describe them, record this impression, and return months later, the reaction to and description of the colors for the same piece of music will be virtually unchanged.

This is similar, in fact, to a common test for synesthesia: If you suspect you're synesthetic (many creative persons--Duke Ellington, Wasily Kandinsky, Richard Feynman--have been), write down the digits 0 through 9. For each, record the color impression that each creates in your mind when you look at it. (If this baffles you, you're not synesthetic; stop here.) Put it away for a few weeks or more. Seal it in an envelope, say. Before you open the envelope, write down the same digits in a different order. Record again the colors you associate with each. If you're synesthetic, you should be able to open the envelope and discover a remarkable consistency between your previous perceptions and your current ones.

Even those of us who are not synesthetic have experiences that are similar to this. Most of us experience colors as "warm" (orange, for example), or "cool" (blue, for example). If asked to name an abstract spiky shape, we might choose a name like "Kiki," that has a "spiky" sound; for a rounded blob, perhaps "Bouba." (This is the so-called "Bouba/Kiki effect," and it's been researched.) Even the words "spiky" and "blob," even the letters "B" and "K" record our associations of sound and shape--and these are robust across languages.

Regardless, relating experiences of synesthesia--possibly the most remarkable case is that described by Luria in his famous The Mind of a Mnemonist, about an anonymous, illiterate Russian synesthete with a prodigious memory--common metaphorical experience, and observations of children, isn't it reasonable to say that all of us come into the world synesthetic, our senses undifferentiated? It's only over time, perhaps, the first months or years of life, that our senses differentiate and compartmentalize themselves. We grow into our perceptions and our very way of looking at--and therefore thinking about (remember Merleau-Ponty's The Primacy of Perception) the world. If we speak a different language, use our senses differently, have different adults to emulate and imitate, we'll grow not only to think differently and speak differently, but, literally, to perceive differently.

To think that our senses are "objective" apparatuses like cameras or tape recorders is to make a category mistake. Our eye isn't "like" a camera; a camera is like highly sophisticated, mechanically complex aspects of our eye. Our actual living eyes perceive not because they are cameras, but because, as research increasingly demonstrates, of the mind behind them.

(Much more to say; to be continued...)


anthromama said...

I wonder about the idea that we are born synesthetic. Maybe that's why onomatopoeia is so satisfying!

I think the emphasis on written language affects this, too. If I am presented with anything written in my field of vision, my eye automatically goes there, and I automatically try to read it. I once consciously tried not to read the billboards on a stretch of highway I drove on at least once a day. It was very difficult! But when I did it, I noticed many things I had never seen before. I wonder if humans are so visual that our other senses get short shrift, except for lucky synesthetes?

Steve said...

I agree. I believe we have become so visual over the past millenia--culminating in what Barfield calls "spectator consciousness"--that our other senses are generally a bit atrophied (think of how a person blinded during life develops--relatively rapidly--a heightened sense of touch.